I spent last Saturday at the very same Craft Writing Symposium our favorite Curmudgeon has discussed in his last two posts. Rather than another assessment of the day, I thought I’d comment on one particular point made by one of the speakers. Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster and the symposium’s keynote speaker, made a rather well articulated point about the language of craft beer, and that point struck a chord. Apologies if this piece is a little more opinion-centric than usual. We can return to pure technical shortly.
Mr. Oliver claimed that beer writers need to take a lesson from wine writers and utilize a more pleasing vocabulary to describe what’s in the glass. The specific example he used was that the term “IBU” is aesthetically unappealing. People don’t want to hear stats about beer but rather want to have it described with phrases such as “pleasingly bitter” or “with an assertive hop character”. I see quite a lot of value in this idea, but the lawyer in me demands some argument as well. Perhaps I’m just defending my own often technical writing, but I believe the setting at odds of “science talk” and “art talk” creates a false dichotomy.
It would be difficult to argue that the two cannot be mixed. Clearly it is possible to speak simultaneously of the data of a thing as well as its beauty and aesthetic merit. Carl Sagan immediately comes to mind as a highly technical thinker who often discussed highly technical material but did so in a way that evoked (and still evokes) an almost religious awe and emotional reaction. There is no reason to think that the same blend could not be applied to any other topic, including beer, but Mr. Oliver’s point seemed not to be that mixing of these things couldn’t be done but rather that it shouldn’t.
One of the basic tenets of good writing is to know your audience. If I were trying to convert a crowd of experienced wine drinkers and I had read enough wine writing to agree that it is generally done without technical information, then I would absolutely agree that the art of the writing should take almost exclusive precedence over the science of it. I don’t believe that is the target of beer writing, however. As beer writers, perhaps we should embrace the possibility that our reader pool is, on the whole, more technically and scientifically literate than we give them credit for. A statement of IBU’s may not roll as trippingly off the tongue as waxing eloquent about bitterness, but it can be just as valuable and moving to a mind that is prepared for that sort of thing. Perhaps it is ok to demand a little more of our readers. Perhaps the ability to revel in the statistics of a liquid should be acknowledged as equal in value to the ability to revel in the floral language describing it.
If I’m off base, please let me know, and I would love to hear other opinions on the topic, but I think craft writing can benefit from a solid understanding of data as well as a command of descriptive verbiage. If craft beer is, after all, a revolution, why stop at what goes in the glass? A new standard of discourse could really elevate the game. In my humble opinion, we don’t need to be wine. We need to be better.
Until next time, faithful readers, thanks for reading, and happy drinks!
P.S. Remember to let me know if you have some specific topic you would like me to babble about next time. You can tell me in person, by e-mail, or in the comments right down below.