The 86th Session is about beer writing. Having just organized and hosted a symposium, Craft Writing, on beer writing (and I appreciate the shout out from the session’s host, Heather Vandenengel), I would think I have something (no matter how partial) to say. After all, Craft Writing did not receive one complaint about the bathrooms, possibly a first for a beer related event.
I’m a writer. But I’m an academic writer. I’ve written books, but they are academic books. I’ve written articles, but they are academic articles. Despite being about academic issues related to rhetoric and writing, both of my books begin with the same nod: I’m going to tell a story. And the book I’m working on right now about craft beer begins the same way, with a nod toward storytelling: father daughter stories and anecdotes about craft beer. I’m very interested in stories (narratives) that shape ideology, thought, belief, hype, behavior and so on. Because of this interest, I write about such issues, and lately do so regarding social media (and on the side, beer). Stories repeat, as I often see. The stories we think are original, no matter how grand in nature or theme, or often repetitions. Craft beer, too, enjoys a number of repetitive beer stories (revolution, first times). Those who write craft beer stories often repeat one another.
I’m not, though, a beer writer.What is a beer writer? I suppose it is someone who devotes most of his/her writing to the issue of beer. This blog is (sort of) about beer. I began this blog in June 2007 as a food blog, and it took a whole four posts before I started writing about beer. I was still living in Michigan then. My own beer story does not begin in Michigan but becomes more significant when I buy a six pack of Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout from a Ferndale corner grocery in 2002, shortly after moving to the Detroit area. Heather’s call for the session asks, “What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again?” The one story that is repeatedly told, and that I do not tire of is the first time story. Kalamazoo Stout was not my first beer, it was not my first craft beer, and I didn’t write about it at the time. But that 2002 purchase is indicative of a first time: first Bell’s, first purchased beer in Michigan (I think), first purchased Michigan beer, etc. Many first time craft beer stories begin as father son stories (drinking while mowing the lawn, a taste of dad’s beer) or as the conversion from mass produced lager to flavorful craft ale. Many first time stories point toward the larger tale: the awakening, the epiphany, the bonding. My first time story, in this case, involves spending about $8 on a six pack of beer and then drinking that six pack slowly over the next week (my daily consumption then was far lower than today). That is the story.
First time stories, though, are often unlike mine because they are romantic in nature. If there is some “navel gazing” needed, as Heather notes, regarding beer writing, and if beer stories are too much fluff in nature, as she cites some responses to current beer writing, then the first time story might fall into the category of a genre of beer writing that is too often fluff and in need of some gazing. Most first time craft beer stories, as I’ve discovered through a great deal of research and collecting, are based on the fond memory that led to a life of either joy or participation in the so called craft beer revolution. The first time, we are told, is highly important. It feels like the first time, Foreigner told us. It fees like the very first time for a reason. It is important.
If I were in the beer industry or if I were a beer journalist, I might track down and discover the beer story often popular in these areas of expression: the brewer’s tale, the history of a style, the important date in the industry’s history, the emergence of a specific type of brewery, a profile of a significant person or place, the saving of urban plight, and so on. But I’m not in this industry. I don’t track down those stories to write about them, as much as I enjoy reading them.
When I write, I’ve turned most of my academic attention lately back to the personal (we are known for often excluding the personal from our objects of study) story. In this way, a given craft beer story (such as a first time) might be juxtaposed with the story of the object (the beer) and that merger might produce a narrative worthy of attention (the great awakening) Typically, this is how the craft beer first time story concludes.
Instead, I’ve spent time focusing more on the banal than the story worthy of greater attention. This focus might include daily moments, interactions, something akin to Facebook status updates in scope and breadth. And because I am interested in the fragmented (as influenced by social media fragmented narratives: tweets, updates, posts), I don’t find myself drawn, all the time, to larger stories of importance. Not all anecdotes must lead to the larger issue even if that is the readerly expectation.
With that in mind, I want to find, as the session requested, a piece of beer writing that was inspirational. While I’ve read such pieces, I leave them aside for now. Instead, I’d rather focus on something banal. Something fragmented. Something supposedly unimportant. I consider this anecdotal excerpt from Michael Jackson. Writing in the 2001 All About Beer article “Blue Collar Brews,” Jackson quotes his father’s admonishment for being interested in beer:
You pay good money for beer, then piss it all away. Why does an intelligent Jewish boy behave like this?
This is a fragmented anecdote written a year before my Bell’s purchase. I leave aside the context and rationale for its appearance. I don’t care why it appears. I remove it from that context and merge it into my own. I do so via three levels of identification: beer, piss, being Jewish. Piss is a common thread throughout beer, if not beer writings: having to constantly pee, waiting in line at portable toilets or bar restrooms, Mannequin Piss (who dumps urine on the opposing troops and whose Brussels fountain pees), Jeremy Cowan’s anecdote in Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah about being inspired to name his beer “The Chosen Beer” while urinating, and so on. Cowan, like Jackson, is among a few Jewish beer figures (writers and brewers) in the craft beer industry. I identify across these terms in a way that I cannot explain as meaningful or even ethnic (I am working with a mere overlap of terms, not causal relationships) nor as complete story (I have no larger narrative to tell). I identify in terms of keywords. Markers. Tags. Points of identification.
I identify with fragments.
Craft beer can become too caught up in larger narratives – such as the “revolution” or who is craft and who is crafty – and less in the smaller moments, the banality of brewing, drinking, pissing. At the end of the day, Jewish or not, the average craft beer drinker pisses it all away. Many of my most memorable beer moments (tastings, being with my family, traveling, experiencing a release, hanging out at local breweries) ends with piss. This experience of enjoying craft beer, as joyful as it is, must end accordingly by standing over a toilet, in front of a urinal, outside next to a tree, leaning against a dumpster or otherwise. And that moment need not be reduced to a critique of capitalism and consumption (we piss money away) nor need it be reduced to frivolity or superficial experience (beer is just about piss). Instead, peeing might just indicate the fleeting nature of many moments we encounter – in beer or elsewhere. Peeing, like the fragmented narrative, is brief and is gone quicker than the content (beer or story) is absorbed. In an industry that must devote much of its time and resources to what is not fleeting (economics, markets, quality, saturation), spending a few moments on the fleeting may not be a bad idea. It might not be so bad to have a few narrative pisses to explore.
So my story for now is: a narrative piss. A fleeting moment. A chance citational encounter with Michael Jackson. And so much more. That is the role I, who is not a beer writer, try to convey and hope to see a bit more of as well.