Photo by Will Siss

I recently wrote a brewery profile that was rushed and unpolished. It wasn’t so much written as it was created from notes and observations. The writing was flabby, the descriptions of the brewery basic, and the tone distant. It wasn’t the brewery’s fault at all. I believe the profile simply showed that I am off my game and out of touch with what I remembered to be vivid writing.

I had an excellent excuse for my poor concentration during my time at the brewery, where I was supposed to be soaking in the details and engaging my subject, the brewery’s co-owner: I was expecting my second child and my mind was on the thousands of scenarios for which I’d failed to prepare. In fact, I churned my notes and poorly reconstructed details into a column and turned it in just after my daughter was born about six weeks early. She’s fine.

But this was not the start of my slide away from sharp writing. To be honest, it started years ago.

So now that I’m on a paternity leave, so to speak, from the column, I’ve been thirsty for writing that captures a sense of place when it comes to breweries and other beer-related places (or in contemporary parlance: “spaces”).

I started the way bleary-eyed parents of newborns start when looking for inspiration: a Google search. In my case it was “tips on writing about place,” which led me to this helpful blog post from davehood59, called How to Write Creative Fiction: Writing About Place. Much of it was reminder stuff: I have been writing about beer for 17 years and for newspapers since 1995. But it was meaningful to consider such takes as:

Some creative nonfiction writers view place as character. In recreating the scene or experience, the writer views place as a character in the story. Similar to developing a character, the place needs to be developed.

I looked back at my profile of the new brewery and saw that it lacked in all the ways I was embarrassed to admit. You could barely tell what it looked like, the language was vague and impersonal, and it seems to have been written by a security camera stuck on the wall instead of a person.

Newly energized, I started poking around an unparalleled source for evocative beer writing: Good Beer Hunting. I happened upon the site’s Style Guide and a recommendation from the site itself for strong writing brought me to Claire Bullen’s profile of The Kernel, a well-respected London brewery. Bullen rang all the bells I look for in writing that transports and it elucidates. I didn’t so much see the brewery as felt it (and certainly heard it). Among her masterclass paragraphs is her lede:

Beyond the water sluicing across the floor and into the drains, beyond the gentle whump of spent grain as it’s shoveled into steaming bins, beyond the chirps and clinks of the bottling line, The Kernel is defined by a singular sound.

Every few minutes, a train rumbles by above our heads, its deep percussion overtaking the symphony of background noises. It’s disorienting at first, but the steady cha-chunk, cha-chunk soon becomes as regular and reliable as a heartbeat.

I took comfort and inspiration in David Nilsen’s descriptions of Nordic drinking, in his Pellicle article, “Beer in the Land of Ice and Fire — Finding Comfort Amid a Storm in Reykjavik, Iceland.”

Down a side street just off a hip artery running through one of the city’s nightlife districts lies Kaldi. The bar’s low lighting glowed through the steamed-up windows as we slogged through the stinging rain and snow, and we took a small table by the window with tall tulips of Ægir Brugghús Ljóska Belgian Blond Ale in hand. It’s a lovely beer with expressive but refined Belgian yeast character, soft pale malt, and a kiss of warming alcohol at 8.7%. The rain lashed the window just inches from our faces, but at long last, we were warm. 

Just a few words thoughtfully placed, probably agonized over, but seemingly effortless.

So to get out of my writing slump, I’m going to read (around feedings) more great writers who help the reader experience place, especially breweries. I’ll take any and all recommendations.

One thought on “(Re)finding a sense of place when writing about breweries

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