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Session #62: What Drives Beer Bloggers

Our 62nd Session is hosted by Angelo De Ieso from Portland’s Brewpublic and he’s asking the musical question: What Drives Beer Bloggers?. Personally, I use a car, but I have a feeling that’s not what he’s talking about. You read can his complete announcement, or in a nutshell, here’s what he’s driving at:

The title question really gets to the heart of the matter: “What Drives Beer Bloggers?” Why do people decide to start a blog? One thing seems true of most blogs: they are easy to start. All you need is a a computer and a rudimentary understanding of the Internet to initiate your meanderings. The difficulty resides in keeping up with content and reaching an audience. What draws folks to your site? And, what makes you think people want to read what you write?

Your mission as a craft beverage blogger reading this post, should you choose to accept it, is to compose a post on the topic of “What Drives Beer Bloggers.” There are no rigid guidelines about how to write about this topic but we’d certainly love to hear about the history behind your blog, your purpose in creating it, its evolution, and/or what your goals in keeping it going.

Today’s tale begins in a world before blogging, circa 2001 B.B., September 10 to be exact. Well … sort of, but it’s more dramatic this way. While the world changed for everybody on September 11, 2001, the night before it changed for just me, or at least for both me and my wife. Around 10:00 p.m. that night, after many agonizing hours, she gave birth to our son Porter. I spent the night in our hospital room with her, and very early the next morning a nurse came in and told us. “Turn on the television, something’s going on in New York.” We switched it on just in time to see the second tower being hit by an airplane. “What sort of world had we just brought our son into,” I wondered.

I had recently left my job as the beer buyer for Beverages & more and had joined the staff of the Celebrator Beer News. It had always been our agreement that I would take care of the kids, while my wife pursued her career, but Tom Dalldorf had made me an offer that was hard to refuse. After Sarah’s maternity leave, he magnanimously agreed to let me bring my son to work every day, in effect creating a nursery at the Celebrator offices, then located in San Leandro. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but that’s a story for another day.

For the most part, it worked out pretty well, but there was a problem. By the time Porter was one, he wasn’t talking. We told his pediatrician we were concerned, but she told us that every child develops at his or her own pace, and not to worry. At eighteen months, the story was unchanged, and it repeated itself when he turned two. Words were coming, but at a much slower pace than his peers, and we even were starting to think he might be deaf, as you could clap your hands loudly behind his head and get no reaction whatsoever. He was tested, but it was inconclusive. By three, he knew maybe 100 or so words, but rarely strung two of them together. We visited speech therapists and other professionals at the Okland Children’s Hospital but little progress was being made. What does this have to do with beer blogging? Hang on, it’s coming.

My sister-in-law, who’s a research librarian, came upon something we hadn’t considered. She noticed some other symptoms we had not focused on that could indicate Porter might be on the continumum of Autism Spectrum Disorders. We had him tested, both by a doctor and the local school district, and both came back with that he was exhibiting autism-like characteristics. He was assigned to a special preschool and we started reading everything we could about autism, trying to make sense of it. There was an odd sense of relief insofar as knowing what it might be was a lot better than knowing nothing and being left wondering what was wrong for the previous two years. One thing was clear, Porter would need a lot more of our attention. The decision was obvious. I left my full-time job at the Celebrator to stay home with Porter, to shuttle him to his preschool, to physical therapy appointments, to play therapists, to host tutors in our house; in short to do everything we could to help him.

Despite having no regrets and believing firmly it was the right decision, it was not exactly intellectually stimulating or fulfilling. I craved adult conversation. I craved people just to talk with, but even at the playground, the other mothers tended to band together and fathers were routinely shunned. It was like having all stimuli removed, as if you were living in a social vacuum. I read a lot; at least a book, often two, a week. I started writing more. I completed a NaNoWriMo, writing a 50,00-word novel in 30 days. I surfed the internet … a lot. And then I discovered blogging. When Porter was first diagnosed as autistic, I was fielding calls and e-mails from across the country, with friends and family wanting to know how he was doing, what was going on, what they could do to help. Which was great, but I found myself answering the same questions, giving the same speeches, etc. over and over again. There had to be an easier way. There was. I launched the Brookston Family Blog in October of 2004 in order to let people read about how Porter was doing and even so they could see pictures of him, too. My intent, which is still there on the sidebar, was simple. “Our hope is that this blog will help us deal with all the issues we’ll be facing and keep our friends and family informed as well.”

