After over a decade writing about beer, I have discovered an interesting and cost-effective way to try new beers and find out what “regular folks” are into these days: I drink my neighbours’ beers.
It’s not an altogether scientific method, but, these days I find that I am more likely to discover something new by way of an unexpected beer delivery from a neighbour who puts something in my hand knowing that I’m a beer guy; ironically, sowing the fruits of my past efforts sharing my formerly-abundant “beer mail” with them*.
It’s of course an inexpensive way to try new things, but it’s also an interesting way to track trends in Ontario’s craft beer scene. My retired teacher neighbour heard about Black Bellows Brewery from a friend and stopped in on a trip to Collingwood and now there is a decent IPA in my mailbox I’ve never tried before. The family around the corner heard an ad for Cowbell Brewery on the radio and decided to try a mix pack from the LCBO and now I’m learning that Shindig Huron County Lager has been rebranded as I sip one on a late-evening walk by their porch. When I chat with our friends across the street who have twins roughly the same age as our youngest, we discuss drinking Collective Arts’ Sparking Hard Teas at an upcoming day by our pool that we probably won’t be able to coordinate until the kids are in high school.
Learning about beer from cans pilfered from friends and neighbours is also an effective way to avoid what is occasionally perceived of as an issue when it comes to beer writing: What are we to make of all the free shit gifted to writers and influencers from breweries?
In case you are unaware, most breweries spend at least some modicum of effort attempting to give beer to people who will talk about that beer to as large an audience as possible. This shouldn’t be controversial. It’s pretty basic marketing. For the cost of beer and shipping, you can put your product into the hands of people who are happy to share news and images of that product with your target audience. Beer writers and influencers get beer, they write about it and photograph it, and then share their work with their beer-loving followers; and the brewery, at least in theory, sells more of that beer. This is a topic I’ve covered at least once before, when I hopped on my soap box much more often.
And yet it still seems to pop up from time to time as an issue; especially in that now-toxic hellscape that is our collective twitter feed. I have seen tweets that verge on disdain for the entire notion that a serious beer writer–if such a thing even exists–would even accept free beer. But I’m pretty happy to dismiss that entire line of thinking as naïve. If you produce some form of media related to beer and you are lucky or talented enough to amass some kind of following, you will at some point be gifted some beer. Freebies in exchange for promotion isn’t just how the beer industry works, it’s essentially how every industry works. But this militant stance that all gratis beer is taboo does stem from what seems to be the core issue of free shit, namely some version of: “You get free beer so you obviously won’t say bad things about the brewery that sends it to you.”
Over the past few years I’ve largely allowed my beer-related media output to slow to a trickle given the distractions of having an engaging job, dealing with COVID (fucking twice) and the arrival of my second child, and I have likewise seen my supply of “beer mail” taper off. Predictably, when you stop prolifically sharing images and words about your free beer, you seem to get less of if it in the mail.
But while I’m personally less often the subject of derision for being a freebie-sucking PR stooge, it’s certainly a charge I still see levelled at writers and influencers. Most recently I saw this criticism lobbed at the affable Rob Arsenault, aka the prolific social media personality and alcohol-enthusiast Drunk Polkaroo. It does seem likely that Rob is the recipient of at least occasional beer mail–I’d argue that it would be silly for a local brewery not to send him beer given the following he commands on social media–but it’s also a little silly, if you’ve read things he writes, to suggest that he has any kind of filter when he peels off his shirt, drinks a few Imperial IPAs by his pool and fires up his iPhone or laptop. Is Rob unabashedly supportive of local craft beer? Heck yes. Would he avoid mentioning flawed beer because someone gave it to him? I highly doubt it.
There is of course an argument to be made that if you shit on breweries that send you free stuff too often you might not just lose the free shit, but also that all important industry access. I’d counter with the fact that a) if the people that cut off your access are the ones making shitty beer, you’re probably ending up ahead, and b) if you’re into covering the beer world simply because you want free shit, you’re in it for the wrong reasons and people will smell that lack of credibility and be turned off. The last thing this industry needs is another of the myriad, boring instarones who post nothing but image after image of a beer glass. If documenting your enabled alcoholism at @PhotosOfMyBeerInMyBasement with no added insight or any interesting commentary is your thing, kindly fuck off because it’s boring as fuck.
But there’s a simple solution, of course, for both those who might fancy themselves beer journos and the aforementioned hashtagging fanboys and fangals, and the answer shares a name with a scintillating 1994 John Grisham legal drama: Disclosure.
Disclosure of any freebies has become my cardinal rule any time I’ve opted to write about or photograph beer sent to me for free. It’s not hard to say, “Great Lakes Brewery sent me these beers” or “thanks for the hook up, Spearhead.” It immediately provides context to a post and lets followers make a decision as to whether or not to take the review/endorsement with a grain of salt.
The other option is, of course, to simply age out; becoming less and less relevant thanks to a lack of output that deems you unworthy of beer mail, eliminating any questions of the ethics related to disclosure and forcing you to drink your neighbours’ beer when you need a free drink.
It’s totally a fine option and not sad at all.
Think it’s time for a walk around the neighbourhood…
*while putting the final touches on this post I discovered that beer writer Robin LeBlanc had just written about the more generous act of sharing beer with her neighbours for The Growler. Go read that, too since you’re clearly not working.