Every worthwhile human endeavor has a genre of written criticism attached to it: music, theater and film, sports, painting and sculpture, dance, certainly food, and writing itself. Why do we want to write about these things, and why do people eagerly read about them? Why do we write about beer? Why do you read about it?
The cynic might respond, “You write about beer because they pay you to,” but it’s a rare beer writer of any merit who doesn’t also write for free, whether blogging, writing comments on Facebook or Twitter, or dropping remarks on other beer websites. (Now doesn’t that bring up a timely thing: If you’ve been doing free beer reviewing for RateBeer.com, who owns that writing? You, or RateBeer, or Anheuser-Busch InBev?)
There are reasons as varied as people, of course, but generally it’s to put the work in context. A good critic has dug deep into the history and setting of the field and can identify ground that’s been plowed before and know if this is a new riff or simply a restating of the old. She can point to earlier or contemporaneous examples, identify roots and influences that may be of interest as well, and explain why it is that this particular bit of craft represents a wholly new departure. He can compare it with beers from much older breweries, explaining why it stands up well or falls short of glory.
The critic can also burnish the art with details, giving the reader more information that has been carefully, accurately gathered and arranged. What kind of paint was used and how was it applied? What college did the player attend, who coached him, and what promise did he show? What part does the Burton Union fermentation play in the actual character of the beer on the palate?
The critic can connect the reader to the artist and make that part of the process meaningful, important. Where did the choreographer learn to dance, and what identifies his style? Did the musician study under a famous teacher, or is she self-taught? Where did the brewer work before; do the signature beers from those places inform his brewing today, or has he made a clean break to do something else he’d always wanted to do?
Sometimes, of course, we write about beer just to fill in the blanks. Why are wheat beers made with wheat, what does it add? How does the mash work, what’s going on? And yes, how does a centrifuge make for hoppier flavor concentration?
But a writer needs an audience, however small, so why the hell do you read it? Why are there magazines like this one, devoted to beer, with regular readers who just have to know this stuff?
The answer’s pretty simple: You’re fans. You care. Maybe to an outsider you care too much, but that’s the way of the enthusiast’s world.
It reminds me of a Twitter discussion I had recently, related to the very divisive issue of bought-out brewers. It was in the wake of Wicked Weed Brewing’s sale to AB InBev, when everyone was making sure everyone else knew they would never be drinking Wicked Weed again. I suggested that the quality of the beer should be considered (as apparently a lot of people are doing with Bourbon County Brand Stout) and was told this: “It boils down to this: you either care, or you don’t. I sense you don’t, and that’s OK.”
I responded that I cared about who made the beer, but I cared more about the beer. (That, by the way, is another reason I write about beer: because I like thinking about this stuff, and I like stirring up discussion about it.)
The response I got popped my eyes: “That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care about the slave labor used, I just care about the diamonds.’ It either matters or it doesn’t.”
The analogy is over the top–beer ain’t diamonds, and there’s no slaving going on!–but the passion is spit-talking clear. This guy reads about beer, and writes about beer, and cares about beer. People like that are one of the main reasons I write.
Because beer may not be diamonds, but it is beer. Just to put that in perspective: Beer was around for thousands of years before cut diamonds, and world beer production in 2016 was worth almost 50 times world diamond production. Put a ring on that, baby.
We care about it. I care enough that I abandoned a steady job to spend hours a week writing about it. You’ll read that, and more, and talk about it, and hunt it down.
That’s about all the answer I need for that question. As the late publican and American beer hero Don Younger used to say: “It’s not about the beer. It’s about the beer!”
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer for more than 25 years and is the author of Tasting Whiskey. On Twitter @LewBryson.