36. Now for Your Ears, Too! Hugging the Bar Q&A and Podcast, with Writer Ruvani De Silva
Ruvani talks English beer, American craft beer, writing, the industry's future, and more; plus tarot for giving, and a cask festival.
Hugging the Bar with Ruvani De Silva
I am really excited to this week debut the first of what will hopefully be many Hugging the Bar Q&A’s that also come to you in podcast form. This really captures how I’ve always envisioned this newsletter, which is a sort of virtual bar—a third place, where we can all come together and chat about the fun stuff and discuss the important stuff.
For all of these Q&A’s after this first one, it will work like this: Patreon patrons will get first access. For one week, the link to the podcast episode will live only on Patreon, behind a paywall. The following week in the newsletter, I’ll include a link to the episode that everyone can access right here on Substack. Don’t miss out on that instant gratification, though; become a patron!
This week’s episode is here. And by the way, if you didn’t know—because I sure didn’t—you can easily listen to this on your podcast app of choice by clicking the “Listen in podcast app” right below the player.
I’m thrilled that I get to roll this out with a writer I so admire, Ruvani De Silva. Don’t worry, you’ll hear—and/or read, in the transcript below—me gush over Ruvani at Ruvani plenty in our interview. I say it in the Q&A and I’ll say it here, too: I really do see Ruvani as a bright spot in the craft beer industry. She is beautifully honest in her writing, and that voice is so powerful when it comes to visibility, representation, and even simple, valuable relatability. You can find her work covering various fascinating pockets of the craft beer industry, as well as important topics like identity, places like Good Beer Hunting, Porch Drinking, VinePair, and Beer Is For Everyone, just to name a few. You can also learn more about Ruvani’s approach to writing about identity and culture in this video chat for the North American Guild of Beer Writers’ blog, Reporter’s Notebook, and get to know her on this episode of Natalya Watson’s podcast, Beer with Nat. Ruvani’s work is collected at her website (also a great resource if you’re looking to explore craft beer in Texas), like her piece on spent grain for CAMRA. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @Amethyst_Heels.
Read the transcript below, though I’m using that term loosely. I’m cutting a bit to keep this at more of a customary newsletter length. And frankly because I think you should go listen, too! Enjoy.
I'm a big geek for people’s gateway beers…I love hearing your origin story as a sort of beer person. So, let's just start with that most basic question: How you got interested in craft beer and where your journey started.
Ruvani: So, I really got into beer through real ale, English cask ale, which I've always drunk as a younger person. But I went to my first Great British Beer Festival in 2005 which was when it sort of really hit me how exciting it was. I'd just never seen so many different beers in one place, and I really fell in love with it. And then I became a member of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, and really sort of was very much into the English ales.
Then, as we were just talking about before we started recording, I started travelling to the US a lot, initially primarily for work. And I began to sort of notice when I went places, "Oh, look at all these interesting beers. I've never heard of this. What's that?" And so I would just start buying them and drinking them and getting really, really excited about them and start looking out for different ones thinking of what have I had before, what haven't I had before…sort of all the different Sierra Nevadas, Lagunitas, Stones…Everyone like that. And yeah, I just found the beer just amazing.
And then I started looking out for the few places in the UK that served it, and it would sort of be like a hunt around London. "Who's got some American craft beer?" And then when the scene—I mean the actual brewing scene—took off in London, I was sort of—I was very ready. I jumped right on it. But I never sort of stopped being really, really into English cask beer either. But I've never seen them as a competition. I really love both, and I've kept up my interest for both very much.
I want to actually get to some of those differences in a second. But how did you sort of start to turn that interest into more than just a hobby? How did you know it was something you wanted to pursue professionally? And how did you start going about that?
Ruvani: That's a very good question. In terms of sort of being involved in the beer scene as more than a drinker, I started off volunteering at CAMRA, volunteering at events serving bar. At that time, my primary/actual job was in PR and communications. So, I started volunteering to do their PR and communications for festivals and events, just, yeah, purely in a volunteer capacity. I got involved with a craft beer group called Boozers Without Borders who raise money to help refugees. And we did beer events, and then we also started doing walking tours around East London specifically for tourists but basically for anyone who just wanted to sort of explore the local craft beer scene in East London. So I was doing that for a couple of years before I left the UK.
