I had a bit of a caffeine-fueled run in with Marty Nachel yesterday, and it led me to a new realization about the state of beer writing in the age of the Internet.
It started with a comment he left on my “Five Beer Stereotypes” post that struck me as odd:
We typically don’t get this particular brand of negativity around here, so it sent up a red flag.
As with all comments we get, I answered this one, but I hit up Google before I typed my response to see if I could find anyone covering the subject of beer stereotypes the way I did in the post. Maybe he was right – maybe it was a worn out topic that was fresh only to me. A cursory search revealed nothing, so I decided to defend myself, but in a friendly manner (mostly).
I couldn’t help that last sentence, reviewing his comment the way he had reviewed my post, but I wanted to see what would happen if I pushed back a bit. I sometimes have a nose for this stuff.
And there it was: “I’ve been in the biz since 1987; pardon me for being blase about old news.” So I’m some kind of derivative johnny-come-lately, standing on the shoulders of men like Marty without even knowing it? Fair enough (he’s probably more right than not about this, I have no idea), but that didn’t stop me for pointing out that Marty was coming off as a little out of touch. I felt bad about being snotty in hindsight, as you can see by my soft-peddling follow up:
Our exchange continued from there on a downhill trajectory.
This little kerfuffle led me to Google around a bit to learn more about Marty, trying to figure out where he was coming from (and totally dismissing the idea that he might simply think I’m a thin-skinned hack).
It turns out Marty Nachel has been introducing folks to the wonders of craft beer for over 25 years, first as a writer of books and articles for beer magazines, and now as an instructor of beer appreciation classes and sensory training sessions. He literally wrote the book on Homebrewing for Dummies, (perfect for yours truly), and you can even send him your homebrew and he’ll evaluate it for you using his BJCP-annointed palate. He’s been a judge at the GABF for 20+ years and sat at Jim Koch’s elbow as a judge at this year’s Sam Adams LongShot homebrewers competition. If beer writing were the Mafia, Marty is a made man. He’s also by all accounts (and after yesterday, I sought out accounts) a really good guy.
While searching, I found some comments Marty had left on other blogs, including this excerpt from a one left on Andy Crouch’s beerscribe.com, in response to a post about how “citizen beer bloggers” are mostly a bunch of vapid fanboys who add little critical perspective to the world of beer. Marty’s comment really made me think about the impact bloggers are having on the world of beer writing:
In this day and age, where anyone with a computer and internet access can be “beer writer”, how does one get him/herself heard above the din of the crowd? Print publications –those that still exist– seem to prefer contributors that are hungry enough to undercut seasoned writers.
If incentives such as awards and monetary remuneration aren’t there, then what? I’d love to say that I write for the pure joy of it, but…
I had never really thought about how the glut of beer writing by a legion of attention-hungry bloggers might be killing the market for seasoned writers like Marty. I’ve seen it happen in sports writing and entertainment coverage, so it makes sense that the world of beer writing would also feel the stinging tides of the Internet age.
But the question is this: Is beer writing better or worse for having so many “beer writer” folks pecking away at keyboards, yearning to be heard?
On the one hand, you have guys like Marty, who have a deep resource of craft beer knowledge and experience to share, but find it difficult to make a living doing so. Their wheelhouse has been crowdsourced out to a bunch of un- or under-qualified craft beer cheerleaders who work for free (or close to it). Some long-time beer writers like Lew Bryson, Jack Curtain and Jay Brooks seem to have made the transition to this new age, but how many knowledgeable voices will be lost to a financial model that squeezes them out of the business? It’s a real issue that Marty brings up.
On the other hand, you have beer bloggers, a noisy bunch for sure, but not without a passion for craft beer and a thirst for sharing what they know. These boys and girls have helped to fuel the growth of the craft beer industry – just look at these charts side by side, one documenting Internet usage and the other the rise in craft beer sales. See a correlation?:
So beer bloggers are clearly good for sales, but are we good for writing?
Overall, I’m going to say “yes” here, because we’ve expanded the conversation. Some of it might be a little inane (like my “Five Beer Stereotypes I Wish Would Disappear” that started this mess), but posts like these give beer geeks like us the opportunity to share our perspectives, experiences and opinions in ways that are meaningful, at least to us.
Are we taking food off of a writer like Marty’s table? Yes, unfortunately. But I think we’re also growing the pot. As bloggers and tweeters and facebookers (?) push the popularity of craft beer to new heights, there should be more opportunities for everyone, even if they’re different ones than before. Will the increased attention given to homebrewing help grow public interest in making beer at home? Probably (I certainly hope so). Will some of those people buy Marty’s book? I’m sure some will. Will those book sales replace the income Marty would see if bloggers like us left the beer writing to the professionals? I doubt it, but what can we do?
The Internet has given people the opportunity to read and write what they like, without gatekeepers or the need for aggregators beyond a search engine or a blogroll or a social network. The inmates are now running the asylum and there’s no going back. Over time, things will sort out, some voices will rise and others will fall – we’re all subject to the whims of this new reality. It’s largely beyond our control, except that we can approach craft beer with reverence and love and each try to shepherd it the best we can.
I hope the future provides well for bonafide beer writers like Marty Nachel – they are a vital part of the craft beer conversation, the keepers of the flame. But I’m also happy that there are so many men and women excited enough about craft beer to fire up their computers on a regular basis and fan that flame. The world of craft beer needs both to continue to thrive, and hopefully every boat will find enough water to stay afloat.
Now, did Marty’s original comment had anything to do with all of this? I doubt it – he probably did indeed write about how Spuds McKenzie and Alex from Strohs were taking attention away from what’s important about beer back in 1988. But regardless, his comment led me to expand my perspective on the topic, and for that I thank him.
All that said, I’m sure this isn’t anything that thousands of craft beer drinkers weren’t on to decades before I wrote about it.