I recently attended the Beer Bloggers Conference in San Diego and went to a panel on “Free Beer and Other Quandaries for Beer Writing Ethics.” Beer writing ethics are important to me, but I have a feeling some of you may not care. However, I still wanted to write this post to let all of my readers know exactly where I stand on these issues.
A big portion of what the panel focused on was dealing with freebies: samples, gifts, free or reduced tickets to events, etc… One point that came up early on was that readers assume writers get things for free. I do my best to avoid assumptions anywhere as they can often lead to trouble. When I first got offered a few bottles of beer from a brewery and decided to do a review on them I decided to be clear about the situation. If you’ve read the blog for a while you’ve no doubt seen my full disclosure statement, if not it’s below.
Anytime I discuss items or events that have been comped I promise to include that. I also do my best to slip a mention of the situation somewhere toward the beginning of the post. If it’s not there you can know I paid for all of it out of my own pocket. I do this in an effort to be authentic. But what does that really mean?
This question of what authenticity is was brought up but never answered as the conversation drifted away. Somewhat hilariously different sites online, including Google itself, define authenticity as “the quality of being authentic” which is unhelpful here. Luckily Merriam-Webster defines it as “real or genuine,” “not copied or false,” “true and accurate.” The last bit is what I think of when I think authentic; being true to yourself and what you’re trying to do. I do my best to be as authentic and true to myself as possible on this blog. That’s what I feel I owe to myself and to all of you. I think it will help you establish faith in me and make you consistent readers who will tell your friends to check out the blog.
This is where things got really fun. The panel talked about how much cheer-leading goes on in beer blogging. Writers unwilling to say anything negative about a beer or a brewery regardless of its quality. They also said that there exists an opposite end to that spectrum where some blogs only complain about beer or breweries and never say anything positive. As the discussion got rolling the outcome among the crowd was that writers need to be willing to fairly criticize a brewery, highlight positives, and stand by what they say.
Over the net of all posts written on this blog, the majority are not negatively critical. I do my best to be authentic and say what I truly think about things. I generally feel compelled to write about things that I really like or really excite me. This is no conscious decision on my part of trying to create a positive, upbeat blog it’s just human nature. Would you rather talk/read/write about a great experience or a mediocre one? I don’t say a “great experience, a mediocre one, or a horrible one” because the truth is that there are few horrible beers or bad breweries. The few times I’ve encountered bad beer and breweries I’ve been straight about it.
Anyway, take all of that as you will. I just wanted my readers to understand where I stand on freebies, authenticity, and criticism. Feel free to leave comments below on what you think of the above and if you think I should rethink anything. I’m always open for suggestions that could lead to improvement.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I paid a reduced admission to the Beer Bloggers Conference with the stipulation that I write at least two posts about the conference, this is one of them. To our readers, and any companies interested in sending me stuff, giving me free stuff impacts the review in only 2 ways. That I WILL review it and that and I WILL write a blog post about it. Giving me free stuff does not guarantee you a favorable review or that I will tell everyone to go buy it.
11 thoughts on “Beer Writing Ethics: Freebies, Authenticity, and Criticism”
Great post, Tom. I wrestle with the last point when I write for DCP. Dayton’s beer community is so fledgling that I don’t think it’s fair to be overly critical yet. I try to highlight the strong points I see, but probably have been a bit overly generous is not shining lights on flaws. It’s such a delicate balance, though, and overall I want people to be excited out the southern Ohio beer community.
I agree completely that it’s very challenging. I do my best to only point out serious flaws and let minor ones pass by.
I think it is important to point out when a new brewery is mostly brewing tasteless stuff at the start. One of my favorite local breweries, Rough Draft, was really rough at the start to the point where I didn’t come back for over a year. I happened to not be blogging at the time so I didn’t really do much other than post on Facebook about how I was not impressed. But like any good brewery that lasts long enough, they stepped up the game and ended up with some really good beers, like the session IPA that they brought for us to taste and now other awesome IPAs.
So it is also important to return to a brewery that you were negative about six months to a year later to update people on how things progress because most of the time they will end up improving greatly.
I totally agree and do plan on returning to the one brewery I’ve had a problem with. I’ve heard some things have improved though the biggest problem has yet to change. Still I will return every couple months and continue to hope for improvement.
That is something I constantly preach up here. Most of these breweries will work the kinks out, but it can take a few months or a year, even, depending upon how experienced the brewer is and how dynamic their systems, so I tell folks, don’t like it? Go back and try it later.
Great post! I struggle with the issue, especially when it is a micro-disitllery or event that I think has potential but aren’t making product that is worth the price just yet. It is easy for me to fall into the trap of just trying to find something nice to say or not saying anything at all. But that isn’t really very helpful to your readers.
I agree it is a hard one sometimes. I treat my blog like reviews of the beers a brewery is serving so I do feel I have a duty to my readers to be honest and say when something doesn’t impress me. But at the same time I try to include something about what the problem was because one person’s “too malty IPA” is another person’s favorite. So sometimes when I visit a brewery with friends I will mention that I didn’t really like X beer but my friend said it was her favorite.
In my opinion the conflict with getting things for free is a relatively minor issue in the scheme of things. As a beer blogger commenting on local beers there are also the challenges of (a) wanting to establish a relationship with the local brewers, and (b) wanting others to like, read, and encourage others to check out your posts. If I’m honest all of these things happen more readily when you say nice things about a beer or brewery.
It’s not just a selfish thing either because it takes incredible determination and courage to start a brewery, so for the most part you are rooting for these people to succeed. It’s much easier to write a negative review about a beer from stone, lagunitas, or dogfish head than a local brewery. Still I agree that we need to avoid the temptation to gloss over flaws in local beer.
Before I first criticized a small brewery I asked myself what I thought those brewers goal was. Do they want to run a business or make great beer? Then I actually asked some of them and by and large they want to make great beer. So I feel it’s an obligation both to readers and brewers that if I find a problem with their beer I let them know. I give them what corrections I can to help them make the best beer they can make.
That’s a fair point. The credibility factor also comes into play. The good reviews aren’t very meaningful/believable to anyone when all of the beers and breweries are reviewed that way.