I wasn't writing about beer professionally. But as someone sort of, yeah, whose full background is in PR and academia, I've always been a writer. And when I moved over here to the States, I couldn't legally work. So I started my blog because I would have had something to do. And I was just so, so enamored with the local beer scene here in Austin, and I just wanted to share that with people, really, sort of everything that was amazing about it. And I felt it was so under-served, and I wanted to just get other people who may not have thought of visiting Austin as a craft beer destination interested. And then once I'd been doing that for a while and then when I was sort of able to work, I thought, "Well, I'm really enjoying this. This is really good. This is something I really care about, and I'd quite like to sort of take this forward professionally."
Oh, that's a really fun journey. And everyone always has a different one, right? I feel like everyone comes from some other career and leverages those skills differently which I think is really cool to find out about. So, since you have experienced the beer scenes in both England and the States, specifically being in Texas, I did want to ask you what is maybe the same, if anything? What is different? How have you sort of found the beer cultures and lifestyles between the two places?
Ruvani: I mean, I miss the pub a lot. The brewery experience is amazing, and it's unique. And it's the closest thing we kind of have to the pub here, but it's still not the pub, if that makes sense. I mean, I think it's much more how pubs used to be before my time, when a pub was actually in a chain relationship with a brewery, which is much more of a historic thing back home. Whereas, now pubs are, yep, they're like bars, a bit like breweries, but cozier. And there's many, many, many more of them. And it's just it's a very, very different experience, so I do miss that a lot. And I miss real ale a lot. Fortunately, we have a really, really good brewery very nearby to our house that makes really good English style real ale and cask, so that helps.
In terms of the scene, obviously, the UK is so much smaller. But the beer…different beers are much more ingrained in our culture. I think beer appreciation isn't the kind of new thing that it is in America sort of ever since the craft beer boom began, like late '80s, early '90s and going forward. For us, the whole history of traditional English-style beer and importing European-style beers is behind us, so we have all of that going for us, like the interest in drinking different things and appreciating it. And then I can say that, and in the same breath, say I'm really sick of having New England IPAs in London because people still haven't moved on from that like they have here, so. [Laughs.]
To start to move on a little bit to your writing…Visibility, inclusion, representation—pushing for these is at the core of a lot of your work…Events that you do—you've been on panels for things like the Beer Culture Summit, and then your actual writing like your incredible good beer hunting story, A Rare Gem, or a Llama in a Suit, South Asian Women on Navigating and Advancing the Craft Beer Industry which everyone needs to go read if they haven't yet. So what kind of power do you think beer writers have to help open this industry up, make more space, bring more people to the table, and just really change the way that this entire community looks and feels?
Ruvani: I think that as beer writers, we almost have a responsibility to do that because even people who perhaps don't read all the beer publications, who don't sort of follow the industry in the way that sort of like full-on beer nerds do—the only way to really, as you said, sort of shine a light on different people, different perspectives is to put that out there. And then it will travel by word of mouth. Whereas, if things are going on in the industry and no one's reporting on them, then nobody is ever going to know. It's interesting that you phrased it like that because one of my sort of big inspirations as a beer writer is Melissa Cole back in London. She's not only my neighbor when I'm there, but just has always been terribly, terribly encouraging of me. She was the first professional female beer writer in the UK. But the power of her words is just enormous.
There has been a big, ridiculous, unfortunate backlash against CAMRA, who put out a diversity and inclusion survey recently to try and make their events a more safe and more welcoming space for people from different backgrounds. And some of the old CAMRA guard got a bit up in arms about it. And [Cole] wrote an absolutely wonderful piece in the Telegraph, which is a big very high-profile newspaper in the UK, really shutting that down and explaining quite how and why people were wrong to try and keep beer pigeonholed in a certain demographic, and also citing the history of beer and how these people are misrepresenting it. And I think that it's that kind of power that we have as writers that we have to channel, and we have to not forget that we have…a responsibility to everyone who works in the industry, everyone who drinks, everyone who participates in any way and people who might want to, but who might not know that there's a place for them.
