Friday, February 21, 2014

Beer Nerds Bond Over Kentucky Craft Writing Symposium

Comprised of about 48 hours of continual beer consumption (both in body and in academic spirit) the University-of-Kentucky-sponsored Craft Writing Symposium in Lexington was a lot to take in. It's been almost a week, and I'm still a little hungover drunk on the experience.

There've been no shortage of summative remarks already shared in the last few days (and I'm sure there are more to come). What follows are my lasting impressions, as frustratingly biased and lacking in journalistic ethos as they may or may not be (sorry, Stan).

Brevity's not my strong suit, so let me open with this:

Lasting Impressions: Beer Me 

On February 14th, Sande and I began the 5+ hour drive to Kentucky on what was to be an amorous (if enervating) journey through Lexington's beer scene, including a six hour symposium on the culture of craft beer and writing at UK.

We stopped over in Nashville for a flight and some lunch from Blackstone--a brewpub whose doors opened to release no fewer than five collared priests leaving behind their now-empty midday pints--and then went on through another three hours of depressing rain (which turned into snow overnight) before reaching Lexington.

Our first stop after registering at the hotel was The Beer Trappe, a smallish tap room with an impressive bottle selection who promised to host Garret Oliver for a book signing between 8 and 9pm. It's the kind of place where you could really get in trouble with the bar tab if you're the hoarding collecting sort. It smells like (good) beer, allows order-in pizza delivery (among other eats), and sports a range of beer flights, high tops, low couches, and cozy lighting. In other words, I would happily move in.

Roundabout nine-o-clock, tired of waiting on Mr. Garrett Oliver, we gave up our Beer Trappe barstools in favor of Country Boy Brewing, who according to the symposium schedule was offering an opportunity to meet the speakers of the next day's nerd-fest. When we arrived, the brewhouse and taproom were bloated with jolly drinkers swaying to acoustic tunes and soulful vocals of Tyler Childers. Nearby, a table lay bedecked with the crazy delicious and visually refined eats of Fork in the Road, a food truck we happily encountered more than once on our circuit of Lexington. An hour or so later, as the snow started falling, I nervously suggested we call it a night (having just departed a second round of Snowmageddon; Atlanta residents will no doubt sympathize). 

The next morning we drove our way through the newly frozen and snow-covered streets to campus, crawling our way to the back of the room where the selection of empty seats was quickly dwindling. It was an impressive showing for a Saturday morning event where the presenters promised only to talk about beer (and not serve it) with 200+ attendees nearly filling the room to capacity. I spent the morning camped out by the outlets to keep save my dying phone battery, and after finally getting connected to the university wifi, livetweeted the event along with over 15 other participants who came prepared to raise their hashtag high. 

Both Beer Trappe and Country Boy are on my must return list, as are the rest of the breweries on the crawl list which we were to visit following day after the six-hours of talks. 

Introductions: Kevin Patterson

Kevin Patterson (a man who had both the distinguished honor of introducing the panel Saturday morning, and the local notoriety of being "The Cicerone" in Lexington) wrote his own impression of events in which he called out the presenters for being out of tune with their audience and largely ignoring (and in some cases admonishing the use of) social media platforms:
"What about Facebook? What about Twitter? And Reddit, and Google Plus, and Pinterest, and Instagram, and, and, and...? It turns out that the majority of younger craft beer drinkers don't own any of the books or magazines that any of those panelists wrote. They don't communicate that way. "
Seemingly unbeknownst to the panel (save Jeremy Cowan whose social media manager called it to his attention), Twitter was abuzz with the hashtag #craftwriting throughout the symposium. With a subtitle that included "the digital" by name, the lack of attention paid to these social, online writing mediums--which served as a virtual echo chamber in the room--seemed like a missed opportunity.

Stan Hieronymous: Appelation Beer

--Garrett Oliver
Stan Hieronymous (the first to speak on the day of the symposium), threatened to "bore the shit out of us" during his opening remarks. Though he failed on that particular count, he came off as a bit of a rhetorical curmudgeon (blame the weather?).

Seemingly insulted by the lack of journalistic integrity among today's writers and the proliferation of unbiased observers who (gasp) dare to refer to their subjects by first name (or write overly enthusiastic fluff pieces that smack of the advertorial), his criticisms weren't unfounded.

Or maybe the sting of truth resounds loudest in those guilty as charged? Some attendees had little idea or interest in who Micheal Jackson was, and admitted as much during the break. It's called me to question the enthusiasm with which I've no doubt written about beer in the past (as well as the requisite discretion that often facilitates access). As Garrett Oliver would later so eloquently put it, "If you like everything, you have no taste."

