“Craft Writing: Beer, the Digital and Craft Culture” was an academic and highly-introspective analysis of craft beer, craft beer writing, and how the medium has evolved in the digital age. The symposium was brilliantly put together by Dr. Jeff Rice, craft beer enthusiast and Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies professor at the University of Kentucky, where the symposium was held.
Among the questions that were addressed: What is craft beer – what values does it represent, and what ideals should be maintained over time? What makes good craft beer writing – what are our obligations as beer writers, what values should we represent, and how have we contributed to the cultural influence of craft beer? How has digital media changed over time since the onset of beer writing, and how have changes in digital technology contributed to the growth of the craft beer industry? And consistent with academic study, there are no definitive answers, only temporal conclusions.
Initiating the discussion – which ultimately should be an ongoing one – was a team of industry pioneers who gave us their take – veteran beer writers, Stan Hieronymus and Julie Johnson; veteran brewmaster, author of numerous articles, and founder of the Pink Boots Society, Teri Fahrendorf; writer and co-owner of The New Albanian Brewing Company, Roger Baylor; author of Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah and owner of Shmaltz Brewing, Jeremy Cowan; and keynote speaker: the charismatic and ultra-classy veteran beer writer and brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver.
You can find multiple synopses of what each of these speakers said online (here's one), so I won't bother to be redundant. What I really want to do here is to think out loud. To ask the questions: is craft beer writing subjective and based solely upon the whims and the objectives of the writer, or is there some objective, universal values that we should adhere to as craft beer writers? Do we have obligations to the craft beer industry or the craft beer community, and if so, what are those obligations?
Lexington was a whirlwind. My flight arrived over three hours late on Thursday night and rather than go to the hotel to check in, I had the cab driver take me - big backpack and all - straight to the West Sixth Brewery for a beer. The cab driver was in his sixties with a heavy Kentucky accent and he told me one story after another, all of which had no punch line. After handing me my bag, he told me I was beautiful, put his arm around me and kissed me on the cheek. Welcome to Lexington.
It wasn't until Saturday, the day of the symposium, that I realized I hadn't seen Lexington during the day yet (Friday, I'd spent all day working in my hotel until after dark). But there it was, by the light of day, in all its icy glory...Truth be told, the area around the university didn't do much for me. It was the majestic colonial houses which I frequently passed, sitting in the back of a cab, which made me want to return to Lexington.
Well, that...and a man I met at the post-symposium pub crawl – a fellow writer and craft beer industry professional. Educated, articulate, creative, mature, deceptively baby-faced, and stunning in his black square frames and tie. We spent that evening together, chatting over beers when we should have perhaps been networking, and I fear I made myself out to be a fool (my method of ensuring that no other human becomes too attached to me, god forbid), but I didn't expect then that I would still be thinking of him a week later and wishing I could see him again. Alas, I may never speak to him again - when one loves to travel, there are certain things one must give up.
Travel is something that forces me to live in the moment and to lose myself. Not so when I'm sitting alone in my apartment with my cats and my cyclical, unproductive thoughts. My cats, I love. The thoughts...not so much. A day-long craft beer writing symposium was not only extraordinarily enticing in itself, but provided the impetus I needed to leave my thoughts at home and spend some time above the clouds.
Both travel and writing can be a means to the same end – one through escapism, and one through head-on confrontation. If travel is a way to escape thoughts by losing oneself in the moment, writing provides a way to focus those thoughts, work through them, and to liberate oneself from their – at times – cyclical, redundant and constrictive nature. Writing is also a powerful tool that, if done well, can sway opinion and transform a society - and craft beer writing is an excellent example of just that.
The importance of beer writing to the craft beer industry is undeniable, both from an advocacy and a marketing perspective and there is no telling where the craft beer industry would be today if it weren't for beer writers telling a compelling story of the quality and craftsmanship of craft beer. Personally, I believe my role as a writer and a journalist is, necessarily, that of an activist. I don't believe that any journalism is objective. One chooses to write about some things but not others, and activism is inherent in those decisions.
I think all writers who choose to write about beer will agree that the story is a compelling one - historically, culturally, politically and scientifically. The craft brewer is both an artist and a scientist, a craftsman, pioneer, magician, and underdog – and this is no doubt why craft brewers have earned the rock start status which they hold today. I think the underdog narrative, though, is an important one in craft beer, partly because it's so important to human mythology and identity and is something we can all relate to. This may also be the root of the debate over “craft vs. crafty” - or what defines how big a craft brewery can become before it's no longer considered “craft”. Because the underdog narrative is so important to the integrity and identity of craft beer, it seems natural that there should be a visceral, emotional response when it comes to defining exactly who the underdog is.
Beer writers are passionate about craft beer and the values it represents (debatable though some may be) so we naturally act as advocates for the industry and, thus, have had an enormous influence on growing the industry through consumer education. Digital media, meanwhile, has created rapid – instantaneous – communication of information and has drastically increased the speed of media influence on society. It is this combination of beer writers acting as advocates and the ubiquitous use of digital media which has contributed greatly to the rapid growth of the craft beer industry in recent years.
Ironic as it may be, if beer writers continue to embrace an objective role as advocates for the industry, we may very well threaten to undo the underdog narrative which we've helped to create. Craft beer – which currently claims only 7% of the beer market in the U.S. (though is steadily rising) may not always be an underdog, and the craft beer industry may need to adjust its identity to focus on other defining characteristics such as craftsmanship, quality, and conscious, sustainable production and consumption. And with no end to the dialogue, the craft beer industry may evolve to embrace new defining characteristics.
Additionally, if beer writers embrace the role of advocates for craft beer, it seems important that we not fall into the trap of defining this role solely as a cheerleader for the industry, but that we constantly question assumptions and accepted values and practices – our own, and those of the industry and community. This may very well be a beer writer's obligation: to lead the discussion based on what we, as individuals and consumers, believe to be true, thus informing and influencing public opinion and the direction of the industry as a whole. This may require tough love sometimes, going against the grain of what is commonly accepted - but it's important to remember that we are, after all, writers and not advertisers.