On the subject of writing, one of the things that I just find extra compelling about your work that always brings me right into any piece I see that you publish—you have this great openness and candidness and honesty about your work. I think your writing is really relatable, whatever you're talking about. So, again for Good Beer Hunting, you wrote about Community Cultures Yeast Lab, and then even on your blog, you tackle some more serious, personal issues going on in life that obviously extend beyond just craft beer. In all of it, you're going from just being really raw and relatable to having this contagious enthusiasm. It's such a unique special voice essentially. I know I'm just gushing at you. But…I'm just sort of curious about your writing process, like how you're approaching things and how that sort of all unfolds for you.
Ruvani: I think that it's very much how you described it. There are the two sides of it. There are the sort of moments when I wake up in the night and think, “I absolutely have to write about this because I just can't stop thinking about it.” And the only way I can ever stop thinking about it is if I can get it down and write it and put it out there. And if people don't like it, then I'm just going to have to deal with that and so are they. But there are things that just gnaw and niggle away at you, whether it's about the beer industry, or the sort of broader cultural subjects that I talk about, or the places where the two conflate. And then there are things like the Community Cultures project I did, which is a perfect example, where I've really had to just [learn and learn] to make it come together…But I still think it's just so fascinating and interesting, that I want to just sort of get my head down and get it right so that I can then share it with other people so that they understand it. And I think that those are the sort of—yeah, they're very different ways of writing, but I definitely do do both.
And it's nice when they come together, but it's not guaranteed at any given moment. Some of the pieces I've worked on for Beer is for Everyone have been about issues that I felt very strongly about. But I have had to put a very sort of high level of like borderline academic-degree diligence into fact-checking and getting really, really precise descriptions of definitions and understandings when I've written about things like toxic gratitude, and when I write about the problem with the umbrella term of “Asian” in relation to Stop AAPI Hate. So, I think things like that where I've really had to, yeah, dig deep and pull on my academic experience, my personal knowledge, my personal experience, and my knowledge of the beer industry and what goes on and what has gone on is when it all sort of ties together. But then when I'm doing something that's sort of purely beer, and beer knowledge-focused, then that's—yeah, I've got to really, really work hard to get to grips with those concepts.
I've seen tweets here and there, I think, from other beer and general drinks writers in the past few months—maybe more, since the start of the pandemic, because I feel like that put a lot into a different perspective. We're talking about being a drinks writer. Do you think that there are any specific differences between that and maybe other beats that people might have, like any specific challenges when it comes to you coming up with ideas or getting taken seriously in some situations, or having your work feel appropriately valued? Have you run into anything there?
Ruvani: I definitely think that coming from any kind of marginalized group, if you were in any space that is not—traditionally, historically, and even in a contemporary context—a space where you are known to have some status, you are going to come across those issues. I wouldn't say, to me, that they are specific to writing in the drinks industry. But I also haven't written professionally in—well, I mean I do a bit of food writing. But aside from that, I haven't written professionally in any other institute, but I can certainly imagine that that would be the case. I certainly know, having worked in industries where I have not been a historic natural fit, I have come across exactly the same problems that I've had in this industry. So for me, I would not say that it's limited. I can't and I wouldn't ever want to speak for anyone else's experience.
But having worked most of my career in book publishing and then charities and non-profits, I've had very, very similar experiences in these very historically white, male-dominated industries. And I don't think that that is specific to beer or even drinks writing, and I also don't think it's going to go away unless we make it. So I don't think it's the case of sort of wait…sitting back and waiting for things to change in any industry. I think that if you're from a group who is not historically represented somewhere and you want to do something, you have to do it and not sort of sit back and wait for someone else to sort of say, "Okay. It's okay for you to come in now."
But I mean, when I worked in book publishing, there was a diverse publishing association, a diversity committee on which I was the only person of color, so these are not new issues for me at all. But that's not to say that it makes it easier. And it's also not to say it's not a problem in drinks writing because obviously, it is. I mean, we know this and with everything that happened last year, we know it's not just drinks writing. We know it's everything about the drinks and hospitality industry that needs a full upheaval, but that as writers, we have a role to play in that as much as anyone else.
