An interview with Jeff Alworth

I met Jeff Alworth for a beer in his beloved Portland, Oregon.  Turns out he’s not a beer geek, but he loves to write about beer.  Find out how he came to write the definitive guide to the stuff.

Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth, analysing a subject about which he loves to write.

Every industry has niche narrators, journalists who provide news and analysis to those who manufacture, sell and buy that industry’s products. (My own father, for example, was for many years the editor of a magazine called Seafood International.  He had a whale of a time.)

And each hobby has a cadre of enthusiastic writers who feed the rapacious appetites of fans with discussion of trends and history, product reviews and interviews with movers and shakers.

When hobby meets industry, as with beer, those roles combine.  A surprisingly small group of informal bloggers, trained journalists and book writers have the enviable remit of trying to know everything about beer, taste everything they can get their hands on, have some of the planet’s greatest brewers on speed dial and be available for comment when the mainstream media wants a soundbite on the latest brewery acquisition.

Portland, Oregon’s Jeff Alworth fits all three of the above categories.  Since 2006 he has whimsically been posting on his personal blog, Beervana.  For a few years, he has been writing for All About Beer, the magazine and the website, on broader, more carefully chosen topics.  And in 2015 Workman published the book that put Jeff at the top table of beer writers: The Beer Bible.

(He has since published Cider Made Simple and will shortly see The Secrets Of Master Brewers hit shelves. In addition, Jeff Alworth and his college friend and Professor of Economics at Oregon State, Patrick Emerson, are responsible for my favorite podcast, also called Beervana.)

Beervana

The city of Portland in Oregon has many nicknames. This one stands out.

Before I discuss my subject further I should offer two notes of disclosure.  The first is that I’m a huge fan of Jeff’s work.  I think he is an enormously talented writer who has the rare ability to blend stoic objectivity with warm charm through the medium of concise, conversational prose. So expect no small amount of fawning.  The second is that I came into contact with Jeff Alworth while liaising with Diageo, makers of Guinness (for whom I used to work and currently consult for), to sponsor Beervana.  I also nominated Jeff to visit Dublin and cover an event honouring Michael Ash, the inventor of nitrogenated beer, earlier this year.

Which had nothing to do with me emailing Jeff and asking if he had time for a beer and an interview when I visited his home town of Portland (aka Stump Town, The City Of Roses, The City Of Bridges and, ahem, Beervana) recently.  We met at the new-ish Culmination Brewing Co, one of Portland’s 58 breweries, and enjoyed some excellent beer in the midst of a rare heatwave sweeping the Pacific Northwest.

“I don’t really see myself as one of the guys about town in Portland,” Jeff explained as we got stuck into pints of Man O Mandarin, a very orange-forward tart ale. “But I am actually the official Beer Ambassador for the city, so it’s kind of my duty to hook up out-of-towners like you.”

This is Rainbows And Unicorns, a delicately but powerfully hopped ale from one of Jeff's favored breweries, Breakside. I "found the Unicorn" at Loyal Legion in Portland.

This is Rainbows And Unicorns, a delicately but powerfully hopped ale from one of Jeff’s favored breweries, Breakside. I “found the Unicorn” at Loyal Legion in Portland.

This self-deprecation mixed in with an acknowledgment of his stature is typical of the blend of deep humility and granite confidence that I think comes across in Jeff’s writing.  I asked him how he keeps these opposing forces balanced.

“I once interviewed Michael Jackson [legendary beer writer and chronicler of beer styles, not the star of Moon Walker] and was super impressed by how generous and kind he was,” Jeff answered.  “That brief glimpse of his manner is something I try to hold myself to.”

Jeff Alworth wrote recently that, contrary to any expectation you might have, he’s not a beer geek.  But he very definitely is a writer, and loves nothing more than writing about his passions.  “I only really figured out writing was what I was supposed to do when I was 31, and given different circumstances I could just as easily be writing about sports, or politics,” Jeff told me.  “I enjoy writing about what fascinates me, and there are many things out there less fascinating than beer.”

Even if he doesn’t proudly carry the membership card, I for one am glad Jeff regularly feeds facts, observations and his opinions to Beer Geek Nation.  And what’s indisputable is the extent of his knowledge and experience on the subject.

