Good Beer Hunting

The Hustle

The Business of GBH — How We Hustle

Good Beer Hunting—the editorial site you are reading presently—started as, and still very much is, a personal endeavor. In 2007, it served as an embarrassingly terrible personal blog, mostly as a way to share great beer finds with my friend Doug. “I don’t really like blogs,” he told me at the time. Even a decade ago, the GBH readership was a tough crowd.

There were no apps for ticking beers back then. I had a Motorola Razor, and frankly kinda wish I still did. So the blog was largely populated by my own memory. Eventually, I started taking pictures, which was something I hadn’t done since undergrad—back when it was all black and white film. I bought a Panasonic GF-1 micro 4/3rds camera (I still can’t explain the technology), and started documenting some of the more interesting things I was seeing. Then I made the move to Tumblr, which was still rough, but pushed me to be more visual. I was inspired by fashion and design websites I loved, but no one was really doing that yet in beer. Perhaps because it was so refreshing, readers started showing up in droves. So I decided to take it seriously and challenge myself to build something I could be proud of, taking advantage of my specific skills. 

At the time, I was an innovation strategist at a consulting firm. (I'd work for two different firms, over the course of six years). I started as a writer straight out of grad school, where I got my MFA in Poetry. My ability to articulate complex ideas and break down grand visions for brand and product innovation into understandable and actionable chunks gradually moved me into a strategy role. I actually honed that skill helping fellow artists write their statements for gallery shows in grad school. It turns out that when both the producer and the customer understand something, beautiful commerce emerges.

By the end of my third year, I was leading major technology projects for companies like HP and Nike. Perhaps my favorite role was managing two separate innovation and engineer teams at HP, two other design firms including Frog and Native Design, and our own team at IA Collaborative. Our goal was to reinvent the HP telepresence experience called Halo—massive multi-camera video conferencing suites that helped corporate teams collaborate across the world as if they were in the same room. We knew we were doing something unique when someone in London stood up, looked at the camera feed from Oregon and asked if they wanted any coffee. Worlds psychologically merged.

I also had the chance to work on Nike Team Sports initiatives, Samsung global innovation in mobile hardware and software, living room experiences for Microsoft, and packaging and product innovation for companies like Anheuser-Busch and Miller (back before they were MillerCoors).

I loved, and sometimes still miss, the incredible diversity and pace of working in innovation. But after six years, my interests had become hyper-focused on a single industry—beer. And those projects for AB and Miller were actually part of my dive. Learning how the complex world of beer operated, and the fledgling segment of craft at the time, created an endless curiosity in me that still hasn't found a bottom. Beer is a gnarly, competitive, expressive industry. I was ready to trade in the mental shifts from dog food to diapers, cleaning products to telepresence, for a chance to go deep in a single vertical that, over the course of those same six years, had become a personal passion. So I started talking to a few close friends who owned tiny craft breweries about experimenting with the innovation process, which is naturally broad, and attaching it to the challenges of small breweries who were just dipping their toes into an increasingly competitive landscape. It worked. It really fucking worked. And that's when the strategy/design business of GBH began. 

But even since then, so much more has emerged.

From the very beginning of GBH becoming a small agency for brand and product strategy, we worked with big and little breweries. My first clients were a couple of Midwestern start-ups and AB-Inbev, just as they were turning the ship of their High-End division (mostly imports and Shocktop at the time) toward the craft beer segment based on clear trends and the personal vision of a few leaders in the group. Then they acquired Goose Island, and things got real. Since then, they’ve continued to be a great client to us, but the business has diversified dramatically with clients all over the map of various scales and models. I find working at both extreme ends of the spectrum to be highly engaging, educational, and inspiring. There are fantastic people at every level of this industry. There are plenty of assholes, too. I’m lucky to be in a position where I get to pick my partners. 

So with six years of writing behind me and a fledgling business that put my hard-wrought skills to work in an industry I loved, a two-pronged brand started to evolve. The dot com remained a personal endeavor. After all, I was the only one writing for it at the time. It was a way for me to work out a perspective on the many issues facing the industry, sure, but it was also a way for me to highlight the people and breweries doing fantastic things. There was never a financial relationship between the content and my clients. There still isn’t. And the business—how we choose to earn an actual living—has become its own force of nature. We’ve helped launch numerous breweries, helped others reinvent themselves, and helped mature, worldwide brands find relevance with an audience increasingly interested in new flavors, processes, and experiences with their beer.