As you said, beer writers have a responsibility to be helping to change the way that this industry can look and feel. On the other hand, it can be a challenge to get your voice heard, so as everyone from different groups and coming from different places are sort of struggling with that…Because I love following you so much on Twitter and Instagram, I think finding a community somewhere, that can sort of be a help in all of this. We can support each other through this. But at the same time, of course, social media and even Beer Twitter, in particular, can be known for being toxic. There are a lot of pitfalls there, too. So I was just kind of curious how you sort of relate to social media and what your attitude and feelings [toward it] are…Where do you sort of stand there on a day-to-day?
Ruvani: There are days when you go on there and it's so toxic that you just want to shut it down and you just can't believe what you're reading. There are days when it can be the most incredibly supportive and wonderfully uplifting environment. And there are days when you kind of think, “Why am I bothering with this?” But I also think that particularly for beer writers and for anyone else in the industry, drinks industry overall…the toxicity that we experience via Twitter is, it's bad. But it's nothing like, I'm sure, what it's like for the women, people of color, any other person from any marginalized group who's on the front line who's experiencing harassment in their place of work.
I mean, in a worst-case scenario, you're harassed on Twitter; you shut it down. You block them. You just turn off Twitter. You can delete. But if you're having to go into a place of work every day and are dealing with that kind of stress and harassment in person in real life…I mean, I think that really puts in perspective the kind of idiots that you encounter on Beer Twitter and sort of the stress that that causes. So I feel like it's worth it to keep going on and pushing. And there are some times when, yeah, I just think, "Oh my God, I've had this conversation so many times. Why am I still having to have it? Why? Why?" But if you don't keep having it, then somewhere someone else further down the line could end up in a worse situation, or ultimately, people will just go on committing behaviors they really shouldn't be and saying and thinking things that they shouldn't be.
Talking about these issues and these struggles that so many people are facing, like you said, it's everywhere. But since we're talking, in particular, about drinks in the beer industry and because you have been a part of the beer scene for a while, how have the last two years or so and the events that have taken place changed or affected your own relationship? Did you go through a moment where you were like, “Do I burn this all down—like, forget it, I'm walking away from beer”? Has it changed your relationship with craft beer at all?
Ruvani: I wouldn't say that I ever thought, “I'm going to walk away from beer.” I have thought, “I'm going to walk away from certain breweries,” which I've done, and I'm very, very comfortable with that. And I know a lot of people think that boycotting, cancel culture, etc.—they have a big problem with that. They think it doesn't work at all, which is true up to a point, or people don't like having their habits changed and their behaviors questioned. But I do think that accountability is really important. And I think that everything that has happened in the last couple of years, the only positive we could possibly get out of that is for there to be a greater understanding that people have to be accountable for their actions.
I keep getting infuriated because nearly half a million people now have seen the BrewDog documentary, and yet I still see in my feed people drinking BrewDog. So, how can you not be aware, or how can you not care? But people don't, and that's why we have to keep banging on about it because some people just—they want to drink what they want to drink, and they don't care about the consequences. And it's kind of ironic because sometimes I see these people's profiles, and they can be very political. And it's like if you understand politics, how can you not understand that if you're drinking a beer brewed by somebody who is behaving in a way that's creating a toxic work environment that you're taking a political action? Because you are. And yeah, I find that quite hard to get my head around.
Looking forward to the near future, to the far future…are you feeling optimistic? Are you feeling skeptical? Or somewhere in between about whether we can hope to see real change?
Ruvani: Somewhere in between, definitely. Even back last May when these stories began to break in a sort of major way…I've been very, very skeptical because there can often be a moment—the reckoning moment, as it's been described—where people are suddenly made aware of great injustices that are going on, and people say they're going to make a change, people take certain steps, and then you go forward six months or a year, and everyone's kind of forgotten about it. And that has been a concern for me, and I'm very, very wary of saying, “Oh, the beer industry has changed. The drinks industry has changed.” Because it hasn't changed sufficiently, and the changes that have been made or that are being made are still a long way from reaching the point that we want them to be at.
