AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 1996

The Heady World of Beer Journalism   

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      

When Beverly and Don Walsmith started Brew Magazine, a touring guide to American microbreweries and brew pubs, Don was a single-malt Scotch man and Bev hardly drank at all.

The couple, who had been in the commercial printing and design business for years in Des Moines, Iowa, wanted to start a magazine in a field that wasn't already glutted. A demographic study conducted for a class at Iowa State by their son, Jason, led the Walsmiths to beer.

The bimonthly Brew Magazine made its debut in October of 1994 at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Beverly and Don handed out 10,000 mini-issues for free that day, and in two years the magazine has settled into a circulation of 20,000.

In 1985 there were 29 microbreweries and brew pubs in the United States, according to the Institute of Brewing Studies in Boulder, Colorado. Today there are 1,162.

While the growth in beer publications hasn't been quite so exponential, there are now magazines, journals and newspapers nationwide that cover every facet of the craft-brewing industry, including Zymurgy, a magazine named for the branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation.

On the East Coast, the monthly Ale Street News boasts a circulation of 100,000, the largest in the field. On the West Coast, Celebrator Beer News has a bimonthly circulation of about half that, though it is perhaps more influential. Midwest Beer Notes, of Clayton, Wisconsin, claims to publish "All the Brews That's Fit To Print," while Fort Collins, Colorado's Rocky Mountain Brews (with apologies to the Rocky Mountain News) says it has "All The Brews That's Fit To Drink."

"I know the number of publications has gone up, but it's the circulations that have really grown," says Sheri Winter, marketing director for the Association of Brewers. "The size of the publications, the number of issues, the circulation, the ad base, it's really taken on a life of it's own."

Celebrator Beer News, a Hayward, California-based news magazine, has taken on cult status within the microbrew industry. Editor and Publisher Thomas E. Dalldorf says Celebrator is successful because at first it aimed only to report what was happening in brewing from Mt. McKinley to the Rocky Mountains. (It now has sections covering other regions as well.) It just so happened that the reputation of the beers from Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado is such that Celebrator is now subscribed to worldwide.

"We try to capture the passion of the industry," Dalldorf says. "As good beer becomes more popular, I think we will, too, but I don't think we'll ever break out of being a niche publication."

Niche publications or not, the influx of so many beer publications has consigned the vast majority to the role of cheerleader, not only because editors seem to embrace the ideal of handcrafted production, but because they do not want to jeopardize ad revenue.

"These guys know they are doing the brewers a great service," Winter says. "They are walking the fine line between boosterism and journalism."

Carl Landau, publisher of the California-based Brew Your Own, says his homebrew magazine is written almost entirely by freelancers, most of whom are well-meaning enthusiasts who require heavy editing. The magazine succeeds, he says, by being relentlessly helpful in solving the technical problems of homebrewers.

Beer journalism even has its own celebrity journalist. He's Michael Jackson, whose beer books are bestsellers and whose beer endorsements are prized throughout the homebrewing industry. Jackson considers himself a writer first and a beer man next, reminding people of his long newspaper apprenticeship in Yorkshire, England.

Jack Erickson, who publishes The Erickson Report, has, in little more than a year, established his monthly business newsletter as the bible of the craft brewing industry. And unlike many of his booster-journalist counterparts, Erickson's success comes from the kind of hard-nosed business reporting you might see in the Wall Street Journal.

"There is so much going on in this industry, there are stories everywhere," says Erickson. "The approach I take is providing the kind of information people inside this business want and need."

The Walsmiths, too, are feeling the pressure of a maturing readership, increasingly populated by investors rather than beer lovers. In Brew's July issue, Don Walsmith's editorial informed readers that the magazine would henceforth carry advertising, setting the stage for the 10 ads that appeared in the September/October issue. Walsmith says without the ads, the magazine might not survive.

But Walsmith's editorial went on to assure readers this was no corporate conspiracy, that Brew would continue to be about places to go and beers to drink, and would continue to offer lots and lots of color photos.

"We want to be part of the sense of fun we've seen in the industry," says Beverly Walsmith. "This isn't a fad, but a trend driven by people who love what they're doing. For us it's the same thing. The hours are terrible but we love what we're doing."