So now that we’re embarking on our 10th year of content, and our fourth year as a business, how does GBH actually work? That’s a question that hasn’t been easy to answer until recently as most of the components of GBH have been an opportunistic mess. I’ve been gradually sorting things out and defining the purpose of our various components as I was able to put specific people in charge of them and pour gasoline on the fire. What follows is the best possible overview we can provide at the moment. I hope you find it educational, challenging, and worthy of debate. Let’s get into it.

We’ve grown the editorial side massively in the past year, bringing on about a dozen different voices and photographers, hiring an editor, and generally aspiring to lead the industry in a storytelling and critical thinking capacity. We’ve started a popular podcast that digs deep into business stories and personal adventures. And our social channels have become as popular, if not more popular, than the website itself—especially Instagram. Despite all that growth and diversity, the dot com remains an overgrown zine, personally funded and supported simply because I want it to exist. Every writer and photographer, plus our content manager and editor, gets paid competitively for the work they do. Everyone gets paid, in fact, except for me.

I’ve been making zines since undergrad, mostly devoted to poetry, drawing, and other non-commercial pursuits. For me, GBH isn’t much different, especially in the non-commercial sense. Our editorial hasn’t had a commercial mandate since it started as a personal blog, and that hasn’t changed. We don’t publish ads or sponsored content, though we've got a few advertising possibilities in the works. Instead, we prioritize the uninterrupted reading experience for our audience, and tell stories the best way we can, without much concern for word counts, number of photos, or how many clicks it’ll get. And that's been important since day one, because, should we attempt to monetize the site someday, our voice and POV will already be established. We won't be starting with commerce and falling prey to the same unfortunate priorities of our competitors. 

Bringing on our editor, Austin L. Ray, was probably the most important change on the editorial side in our 10 years of writing. While some people perceive me to be the controlling arbiter of our storytelling, in reality I’d become a terrible bottleneck for all the exciting stuff our team wanted to work on. I simply couldn’t keep up. While I was focusing on building the actual business of GBH, the editorial had begun to suffer. We lacked consistency, timeliness, and a path forward. [Editor’s note: There were also too many typos.]

Since late 2015, Austin has been fixing all that. He now manages our editorial calendar, story assignments, incoming pitches, and assignments. He helps shape voices and generally challenges our writers to think harder about their great ideas. I’m currently his worst performing contributor, but I’m working on that. In the meantime, I get just as excited as you guys when a story goes live, getting to see what GBH means as a reader myself. Many of our contributors got in to beer because of GBH. And now they're part of its voice. 

Austin’s role also further distances any bias from the business side on our editorial outlook. He’s actually annoyingly persistent about it, but not nearly as much of a cynical bastard as some of our critics. Of course, he doesn’t eliminate bias completely, but as you’ll read below, we don’t believe that’s possible anyway. But! Having his perspective does help us openly discuss any influences, work to increase the independence of our perspectives, and be sure to disclose relationships when necessary.

Approximately, duh. Our tax planner didn't design this thing. 

Approximately, duh. Our tax planner didn't design this thing. 

Our independence (it's only measurable in degrees—no absolutes) is powered by our readers, who are our actual customers. While the costs of running the dot com now far outpace our income from the online shop, the sales are growing and gradually lessening the disparity. It was a worthy risk in pursuit of something important and different. I don’t expect this to ever be fully eliminated. If anything, we’re going to continue having costly ideas worth pursuing. But the more income that comes directly from our readers, the more beholden we are to them. And we think that’s a good thing. 

When I think about the massive personal investment coming from myself, I almost have an anxiety attack. I mean, it’s a solid down payment on a house. It’s a college education for one of my boys. But for my business, it’s arguably a worthwhile expense as part of a virtuous cycle. The editorial side of GBH is what made my name in this industry. It helped me show people what was possible in storytelling and brand-building. It’s possible to see it as an outsized marketing expense for the overall brand and business of GBH. But mostly I see it as the way I give back. Not being a brewer, my involvement in associations and organizations is limited. Our dot com is how I put in. 

