Navel Gazing at its Best

An abundantly talented Celebrator Beer Newscolleague of mine, Brandon Hernández, has a new and thought-provoking (for people with blogs, which I believe is about 70% of people online) piece online discussing “Truth in beer reporting” – which is a call for transparency and honest reporting among beer journalists (go read it! Here’s the link again. It’s way better than the drivel you’re about to be exposed to). I don’t believe anyone can doubt the need ethics of honest reporting, the tricky part is knowing what the hell that means. In his piece, Hernández cites the common practice of “comp’d” beer for bloggers and writers alike. Let’s not fuss about this one, if you’re out to “review” a brewery, buy your own damned beer. If you’re there to simply report on the facts that the brewery exists, makes beer and has equipment of varying sizes, I don’t know that a free beer will skew your view of the reporting.

This is where the rub is, isn’t it? Are we, as bloggers and writers in the beer world, automatically “journalists”? A quick glance at what is being written suggests the answer is an emphatic “no”. Oh, but then it gets tricky. Let’s just run through a few quick highlights of the kinds of beer writing that exist online today.

Beer Reviews – I worked once for a large national beer magazine and a big part of my job was beer reviews. In this job the vast majority of beers were submitted to us by brewers, unsolicited. They sent us beer, we gave ‘em a fair shake, the world turned. Our tastings were blind and done with a panel, so the idea that the free beers would sway our scores was moot. That’s a whole hell of a lot different than the practice that is far too common where a blogger / beer writer sends brewers emails or calls asking for them to send beer IN EXCHANGE for a beer review. It’s that little difference that makes a world of difference. If you ask for compensation of any kind in return for press, that’s about as backwards as you can get. Especially if you’re not disclosing right up front that you’re reviewing a free beer.

Brewery Openings & Profiles – How many of these have you read in the past year or two? (god, how many have I written?) These follow a pretty base formula – you discuss the exterior a bit, mention the size of the brewery (kettle and fermentor sizes), talk about the tasting area if there is one and hopefully get a few nuggets about the trials of tribulations that accompany every brewery opening. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a few moments with the brewer for a sound bite or two. Now this is where things go sideways. If you’re just reporting on the opening, following the above-mentioned formula, you’ll often find conversations happen better over a beer. In this situation, it’s just a beer shared over stories. Now, if you cross over to another aspect of writing – say, cheerleading, then that beer could be an offense to your credibility. If your writing praises the quality of the beer, or overstates its significance (“this beer here is a game-changer in our community” type of thing), then the free beer absolutely should be disclosed. Why? Because free beer tastes better, duh! Trust me – when you’re sitting with a brewer, shooting the shit and enjoying the day – it’s a great friggin’ beer! Bring same beer home to a few friends, then watch how quickly that beer develops flaws.

Critiquing – If you’re goal is to cover your local beer scene, or create some sort of definitive guide to a regional beer culture, you’re moving from a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to the role of a critic. Critics are often misunderstood, especially in the food or service world (which breweries and bars are a part of). For starters, your critique of an establishment ought not be based on a sole experience. If you’re just passing through and want to document the facility, keep it in the “Profile” section of writing. The other thing legitimate reviewers do is pay for their own damn meals and drinks – often never exposing their identity or letting the staff know they are there on an official capacity. If you want to talk with the owner/ brewer, that’s cool. Introduce yourself, let them know who you write for, and know that you’ve ceased being an objective reviewer… for the most part. Yes, you can write objectively about places where people know your name, but the challenge becomes exponentially more difficult – especially if you’re hoping the owner, or business, succeeds or fails based on your knowledge of the players involved. Further, your critiques ought to be based on something measurable. If you’re not familiar at a base level with the style of beer, target audience, and proper brewing techniques, you should really shy away from anything over-arching – like saying a beer is “bad” or “not for my palate” or even “could use more hops”. There are many a beer I’ve had in the past year or so that were fantastic beers, but clearly not brewed to the stated style. There are also many beers out there made to style, but falling on the light end of every category (color, hops, malt, alcohol). Often this is done deliberately, to appeal to the local market, or based on a more traditional interpretation of the style – how often have you heard someone say about a 6.5% 50 IBU  IPA, “this is good, but drinks more like a Pale Ale than an IPA”. Perhaps the worst I’ve heard was multiple criticisms of an “English-style” IPA that it wasn’t ‘citrusy’ enough, that maybe some trendy American hop variety would make it better… oh dear lord, that was a great English IPA.

