Blog Life

From time to time, I receive emails from students who would like my input on a school project. Sometimes they are students of service-industry-related programs, sometimes they are in marketing or PR programs, and sometimes it’s not clear at all what classes they are taking.

Sometimes these inquiries come in the form of well thought-out questions that show that the student has clearly done their homework and has actually read a lot of my writing. Sometimes it’s obvious the student has simply pasted questions directly from his or her homework and would like me to do the work for them.

Most of the time, regardless of the form they take, I politely deny the inquiry or I don’t respond at all.

But sometimes, I like to take an opportunity to help shape a young mind.

September 24,  12:57pm

From: Marketing Student
To: Ben Johnson
Questions for school project

Hey Ben, my name is Marketing Student and I’m currently enrolled at Local Community College in my second year of the Advertising and Marketing Communications program. For part of our copy writing class we require an interview with a writer as in just 5 questions over e-mail about your career and how you got there and to write an essay. I browsed all the blogTO writers/photographers and as an avid beer lover myself I found your writing superb and you seem quite down to earth. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes of your time to answer them but it would help me out immensely for my project.

It would be GREATLY appreciated, just let me know if you’re up for it and I can send the 5 questions. If not I totally understand!

Marketing Student


September 24, 1:25pm

From: Ben Johnson
To: Marketing Student
Re: Questions for school project

Sure. Send away.


September 24, 1:32pm

From: Marketing Student
To: Ben Johnson
Re: Questions for school project

Thank you so much for getting back so quickly, here are the questions:

1. How you got where you are?

2. Where you’d like to be in 5 years?
3. How you keep your edge?
4. Why you chose the career you’re in (did you choose it or did it just happen?)
5. What advice you have for aspiring writers?

And anything else you may think is important or would like to add?


September 26, 10:48am

From: Ben Johnson
To: Marketing Student
Re: Questions for school project

Hi Marketing Student,

Here you go:

1. How you got where you are?

It’s not something I like to talk about much, but I actually ended up here as a result of having gone to jail. To keep a long story short, I was involved in a business wherein the partners took part in some less-than-ethical practices and a result of my part, I was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

During that time, I discovered I had an enthusiasm for—and a knack for tasting and writing about—Pruno; also known as prison wine. If you’re unfamiliar, Pruno is an alcoholic substance that is made by letting various fruits and vegetables ferment. As you can imagine, the quality and flavour of Pruno can vary greatly depending on prisoners’ access to certain fruits, the addition of things like candy and vitamin C powder, to say nothing of how long the Pruno is allowed to ferment and the temperature at which it ferments. Toilet Pruno, for example, is much different than Pruno stashed under ones bunk.

Anyway, I became something of an authority on Pruno in jail and kept a semi-regular journal of tasting notes and ratings that was widely passed around (on the down-low obviously, Pruno is of course contraband). Near the end of my 18-month bid, I even organized a Pruno-making competition wherein the inmates voted and we crowned the prison’s top Pruno Maker (Todd “Fuzzy” Ferington, FYI, who made a canned peach pruno he called Fuzzy’s Peaches which I swear is something you could sell on the outside. I still crave it!).

Once I got out of jail, I found that my Pruno-judging skills translated pretty easily to beer, and so I applied for a writing position at blogTO and here we are.

2. Where you’d like to be in 5 years?

The obvious answer is “not back in jail,” and I can assure you there is no chance of that happening. But I would like to see Pruno become more mainstream. I’m in talks with some local craft brewers to develop something of a “home-brew” Pruno kit, which is essentially just a ziplock bag and a tube sock in which to collect food scraps. I think it will have hipster appeal since it’s got that “artisanal” vibe, but is also kind of cool given its controversial roots. We’ve had some hiccups—notably botulism from an early test batch made with potatoes—but I really hope to see “Make your own toilet wine” kits on store shelves in the next two to three years.

3. How you keep your edge?

Well, it’s kind of you to say that I have an “edge.” And I guess I do take a somewhat confrontational tone in my writing. That’s maybe another thing I picked up in prison. On the inside, I learned that the best way to make a name for yourself is that, early on, you should pick a fight with the biggest, toughest guy you can find so that people respect you from then on. Thankfully, that didn’t really happen often since most guys were in for white collar crimes. I’m not a big guy, so there was no way I was going to pick a prison fight. But I did sort of do that with my writing. There was a guy inside named Michel Gaillard and he used to scribble these comic strips on toilet paper. They were OK, sort of obscure humour and often way too political for most people’s tastes, but he was the most read thing in prison before I started the Toilet Wine Monthly. Once I started writing about the scene, Gaillard’s writing became less and less popular and mine took off. Incidentally, he’s now the editor of Le Canard enchaîné, a weekly satirical paper in Paris.

4. Why you chose the career you’re in (did you choose it or did it just happen?)

I guess it did just sort of happen. My writing on blogTO led to the creation of Ben’s Beer Blog, which has sort of taken on a life of its own. And like I said, that all came from Pruno. The only other thing I was good at in prison was dental lab work. The prison I was in did contract dental work and I would sometimes work making crowns, bridges, and dentures for local dentists that took advantage of prison labour, but it turns out it’s (ironically) quite difficult to get that kind of work if you have a criminal record. And it’s also pretty boring.
So beer writing it was.

5. What advice you have for aspiring writers?

Write what you know. The best writing is entertaining because the writer is passionate about what they’re writing. If that doesn’t work, research the hell out of what it is you’re writing and then fake the rest.

Also, like anything else, writing requires constant practice, but it’s important to make sure you actually enjoy that practice. Never miss an opportunity, wherever it may come, to have fun exercising your creative muscles.

I hope that helps, Marketing Student. Good luck with your project.


September 26, 8:19pm

From: Ben Johnson
To: Marketing Student
Re: Questions for school project

Thanks Ben, this was above and beyond of what I was expecting. You seem to have quite the interesting back story and it really separates you from all the boring people in today’s society. Looking forward to seeing Pruno kits in stores and will definitely give it a try if I do. Again thank you so much for all this!

4 thoughts on “Homework

  1. Nice story and a comprehensive answer, but is it true or journalistic licence, writing a good ‘story’?

    I have often wondered why you expletives in your beer writing? You are obviously well educated and you write well. My mother was a career secretary and once said that the use of expletives in voice or writing just show a lack of knowledge to know the correct adjective, so people just add the two or three expletives they know. Perhaps in your case you picked up the habit from 18 months in jail? There are some of your blogs I would have shared on social media, but I didn’t because I don’t us that type of language, so wouldn’t publish an article that does. That said, I enjoy your blog, I enjoy beer.

    I tried two cans of the Guinness Blonde (despite the expletives) after reading your comments. I agree with you and also passed on your comments to staff at the Beer Store and the LCBO. They agree with you as well.

      1. Absolutely not. I was going to email privately, but this particular article segued in rather nicely.

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