Guiding Thirsty Travelers
Traditional Books Still Leading the Way to Beer
How to Write a Beer Guide
Beer travel guides are usually the work of one person—when two, most often a spouse—researched on weekend road trips and time stolen from day jobs.
Research for a guidebook has to be done in a short-enough span of time that it is up-to-date, even allowing for the inevitable months the manuscript spends in the publisher’s hands. Fieldwork is generally compressed into a period of under a year, and usually three to four months. The shorter the research phase, the more current the information at submission—and the more grueling the schedule for the writer.
Ken Weaver, author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, planned trips with his wife, Anneliese Schmidt, who served as the second palate and the book’s photographer. The pair visited 140 breweries in four and a half months. “Once we had grouped things geographically, it made a lot of sense,” Weaver remembers. “We’d do a lot of reconnaissance and put a Google map together on our phones, a checklist of the things we needed to get to, and do it on a weekend, maybe add a Monday or a Friday. Go, get pictures, take notes, then I’d write when we got back home.”
As the territory grows, the planning becomes more complicated. When Lisa Morrison was asked by Timber Press to cover Oregon, Washington and British Columbia (a culturally logical, but practically challenging trio) for her book Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, she thought hard about logistics.
“I had less than a year to get everywhere I needed to go, and with real-life work to do, too,” Morrison recalls. “There were some places I could get to easily, but in the interior of British Columbia, I had one shot to get everything I needed. I can’t just get out to Penticton, British Columbia, or Salmon Arm—it’s not an easy trek from Portland!”
But when it comes to logistics, the greatest challenges face Bill Howell, whose beer beat—Alaska—is so vast that he’s researching and self-publishing Beer on the Last Frontier in three separate volumes.
“[For Volume I], I started with the Kenai Peninsula (since I live there), but even that volume required a three-hour drive and a 90-minute flight to visit Kodiak Island,” Howell reported. “Volume II’s dozen breweries are at least all on the road system, but it will still require several visits to Anchorage (a 150-mile drive each way), plus at least one trip to Fairbanks (a two-day drive each way). Volume III will mean a flight to Juneau, then ferry rides from there to Haines, Sitka and Skagway. Travel is seldom easy up here. People just don’t grasp the sheer size of Alaska.”
Most writers would envy the schedule followed by Robin Shepard—at least for his first guide, Wisconsin’s Best Breweries and Brewpubs. With a regular job at the university in Madison, Shepard felt free “to let my hobby run amok.” He spent three years in research. “I treated it a little like a scavenger hunt,” he says. “I wanted to go to all of them. I visited all of them a second time, then before the book was published, I went back a third time.”
His publisher, University of Wisconsin Press, liked the book and gave him Illinois to cover, but with a 12-month clock. “It was a bit of a forced march,” he says. “I’m not complaining, but there were times when my labor of love started to feel more like a job.”
But after all the effort comes great rewards, right? Not really. The cost of the research is usually borne by the author. John Holl, author of two Stackpole guides (and recently named editor of this magazine) observes that writing a guide is a great opportunity for somebody who wants to get published and have a first book with his or her name on it. But economically, it’s not much more than a break-even proposition once you take into account the out-of-pocket costs associated with the travel.
Julie Johnson is co-owner and contributing editor at All About Beer Magazine.