Saturday, October 14, 2006
Writing and Drinking
It's interesting sometimes to stop and think about how we got to where we are.
I started drinking beer in the late 1970s in Upstate New York. There really was not much of a choice in what you were going to drink at the time. Oh, there were plenty of brands, but for the most part they were lagers or lightly hopped ales.
I did not know it at the time, but my friends and I were actually luckier than most. We at least had beers from the West End Brewing Co. (Matt’s Premium) and Genesee (Genesee 12 Horse Ale), along with the national brands. Some places even carried brands from far off regionals like Rolling Rock in Pennsylvania, Narragansett in Rhode Island and Schmidt’s in Philadelphia.
Upstate New York at the time happened to be one of the top import markets in the country. Because of its proximity to Canada, we had Molson Export, Old Vienna, O’Keefe’s, Labatt’s, Moosehead and a range of other beers from the Great White North to try. For this reason, we got a shot at having a range of European imports and occasionally products from Asia, South America and even Africa. Much of my early beer education came from the fact that we happened to have a retailer in Syracuse called The Party Source that had an unbelievable import selection. Even by today’s standards, the guys at The Party Source stocked a great range of brews.
There was also the lucky stroke I had at the tail end of my sophomore year at Syracuse University to decide to attend an informational session to learn about the school’s international program. The Fall of 1980 was a time of learning about the pub culture, bitter and how to win at darts in pubs around London, across the United Kingdom and in cities like Brussels, Amsterdam and Bremen. I think my parents were amazed when I came back from that pub crawl with three A’s and a B+! I think it’s proof that good beer can actually help focus the mind and aid in the retention of otherwise fairly obscure information.
When my wife and I were first married we had the good fortune to live on the edge of what has become one of America’s great wine regions. We spent a number of weekends touring small Finger Lakes Wineries. Some have faded into history, but many of the others have gone on to win national and international awards. The experience taught me that devoted craftsmen can defy popular wisdom when it comes to making great products.
A couple of years out of college, I was lucky enough to land a job with Eric Mower and Associates, a marketing communications firm where I’ve worked for the last 23 years. The job has allowed me to travel around the United States and I’ve used that opportunity to try local beers, wines and spirits. I was also able to work on marketing programs for a number of beverage brands and see things from the inside. We named and launched the Saranac brand. We helped Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Brands) develop an on-premise marketing strategy that propelled the company’s growth. Later we would help raise awareness for riesling and other varietals for the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance. I got to work on programs to educate bar staff about Guinness Stout and other Diageo beers. I even had the chance to go to Seattle to attend Starbucks barista school.
My beverage writing career got its start while I was a junior at S.U.'s Newhouse School. I sold an article to the Syracuse New Times about the history of brewing in Syracuse. Armed with that clip I sold articles on beer, then wine and later spirits to a range of magazines, including All About Beer, Hotel & Motel Management, Beer the magazine, au Juice, Top Shelf, Restaurant Hospitality, Beverage World, Market Watch, Cigar Aficionado, Hemispheres and the Brewing News chain of brewspapers.
Beverage writing is not that lucrative of a business. For me it is more of a hobby. (This blog for instance, is more of an exercise in learning about this new wave in communications than a commercial venture. A few people have clicked on the Google ads and some others have purchase books and magazines through Amazon, but it will be a while before this site hits three figures in earnings!) Some others have managed to make a living writing full-time about beverages and I’ve had some good years financially thanks to my freelancing. The extra cash helped me do things with my wife and kids when they were growing up.
The real benefits from my beverage writing come in the form of access to people, places and products. There have been press junkets to places like Jamaica and Ireland. Free samples of Scotch, chardonnay and pale ale arrive on my doorstep occasionally. I’ve had the chance to interview the people who make the stuff I like to drink. Not a bad set of benefits.
It’s a great time period to be a drinks journalist. New products with an emphasis on quality are the rule, rather than the exception. God willing the next quarter of a century writing about beers, wines and spirits will be just as fun as the last.