It’s two days before I leave for vacation in Ireland and Scotland. I’m ending the trip with the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Edinburgh. I brim with anticipation, excited as a child, delighted to the tips of my fingers dancing happily over the keyboard; I can’t wait to board that plane. Then Allan Wright of Zephyr Adventures pings me – there ‘s a panel on beer blogging around the world, will you talk about the U.S. beer blogging scene? Sure, I say. That’d be great. And then my head explodes.
I – little ol’ me – am to represent the entire nation of U.S. beer bloggers? There are over 1,200 in the U.S. that I am aware of, and I’m supposed to speak for them all? Without their say-so? Worse, two weeks after the European conference I’ll see a bunch of them at the U.S. beer bloggers’ conference in Boston. I’m sure they’ll hunt me down if I screw this up.
I have some performance issues.
So how to do this? How do I paint a picture of such a broad environment in two days’ time, while I’m wrapping up work and trying to pack? There was no time to fact-check and triangulate, as I like to do when I’m quoting facts and figures – and I would include facts and figures. I’d better line up my questions and answer them with the most rock-solid resources I could find – and keep my topics simple.
First, the outline.
I started putting a PowerPoint presentation together pretty much immediately, accompanied by a page of notes I have since lost. now I wish I’d put the notes in with the slides! I was quite sure I wasn’t going to work on this at all once I left for vacation. On the other hand (as I reminded myself to stop hyperventilating), the presentation was only five minutes long, so concise and compelling were the order of the day. The slides had to helpfully trigger the audience’s memory of what I said – and be straightforward to build. I wasn’t going to win any graphics awards with this one.
Next, the background: I did not want to choose the obvious backgrounds for my PowerPoints, nothing golden or orange, honeycombed or dotted with little bubbles that obviously evoked beer; nothing green like hops because that’s not as nice to look at over time. I wanted the slides easy to look at, and to reinforce what I would say, not to speak for me. I ended up with a green-gold background, lighter in the middle, and I layered in as many graphics as I could summon to make the picture punch. Speaking clearly and cogently would be a whole ‘nother challenge, but one thing at a time. Organize the content and plan the visuals first.
Given five minutes or fewer in which to speak, what’s important to tell European brewers about what U.S. beer bloggers are doing? I expected the audience would be mostly professional brewers, as opposed to here in the States where most of the conference attendees are citizen bloggers. I presumed most would be able to understand my American English well enough, though there were some surely who didn’t – making the slides much more important.
Once I’d scanned the data for my questions, I chose to use 2011 across the board, since that was the most recent common year I could get data from for all my questions.
U.S. Beer Blogging: how big is our audience? How does the U.S. compare to the E.U.?
We all know the U.S. is bigger – bigger in landmass, bigger in population – but how does the U.S. really compare to Europe? Since we’d have bloggers and professional brewers from all over Europe at the conference, so I chose to compare the E.U. as a block to the U.S. That wouldn’t necessarily include the countries of everyone attending, but I wasn’t 100% sure which countries would be represented at the conference and,. to be honest, didn’t have time to fine-tune the numbers enough to calculate country by country. The E.U. made a conveniently aggregated comparison unit (though possibly not the best one I might have chosen: plenty of time for second thoughts later).
How many people can we bloggers reach? How many have good internet access?
See the dark blue areas on the map to the left? Those are counties where 96-100% of the homes have broadband available to them. It does not indicate how many can afford it, or have actually connected, just that it’s available. The numbers decrease through green into yellow, finally into the red, where 1-5% of homes have broadband available. There is a lot of red, and most of it is in the middle of the country.
I expected some of the audience members to assume that if they had it, we would have more. Since that’s not the case, something must be wrong in the U.S. market. Sure enough, people in my audience snickered when I introduced this map. With its smaller, more densely populated land mass, Europe has better broadband coverage than the U.S. Here, when you have one family in 100 miles, as happens, it’s not all that cost-effective for broadband companies to make their services available. I tried to describe the expanse, the sheer size of the States, but didn’t come close.
