The Future of Beer Writing

The release last month of The Oxford Companion to Beer has provoked a lot of discussion in the beerosphere--pro and, mostly, con. (I haven't seen it yet, but I am concerned that the publisher's comments begin with that inaccurate quote by Ben Franklin.) Start with this review by Alan McLeod and then read Stan Hieronymus' post and the extensive comments thereafter.

I won't try to summarize the discussions except to say that we seem to have finally arrived, now more than four years after his death, in the post-Jackson era. The Michael Jackson era began in the mid-70s and ended with his death in 2007. In that time, he published the definitive guide to world beer (World Guide to Beer and later the Beer Companion), the definitive ratings guide (Pocket Guide to Beer), and the definitive guide to Belgium (Great Beers of Belgium). He played a role in defining style, and he identified the breweries that continue to be considered world classics. The way he thought about and wrote about beer became the template of his era. (That some people regret aspects of his legacy is another matter.)

Jackson, of course, started writing in a very different time. When he discussed, say, Saison Dupont, very few people had ever heard of it, much less tasted it. Now the beer is available at most grocery stores. When people wanted information about beer, they had next to no sources beyond Jackson--though this obviously changed over the years.

Now we have amazing distribution networks that shuttle the beers of the world around the globe. We have hundreds of writers sharing information about beers. We have programs to teach people about beer. And perhaps most revolutionarily, we have the hive mind of ratings sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer coupled with GPS and the larger internet. This last change is key. The Oxford Companion arrives at a moment when very little information is beyond the reach of a Google search. (Based on some of the critiques I'm reading, a Google search may produce more accurate information, too.) All of this was floating in my mind when I read about a Harvard Business School report (pdf)on the impact of sites like Yelp.

For our purposes, I'd like you to look at this graph from the appendix:

Although Yelp tracks restaurants, not breweries and beer, the point is analogous. In this graph, the Zagat/Seattle Times/Food and Wine entries can stand in for a writer like Jackson, while Yelp is the hive mind. If a consumer is looking for information about a brewery or beer, where do they go? In most cases, they'll find the information they're looking for on a ratings site. It won't be as detailed or have the rich context of a Jackson book, but it will be there. You'll get some information and you'll get it fast. In his thirty years of beer writing, Jackson reviewed a monumental number of beers--but probably around 10% of the beers available at any given time.

I think this makes accurate writing about beer more important, not less. Understanding the history, chemistry, and culture of beer is far more edifying than seeing what Dogboy37 from Ypsilanti thought of Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. And yet we will increasingly rely on raters to aggregate and sort information for us. BeerAdvocate is a tool used by an order of magnitude more people than readers of The Oxford Companion.

This post isn't headed anywhere, incidentally, except to note the phenomenon. Jackson didn't write during the age of BeerAdvocate. Writers today do. It is a sure bet that in order to find an audience, books will have deal with this reality and find ways to appeal to folks who are used to finding information instantly online.