20 Years

On Writing About Alaska Beer For 20 Years

Words / Dr. Fermento


This July marks my 20th year of writing uninterrupted weekly beer columns for the Anchorage Press. Yeah, I write for them too. My writing career—at least professionally—started there. My anniversary column was published this week. My 1,000th column was published on September 22. I’m proud enough to feature this accomplishment because first, I never thought I’d last this long and second, I want to recognize the craft beer community’s support after all these years.


In 1997, I got a call from the staff at the Press wanting to know if I would be interested in writing about beer. I wasn’t the first beer writer for the paper; Jeff Byles and Mick McDaniel preceded me. Craft beer was emergent then and there wasn’t a lot to write about. I guess that not too many people had the passion or liver for a single-subject writing gig like the beer column.


McDaniel moved on after a short time as the columnist and recommended me on the way out. I’d been publishing the newsletter for Anchorage’s homebrew club, The Great Northern Brewers, and his membership exposed him to some of my foamy drivel every month.


The Press publisher wanted to see three pieces of work as my resume. “Send me two things you’ve written and write something new,” he said. The pre-written stuff was easy. Editing and publishing a homebrew club newsletter translates easily into not only editing and publishing the rag, but writing most of the content, too. I just had to pick two pieces I’d written, so that was a no-brainer.


Writing something new created more of a challenge, but it didn’t feel like a big one. I’d been writing unedited stuff for the newsletter long enough and figured I’d dream up something catchy and I’d set the hook.


I sent my work off and waited for some sort of response. I knew nothing about the professional writing world and as every day passed, I became increasingly convinced that I sucked as a writer and that I’d been rejected. I heard that trying to get a book published worked this way—if you sucked you just didn’t get a response. I went back to the business of cranking out the newsletter because at least then it was an adequate pulpit to extol the virtues of the beverage I love so much.


One day—three months later—I got a call. Then Anchorage Press publisher Nick Coltman said he liked my work. In fact, he said he liked it so much that if I would commit to submitting a column every week on the Friday before the following Thursday’s edition came out he’d give me a shot at it. He promised to make the first week easy on me. He was going to publish the original piece I wrote as part of my resume. I gulped and accepted the gig.


With a few tweaks on my piece, I was first published on July 3, 1997. It was one of the proudest days of my life. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my very academic, recovering alcoholic father that would be overjoyed to know I was writing professionally, but not about booze. I didn’t think I’d last a year, but that had nothing to do with dad.


I felt pretty good about making the year benchmark without getting axed or auto-ejecting. I got better at writing. Five years came along and I was entrenched. A lifelong dream is to write fiction, and I reasoned that getting professionally edited—with back edits—was helping prepare me to do something that 20 years later I still haven't even taken a stab at. Ten years was another milestone, and now I'm part of the beer fabric up here. I can't imagine my life without being more than a consuming participant.


I branched out to do freelance pieces about beer for other publications. I started writing for the national Celebrator Beer News 15 years ago and continue to contribute to that. I wrote consistently for the Capitol City Weekly for a couple of years and now contribute just southcentral Alaska-centric content. I’m really happy to be contributing to Crude because I think this format and venue is really where the future of my style of writing will be. My publisher, Cody Liska, edited me during his brief stint as editor at the Press and I really liked what he did with my work. I was happy with his offer to feature my work here on Crude.


Make no mistake, I'm not a beer expert. I can make beer and have a better than average working vocabulary associated with the stuff, but in the end, I'm just a beer lover with a writing problem. I have no intention of opening a brewery or even a high-end beer joint; I'm just happy sharing the love with everyone else that feels the same way I do.


In the early days, I used to be starved for materials. When I started writing the column, there were only eight breweries in operation. There are 33 today with another half-dozen in progress. I've seen 11 breweries close since I started following the scene. In terms of writing material, Alaska’s beer scene today is a target-rich environment and I spent more time deciding what not to write about than trying to dream up subject material.


Undeniably, Alaska’s beer scene has become more competitive. New entrants have to pour stellar, interesting beer right off the bat. Alaska beer consumers have more choice than ever before and there’s lots of great stuff out there baiting their palates. Alaska’s become a destination for beer and I’m proud to be a part of it.


Have I ever wanted to quit? Always. People laugh when they find out I’m a beer columnist. “That’s got to be tough duty,” is a typical response. Critically evaluating beer and covering our geographically dispersed brewing community is hard work and the deadline always hanging over my head sucks. I toyed seriously with taking off the wig at the 20-year mark. Writing this way competes with other life goals.


I'm not in this for the money, I'd be the quintessential starving artist if that were the case. I’d write for free if I had to in order to maintain a medium to turn others on to the never ending great beer discoveries up here. It’s all about the love of local beer.


The feedback from readers, brewers and others in the industry is rejuvenating when it's positive and constructive when it's negative. People stop me in the street and in my favorite watering holes to talk about what I write. There's no better reward than to know that my writing objective from day one, which is to make people thirsty for good beer, has had a positive effect on the craft beer lover, the community and global beer.


No, this Thursday’s Press column isn’t my last. I suppose I’ll write until my fingers fall off, my liver shits the bed or the Press turns the page in a different direction. Read me again next week in the Press or on Crude, and if you see me somewhere, tell me you care and share your foamy adventures with me and I’ll buy you a pint.