On Disclosure and Early Reflections of Being a Freelance Beer Writer

Words & Photo - Matthew Curtis

After over a decade immersed in the blissful regularity of a 9 to 5, getting used to being freelance is taking some doing. First there’s the obstacle of self-motivation and realising that there's no-one to tell you what to do, so you just have to get on with it. Then there’s the realisation that you have to work every waking hour the day sends just to try and keep up with the pace of it all. This and the fact that even though you might have plenty of work on, you’re still constantly worrying about where your next pay check is coming from. At least that's what you convince yourself. But despite all this, it’s ultimately a thoroughly rewarding experience. The first thing I’ve learned about freelancing is that setting yourself boundaries is essential for soundness of mind.

What makes it really tough though, is when you read bullshit editorials in professional publications like this one in Beer Advocate. This is essentially denigrating my chosen career, and yeah, it smarts. This combined with the attitude of some people who can’t possibly understand how I’m making a living out of what I do causes me a lot of frustration. So I thought I’d take the time to break it down for you.

The original intention of this post was to disclose information about the nature of some of the work I do. The more astute followers of this website may have noticed that I recently updated my disclaimer at the bottom of the about page. If you’re blogging about anything, you should seriously consider adding one to your own site, especially if you are accepting samples, paid for invites to events or comped travel expenses. I updated this because I’ve just signed a contract to work with Pilsner Urquell, which will involve me developing content for them and using Total Ales as a platform to showcase this. 

I’m excited about this project, I’m being paid to create content about a beer I enjoy and have respected for a long time. I also have creative control over the direction of the content, and will work with the guys from Pilsner Urquell to ensure that you guys get something that is both entertaining and informative. Work like this ensures that you can enjoy the content on this site for free and that I get to earn a fair living. I fly to the Czech Republic today to start work on this and I can’t wait. 

This is one of several projects I’ve had the fortune of working on over the last few months. You’re probably already aware of the work I do for The Duke’s Head in Highgate and for Hop Burns & Black, who both pay me to run events and write content for them. On top of this I’ve recently completed a big project for Beerbods, who I’ve long been a fan of. You should see the results of this soon. Work like this means I can also pursue the path of the journalist and produce great content for Good Beer Hunting and Ferment, who both pay me for my work. In fact Good Beer Hunting is supported entirely by its readers who buy merch, so why not treat yourself to a tee-shirt and support a hard-working team of freelance writers and photographers. I think this one is pretty appropriate. 

I often get asked what I do for a living, especially when I’m travelling and to keep the conversation relatively brief I usually tell people that I’m a journalist. This isn’t true though, although about 50% of my time is dedicated to journalistic pursuits it’s only a small part of what I do and this is why the term beer writer is useful. I write about and photograph the stuff I experience within the beer industry, so people can share in these experiences. 

This got me thinking about bias and integrity within journalism and how producing the written word has changed dramatically in the last decade. Before the internet and before blogs, people paid for newspapers and magazines. Companies bought ads in these publications, which in turn generated enough revenue so in turn, they could pay their contributors and make a profit. The concept of producing a publication in this way in order to turn a profit is now dying.

People want everything for free, they want to curate their own stream of content, be it music, art or the written word and they don’t want to pay a penny for it. And why should they? So today’s ‘journalists’ have to think on their feet. They still want to write and entertain people and importantly, they still have the right to make a living from it. So we find new ways of doing it, like I have, and as long as we are completely honest about our intentions, I can’t see a difference between this and running content to generate ad sales in the sense of a traditional publication. I’ve had the finger pointed at me several times over the past few years accusing me of being on the take when writing enthusiastic pieces on breweries I love. The truth is I wasn’t - but now that I’m making a living out of this you can damn well be sure I will tell you each and every time it happens. Perhaps not in quite as much detail as this though.

The notion of integrity in journalism is flawed. The reasoning that a person that can be unwaveringly unbiased. Fixed to the fence in the centre of the middle ground. That’s ridiculous. This is 2016. The concept of traditional journalism is confined to history. Everyone is passionate about something, and as a writer I’ve chosen to deliberately explore those passions instead of worrying about the notion of bias. I’d rather accept that bottle of beer, that trip to Chimay or Pilsner Urquell or Brewdog, because I’m desperate to explore the beer industry and I wouldn’t be able to afford to do this under any other circumstances. We are all being influenced, all of the time. It’s better to accept that than to worry about how it might shape the content we consume. Life’s too short. 

I guess I could sell ads and host them on the site, and who knows maybe one day I will. For now I’d rather make sure that you can focus on the good stuff, distraction free. In the meantime I’m going to continue working to try and make what I think is the kind of beer content I think people want to read and enjoy. If I can continue to earn a living out of that as I do so, then I will. The important thing to remember in the polarising world of modern media is that we are all pretty much making it up as we go along.

The above photo was taken outside Le Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont, home of the Chimay Brewery, who covered the cost of my travel and accommodation on a recent visit.