“I’ve probably been to several hundred breweries,” he explained. “But I only count about a hundred as actual visits, because they were tours with the brewer.  Those were the visits on which I actually learned something.”  On top of relentlessly touring breweries, Jeff also judges competitions, and invited the world to share his beer-judge perspective when he published The Beer Tasting Toolkit in 2012.

But the writing is more important that the drinking, according to the man selected to follow in the footsteps of Karen MacNeil, the author of the best-selling wine book of all time, The Wine Bible.

“I don’t know how much other writers would agree with me, but the sound of the words I’m writing is more important that the taste of the beer I’m writing about,” Jeff told me.  “My mother recently showed me all these weird and wonderful stories I was writing when I was in low single digits.  Turns out I was always meant to write about things.”

Portland Oregon

It always rains in Portland. Always.

I cheekily asked Jeff who among his peer group he considers to have the same obsessive passion. “Well there’s a lot of great writers and journalists in beer – more all the time – and I admire and respect most of them,” he replied with a smirk. “But I will say that Pete Brown and Evan Rail are two I’m actually jealous of.  They write sentences I wish I’d written.  Stan Hieronymus has been something of a mentor to me, he’s a real reporter, and he knows everything and everyone.  Randy Mosher is such a vibrant voice.  And Bryan Roth is going to be one of the most important writers in beer in the coming two decades.”

And is Jeff’s beloved Portland well-represented in the sphere of beer writing? “Just like the beer coming out of Portland, I think we punch well above our weight,” Jeff answered.  “Folks like Brian Yaeger and Don Scheidt have come here, people like me have emerged from here.  The beer culture is so well developed.”

“But I’m on record all over the place saying Portland is the best beer city in the world,” Jeff continued, after taking a sip of his beer.  “And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell people not to take my word for it – they should come see for themselves!”

Finally, what advice would Jeff give an aspiring beer writer, who wants to quit working for The Man and turn that beer blog into something serious?

“Any writer is served by curiosity. There’s a story in everything, but you have to be curious enough to look around and find it,” Jeff answered thoughtfully. “Remember that your customer is your reader, not the cool brewer you’re interviewing. Writing is a communication, and you want to serve the curiosity of your reader. This is actually getting more challenging. We know more now than we did in the late 1970s when Jackson was writing. It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey guys, look at this cool brewery I visited.’ You have to somehow add value to the story by giving the reader new information or placing the subject in a larger context.”

Jeff Alworth Laughing

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible

  1. Can you describe what you do in one short sentence?

I write about beer.  And other things sometimes.

  1. How long have done this?

I really need to figure this out – I started writing for Willamette Week in either 1997 or 1998, and I can’t pinpoint which.  ’97 was a big year for me, because I got married.  Maybe that’s clouding my memory.

  1. How and why did you come to be doing this?

Willamette Week, a local alt, had an alternating column called The Crush on wine and The Mash on beer, and I won an open competition to become the writer of The Mash. It was my first paid writing job. My first ever piece was about stout, which I did simply because I like stout a lot.

Audrey Van Buskirk was the editor who hired me, and she told me she did it based on gut feeling. I expressly told her I had zero experience, but she kindly said she had a good feeling about me.

I got out of writing about beer a few years later when a new editor began changing my writing to fit the Willamette Week voice, which was becoming much more sarcastic and derisory.  At one point they changed a quote from Art Larrance without running it by me, and he pitched a fit.  I sent him the original interview and then resigned.

I took a job researching at PSU [Portland State University] in politics and political funding and began blogging on politics at first.  Then quite a while later I started Beervana, in 2006.

My research grant ran out in 2010, the middle of the great depression, and I got the idea that I’d become a writer.  I got an agent and began pitching a book idea around, including to Workman Publishing.

In another example of a benevolent woman intervening in the trajectory of my life, the acquisitions editor, a talented lady called Kylie Foxx, got in touch and said they wouldn’t run the idea I had pitched, but they were working on something called The Beer Bible and would I be interested in that.  They had researched me through my blog and discovered I had a style quite similar to Karen MacNeil, the author of The Wine Bible.  They were looking for something easy to read but authoritative, which I think is how I write.

It took over a year for them to make a decision on offering me a contract, and it turns out they were talking to people like Randy Mosher, Stephen Beaumont, Stan Hieronymus.  And I am really glad I didn’t know any of that otherwise I would have told them they were crazy to pick me!