So, this is an ongoing project. This isn't something where you can say, “Oh, look, we rattled a little nest. Oh, everything's fine now.” And that makes me very skeptical, but at the same time, when I speak with so many people in the industry who really do want to make change, and I talk to people like you, I think, “Okay. They are people who are taking this seriously.” So there is a chance that we can actually move forward and be better and do better. So, yeah, definitely with the mix there.
At this point in our chat, Ruvani and I get into some quicker, lighter questions about beer styles and trends and dream beer trips and more—listen to the podcast to hear it all!
The last thing I’ll say about the podcast before letting you move on with your life is that yes, I know the music is ridiculous, and that is why I love it.
This week, I pulled the Six of Pentacles.
Pentacles as a suit speaks to money, property, and achievement. Here, in particular, we’re dealing with giving and receiving, spreading the wealth, and generosity.
With this card, you could be that snazzy-dressed rich guy, sharing your wealth, or you could be the people in need that he’s condescendingly sprinkling coins over like Salt Bae (I just threw up in my mouth a little). You see, this card is kind of an asshole about being in need, to be frank. It says to you that you can reach out for a hand, but that you’d better be careful not to become too needy, ‘cause that’s gross, or become lazy and reliant on whatever aid you get. Lolz, did a Right Wing-er create these tarot cards or what? Speaking as a freelance writer who cried on the phone last week with a very nice person in accounts receivable who was helping me figure out some medical bills, uuhhh, we all need some help sometimes, and if we all remember how vulnerable we are, it will make reaching that hand out to others a lot more instinctive.
If you’re cool with me bending the tarot rules a bit, I’m going to translate this as: If you need some help right now, financially, emotionally, in terms of juggling responsibilities, anything, ask. People care about you and want to pitch in. They know you’d do the same for them. And you probably will, at some point.
Now, if you’re currently in the position where you can be the giver, great! If you’ve got a fancy feathered hat, I say, break that bad boy out. But no need to make a ridiculous performance out of your kindness like Mr. Six of Pentacles here. This could have nothing to do with finances—maybe you’re giving your friend extra time and emotional support because they’re going through something, or you’re about to. If it is financial, there are obviously infinite good causes to contribute to. Just in craft beer alone, there’s the Brave Voices Fund, The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling, Beer Kulture, and lots more. (And while you’re here, a reminder that becoming a Hugging the Bar patron helps me reach donation goals for some of these organizations, too!)
When it comes to a beer that helps spread the wealth—in awareness and actual $—we just so happen to have a beer to talk about that Ruvani mentioned in our chat, and that she wrote about for Porch Drinking. Austin Beerworks collaborated with Kaiju Cut & Sew to make Eastern Philosophy: A Kaiju Brew. Along with a big launch event, the beer raises awareness and funds for Stop AAPI Hate. Make sure to read all about it!
This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec
This week, I decided to look back to an old classic, an absolute favorite piece of writing that is perhaps more booze-soaked than any reading rec I’ve shared thus far. That is, Timothy Faust’s “I Played 'The Boys Are Back in Town' on a Bar Jukebox Until I Got Kicked Out.” It’s been shared a ton over the years; you’ve probably read it already. But know that revisiting is just as good, if not better, and treat yourself.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
There’s no competition: This past week was totally made by Strong Rope Brewery’s sixth annual Caskiversary. I don’t know what was more exciting, getting to gather and celebrate New York City beer in person with others from the community, or getting to experience an eclectic variety of beer styles at the flavor-and-aroma best on cask. Okay, it was definitely a combo of both. Even the weather cooperated, a rare in-the-50s February day making Strong Rope’s waterfront taproom in Red Hook really shine. I enjoyed a schwarzbier from Strong Rope, a wee heavy from DaleView Biscuits & Beer, and a biere de garde from Endless Life Brewing. The day has me now looking forward even more to the NYC Brewers Guild’s NYC Beer Week Opening Bash. I’ll be talking about this event more next issue, but in the meantime—if you’re local or traveling in—make sure to grab tickets here!
Until next week, here’s Darby in a satin Valentine’s Day bathrobe because I do not claim to be a logical pet parent, plus Wild East Brewing’s Maggie DDH IPA that raised money for the North Shore Animal League.