By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
With the explosion of craft beer, so too has come an explosion in beer writers who are celebrating the industry through the publishing of books, articles and blogs. One of those beer writers is Fred Eckhardt, who started tackling the subject when the founders of the craft beer industry were still homebrewing. His "A Treatise on Lager Beers" was published in the early 1970s, followed by books on beer styles and sake. His extensive career also includes writing for The Seattle Times and The Oregonian as well as magazines like All About Beer.
Before he began his writing career, he was in the Marines and one of the impacts the Bay of Pigs invasion had on him was to make him ponder life after a nuclear holocaust. According to an interview with John Foyston, Fred said, "I realized that if you could brew alcohol you would be welcome in whatever shreds of civilization might remain after a nuclear war, so I took a good homebrew recipe and made my first batch of beer." Whether he was being entirely serious or not, his early forays in homebrewing were the beginnings of a career that would impact the craft beer world for decades.
Since those early days, beer writing has gathered steam with technical books like Fred's to ones telling the stories of the folks living their brewing dreams. The stories behind how each person came to be a beer writer are as varied the number of beer styles. Brian Yaeger, who wrote "Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey," didn't know he was going to write a book until he announced it to a classroom during the pursuit of his master’s in professional writing. Once it was out of his mouth, he couldn't take it back. And before he knew it he'd secured a media pass to the Great American Beer Festival. From there he embarked on a six week road trip across the country. He describes the book as being "about the people, less so the beer."
Brian knew he'd write a second book but it wasn't until his publisher proposed "Oregon Breweries" that he knew what it would be. As luck would have it, he had already created the outline for it during the road trip that brought him and his wife from California to their new home in Portland. After retrieving the handwritten journal, he began two years of work during which the number of breweries in Oregon was growing exponentially. In the end, he had gathered the details on 190 breweries and brewpubs and was even more qualified to show visitors around, one of the things he loves most about being a beer writer.
Pete Dunlop, author of the 2013 book "Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana" started writing for the daily paper at Washington State University during graduate school. He went on to teach high school journalism and then had a career in marketing communications before going freelance. As opposed to Brian's books that are more contemporary, Pete's book is primarily historical in nature, no doubt influenced by his master’s in history.
When asked about his favorite part of being a beer writer, he replied that, "Beer people are easy to talk to," noting as well that he enjoys being able to write about the good in the industry (and sometimes bashing AB InBev). On the flip side, he noted that making money as a beer writer can be challenging. For him, publishing articles and authoring a beer blog were steps that led up to the realization that getting a book published was an important next move to make progress in this career. He's found magazine work easier to come by after publishing his book and is looking forward to writing a second historically based book.
Newer to the craft beer world is Steven Shomler, author of the just-released "Portland Beer Stories." Before 2007 he was not a beer drinker, having tasted the "crap beer" his dad drank and hating it. It wasn't until he was filming a hop harvest that he experienced what he described as "a life-changing experience." Smelling the hops in the field, during processing and in the drying room, opened his eyes and "stupid palate" to a world he didn't know existed. Later that day, he tried his first triple IPA and a whole new world opened to him, a world that he was able to write with a newcomer's perspective. However, he was new only to craft beer, as this would be his second book, following one about Portland's food cart scene. The realization that he was not going to be able to do a comprehensive piece was his biggest challenge so instead he focused on a mix of the old (McMenamins and Widmer) and the new (PINTS and Culmination). Finding stories to write about was easy as the brewers made themselves accessible, a sharp contrast to his experience with the wine industry.
The forthcoming "The Beer Bible" by Jeff Alworth is a product of his travels during two years visiting an array of amazing breweries overseas. It wasn't something that he had planned on writing; instead it was at the request of Workman Publishing, who had turned down his pitch for another book. They were looking for a follow up to "The Wine Bible" and sent him a copy, requesting he submit a table of contents as his "pitch." It was perhaps an unconventional way of finding the right author, but Jeff "didn't have anything to lose." After all, they were approaching him instead of the other way around and so he didn't stress about it.
Workman was happy with the table of contents Jeff submitted and after more than a year in contract negotiations, Jeff began the task of researching and writing his book that is broadly divided by beer styles. Since beginning work on the book in 2011 he has accumulated countless hours of stories about brewers all over the world, facilitated largely by making contacts with importers. Some countries he could have navigated on his own, the ones where English is commonly spoken, but it was destinations like Italy where he would have struggled without help arranging visits and translating.
Unlike Steven, Jeff had been a huge beer fan for years, having downed plenty of Henry Weinhard’s back when it was big, attending graduate school in Wisconsin when New Glarus Brewing opened and producing his own beers. That background, and having written ever since he was a kid, was the perfect combination that helped him begin his writing career, which started when he took over the beer column at Willamette Week following William Abernathy's departure. He went from there to write countless pieces for other publications.
Whether you prefer shorter pieces or books, historical or contemporary topics, there's something for everyone when it comes to beer writing. The best part is that they celebrate the day in and day out work that brewers do to fill our glasses. Cheers to the pioneering writers who first took it up and those who have followed in their steps!
Beervana Buzz http://www.beervanabuzz.com/
Portland Beer Stories https://www.facebook.com/PortlandBeerStories/
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.