It’s hard even for many Americans to understand the vast expanses of our country unless they’ve driven it themselves. I think any faster mode of transport keeps your brain from comprehending just how big the spaces are, and there aren’t roads through some areas anyway. If all you’ve done is fly over it, you don’t get it. By the same token, if you’ve only seen a part of the world where countries are so much smaller, you just have no comparison. France, relatively big by European standards, takes two eight-hour days to drive across. If you drive eight-hour days it takes about a week to cross the U.S.
What is this craft beer movement we Americans write about?
I didn’t want to assume that all Europeans understood what’s happening with the craft beer scene in the U.S. It’s growing like Topsy here, but there, it never went away. The craft beer movement in the U.S. focuses on small, independent, and traditional beer-making, which pretty much disappeared entirely from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Now the engine is in reverse thrust: according to the Brewers Association, craft beer grew by 17% in retail dollars and 15% by volume in 2012, and the total market sector is worth something like $10.2 billion. That’s huge growth in retail terms. I knew the percentages would impress the professional head brewers or brewery promotions managers. U.S. beer bloggers are mostly interested in craft beer.
I showed where the 50 largest craft breweries in the U.S. are, and dappled the map with some of their logos. Some of the European attendees might scan the U.S. conference agenda, so I included logos from some of the U.S. conference sponsors – Sam Adams, Allagash, Harpoon. I liked that this map included larger and smaller bubbles, indicating concentrations of breweries – a big bubble in northern Colorado around Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins; a huge bubble in northern California; another huge concentration in New England, especially around Boston where the U.S. conference would be two weeks hence.
I was not happy – and did not notice in time to change it – how poorly Hawaii and Alaska copied over. They deserved better on my slide.
I have since had a couple of European bloggers tell me that the U.S. craft beer conversation is pernicious, changing their beer discourse significantly and not for the better. I’m very curious about this. Like I said, they never stopped making craft beer. Sure, they have their megabreweries, and some of ours too, but there have always been regional or smaller beers in most of Europe.
In the E.U., there are something like a thousand established breweries, some of which are abbeys of longstanding fame. Actually, post-conference, I think the real number is very much higher. Ernst and Young produced a very interesting report on the economic impact of the brewing industry in Europe: they estimated the value added to the economy from the production and sale of beer at about €57.5 billion (about $77.6 billion). It’s a €12 billion market producing about 1.17 million hectolitres a year. Contrast that with the U.S., where we currently have 2,514 breweries, more or less, making about 13 million barrels** of beer (approximately 15.2 million hectolitres) in a $99 billion market (approximately €76 billion).
One of the identifiers of a craft brewery is that it’s small. In Europe, some of the fairly small breweries are contract breweries, making the likes of Budweiser and Miller for local consumption. There are also an increasing number of small, independent, creative brew houses like Inveralmond, Brew Dog, or Williams Brothers. They don’t draw the distinction between mainstream beer and craft beer as clearly as we do.
**If you are a brewing wonk, you know that U.S. measures and U.K. Imperial measures (set in 1824) are not the same, even though some of the names are identical. In the U.K., a beer barrel holds 26 imperial gallons – 43 U.S. gallons. In the U.S. it depends on what kind of fluid a barrel holds, but beer barrels hold 31.5 U.S. gallons, or 26 imperial gallons. A U.S. barrel is smaller. I am writing a paper about the changes in beverage container regulation over the last six or eight hundred years; it makes my head hurt sometimes.**
In the U.S. we had perhaps thirty years when only the big boys were making beer – Miller, Budweiser, that stuff. A lot of the energy in the U.S. craft beer movement springs from the excitement of rediscovery. If there’s increased energy and a fresh creativity in the brewing scene in Europe now, it seems to surprise them less than it does us. They never lost their small local breweries, there were just fewer of them in some places than there are now.
