On Beer Writing, Objectivity and 'Protecting Beer'

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

There was a great deal to be taken away from the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference. The event had finally made it to the continent after being based in the UK for three consecutive years, before moving to Dublin last year. I’ve always found the conference useful, not for the content itself but because it gives me the chance to meet my own kind. Individuals who are so taken with beer that they’re driven to write about it - Brussels was no different.

At last years conference much of the content itself was pretty dull. As someone who is constantly looking for an angle I can explore and write about I took almost nothing away. It was what went on around the conference, exploring Dublin and watching its new, young Craft scene unravel around us that made it so exciting. That and the serious amount of Craic, which we took full advantage of. The delight the Irish beer writers exuded as we revelled in their environment was palpable.

Zephyr Adventures, who organise the conference, had clearly taken note of this. This year the content was vastly improved, although it wasn’t perfect, with many sessions drifting off topic. A seminar on the state of beer in Europe devolved into a laborious discussion on beer taxation that might’ve been relevant had a hack from the Financial Times been in the audience. There was a great opportunity to find ways of improving ourselves in a session on taking writing beyond the beer review but again this was hijacked and became a debate on the definition of Craft Beer.

"As writers we need to get out there and find things to write about, rather than sit at home and allow stories to come to us."

Perhaps the best session was a forum on beer marketing. Belgian beer sommelier Sofie Vanrafelghem told the room that “there’s a big difference between being critical and objective as there is to being negative and narrow minded” during her inspired speech. This was the overwhelming theme of the session, a call to arms that asked beer writers to explore their work and be more critical. Something the majority of us, myself included, are guilty of not doing enough of.

Moeder Lambic’s Jean Hummler was far less forgiving that Vanrafelghem. “Your duty as a blogger is to tell the truth” he ranted “If you want to protect the beer world then you HAVE to be critical.” However, as with many of the other sessions, his sentiment was misconstrued and the discussion cascaded into a petty argument over authenticity. Hummler used contract brewers as an example of writers being too positive, he implored us to look deeper and find the real story but this was taken by some of the crowd as an attack on these brewers. It wasn’t, he was simply asking writers to work harder at our own craft but his arrogance got the better of him. He allowed himself to be drawn into the argument, derailing this segment. Still, it was a lot of fun watching the fireworks go off.

I thought it an odd choice of words that Hummler chose though, what exactly does he expect us to protect beer from? Evil multi-national conglomerates? The everyday, mainstream drinker? The pulsating hordes of R’lyeh? I don’t think any of us should be expected to ‘protect’ beer – instead what I think he meant is that although there is nothing wrong with celebrating great beer we should, at times, temper our enthusiasm and look beyond the free beer or brewery tour that occasionally presents itself.

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Before the conference had even begun several of us were being whisked around a rainy West Flanders and eventually into Wallonia. We were given the opportunity to find the stories that Hummler spoke of as the heads of the 22 Belgian Family Brewers joined us throughout the day. There was little time to strike up a conversation as we were plied with free booze and whisked from venue to venue but the opportunities were there if you looked hard enough.

The thing is Vanrafelghem and Hummler are right. Beer writers have the ability to sustain and increase the interest in beer as a whole, perhaps to even influence its journey down a particular path and this is something that should not be taken for granted. But perhaps they miss a point - they forgot to ask why people write about beer.

As I looked around at every session, be it at 10am within a hotel auditorium or at 10pm inside a heaving Delirium Bar there was one thing that characterised every single attendee, a smile. We’re not a group of hacks looking for the latest scoop, we’re not aiming to scrape through every brewers drawers trying to find the one piece of dirt that will blow the industry wide open. We’re here because we like writing about beer and we want to have a good time – our writing is an exploration of this.

“There’s a big difference between being critical and objective as there is to being negative and narrow minded.”

During the conference we were given unbridled access to breweries that can only be described as legendary. Before we had even begun, Dirk Lindemans himself was giving us a tour of his brewery and plying us with glasses of Lambic. Wave after wave of brewers were happy to give up their time and attend the conference in order to make sure we tried their products. What may have cost them very little is worth ten times to them in free marketing. As writers it can pay to remember that, whether we’re championing the latest startup or a decades old family business. But if we’re writing as a hobby and for our own enjoyment does any of this really matter? Do we really have a responsibility to the wider industry?

Ok, so maybe some of us do have a responsibility to be more critical of the industry at large, I certainly feel that I do. However at the same time I want to get inside the industry and find exciting and inspiring stories that will hopefully entertain others. One thing that Hummler was right about is that as writers we need to get out there and find things to write about rather than sit at home and allow stories to come to us in the form of samples and press releases. But by attending the Beer Bloggers Conference, that’s exactly what all of us were doing.