For my part, it seems the stuff of scathing critique is of days past, and that today's lynch-mob tends toward throwing stones at the naysayer, rather than raising their eyes to rest beneath his pedestal. Right or wrong, it's positivity and added value that goes viral. "If you have nothing nice to say...."? But I digress.

Despite being somewhat tone deaf, Stan at least had the imagination to wonder publicly what Micheal Jackson's twitter feed might look like (described as the "patron saint" of the event in Baylor's account of the symposium) if he'd used Twitter to document his escapades in whiskey and beer.

Screen shots from Stan's presentation:

Most of all, Stan's talk emphasized the disparity between today's current trend toward expeditiously forwarded sound-bites and slapdash writing vs. deliberate and crafted quality exchange (criticisms that would be echoed by other panel members).

In some respects, it's not unlike the differences craft beer enthusiasts cite as evidence of craft beer's superiority from the rest. Though Roger Baylor, who gave his talk after the break, admitted to feeling that it sometimes feels as if "craft is just merchandising."

Neither of them, in some respects, are entirely wrong. Tasteful or not, however, the enthusiastic novice is nakedly diving into craft beer without much regard for the "sheepish" and insulted gaze of those standing guard. And discriminating or not, their palates are equilaterally exposed. You can't tell an expert from an asshole (at least when it comes to handing out high marks and signaling your distaste with a series of unflattering stars).

But there's more than one way to open a beer.

Teri Fahrendorf: Pink Boots Society

--Teri Fahrendorf
Persistently celebratory, transparently generous, and frequently dressed in red, Fahrendorf has a bouyant, catalystic energy. On the day of the symposium, Teri spoke about the evolution of her identity as a brewer, the purpose and future of Pink Boots Society, and the ongoing need for safety in the workplace.

Her journey gave birth to an idea--of connectedness, community, and collaboration among women in the beer industry--one that continues to grow and connect by making use of the many social media platforms that others on the panel ignored or implicitly deplored.

When I asked her to address the critics of women's enthusiast groups who accuse them of perpetuating a "unity by exclusion" and having a certain "built-in obsolescence" as participation of women becomes more equitable, she said women have "a different dialogue style" and that excluding men from the room allowed women to "quietly participate" in a context where they might otherwise not be heard. She went on to say:
"I've been accused of perpetuating a pink ghetto, as they call it. [...] It's called gender equity. I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime, but when it happens, there will be no reason for Pink Boots Society to exist. It will disappear." 
We ran into Teri Fahrendorf at Country Boy Brewing the night before as she made the rounds carrying special small-release beers from Oregon, including Precuser Imperial Red Ale (of which only 2600 bottles were made) and “The beer formerly known as La Tache.” Two impressive and inspiring concoctions I hope to encounter again.

Both beers read more like wine in packaging, appearance, and flavor than what one might expect and both gave me a renewed hope for what “barrel aged beers” could mean for the rest of us when we finally evolve beyond the bourbon barrel. I'm holding out hope that I won't have to travel to Oregon to find something as expertly crafted and delicious as these brews were.

Highlights from Teri's talk via livetweet:

Julie Jones: All About Beer

--Julie Jones
Unassuming, good-naturedly funny, elegantly quiet and exacting, and unapologetically intelligent, Julie Johnson introduced herself as a "PowerPoint virgin" and audibly prayed during a lengthy slide transition, "Oh God, I broke it."

Julie's talk centered on the history of All About Beer magazine, which she characterized as going from "chugging to tasting" and highlighted some of the less flattering gender representations, including the "Beer Mate of the Month" (depicted below).

Over beers afterwards, she spoke with both Sande and me, saying she was "exceedingly proud" of her involvement in changing legislation for breweries in North Carolina and how inviting only women legislators to a beer dinner (rather than an open invitation to all legislators, to which only men had previously replied) shifted the conversation from "who's got the biggest boat" to that of a quietly seated room of responsive and receptively waiting participants. Food for thought, perhaps, as Georgia faces a discouraging and incoherent response to recent efforts to effect change.

Highlights from Julie's talk via livetweet:

Jeremy Cowan: Schmaltz Brewing

--Jeremy Cowan
Jeremy Cowan--a seasoned flatterer with a flair for stand-up--gave a self-deprecating talk about "how not to open a brewery" and shared the process of self publishing his book, Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah.

His brewery, situated in Clifton Park, NY, of all places (which I call home) is, according to Cowan, evidence of what an English major will do if given the opportunity to own a brewery. Quick-witted and fast to praise the writers in the room for their place in bringing news of his brewery to the public, he had audience members practically eating out of his hand by the end of the segment (or at least laughing).

Asking "Who are you people?" he was the only speaker to explicitly address the audience, a refreshing change of pace during the second half of the symposium.