Three years ago, that expense made more sense from a marketing perspective. Now, we can’t possibly take on all the work that’s offered to us. We don’t need that level of exposure anymore. We could shut down the editorial side and just blog about the work we’re doing, and we’d still suffer from the demand for our strategy and creative work. But I don’t want to do just that. Our editorial shapes perspectives and ideas. It creates critical dialog and helps people identify progressive producers. It opens the world of beer to new audiences in new ways that make them more than just a marketing segment or “share of throat” (ugh). It inspires them to pursue beer in a broader sense, including entrepreneurialism, craftsmanship, our environment and community responsibilities, business practices and competition, and the sheer joy of making something and sharing it with others. 

It’s because of this commitment to storytelling and reading experience that we earned Saveur Magazine’s “Best Wine or Beer Blog” in 2013, and why we were a 2015 Webby Awards honoree. And that was before we even had a real team.

The other—and by far, most profitable—half of my skill set is my strategic and design background. I’ve built a small team devoted to helping launch numerous breweries, helping others reinvent themselves, and helping mature, world-wide brands find relevance with new products and experiences. 

We approach this work in an uncommon way. Rather than operate like an agency, we choose to work in a highly collaborative format. I learned this back in my innovation consulting days, where we ensured the success of our projects not by pitching spec work and convincing people of our own ideas, but by working alongside our clients to shape an idea with real insight and creative thinking as a team. 

For start-ups, that means sitting at their table, surrounded by their partners and families and articulating what a real opportunity might look like for their future. We extract stories from their own lives and turn them into brewery brands that are not only effective in the marketplace, but something they can own and live themselves. It's a goddamn joy watching our clients fall in love with their own companies. 

For growing breweries, we help them take a big step back and look at the arc of their story so far. We help them see outside of their own bubble so they can re-shape and focus their business and re-organize and re-think their portfolios. Then we work with them to cut through the noise of the market.

And for maturing and corporate breweries, we help identify significant trends and opportunities where they can direct their resources to do something new and exciting, reinvigorating their brands and maintaining relevance for beer drinking audiences that continue to evolve. This is often the most complex work we do, and when we’re successful, it can have a massive impact on the industry. It creates new customer segments and product categories—and it raises expectations across the board. 

Some of our fans and critics see this work as the exception to our editorial, but let me be clear: This is, by far, the core business of GBH. It’s been the lead pitch on our About page, the overview of our Studio, our Mission Statement, listed first on our social handles, and the topic of countless industry presentations at gatherings like Brewbound, the Craft Brewers Conference, and the wholesalers symposium. As much as we shape the beer industry through our editorial, we have a profound effect on the future of the industry through our strategic and creative work as well.

It’s for this kind of work that Imbibe named GBH one of their “75 People to Watch in 2016.”

There are others like us. Here’s a similar example of an editorial-led design agency. And here’s another that's driven by design and e-commerce partnerships. Both are incredibly inspirational for us. 


A while back, we saw our social audiences bifurcating and diversifying. As much as we wanted to believe the website was central, and our social channels were spokes around that hub, we eventually had to admit that it simply wasn’t the case. In our evolving media landscape, each channel sort of serves as its own publication. Owning up to that helped us decide how to design the content for those channels.

Instagram is our largest by far with 40,000 followers. Previously, we’d ignorantly used it as an RSS feed, sharing a photo and link to an article. We still do this occasionally. But looking at our engagement and the things people would talk to us about most, it became clear that people use our Instagram account mostly as a travel magazine and as a window into our studio life. We’ve started to focus that feed on the here and now of where we’re drinking and eating. 

Our friend Jeremy Danner once likened Twitter to “a bar that never closes.” It’s a raucous, sometimes too-spirited debate that just goes on and on and on. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we hate it. Sound like a bar? While we usually like to engage in healthy debates and ongoing topics of interest, like any late-night gathering, we easily get sucked into fights with the loudmouths at the end of the bar who slur their way through half-truths and misconstrued accusations, mistakenly hoping that we can change their opinions with rational, logical thought. We’ve recently started pulling back from those kinds of exchanges, deciding to go home at a reasonable hour, or retire to a quieter corner with friends who can handle their drink. In the interest of being the positive change we want to see in the world, I’m legitimately sorry for the times we’ve contributed to the noise. Expect that pulling back to continue.

