“Of Niches and Novelties” – The Session #111: Surviving a Beer Midlife Crisis

The SessionThe Session #111: Surviving a Beer Midlife Crisis

In the city fields 
Contemplating cherry-trees…
Strangers are like friends
– Kobayashi Issa

The Session is not something I always participate in. Sometimes the subject is one I’m not inspired to write about. Sometimes they’re enjoyable to read, and sometimes I’ve got too much to do. Sometimes I just don’t have the desire or ability to care enough about it to participate. And that’s the crux of topic we’re about to broach.

My friend Oliver of Literature and Libation is going through a self-described “Beer Midlife Crisis” (link to post provided). And I say “friend” in the way we do in this odd world of internet acquaintances. I’ve never met Oliver in person. I only know Oliver from his writings and our interactions over the various electronic mediums we both inhabit. I would like to meet him and think we’d get along well. And while that’s all well and good, it does matter for the purposes of this post.

I can’t say I haven’t had my own crisis of faith in craft beer, both professionally and personally. I do work in the beer industry. I have for the last 15 years. I’ve only been blogging and writing about beer for almost 4 years.

Cynicism

Both professionally and as a writer, the biggest challenge to my ongoing existence in the beer world has been cynicism. Not mine, I’m generally a pleasant and optimistic person. It’s the dark underbelly of the “craft beer scene” that breathes cynicism like air and drinks in entitlement from their self-appointed places as arbiters of good and bad like the whalez they covet. As a writer, I hate the pseudo-edgy poorly constructed, too cool for school “satire” that seems to get traffic. Why should I keep putting out thoughtful, researched pieces when I can just put out some garbage bashing things people like up with a snarky tone and get traffic?
But in the end, if I was overly snarky or cynical in responses to others, I didn’t feel right about it. I didn’t like it. So I continued doing what I was doing: reviewing beers I liked or I thought were of particular quality and writing educational pieces. I also set out to avoid as much of the cynicism as I could. Though that can be quite tough, I mean HELLO!? INTERNET?!!

I chose not to put energy into cynicism, mine and others’, and found my own internet existence became happier. I quit worrying (as much) about my traffic and tried to be happy with the quality of my traffic as opposed to the quantity of it. I guess that’s one of the things they talk about in writing. When you begin to find your voice, people will respond.

Niches and Novelties

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what kind of beer blog I was going to be writing or where I wanted to go with it. Today, my direction is far more focused. I found my niche. I knew I couldn’t be one of those blogs that talks about new regional beers and breweries because frankly, I couldn’t do a very good job of it. Besides, there are plenty of those blogs available to choose from, both big and small. I’d just be a tiny, tiny fish in a very big pond. Besides, that wasn’t where my beer passions were going.

I stopped chasing the newest and weirdest. I started chasing the Belgian beers I couldn’t get here. Some of those are somewhat sought after, but most of them were just well-made everyday beers. The kind a Belgian beer enthusiast would probably ignore as they reached for something fancier. When I stopped chasing novelties and newness, I stopped being disappointed. There’s only so far can chase that dragon. I found my niche, and I began pursuing the beers to satisfy it.

Passion, Community, & Friendship

For the last 6+ years, my beer passion has drifted further towards the realm of imported beers and more specifically, the beers of Belgium. Why should I spend my limited writing time pursuing beers and breweries that I wasn’t that terribly interested in? By day, I was involved in the regional beer scene on a professional level, but the beer I wanted to put in my mouth was from far away. This worked for me on a few levels. The wholesaler I worked for didn’t carry many imported beers and even fewer Belgian beers. That way I didn’t have to write about beers I was interacting with on a daily basis, not because I was bored with them but because I didn’t want to seem a simple shill for my own beers. That’s also why I didn’t really talk about myself professionally in the early days of the blog. I wanted to establish my own credibility as an aspiring beer blogger/writer before I merged that credibility with my professional credibility.