Now that I’d shown where the gravity centers are in the U.S., I wanted to give them a sense of new breweries proliferating all over the country. It’s happening there too; we saw evidence everywhere we traveled. The U.S. numbers are amazing. In 2011, about 350 new breweries opened. In 2012, there were another 422. That’s 770 new breweries in 50 states in two years! I wonder how many will still be around in 2023?
How many beer bloggers are there in the U.S.?
I know of about 1,200 “citizen” U.S. beer bloggers now, and about 100 industry bloggers writing for specific breweries or organizations. I have no idea how many sponsored bloggers are out there, doing their own thing with a little (publicly acknowledged) support. (This is a good moment to say again I was utterly daunted by the prospect of representing them all.) Many U.S. beer bloggers are writing about upcoming events at their local brewpubs or beer festivals. They’re the ones with the best audiences, I think. Those of us who are “niche” writers like me have more modest followings.
One symptom of the buzz in the beer hive is that the North American Guild of Beer Writers is up and running, cultivating and supporting serious beer journalism. There’s been a U.K. version for years, and I’ve longed to join – but I don’t publish in the U.K. (yet), so I’m not eligible for that, or the Man Booker prize either. (A girl can dream, and keep writing on!)
How are U.S. beer bloggers promoting their blogs, reaching out?
There are so many social media outlets right now – I bet that in ten years there will be fewer, and their audiences more clearly defined. In 2013, it’s a game to figure out who’s where and how they use this particular tool so you know who you’re talking to. (This fed nicely into a couple of sessions on social media usage later on.)
Where do I see most of the U.S. beer bloggers online? I see most of the conversation happening on Twitter. It really is microblogging, very brief conversations that are sometimes memorable and engaging. Interesting given that they don’t last – a tweet is so ephemeral, moving down your screen and off the page so quickly.
Personally, I promote my blog on Twitter, Google Plus, StumbleUpon, and have a Facebook fan page. It’s important to know who’s using which tool, who I’m talking to on each site. It’s also important to note how messages move – a tweet moves down and off the page very quickly, a Facebook page much less so (though it’s harder to get people to a fan page), and a Stumble is fairly random. I see people trying to use Google + like Facebook, but they’re really not the same – I find that Google Plus really is still a search engine more than anything.
There were five of us on the beer blogging panel. So there was my spiel. I was the only one of the speakers who brought slides, which made me worry about being a) middle-aged and b) possibly overprepared. In addition to myself, we had speakers from Scandinavia (Norway? I really should’ve written this sooner, it’s been two months), Tomasz Kopyra from Poland, and southeastern England; Reuben Gray from The Tale of the Ale and maker of the BeoirFinder app (finding craft beer in Ireland – not simple) moderated. It was fascinating to hear how different the blogging scene was in each country. Our Scandinavian fellow said they had such stringent rules on advertising that professional breweries couldn’t put pictures of their labelled beers up on their brewery blogs. He himself was very careful. The Polish speaker mentioned that he pretty much was THE beer blogger in Poland. He was on his way to judge at GABF; a very plugged-in guy. The English blogger had that lovely casual way about him the English often do, but if you scratch the surface you found a very eager, interested writer very much in tune with what was happening locally in his area with the reinvigoration of and expermentation with regional styles.
Right now, there’s a lot going on everywhere in beer.
Other than mildly panicking immediately beforehand, this presentation went smoothly enough. I know I made a few other points, and I regret that I don’t remember them now (and that I lost my notes). I wonder whether I addressed points that were actually new and interesting to this crowd, whether I represented the blogging scene accurately, and whether I seemed hopelessly pompous with my fancy PowerPoints and research figures. I don’t know. Thinking back, I take deep breaths and remind myself that you can stink out loud for five minutes and still get by.
When I got to the Boston conference two weeks later, no one was overtly cranky with me, because of course no one here had any idea I’d made this presentation there. In the end, that may be just as well.