Going Solo – 2016, A Year in Beer

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

There are about 100 stories in beer I want to write about at this moment in time. I want to write about the places I’ve visited and what made them special, the beers I’ve tasted and why they were good, bad or just plain average and, most importantly, the people in beer I met along the way. I thought that when I became a freelance beer writer at the start of this year I’d have the time to do all of these things. I soon found out that running your own business, which is essentially what freelancing is, means that time is the resource you have least of.

On January the 26th I walked into my annual review with my old boss and handed in my notice. “What the fuck am I doing,” was the thought that was rippling through my head. Of course I knew exactly what I was doing, I had decided to become a freelance beer writer on the 1st of October 2015 and had been saving money to help ease through the transition ever since. That didn’t make the physical task of cutting the cord to a stable monthly income any easier.

On Monday February the 29th I sat down at my desk, where I’m sat right now, for my first full day as a freelance beer writer. My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t know what to do or where to start. The truth was the opposite - I didn’t know when to stop.

The next three months were a whirlwind and I didn’t stop working for barely a moment. I was working every hour I had spare on every day of the week. I was suddenly travelling a whole lot more than I ever had. I didn’t set boundaries and didn’t learn to set boundaries (which, on reflection is the most important thing I’ve learned to do in 10 months of being freelance) until I had already burned myself the fuck out.

Ironically the first brewery I visited upon leaving my old job was called Boundary Brewing.

When October came around I felt like I was finally beginning to get on top of things so I took a week off to take stock of the past few months. I spent a lot of time playing video games and refurnished my office space with a nice new desk and some other bits. Something I had originally intended to do in week one. A weird thing happened to me during that short break. I stopped thinking of my tasks as a scattered cloud that I would reach into and pull out the next assignment and started thinking in a straight line. Basically, for the first time in six months I stopped to think and it was here that I was able to start drawing a few basic boundaries.

At the end of that very intense six months I had become very negative about a lot of things and this was reflected in a lot of the stuff I was writing at this time. For this reason a lot of it will never get published, it’s why Total Ales pretty much ground to a halt. I wasn’t thinking like a writer and it took a few days of downtime to reset myself to a position where I could. Professionally I had a couple of good mentors and editors that spotted this and pointed it out to me. That was the surest sign that I needed a break.

If you’re thinking of going freelance the first thing you’ll do is ask freelancers what being freelance is like. They will almost unanimously say, “It’s the best decision I ever made.” This is both an utter lie and the most perfect truth. It’s a lie because they don’t tell you how it will turn your entire existence upside down and inside out and you’ll end up working harder than you ever have in your life without an off switch. It’s the truth because, ultimately, leaving the rat race is a beautiful thing. In fact I’d go through the first six months of freelancing all over again if it meant I’d never have to go back to the 9-5.

The other key lesson I’ve learned from being freelance is to get out the house and speak to people. It can get very lonely working from home and not speaking to anyone other than your very supportive partner and ambivalent cat for days on end. I wasn’t able to learn this second lesson until I learned to set boundaries though. The value in turning your computer off at 6pm, making dinner and watching TV until you start to fall asleep has never been so apparent.

This all makes it sound like my first year working as a freelance beer writer has been particularly miserable. It hasn’t, it’s just been tough, as I knew it would be. It’s also been full of exceptional things, the ones I wish I had time to take stock of and write about. Beautiful stories that, hopefully, I’ll have time to write as I continue to fortify my boundaries.

My first day as a freelancer involved a photography job doing some portraiture and in situ shots for fellow beer writer Glyn Davis. At the end of the week I was off on my first trip to Belfast to visit the aforementioned Boundary Brewing. They were paying for my trip in the hope I’d want to write about it. I went with zero expectations and came back with so much inspiration that I managed to sell three separate stories - one on Boundary themselves and two about the beer culture in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

Sometimes people ask me how I make a living as a beer writer and I guess that’s as good an example as any. I’m a maker, a producer, a marketer and a salesman all rolled up into a blubbery 80kg package. My business model is to create something exceptional for someone to read or look at and then find someone who will give me money for it. My least favourite assumption is the one where I’m sponsored by breweries on the sly and only write nice things about certain breweries because I’m on the take. Full disclosure: I’m not, despite it being your right to think that I am. But then it’s my right to think you’re a bit of a dick too.

Consultancy, though, is a healthy way to earn a living if you’re a writer and a photographer that specialises in beer. For me can range from creating unique content to providing training and hosting tastings. I try to talk about what I do as much as I can so that I can remain transparent but the truth is people just aren’t as interested in the as they are in the good stuff – the writing and photography that is the mainstay of my business. In attempting to be transparent the lines between the two can become blurred for some. Remembering that most people will just read it and then move on the next piece of content to be devoured is one of the most important boundaries I have set so far.

I can’t express how nervous I felt when I headed up the escalator for my meeting with Good Relations PR, who wanted to hire me to create some content for Pilsner Urquell. Even if one of the people I was pitching to was Mark Dredge, who’s a friend and peer. I was feeling beyond under confident in that meeting but they went for it and it led to me experiencing Pilsen and Prague in a uniquely personal way. I was proud of the posts I created for them, the photography especially, however engagement was around half what I see on a normal blog post. Would I do a project like that again as a result? Almost definitely, but I’ll find I better way of publishing projects like this in the future than here on Total Ales.

The two months I spent consulting for Pilsner Urquell led me to work on a similar project with a brand new brewery called Beatnikz Republic. Working with Paul Greetham at Beatnikz was very rewarding and I’m excited to hear that he’s opening a production brewery up in Manchester soon. Again, I’m not sure Total Ales was the best vessel for the work he hired me to do but it’s all part of the learning process and it was important work all the same.