It took five years before publishing in 2015: two years of travel and research and a ton of drafting and editing.  I think I ended up submitting 230,000 words and…I don’t actually know where the final manuscript ended up, but somewhere around that mark after we took chunks out and added new stuff in.  I was also working on Cider Made Simple during that process, and had enough material from The Beer Bible left over that with some additional research I was able to put together The Secrets Of Master Brewers.

The Beer Bible was published exactly a year ago, and it’s been a pretty crazy year.  If I didn’t feel like a beer writer before, I certainly do now.  The Beer Bible will be the most difficult thing I ever do.

Jeff Alworth Breakside

Jeff and his wife, Sally, enjoy a visit to Breakside, one of PDX’s best breweries.

  1. What is your daily routine?

I wake up at about 7 o’clock, I make a cup of coffee and I read political blogs until the coffee runs out.  Then, as I am a practicing Buddhist, I meditate for about an hour.  And most Buddhists will tell you that’s not very much, by the way.

Then I start my day.  The writing life involves writing and a lot of non-writing activities, like interviews, research, travel and so on, which I can generally do at any time, but what’s critical is to focus on the time I’m going to be lucid enough to write.

I only write well when I can write well.  It’s hard to know exactly when that’s going to be, but it’s most likely to happen between the hours of about 10 o’clock in the morning and 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and then again between 3pm and 6pm.  So I try to leave that open.

And I do take naps!  I’ve done a lot of different jobs and I find writing is by far the most exhausting.  So I’m not afraid to take a nap, have a cup of coffee and then get back into it.

I know some writers have a process, and say that if they do certain things they can always get good stuff.  That is not the case for me.  It’s a little like fishing: sometimes the fish are biting and you need to get to it.  I have definitely woken up at 3am and done five hours’ good work before.  But generally I have a sense of when the words are out there, so I build my day around that.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Tracking details.  The thing about managing different writing jobs is that you have a lot of admin to take care of, and you have no support.  I’m pretty good at writing, but I’m terrible at managing detail and keeping things organized.

If I were in another era, let’s say the 1950s, and I were a famous writer I would have an assistant and she (we’re in the 1950s, so it would be a she) would tell me when to be where, and take care of all of that stuff.  My life would be radically improved.

Jeff ponders one of my many tough questions.

Jeff ponders one of my many tough questions.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

Ultimately it’s quality.  In no area in beer or related to beer have I seen people do a bad or mediocre job and succeed.  If you make bad or mediocre beer, you won’t be in business for very long.  If you’re a writer and you write bad or mediocre stuff, you won’t be doing it for very long.  At least not at a high level.

And as a writer you also need a portion of dumb luck. My process looked like this: do a hodgepodge of freelance writing for 15 years and then get extremely lucky and land a deal on a great book. Ta da!

  1. What is success for you?

If I can make a reasonable amount of money and just be able to write, that’s success to me.  It doesn’t need to be a lot of money, just enough to get by.

And also to be able to write till the day I die and still have it together and be putting out good work.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I wouldn’t change anything.  It’s an organic beast and it has managed to produce some exceptional breweries.  I’ve met plenty of people who are doing exactly what they want to do because of the beer industry and the way it is, so I would leave it that way.

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

I can’t answer that.  I’ve actually considered writing a book I’d call Forty Seven Classic Beers –  I’m not quite sure why 47, but it seems like the right number – and just profile some of the most consistent, best examples of beer.  But A), there’s no way I could pick out my three favorites and B), especially after writing The Beer Bible, there’s really no style I don’t admire and appreciate.

There are certainly good and bad examples of styles, but I just don’t think about beer in terms of favorites any more.

[Editor’s note: Jeff says that, but he did record a podcast episode called The Four Best Beers In The WorldYou’ll have to listen to find out what they are.]

  1. Where’s the best place to get a beer in Portland?

I would have to tailor my answer to that question depending on what the questioner wants.  The great thing about Portland is that I can guarantee there will be at least one brewery here you will love.  Maybe several.

If you weren’t able to articulate a preference I would probably suggest Deschutes in downtown Portland, because there are few places in the world where as many styles are executed so well.

If you only had a short amount of time I would send you to a beer bar, and, again, there are plenty to choose from.  For example, Bailey’s, downtown, focuses on local beers and keeps a pretty broad range on tap.  And they know how to serve beer well, which is very important.

The Beer Bible

My favorite book about beer. This well-traveled copy is now signed.

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