Not About the Dough

Ray Daniels was in the middle of his keynote speech at last weekend’s Beer Bloggers Conference, held at the Park Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston.

Daniels, an award-winning beer journalist most known in the beer industry as the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program, was telling an old story about Michael Jackson, another renowned beer journalist, when a table of attendees uncorked a 750 ml bottle of beer; a sound that reverberated, Champagne-like, throughout the room. To cackles from the crowd, Daniels halted his speech and said that the story never made him feel that way.

The laughter continued; so did the drinking.

It was Sunday morning and the clock hadn’t even struck noon.

Left to right: Jim Koch, Boston Beer Company, Gerard Walen, Beer in Florida, and Hugh Sisson, Heavy Seas

The website of Zephyr Adventures, which organized the conference, indicated that there are now about 1,500 beer bloggers worldwide, along with a huge number of people unofficially or irregularly churning information about every bit of food, wine, spirits or beer into cyberspace.

That the avocation has reached a critical mass is indicated by the fact that hundreds of them — from Florida to Louisiana to Ohio — would schlep up for a hot weekend in Boston to discuss the art of what’s largely an unpaid hobby.

After all, profitable and widely-read sites such as BeerPulse, which serves as an aggregator of craft beer news, or BeerAdvocate, which sources user-contributed beer reviews and encourages open-forum discussion about the beer industry, are few and far between, representing the veritable apex of many a beer blogger’s dreams: to post about beer and get paid.

But for every Lew Bryson, an acclaimed beer writer developing a TV series called American Beer Blogger, there are hundreds of other bloggers sampling and typing away in obscurity.

So what would drive Gerard Walen, who runs a blog called Beer In Florida, to head to Massachusetts and pay for this kind of event? Walen’s brown hair hangs to his shoulders. He wore flip flops to the conference. Between the two rests his wide belly. And like many other attendees, Walen said that he loves taking road trips for beer.

Why did Tom Streeter and Carla Gesell-Streeter show up in Boston last weekend? The Streeters run Hoperatives, a Cincinnati craft beer blog, where they publish a steady stream of local and national beer updates, tasting reports and even beer guides to Disneyland and Disney World; evidence that when they travel, they have beer by their side. Much like Walen, they’re not running a highly profitable website.

While it’s risky to paint anyone with too broad a brush, it’s fair to say that, regardless of gut size or facial hair, most of the 50 or so beer bloggers attending the three-day event shared two traits:

  • An unwavering, public love affair with craft beer that compels them to put thousands of words to the screen
  • A mild-at-best effort to get paid for those words.

But that’s just an observation. In an effort to characterize today’s beer bloggers, Zephyr Adventures conducted its own, 32-question survey. 260 bloggers responded.

  • 40.9 percent of the respondents were between 25 and 34 years old.
  • 50.4 percent of the respondents have no professional background in writing, editing, marketing, beer or food.
  • When asked “why do you write a beer blog?”, 89.1 percent responded “beer is my passion.” Meanwhile, 8.9 percent responded “to make money.”
  • 73.4 percent of respondents don’t make any money from their blog and only 21 percent make less than $200 per month.

The statistics indicate that these bloggers sacrifice heavy chunks of time to document their interests, with virtually no financial return. Most beer bloggers are still years away from substantial paychecks, but in the meantime, they embody a craft beer persona and deliver its message. They’re bootstrapped, they’re homemade and, like the brewers they write about, they’re full of passion.

Norman Miller never pours out a beer.

The numbers also can’t measure the blogger’s role in helping to promote the beer industry’s smallest segment — craft — during the Internet age. For small breweries seeking a dedicated audience, bloggers represent the best kind of free marketing available. They’re not running a business and they don’t have an agenda; except perhaps to receive the occasional free sample, as blogger Norman Miller jovially mentioned at the conference.

“I never pour out beer,” said Miller, who runs a blog called Beer Nut and also writes a monthly beer column for the MetroWest Daily News, based in Framingham, Mass., where he works as an editor.

These traits (hopefully) make the observations of the bloggers more relatable to the reader. They inform everyday beer drinkers about a confusing industry. But most importantly, these bloggers follow beer because it’s what they love.

Occasionally, passion turns into money. Jay Ducote runs Bite and Booze, a Louisiana food and liquor blog. Only seven craft breweries exist in his state, Ducote said, and he’s visited them all. He’s also been commissioned by the state to promote the breweries and inform tourists of their offerings. Ducote may not have started as a professional scribe, but his knowledge, experience and care for his subjects holds value to his readers and, apparently, to the state of Louisiana.

“Your strength is, you’re local,” Miller told the crowd on Sunday. “That’s your beat.”

But beyond the polling numbers and the casual observation, there also seems to be a tremendous variety of reasons that normal, beer-loving folks take to the web to either write about or work with the craft brew industry. And no, they’re not in it just to compile top-10 lists, either.

“I never really appreciated scoring beer,” said Joe Callender, who created BrewHorn, a mobile app that helps consumers discover their desired beer profile. “To me, beer is art.”

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