Facebook, Snapchat, and others have been blurry for us. The engagement we get doesn’t reward the time investment, at least not in the way we’re currently using them. That being said, Facebook's paid ads have helped us sell a bunch of bottle openers, and that helps keep the lights on. But there are only so many bodies to go around, and I’m not really interested in becoming a highly dispersed brand at the expense of losing authorship and our voice. So anything we do will be thoughtful and patient. Or maybe I’ll hire a kid to just do all of the things and see what happens when the GBH brand becomes some weird omniscient bot-like character that shows up in your Tinder. If that happens, please swipe right, ok? Thanks.

In general, I think of our social channels as modes. They’re places to be introverted or extroverted, depending on our current vibe. And they’re places to enable different kinds of interactions that are all centered around great stories and ideas. In the coming months, we’re going to be giving our core team extended access to these tools, so watch for some new GBH-affiliated accounts.

GBHype is both our most nascent—and most problematic—project. It’s separate from our editorial, and has its own RSS, branding, voice, and intent. And its purpose is rather broad, though we’re working to focus that down to something meaningful for breweries and other industry players. Basically, we see a need for companies that have a story to tell but don’t know the best way to articulate it, what form it should take, or how to get it in front of an audience that matters. 

To be perfectly clear: this is absolutely intended to be a commercialized use of our editorial skillset. 

I’ve conducted a few experiments to see what we can do that’s impactful and unique. I’m not interested in basic sponsored content, as I find that boring and mostly unsuccessful. It’s also not valuable enough to be worth developing a business around—at least not in beer. Rather, I’m interested in turning a story line into a major momentum builder for breweries without confusing our readers about our editorial. Here’s what that looks like so far: 

When 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, a Latino-owned brewery, decided to cut ties with a bar in Chicago’s Trump Tower following Donald Trump's disparaging campaign remarks, we helped turn that decision into an awareness campaign for their values and their role as Latino business owners. We took the resulting beer, a Golden Ale named Chinga Tu Pelo (translation: "Fuck Your Hair"), and helped rally like-minded bars around Chicago to carry the beer and send a message

It gained national and international media attention as an example of a business that’s not willing to work with Trump—in fact, that rare business that's taking a public stand against it. We also helped create an iconic t-shirt that we sold through our own e-commerce channel to raise thousands of dollars for a Latino cultural institution in Chicago. All of this was possible because we utilized our skills, our platform, and our audience to make an impact. While we didn’t get paid for this work (we did it pro bono in order to learn from the experience), but it was a perfect chance to define GBHype’s opportunity. And it was so much more than marketing and sponsored content. It was a tangible action in the world with a mission. 

We’ve since helped 18th Street Brewery get the word out on their expansion from Gary to Hammond, Indiana, and ensure that the story was clear and compelling for the right reasons. We also helped Goose Island share some fascinating research in their Bourbon County program and deliver a critical message through our podcast channel. Both of these were paid strategic engagements and were highly effective in their intent to properly inform and engage a massive audience. In fact, mainstream media has repeatedly used it as primary source material for their own reporting, which enabled everyone to contribute to a culture of education instead of ignorance on a delicate topic. 

We’re currently working on how and where GBHype content shows up on the site. It may stay locked in its own channel completely, or we may start running some placements in our feature stories that let readers to click through to GBHype if something piques their interest. In any event, it will continue to stay separately branded and live in its own stream. 

We’re thankful to the people who have worked with us on GBHype and helped us prove a model that I can build a team around. I’ve brought on a talented friend to help lead that effort. Through her expertise and talent pool, which is separate from our editorial and business teams, I’ll be able to continue developing GBHype as a standalone offering. I expect you’ll see more action in this channel by the end of 2016. 

You've likely seen some of our bigger efforts, such as our Uppers & Downers coffee beer event series. It's become a brand of its own, and we've used it to partner with other organizations like the Specialty Coffee Association of America to produce an exceptional experience. We're helping lead the conversation for coffee and beer cultures, and their inherent relevance as craft-oriented products. We're already in the expo floor plan for Seattle next year and discussing where to take it in the meantime. Safe to say, this will only get bigger. We've already started considering Austin, New York, L.A. (again), and London. 

We have a couple of other concepts in mind that have potential. And we continue to run tiny events for our most dedicated audiences here at the studio. Live studio podcasts, special sensory experiences, and cookouts in the backyard just for fun. Some of these are commercial efforts. Others are a beautiful waste of time. Notice a pattern? Most of what we do every day involves a little bit of each of those characteristics.