With the money I earned from working for Pilsner Urquell I invested in a new camera. Photography has always been a key part of my plan since going freelance but it really has been the surprise success for me, with people often getting in touch to buy a few shots off me. I was over the moon to have some images published in two books this year, Complete IPA by Joshua Bernstein and Beer School by Jonny Garrett and Brad Evans. I also had some images published in Belgian Beer and Food Magazine and of course I get to take the photos for my own articles in Ferment and on Good Beer Hunting.

In fact, Photography has become a vital part of what I do to the point where I enjoy it as much as I do writing. It’s especially valuable to be able to switch from doing one to the other when inspiration is lacking, as it’s a very different creative process. The most exciting thing is that I’ve barely scratched the surface with what my new camera can do, so I’m looking forward to further improving this skill over the next 12 months.

Not as much though, as I’m looking forward to working on improving my most important skill, my writing. You can still read (almost) every single post I’ve published on Total Ales via the archive link at the top of the page. Pretty much everything that’s more than two years old makes me cringe, in fact even stuff I wrote as a professional sometimes does, but that’s because hindsight is always 20/20. Fingers crossed I can continue to earn a living doing what I do for another year as more than anything I love being a part of the beer industry, and I love doing things on my own terms.

This post was supposed to be a summary of the last twelve months but turned into the brain dump above which you totally just TL;DR’d right? I’d also like to thank a few people that have made these last few months possible by either a) paying me money, b) tolerating my shit or c) both. So thanks to Tom, Martin & Tarik at The Duke’s Head for keeping me on the books and letting me do fun events and renewing my contract. Thanks to Jen & Glenn at Hop, Burns & Black for letting me write stuff and talk about stuff and yes I am still editing the interview with James from Marble who I also thank.

Thanks to Erin Bottomley who used to be my editor at Ferment and thanks to Richard Croasdale who is now my editor at Ferment. Thanks to Michael Kiser and Austin L. Ray at Good Beer Hunting for kicking my ass into shape and helping me produce the best writing I ever have. Thanks to Matt Lane at Beerbods, Andrew and the team at Honest Brew, Paul at Ales by Mail, Tim at the Brewers Journal and Ed at the Morning Advertiser. Thanks to the British Guild of Beer Writers committee for letting me introduce lots of new breweries to members this summer.

Thanks to Good Relations/SAB Miller/Pilsner Urquell for hiring me for a huge project two months into the job. Thanks to Josh Bernstein for asking his publisher to buy photos off me and thanks to Jonny and Brad at the Craft Beer Channel for the same thing. Thanks to Glyn Davis for being the first ever person to hire me as a freelancer. Thanks to Rob at Fourpure and the folks at IndyManBeerCon & ABV Fest for letting me talk at people and thanks to Claire Bullen and my Dad, Frank, for being kickass contributors on Total Ales this year. 

Finally, thanks to all the brewers and industry folks that have always been on hand for quotes, interview, photos and for letting me not just poke around your businesses, but for making me feel welcome. I’ll be back to do it all again in 2017. Last but not least thanks to my girlfriend Dianne who has been unconditionally supportive of me this year. Sorry if I’ve forgotten you, my advice would be to anonymously leave a malicious comment below to ensure I don’t do it again next year.

It would be impossible to cover every single thing I’ve done that’s really stood out for me this year so I’ve picked out twelve, one for each month (although not necessarily from each month) below. Ok I lied, there are thirteen.

-       Quitting my comfy job to be an actual freelance writer and photographer

-       Making enough money to pay an occasional contributor like Claire Bullen, which makes me the second best writer on this site. Seriously, if you thought her in depth profile of Chef Tim Anderson and his restaurant, Nanban, was good, you should read her pumpkin beer article.

-       Going to Belfast (twice) and making friends with Matt and the Boundary crew plus the folks at Brewbot and ABV Fest. I will be back next year.

-       Brewing a beer with the lovely folks at Anspach & Hobday for the Duke’s Head, which turned out great. Shall we make it again?

-       Hanging out with Lauren Salazar in the wood cellar at New Belgium. Seriously, if you want to make a mark in this industry, be more like Lauren.

-       Visiting the Chimay monastery and brewery and being let into the lab to see the care they take in producing their beer. Also being told by an elderly Belgian in a bar that “drinking 5 bottles of Orval a day keeps away diabetes.” 

-       Going to the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia and seeing just how crazy the US beer industry is compared to our own. In fact that experience was probably the highlight of my whole year.

-       Visiting Pilsner Urquell and getting and in depth behind the scenes tour with beer master Robert Lobovsky. My highlight was visiting the cooperage where I took a portrait that would become my favourite photo I took all year.

-       Getting hammered in North Bar after the Leeds International Beer Festival with Tim Hampson and Neil Walker. Tim kept ordering round of Orval after round of Orval and hey! I don’t have diabetes.

-       Interviewing David Walker from Firestone Walker upstairs at The Harp in Covent Garden and for the first time being consciously aware that I had gained the ability to put my beer fan boy in a box and do my job properly. The interview was incredible and will be will you in a couple of weeks.

-       Driving into the Rocky Mountains to visit Casey Brewing and Blending and realising that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world if you are that dedicated to what you make.

-       Visiting Oktoberfest for the first time and waking up with what is officially the worst hangover I had this year – and believe me it had some stiff competition.

-       Going to San Diego on a jolly with my Dad and just hanging at some of the best breweries in the world. Although I hated the Stone Brewery in Escondido because it felt like Disneyland and not a brewery. That’s one of those blog posts I never got around to writing. Yet.

And that's it for 2016 folks. Cheers, Prost, NaZdravi, Salut and here's to excellent adventures in beer in 2017.