I discovered that I really loved blogging. Not only was it the perfect vehicle to document what was happening in our lives, but I just loved the challenge of writing something every single day. It was, in a sense, liberating, cathartic and also fun. I started writing about anything and everything that was important to me, as well, and that included beer, of course. The upshot was that Porter responded slowly at first, but then began making terrific progress, and his language skills improved dramatically. Eight years later, Porter is in fourth grade, and got a perfect score on 7 out of 10 of his most recent state aptitude tests (and was in the 90+ percentile of the other 3). Most people who meet him never guess that he’s anything but a typical 10-year old. He’s smart, funny, kind and passionate about life. We notice things; little things. He has trouble making friends, though he gets along with most people. But there’s still some social awkwardness. He’s obsessive. That’s something he’ll probably always have to deal with, but we know friends whose children are not faring as well, and we feel fortunate that’s he’s come so far.

When I left the Celebrator, Tom invited me to continue on as the director of the blind panel tastings. It was only once every two months, and it was a way to keep my toe in the beer world. I also continued to attend beer events whenever I could, and began blogging about those as well. As Porter continued to make such great progress, I started thinking about getting back to work in some fashion. I was itching for it, and thought perhaps I could start taking on some freelance work while continuing to stay at home with not just Porter, but also our daughter Alice, who was born in in July of 2004. I started doing a regular column in the Ale Street News. I did a few features for All ABout Beer and the newly launched Beer Advocate magazine, among others. It seemed to work; that I could balance my family and continue to write from home. My wife and I discussed it and concluded that I would make a go of writing from home and in January of 2006, I separated the beer posts from my family blog and launched the Brookston Beer Bulletin. I set out with three goals in mind, though those quickly became five. The original three were track, share and support, followed shortly thereafter by report and monitor the industry as a whole.

Things rarely work out as expected, and this is no exception. I think I expected to quietly use the Bulletin to follow stories that I’d then pitch as stories to print media, fleshing them out in draft form, and commenting on them as I went along. Then, as now, there were no rules about how to blog. I wrote about what I was interested in and, if I was alone in that, so be it. I had no grand illusions about trying to build an audience. It wasn’t that I didn’t want people to read what I wrote, but I never felt the need to try to figure what the people wanted and give it to them. As far I knew, I had no people so better to please myself and hope for the best.

But blogging became its own reward, and indirectly led to lots of other paying work. And at least some people apparently were interested in what I wrote. At many beer events and conferences, people would stop me and tell me how much they enjoyed the Bulletin, which was — and still is — immensely gratifying. I’ve never had any sort of grand plan, or strategy. I’ve just tried to be myself and write from my heart about what struck me as interesting, or important, or worthwhile, or whatever. If nothing else, blogs are personal. I think that’s a part of their essence. They’re not like a newspaper, or a magazine article. They’re closer to the essay form than reporting, even though in many cases journalism is taking place. You have to be honest and authentic or people will see right through you. I try to write in the same voice I might use if I was having a friendly conversation with someone sitting next to me on the couch, sharing a beer. As a result, sometimes I say too much, or reveal personal details; what some might consider an “overshare.” C’est la vie. That’s just me being me.

I remember a conversation I had in 2006 at the Craft Brewers Conference, which was in Seattle that year, with Stan Hieronymus, where he lamented the fact that at that time there were so few beer blogs, especially compared to wine and even food blogs, which even then were quite numerous. Mine was only a few months old at that point, and there weren’t many of us. Fewer still from six years ago are around today, too. But boy how that’s changed in the intervening years. Beer blogs now number close to 1,500 worldwide, and that’s not including blogs written by breweries, bars, distributors and other related industry businesses.

After six, or even eight, years, I can’t imagine slowing down or not blogging every day. It’s become such a big part of me, and what I do. I assume that technologies will change and eventually blogging will give way to something else, perhaps something we can’t even yet imagine. But blogging has been such a useful tool that has enriched my life experience, that I can’t believe I won’t be doing it, or something like it, for the rest of my years. It’s almost like breathing. A writer needs to write, and I could just as easily keep a paper journal that I doodle in each day and never share with anyone. But it’s so much more fun mentally doodling for an actual audience, one that tells you when you’re on the right track and has no qualms about arguing with you when they think you’re not. It’s thrilling that so many people even care about some of the same things that I do, even if they don’t always agree 100%. In fact, I’d be worried if they did. I don’t really understand the appeal of “dittoheads.” I’d much rather have an audience that wants to discuss, analyze and debate, so long as they’re not hostile, of course. Healthy discourse is best, especially over a few beers. And in the end, that’s why we do it, or at least why I do it. Anything that leads to more beer has to be a good thing.

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