The ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in the country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to ‘em—had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,—once drunk, and once sober:—Drunk—that their councils might not want vigour;—and sober—that they might not want discretion. –Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Alas, I’m hovering somewhere in the middle, a no-man’s land of the ideal mental state, to address what strikes me as a fairly momentous topic posed by Heather Vandenengel for The Session #86, asking us to do some journalistic navel-gazing.
I feel as sober as a judge. And yet I managed to singlehandedly polish off a 22-oz. bottle of Stone Russian Imperial Stout (11% ABV) this evening. I feel vigorous enough to not take the subject too seriously and lob a passage by Laurence Sterne into the proceedings. Yet I feel fatigued by the subject before uttering word one. Maybe I should open another bottle.
It’s also late at night, certain to crawl past the midnight hour deadline. Of course, I’m used to deadlines, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with them. I’ve been laboring in the journalistic vineyards (fields of barely, hop yards?) for about forty years now, and I still consider deadlines my trip to the gallows—nothing concentrates the mind so utterly.
It is the approaching or–it must be conceded–the sometimes missed and receding deadline, that galvanizes me into action. Otherwise, I would spend my life researching whatever it is I’m supposed to be working on.
The internet helps and hinders in this way. It’s a colossal research tool, obviously. And it can be a hall of mirrors for those whose minds are easily distracted. (Like mine.)
The wonderful worldwide web spreads a vast feast before us, and that includes bushels of beer-writing, cornucopias of ratings, smorgasbords of reviews, lists, opinions, the damnéd slide shows, and sometimes news. Some of it is splendid. Most of it is indigestible. And wordy.
I’m sure I’ve added a few ill-seasoned dishes to the mix. I even persist in doing semi-regular beer reviews, a form that has become largely and rightly scorned because most are pointless, poorly written and, worse, boring.
I’m not convinced, as one writer suggested, that any of this is subhuman. But when it sinks to the level of mere opinion, or cheerleading, a beer review loses its point. So, too, if it’s merely an exercise in evisceration, though these can certainly be lively.
What I want from a beer review, or any kind of beer writing, is what I want from any kind of writing. I want to learn something I didn’t know before. I want to be informed, and I want that information to be conveyed in a clear and entertaining way. (Good writing often carries its own entertainment quotient.)
As long as I’m pounding away on beer reviews, what most lack is context. Here’s another IPA, it has citrus this and piney that, and it tastes pretty good. That doesn’t get us too far. As I always tell the writing students I counsel, even if you’re writing a piece about how to build a birdhouse, your piece has to be about people in some way. Where are the people? Who built the beer? Do they have anything to say? Do you know how to use a phone for anything but posting to Facebook?
Like the Goths, I’m getting a little ancient myself. Yes, I knew Michael Jackson, interviewed Michael Jackson, had beer with Michael Jackson. He was the bard of beer and I suffer from bardolatry. Jackson was blessed in a many ways—he had a splendid palate, a reporter’s curiosity and work ethic, and beguiling skills as a storyteller. Sometimes wordy and discursive, perhaps, but he always managed to close the circle.
Most of what I would call the first-generation of beer writers were simultaneously Jackson’s colleagues and descendants. Since Heather asks, I still read Stan Hieronymus, Lew Bryson, Stephen Beaumont with pleasure, just to name three that quickly come to mind. There are many others, and Jeff Alworth, Andy Crouch, Oliver Gray are just some of the whippersnappers whose words I will turn to. Carla Companion, the @beerbabe, writes mainly about New England brewing, and I’ve enjoyed watching her grow into her skills.
So time for a solid cliché–the cream will rise to the top. I’m no more concerned about beer journalism than I am about journalism as a whole, or the unbridled influence of money on the social fabric. What’s execrable will fall away, if slowly, like conservative Supreme Court justices. A mouse has just run across the living room floor, suggesting the nocturnal tide has turned. I’ll retire to Bedlam.
A sober morning postscript: I like to think I’ve done my journalistic best over the years, but I know I’ve often fallen prey to the pitfalls of the independent writer, the practicalities that beset the freelancer actually trying to make some kind of living from scribbling.
I stopped writing about beer for a long while simply because I couldn’t make enough money from it. Those juicy and well-paying 5,000 word assignments just weren’t coming down the pike. Lack of ambition or talent could have played a part, but I was also overtaken by a new passion and began writing about golf, which pretty much took over for a long while.
Interestingly, golf writing is strewn with many of the same opportunities for trespass as beer writing—that is, the questions of cheerleading, all breathlessly positive copy, shaky ethical practices. Here, too, it’s distressing when the meretricious is rewarded. But as in the game itself, you have to play your own ball.
And wonderful stuff still manages to appear. Loving the subject, the milieu one is writing about is no sin. How one acquits oneself is the test.
The Session is a monthly effort where beer writers around the interwebs respond to a topic question. This is the 86th installment, so it’s been going on for quite a while. The list of responses this month can be accessed here at Heather Vandenengel’s Beer Hobo site, where she also sets out the parameters for her questions about the state of beer journalism.