Where was I? Right, know your shit. So what if you didn’t like a beer that was properly made. So what if you think it “isn’t as good as Pliny”, or “used to be better” – is it a beer that is stylistically accurate, appealing to the brewer’s local and regular audience – does it pay the friggin bills?! If yes, then the brewer has done his or her job. Fantastic.

Oh yes, and critiquing should be done on your own dime… discretely. That’s the gist of this entire point.

Editorializing – Let’s assume you’re fairly plugged into your region’s craft beer scene, that most (if not all) brewery and craft beer bar owners know your name and that you have a good working knowledge of the business. At this point you’ll want to start playing the editorial game – and this right here is the most dangerous and contentious place to play, one I have tried to avoid at all costs, but feel I will get sucked into at any moment.

What do I mean?

What if you want to start “ranking” the best brewers in your region? What is your criteria, and how open should you be about your personal relationships with the top and bottom brewers on your list? Is it important to list that the favorite joint of yours often comps  you a beer with your meal? Is it valuable to state that you have a rocky relationship with the brewers at the bottom of your list? Do you believe these are even related? Ah, the can of worms…

To be sure, you had best have a measurable criteria for any sort of comparison between brewers that lists one better than another – and the list should be clearly spelled out, and removed of bias. Where bias exists, you absolutely need to address it clearly. (To be absolutely clear, I suck at this). What areas of quality can you measure? Beer, of course. Service. Pricing. Location. Hours. Selection. Cleanliness. All of those can be measured easily, without bias – just be certain to be consistent.

On “negative” reviews – I’m all for them. IF they are grounded in those measurable areas just listed, spelled out articulately and based on more than just your and your buddy’s opinion after one visit on a busy Saturday afternoon when the server didn’t have enough time to woo over your beer knowledge, or presumed importance. (Yeah, I remember you! You can read all about that on Yelp!)

So, all of this is to say that each and every one of us that writes about beer has our own voice and objectives. If you fancy yourself a reviewer, you ought to be forthright in addressing whether or not a beer reviewed was purchased or donated. If you’re simply covering an opening of a brewery/ bar, or profiling an establishment, by all means enjoy a beer poured by the owner and shoot the shit – and for anyone that thinks this isn’t journalism, know that some of country’s best and most celebrated journalists often enjoyed a drink or seven with the subjects they wrote about. If you see yourself as a critic, be discrete, pay for your tab and tip you server. If you choose to accept free meals or drinks, say so – even if it’s just a “I’d like to thank so-and-so for generously picking up our drinks”. Just spell it out. If you’re playing an editor for your region’s beer scene, if you begin calling out your perceived poor performers, then by all means possible list any bias you might have going in to such an endeavor and avoid any personal attacks, or criticisms that are not clearly measured out and fact-based. If you’re simply a blogger on a budget that loves free beer – god bless ya, we know who you are anyway – have fun with it.

Now, on ‘journalism’ – let’s face it, there are few of us that studied journalism in school. Here’s what I know, however. A) document your interviews and check your facts. B) You can be close to your subject without being influenced by your subject, but you must acknowledge that the possibility exists that your relationship may compromise your reporting, therefore. C) Disclose possible influences or biases in your writings. D) Yes, free shit can and often does influence your view on things. E) Again, however, if you acknowledge and disclose any and all gifts, you can hopefully maintain your truthiness. (Seriously, spell-check thinks “truthiness” is a word? What the…)

I fully admit when I got into this whole beer writing thing, I was clueless. Yes, I was a technical writer for years and could string together coherent sentences, but no way in hell could what I did early on be considered legitimate journalism (geebus, that was only seven years ago!). I can’t thank enough the patient magazine editors that have taught me just how little I know about writing and journalism. Hopefully I have taken those lessons to heart – hopefully the words I write are trustworthy, honest and transparent. Hopefully all of ours are.

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