Frank Boon, Christopher Barnes (me), & Karel Boon at Brouwerij Boon (Photo by Kevin Desmet of belgianbeergeek.be)

Frank Boon, Christopher Barnes (me), & Karel Boon at Brouwerij Boon (Photo by Kevin Desmet of belgianbeergeek.be)

In the early days, my lack of cynicism and my genuine enthusiasm paid off. I got an invite to visit Brouwerij Boon during their construction. It was one of the brands I worked with at the time, but they told their importer they weren’t receiving visitors. However, Karel Boon found my writings about his family’s brewery. He showed them to his father, Frank, because he felt I was one of the few Americans writing about beer that understood what Boon’s beers were about. I got an invite!

This picture was taken on my second visit to Boon and represents the next layer blog connection and what keeps driving my passion to continue it. The person behind the camera is my friend Kevin Desmet of the Belgian Beer Geek blog. We “met” each other by discovering each other’s blogs. Soon we started trading beer. Then on my second trip to Belgium, we met and visited breweries together. I met Kevin’s wife and children and got to know his family. Because of my blog, I’ve made some wonderful friends and done some fantastic things. Finding my place in the beer world has afforded me the opportunity to go places few have been allowed.

From Left to Right: Kevin Desmet of belgianbeergeek.be, Brother Pierre of Rochefort, Christopher of ithinkaboutbeer.com

From Left to Right: Kevin Desmet of belgianbeergeek.be, Brother Pierre of Rochefort, Christopher of ithinkaboutbeer.com

How many people can say they’ve been inside 4 of the world’s 11 Trappist breweries? Thanks to the people at Merchant du Vin, I got to tour Orval, Westmalle, & Rochefort in the fall of 2014! I’ve never worked with Merchant du Vin professionally at either of the companies I’ve worked for. That opportunity arose strictly from my writing. And when I start to feel some of my enthusiasm slipping away, I think about the time a monk showed me and my new friend Kevin around his Trappist abbey and brewery.

Crises Averted

In a lot of ways, writing helped me stave off a “midlife crisis” in my career. It focused my passion for the industry I worked in and helped figure out the direction I wanted to take my career. In fact, my writing helped me get my new job. I now manage the largest book of imported beer and cider in Oregon for a medium-sized craft wholesaler. I get to work with the products I love and share them with the people of Oregon. It’s a tough fight in one of the most provincial of markets, but one that I’m succeeding at. People can sense passion.

Now my job, in combination with my writing, helped me get my first paid writing job. I’m not a regular contributor at The Equipped Brewer, a site that provides peer-to-peer and expert advice to people starting new craft beverage (beer, cider, & spirits) businesses. I’d like to expand into more consumer oriented writing next and am laying the groundwork for that move. Right now, my beer career and my writing prospects are both fueling and helping each other.

I still go through phases where I struggle to get to the keyboard, not just because of being busy, but because sometimes it can be a bit oppressive. Sometimes I get frustrated at what I see in the beer writing world and wonder why I bother. But I always come back to all the good things that writing has brought into life. I have a worldwide community of friends and people fueled by the same passion I have: beer.

To Oliver

My blogging journey is probably atypical, even for those who started as beer industry people who joined the blogging community. Like anyone who tries something new, I’ve struggled with confidence in what I was doing and my ability to succeed at it. I don’t chase the whalez and that keeps my happiness from going down like Captain Ahab. I found my niche. I try to keep my focus on that niche. I find the joys in everyday beers. And that’s why I included the bit of Haiku that I used in my previous The Session post. To me, it’s less about each individual beer but what that beer led me to: friends, community, and passion.

2 responses to ““Of Niches and Novelties” – The Session #111: Surviving a Beer Midlife Crisis

  1. Christopher, your lack of cynicism, and your palpable enthusiasm for beer in general and Belgian beer in particular is an example to all beer writers, and one I’ve taken on board myself.

    We should write about the things we love, that excite and inspire us. How many of is has too many years allocated to our lifestyle, that we can be bothered writing about the bad stuff?

    I don’t want to spend what may be the last five minutes of my life cutting down someone else’s hoped-for sapling. I used to love doing that, but age and time teach you that life really is too short. It’s not just a slogan.

    We here in Belgium support you, we consider you a friend and an ally, and we look up to you as an example. Thanks man.

  2. Pingback: The Session #111: Round Up (Part 2) | Literature and Libation·

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