First, let me thank all of the bloggers who participated in this 123rd edition of The Session! And, of course, to Jay and Stan for making it happen in the first place. So, without further ado, we jump into a roundup of what everyone thought of Beer in the Information Age (and if anyone cares, my own brief post on the matter is at the conclusion).
The Brew Site
Jon Abernathy's take focuses on the interconnection that the internet and social media make possible, and gives a nice rundown of the benefits and costs of this unavoidable linkage mechanism. On the plus side, small (good) breweries get more attention and have an easier time building a following that can sustain them. At the same time, the lengthy history of beer (even on the early internet) means that we have a running record of beer and brewery development, attitudes, and history that serves a useful archival function!
On the negative side of the ledger, however, is one key detriment: especially in a social media age, the internet gives an outsized voice to the more-persistent and louder negative voices. If 100 people are pleasantly happy with a beer but one is determined to destroy it, that one voice has a motivation to leap online and raise hell, whereas the 100 happy drinkers will simply enjoy their beer and move on. That the internet is a platform for snobbery and distorted impressions is certainly not a new observation, but it's one that's always worth remembering.
Barrel Aged Leeds
"Do you even blog, Bro?" might be one of my favorite titles of all time. Pointing out the rapid expansion of the blogging/vlogging/punditry sphere on the internet, we are warned that there is a risk of creating a beer blogosphere that is far too focused on cheerleading in an attempt to garner more likes and shares. While we have less of a profit motive (ahem...some of us have none at all!) than the breweries themselves (or their PR departments), there's still some incentive to avoid rocking the boat.
We are rightly encouraged to think of the dogs that don't bark - a plethora of positive reviews of a brewery doesn't make it good. I would concur and add that the same is true for the negatives we hear. And, of course, as beer writers we might be best served by voluntarily adopting a degree of journalistic detachment and obejctivity.
Tom Bedell provides two recent beer interactions as vignettes on the impact of the internet on the beer community. First, the near-"miraculous" (despite its now-commonplace nature) phenomenon of being able to gather the beer-interested from around the world via social media to discuss and share beer news and opinions. The fact that we can now, easily, harness ideas and thoughts from brewers all over the world, instantaneously, is an astonishing thing, whatever its effects.
Second, we're all now also benefitting (and, again, we ignore the revolutionary nature of this) from advanced knowledge of what beer is available where, which means less time hunting and more time enjoying, and fewer disappointing tap lists even in places like airports and sporting stadiums. It's like when someone finally get a DVR and sees what life is like without the down-time of commercials and the shackles of airing schedules. It's remarkably liberating!
Kaedrin Beer Blog
Mark delves into this question with abandon, and I couldn't possibly summarize it all here (but I strongly urge you to read it all for yourself - great stuff!), but one point that jumped out at me was the incredible diversity of kinds of beer communities online. Like a lot of these points, it was something I had observed but never remarked upon. Trying to nail down online "beer culture" can be challenging because it reflects so many different approaches, concerns, and attitudes.
With increasing levels of transparency are coming increasing levels of trust online, Mark notes, which is almost certainly a good thing, regardless of the topic or area.
A Better Beer Blog
Alan didn't seem to think much of my question, I regret to report, suggesting that it was "short-sighted" (or, if I'm reading it correctly, failing to appreciate the lengthy internet history of beer). In my own defense, I don't think I was suggesting that beer is new to the internet - rather that recent changes in both scope and scale of the internet audience, in addition to its transition to an active space rather than a passive resource, might merit a review of how the internet today affects beer. But I digress...
Alan seems to espouse a radically different view of many of the others in this week's roundup: he suggests that the interconnectedness and dynamic shrinking of the world that the internet and social media provide is merely the "presumption…no, the illusion of nearness." The interactions found online are artificial. "All beer is, as a result, properly understood as local and personal."
It's an interesting perspective, but I can't say that I subscribe to it. While these interactions may begin superficially and artificially, they often yield real relationships and benefits. How many visit NHC or GABF and take active steps to meet and spend time with those who were previously only bits of data on a social media feed? The end result certainly meets the "local and personal" standard, and if what starts that chain of events are the artificial virtual interactions of social media and internet activity, then doesn't that end result add a degree of "realness" to its beginning? And are we really saying that IRL beer interactions can't be equally fleeting and artificial? It's certainly a fascinating topic for discussion - more another day...
Ramblings of a Beer Runner
Derrick makes a wonderfully simple case for craft beer on the internet: everyone can and is getting something beneficial out of it. Breweries get low cost-of-access publicity and direct contact with consumers. Drinkers get information about beer and breweries and events. Traders get a wildly expanded universe in which to offer and receive exotic beers.
All of this comes with a caveat, though: there's a lot of noise out there. And as Derrick notes: "If you want to be heard above the rising beery noise on the Internet, you need to find a way to say something worth listening to." I couldn't agree more!
The Tale of the Ale
Dublin-based blogger Reuben Gray stakes out a simple and compelling argument for the modern internet as a craft beer engine. Information often fuels interest, and the fact the "global explosion in craft beer would be much slower and have far less of an impact without the rise of the internet and specifically smartphones/social media." I find this to be especially true given the nature of craft beer's position and image in the marketplace: a swarm of "little guys" trying to take down the macro behemoths. It's the perfect marketing medium for a David v. Goliath narrative.
Reuben also notes, though, that this sword cuts both ways: before everyone and their mother was on social media, and before internet news became ubiquitous, only the most-dedicated of beer people (or the most thorough of newspaper Business Section readers) would have noticed the full buyout of Lagunitas by Heineken. Now, that information whips around the world (literally) at the speed of light. Whether it actually helps or hurts the brewery is a question of case and context, but the idea that it could do either is a significant change in the beer world's ecology.
The Beer Nut
Also out of Dublin, The Beer Nut makes a fittingly novel argument: the novelty that pervades the beer world (one-offs, collaboration beers, 20 seasonals to 4 year-round offerings) is a direct result of the ramped-up communications (especially mobile) technology that breweries can now utilize. When communication with customers was both costly and required firing a marketing shotgun into a crowd of potential beer drinkers, focus was key: serve only a few beers, and preferably have your brand identified by just one.
With microtargeting, direct messaging, and a market segment constantly on the hunt for new and creative beer, the incentive structure changes, probably permanently. Sure, you can have a range of really good "everyday" beers, but breweries can now choose to leave that model behind and brew an ever-evolving range of beers and make a living doing it. An interesting illustration of one way that technology that has nothing to do with brewing changes beer.
Boak & Bailey
Boak and Bailey make a broader cultural argument that seems quite on-target: online and offline are no longer distinct spaces. The integration of internet-based technology into practical everyday living is, if not complete, then damned near there.
They follow up with a great question: what is the impact on the local when the global shows up in your pocket? Certainly there are benefits to each, and just as we should be open to the idea of the exotic and the far-flung we should also take care to nurture and maintain the nearby and the familiar. How? That's a much longer discussion for another day.
My take? I agree with almost all of what my colleagues have written in the past week on the subject. I concur that the Information Age (with the addition of social media) has changed the beer world by bringing all of us closer together, enabling interactions that would have been logistically challenging and probably impossible even a few years ago. And I disagree that these interactions are immaterial or ineffectual or artificial.
These interactions are real. Nurture them, and they'll pay dividends.
Keep it simple.