Highlights from Jeremy's talk via livetweet:

Roger Baylor: The Potable Curmudgeon

--Roger Baylor
Roger Baylor, awkwardly gracious when I spoke to him afterwards, had a glittering beard (befitted with beads in Kentucky blue specifically for the occasion) that shone somewhat distractingly in the stage lights as he spoke Saturday afternoon.

His talk concerned craft beer's carbon footprint, the importance of equity (in particular regarding VIP tastings at festivals), the ongoing historical and cultural power of enjoying craft beer with others, and the potential for merchandising to become all that remains of what makes a "craft brewery."

Highlights from Roger's talk via livetweet:

Keynote: Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery
"The thing that I loved, was a flaw."

--Garrett Oliver
Garrett Oliver, stylishly dressed in a dark fitted jacket and collared but tieless shirt, was erudite, polished, and at times verged on pretension as he spoke (though one might argue, he's earned the right).

Leaning into the mic as he neared the climax of each subsection like the wind-up to a pitch, he laughed boisterously at his own jokes, throwing his head back and then downing sips of water from the side of a wine glass.

His talk was linguistically acrobatic, compositionally broad, theatrical, confessional, and meticulously delivered, and covered topics such as localism, nomenclature, writing, and the pitfalls of contemporary craft beer culture.

Naming Country Boy Brewing as a requisite first stop in Lexington, Garrett had this to say about the "drink local" campaigns that often dominate the craft beer culture at a state level.

"If we kept to localism, we wouldn't have anything. We wouldn't know anything. Localism has it's place." #Craftwriting @craftwriting

He admitted to experiencing what many writers before him have faced--the empty page, and the empty bank account.

Confessing to being frustrated and perplexed at the current state of journalism, and surprised at the lack of automated inquiry about the goings-on at Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver says he has reluctantly succumbed to the idea and benefit of throwing launch parties for new beers. "No one asks any questions. I thought that's what journalists do."

He called out some for diluting the linguistic power and integrity of contemporary beer rhetoric, accusing the certain beer styles such "Black IPA" for being uninspired and unoriginal in name, unlike their own Brooklyner Weisse.

Piercingly critical of the overly technical and formulaic beer writing conventions that fail to seduce naysayers and novices alike, Oliver says we have forgotten how to "sound sexy." Unlike wine writers, who are smart enough to keep their mouth shut when it comes to information akin to IBUs, his remarks reminded me of the attempts I made to the contrary (of which there were only two) after which I was privately "schooled" by several self-named experts to follow the script.

The Official Drinking Portion

By the ninth hour on the second day (an hour into the official drinking portion of the symposium) I pretty much stopped taking pictures altogether as we made the rounds with Snobby Beer Bitches from The Beer Trappe where we finished off a flight and several glasses of beer, onto Lexington Beerworks where we had a deliciously memorable Founders Breakfast Stout served at the perfect temperature, and then stopped momentarily at West Sixth (where there was a riotous crowd of basketball fans) and an impressive list of beers I had no right to try in earnest (given the already lengthy list of Untappd checkins), and finally ended at Blue Stallion Brewing (which was perhaps most memorable for the bottle share that ensued, including a homebrewed sour that someone had brought all the way from Illinois, if memory serves). 

I call do over. And poutine.

Patron Saints and Purposeful Lives

At the end of his talk, Garrett Oliver returned to the podium for a brief aside, sharing that "It's still hard to talk about Michael," before shuffling off the stage with a brief song and dance to fill the awkward silence and entertaining an informal Q&A session. It was a common enough refrain, the mention of Michael Jackson ("The Beer Hunter, not the moon walker") as nearly every person to take the stage mentioned Jackson's contribution to the legacy of beer writing.

Often the things Garrett and others had to say were less about beer than about living with authenticity and purpose. And if there is any measure of the success of the symposium, it is this: wisdom is only something you can give away, but stupid comes at a cost. I can only hope my tab isn't too expensive, and that 48 hours among the wise helps lessen my debt.


  1. This sounds like a great event! I watched many of the tweets all weekend. It's definitely an exciting time to be in "beer writing." We've gone past the early days when a few luminaries, like Michael Jackson, helped us on the path and are now in a world where anyone with an internet connection can have a voice, whether it's valid or not. It's up to us to take the elegance and passion of those early masters and use our new mediums to elevate both the quality of writing but also the quality of our commentary and interaction with craft beer and craft beer fans alike. Craft beer has come a long way in the last 30= years, but craft writing seems to have gotten a bit lost in the murk of the internet. Events like this along with other beer writing organizations should help take us all to the next level and hopefully a bright new future of beer writing.

  2. Another "Elephant" in the room that I felt could have been addressed better was how to make money. When breweries wear their not paying for advertising business model as a badge of honor, where does that leave craft beer writers? I'm well aware that people don't get into the craft beer industry to get rich but good writers need a way to make a living.