Bar patrons

5 Things I Learned Reviewing 45 Craft Breweries & 225 Beers in 2 Months

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It has been two months since I launched my beer blog (CraftBeerInSanDiego.com) and it just passed 1,100 page views. I’m excited that people are finding and reading what I’m writing. It has been a great deal of work, and on a few occasions when I have felt the pressure to get the next post out, it has made drinking beer feel like a chore instead of a joy. But overall beer blogging has been a great experience. If beer blogging is something you feel like you might like to try, read on hear about my experience.
How did I get into beer blogging? It was partly a decision to help structure my time. I’m on a sabbatical from my job as a professor, and I moved to San Diego in July to take sailing lessons (awesome!) and to live near the ocean for a year (I never want to leave!). It has been wonderful, but without the need to go to the office every day I was a bit at loose ends.

Bar patrons
A beautiful day for a beer in Ocean Beach, CA, at the Helm’s Brewing tasting room.

I love craft beer, San Diego has a lot of craft beer, and I like to write. Hence CraftBeerInSanDiego.com was born. Plus having a blog makes drinking lots of beer seem more legitimate.
My way of proceeding is to try a flight of tasters at each brewery, brew pub and tasting room I visit, and then to give an overall review of the experience. Location, layout, décor, service, the crowd in attendance, etc., all make a big difference to the enjoyment of a craft beer location and my goal is to communicate the gestalt of a place.

There are over 140 craft beer locations in San Diego County, and since I have less than a year to get to all of them, I need to average about three reviews per week. That’s a steady pace, and it has meant that pretty much my entire entertainment budget goes to craft beer. So far I have visited and reviewed 45 places, averaging 5 beers at each one, which means I have tried about 225 beers in the last little while. While I don’t claim to be an expert, I have learned a few things already about beer blogging that I can share with you.

(1) Good photos matter to getting people to read your posts.

I’ve learned I need to take the photos right away, when walking in and as soon as I get my flight. Otherwise I get distracted and forget. I’ve learned, too, that a better camera is better, and a faster lens is better. (I’m loving my new Olympus OM-D E-M10 II micro four-thirds mirrorless camera. My iPhone 7 camera was a big step up from my 5s camera, but the OM-D beats the pants off both. I wish it could directly upload to my iPhoto stream, but I can connect the camera to my phone via wifi so although it is an extra step, it is a fairly painless one.)
Advice for people who want to blog photos at breweries: Go during the day so you can use natural light. A faster lens is better, if you have a camera with interchangeable lenses. If properly exposed, an unfiltered photo is usually better than one with art filters. I often have to use editing tools to adjust vertical alignment in my photos–I don’t think it is (just) because I am tipsy when taking pictures.

(2) There are some beer styles I just don’t like.

The same goes for fish, actually. I’ve tried fish in the best places, many times over my lifetime, trying and hoping to like it. I just don’t. And I’m an eclectic, open-minded eater in every other way. Similarly, I’ve tried the best sours, the best Belgians, repeatedly. I can drink them, but I can’t imagine ever rating one above a 3/5. I tend to get headaches when I drink them, too, so there may be an allergy thing going on, too.

Beer glass and Christmas tree.
Holiday cheer at Mike Hess Brewing in North Park, San Diego, CA.

The upshot is that readers should be aware of the individuality of taste and take beer ratings (mine or anyone else’s) with a grain of salt (or a pretzel?). All I want to convey in my beer ratings are the essential components of the beer, plus my good/bad feeling about it. Since most people will find a beer they like in most craft breweries–and since most people will probably go to just a handful of places as a regular–my main goal in my brewery reviews is to communicate an impression of the entire experience at a brewery; my ratings of individual beers are just one element of that.

(3) It is hard to give a bad review, but without them the blog is pointless.

I find giving a less-than-stellar review to be personally difficult, even when I don’t know the people involved in the brewery. I don’t do it lightly, but I do it when it is warranted. I really want to like all beers, and all bars. I go in giving the benefit of the doubt, so it is disappointing to me when I have a bad experience. Customer (and reviewer) feedback is, though, the best information a brewer can get to improve. Presumably they will improve, so reviews like mine should be taken as a snapshot in time, not a judgement for all eternity. Your tastes may differ from mine, too, so any review you read should just be one piece of information you use to decide where to spend your beer money. If I did’t give my honest opinion, there would be no reason for people to read my blog.

