On Turning Pro - (Or: Thompson Never Said That)

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

“Good people drink good beer.” That’s perhaps one of the most infuriatingly misattributed beer related quotes of recent times. Like most beer quotes this one, which forms part of a longer statement from the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is regularly taken out of context and misused. Usually by businesses that want you to drink more beer.

The thing is, Thompson never said that, what he actually said was:

“There’s an ancient Celtic axiom that says "Good People Drink Good Beer." Which is true, then as now. Just look around you in any public barroom and you will quickly see: Bad People Drink Bad Beer. Think about it.”

And I did think about it, a lot. So much in fact that eventually I decided to start writing about beer myself. Since then I’ve never really stopped thinking about beer, and so after a little saving and a lot of planning, I’ve decided to quit my job and become a full time, self employed beer writer. 

Why is that Hunter S. Thompson quote so important though? Well, like many writers I often cite Thompson as one of my greatest influences, despite not being able to write like he could. However there’s no doubting the way he managed to muddle the lines between fact and fiction from a first hand perspective is something that has always compelled me to write.

When I launched Total Ales on the 4th of January 2012 I never for a moment intended it to lead me down the path it has. Inspired in part by Thompson, the blogs original tagline was ‘A Gonzo Beer Blog’ and my profile picture was one of me dressed in a frog onesie, necking Fuller’s ESB straight from the bottle. At least I could never be accused of attempting to start something serious.

I never expected anyone outside of myself, my family and a few close friends, to actually read it. In fact many of my friends were relieved when I did start Total Ales because when I went out, all I would talk about was beer, and now I had an outlet with which to vent this obsession.

Except it didn’t work like that. Writing about beer only incensed me. It deepened an already gaping obsession with a subject I wanted to know more and more about. As time progressed I started speaking with others, who also wrote about beer for fun and in turn these people became friends. Eventually, in summer 2013, I attended the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Edinburgh and it was here that I forged some of my closest friendships through beer. It was also here that I realised I was beginning to take beer writing far more seriously than I initially thought.

In November that year I was contacted by one of the people I became friends with on that Edinburgh trip, Chris Hall, who asked me to become part of a team working on a beer magazine for Future Publishing. A few months later, Future released ‘Craft Beer: The 100 Best Breweries In The World.’ We were immensely proud of what we’d achieved, although I think we could do an even better job now, were we offered the same opportunity again.

What working on 100 Best Breweries taught me was how to write properly. Suddenly being faced with word limits and tight deadlines forced me to refine my craft, helping me to shape it into something better in the process. Sadly, the slow, gradual demise of Future Publishing meant that the magazine never quite had the promotion is deserved, but it was a start. The thrill of having my writing published gave me a buzz that I was incensed to replicate.

What happened next came unexpectedly out of nowhere. A pub I’d visited recently in Highgate, North London, called The Duke’s Head, contacted me and asked if I’d like to come and meet the owners. They wanted to know if I’d like to work with them and run some beer events, something I hadn’t even considered doing before. As it happened these events turned out to be a natural extension of my writing.

From there things began to steadily pick up. I was offered more writing gigs and every event we did at The Duke’s Head sold out. I started doing more events, even travelling outside of London to host them in places such as Sheffield and Birmingham. I’d also begun to write for a beer website in the US that I deeply admired, Good Beer Hunting. Life was good, I was spending all of my spare time writing about beer, attending every event that I possibly could and always planning my next two or three projects a few months ahead.

I was, of course, doing all of this on top of my full time job. By now Chris had successfully found a position in the industry at Bermondsey’s Brew By Numbers and I was pretty certain that my endgame would be similar. So I was casually searching for jobs at breweries but was adamant that it had to be the right job with the right company. Despite this, something at the back of my head was holding me back, was this really what I wanted to do?

About three-quarters of the way through last year, although I don’t quite recall when it was, I crashed pretty hard. I was spending all day at work and then coming home and spending all night and all weekend editing photos and writing. I forgot to take breaks and suffered as a result. I remember getting a text from my Dad that said: “Your lifestyle isn’t sustainable, you’re going to have to make a choice.”

I always told myself that on the 1st October 2015, the tenth anniversary of my moving to London, I’d look at where my life was and make the all-important decision of what I would do next. I never knew quite what that would be, but when the day came around it was actually pretty obvious. I began set in motion a plan I estimated would take about six months to reach fruition. I wrote a brief business plan, started saving money and at the end of it I would quit my job to start writing about beer full time.

And here I am five months later ready to do exactly that. Winning a prize at the British Guild of Beer Writers awards helped speed things up a little, partly for the extra exposure but mostly because of the prize money.

Last week I handed in my notice of resignation and as of Monday the 29th of February I’ll be a full time, self employed beer writer. I don’t quite have enough work lined up to make it work just yet but there is no way I could physically take on any more work without making this leap first. Hopefully the money I’ve saved will be enough of a buffer to see me through while I send out pitches left right and centre.

I do have plenty of things lined up though, including lots of interesting stuff besides writing and photography – because I’m well aware I won’t be able to sustain a living on just writing alone. I’ll be doing a lot more stuff with the guys from The Duke’s Head for starters. We’ve already got some amazing things lined up that we’ll be announcing very soon. You might even find me on the other side of the bar on occasion, trying to make the ends meet. I’m also looking forward to working more with Hop Burns & Black, in fact you should definitely pick up a ticket to our next event on the 18th of February.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to having more time at my disposal, and using every last grain of sand in the hourglass to explore the world of beer and write about it for people to enjoy. This was never my plan and the last thing I expected to happen when I started writing about beer four years ago, but it turns out that it’s everything I ever wanted. I’m as excited as I am petrified but I can’t wait to get started.