(4) Blogging is time consuming.

It takes way longer than I think it will to write each review, though I have a good system down now. It is also a lot more work than you would think to maintain a blog, visit new breweries, generate new content, take and edit photos, and grow an audience. My hat is off to folks who do it well!
For those who might find it useful, here’s the method I’ve been using. As I walk into a place I take a photo of the exterior and the room. I order a flight, take a picture of the beer menu and once I get my flight I take a picture of that. I don’t use all those photos but it is good to have variety to choose from later. Usually I spend the most effort on a really good picture of a glass of beer in the context of something distinctive about the bar. Then I open OneNote and Untappd on my phone and record impressions of the venue, what it is like getting here, the customer service, anything interesting I learn about the place, interactions with bar mates, and I rate each beer as I go. Usually later that evening or the next day, I transfer all that information into my blog. (I use and really like SquareSpace.) I choose and edit a headline photo, create a tagline, add hashtags for SEO, edit the writing and post the review. I then

Beer flight and bartender at Poor House Brewing, San Diego, CA.
Enjoying a flight at Poor House Brewing in North Park, San Diego, CA.

put a link to the review on Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Medium. I haven’t created a Facebook page yet but I really need to do that. It is tempting to post photos to Instagram as soon as you take them (the instant gratification of getting likes is habit forming), but it is a waste to post them before you can include the link to the review in the comments. For me, anyway, Instagram is a tool for driving traffic to my blog, not an end in itself. Medium has so far generated zero views for me, but I keep doing it anyway because it is so easy.
Given that I generate a lot of the content while drinking the beer, the time it takes to edit and post is shorter, but it still takes at least an hour for each review. So the total time commitment (driving, tasting, writing, editing, posting) is three or more hours per review.

(5) It is easy to over do it.

Trying to do three breweries reviews in one day is a bad idea. Not only do you get too tipsy to do a good job on brewery #3, you burn out on beer and don’t want to do another review for days afterwards. I’m not sure human taste buds can put up with 15 different beers in one day and remain discerning. My palate throws in the towel after taster #11 or so.

Beer blogging isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. The great thing is that it is accessible to just about everyone who has an interest in doing it. Give it a try!

You can follow my quest to visit all 140+ craft breweries, brew pubs and tasting rooms in San Diego at https://www.CraftBeerInSanDiego.com. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram @CraftBeerIn_SD.

Bill Vanderbugh
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Bill Vanderbugh

Wanna-Be-er Writer at CraftBeerInSanDiego.com
Exploring San Diego's amazing craft beer scene and telling you all about it. Originally from Montreal, I can't imagine living through a snowy winter now. I love sailing and photography almost as much as beer. Oh, ya, and I'm a philosophy professor for a living.
Bill Vanderbugh
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2 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned Reviewing 45 Craft Breweries & 225 Beers in 2 Months”

  1. Bill,
    This article really hit home for me. As one of the founding partners at Sommbeer we have worked hard to make it look like we aren’t doing much at all ie. we want a laid back culture where writers can express themselves and show their beer passion!
    Here are my thoughts.
    1. Pictures – Yes please. Pictures support the “story” and without them it is difficult to understand the mood of the brewery or taste of the beer.
    2. Beer Styles – I don’t like sours but love Pumpkin – enough said.
    3. Critical Reviews – I too struggle with this. We all want to support our beer community. I believe however that a lot of brewers make beers with the intention of polarizing their customers. They know mocha mango will not appeal to everyone and that’s ok.
    4. Blogging is time consuming – Oh man yes but it’s the best hobby I’ve ever had. I’ve met so many good people from all ages and walks of life that are now my friends. I value my friendships from this hobby more than anything else.
    5. You can over do it – all things in moderation.

    Just my thoughts.
    Cheers!
    David Barrett

     

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