All right. Let's talk about the blurry lines between all that business—chief among them, our editorial and our agency activities. As we've said, this is not a line we ignore, but it's also not a line we care to eliminate. Aligning our business goals with our editorial goals (which is to say: both have a mandate to "Serve Beer"), we've been able to create some unique momentum and bring on some authoritative and fledgling voices. 

Each of our writers has their own backstory, their own perspectives, and their own bias. While we’re cognizant of the potential conflicts here, we’re also aware that these voices are our biggest differentiator. On our recurring staff, we have some tried-and-true journalists who work by the academic code. We also have a couple of photographers and designers who’ve helped launch a couple craft breweries. We have the President of the San Diego Brewers Guild. Our content manager works for a local brewery. (We actually helped her get the job. We had to—she was such an amazing intern for us. This is not her typing, I swear.) For any journalistic organization, this list would be complicated. For us, it’s how we have a unique perspective worth sharing.

While there are writers out there—the amazing Jason Notte and Chris Furnari of Brewbound come to mind—doing critical, straightforward, and revealing reporting, so much of what I read on a daily basis is a misconstrued, ignorant, clickbait-indebted interpretation of what’s happening in the beer industry because reporters or longtime beer journalists are either ignorant of the contemporary beer landscape or they have longstanding grudges and agendas.

That ignorance is all-too-easily transferrable to beer drinkers. So rather than eliminate voices with obvious conflict, we’ve decided to state the obvious—via disclosures, bios, etc.—in the pursuit of understanding, education, and competing perspectives from people who actually know what’s going on.

Why is all that so important? First, because a writer’s bias is an important tool to understanding their perspective. It’s a key to unlocking their rationale and goals in how they articulate their views, and why they might articulate them in the first place. However, it's not a tool for disqualification, despite what many would like to believe. There’s a strange culture developing around the written word, where a small number of people want to steal the right to discuss an industry for themselves. They use people’s relationships and the way they feed their families as a way of attacking their integrity. It’s a subculture hell-bent on ignoring the content of an argument in the pursuit of eliminating a person’s right to have a voice at all. You’ll see them loosely throw around words like “shill” and “sponsored content” even when they have no idea what they're talking about. A lack of disclosure, in their minds, isn’t a mark of innocence. It’s an opportunity to question someone’s ethics and mark them as “dangerous.” It’s a guilty-first verdict, and it’s all just competitive rhetoric meant to eliminate a valuable and compelling voice that’s outperforming their own. We’re not concerned with these people. 

To be clear: we absolutely care about the integrity of our authorship. We’d be idiots to let our voice go down in flames because of a lack of basic integrity. So as much as disclosure might seem like it’s about informing our readership, it’s just as much about defending our own opportunities and reputations. We pass on stories with too much potential influence, and we happily publish stories we think are clear and independent in their intent. And where there’s a potential conflict, we simply state it clearly in the article (like here, here, and here), and let you, the reader, decide what that might or might not mean to you. We think you’re smart enough to read something and understand it, and we’re not hiding anything, even if some people like to insist we are. 

And as we often do, we'll continue writing about the business of GBH. Some will likely say "it's about time," but the reality is it's not new. We share our work and talk about our clients openly on the regular. And, shocker, that's how we get new clients—like we did here six months ago. Willful ignorance is willful, I suppose.

Where a brewery helped offset the costs of travel, which has happened four times in our history, we’ve explicitly noted that in the copy, like here and here. Sometimes we don’t write a story after such a trip, using it instead as an educational opportunity—a potentially valuable learning experience we’ll use in the future after we’ve formed more perspective on the topic. If any content is ever published in relation to that experience, it’ll be noted as well. 

But I don’t think that a brewery helping offset the costs of a trip is the same as being paid to write about them. There is a clear potential for influence, of course, but paying for a plane ticket is not the same as feeding my family. It’s not an appreciable asset or income. It’s a mitigated amount of loss for an online publication that makes no money in the first place. It’s deserving of disclosure, sure, but it’s not deserving of disdain.

Likewise, there are less talked-about transactions that other traditional media are happy to exploit. For example, any magazine or newspaper that uses photos supplied by the brewery is welcoming the offset of the costs of hiring a photographer and paying for their travel. Our benefit is explicit and disclosed. But the latter is almost never acknowledged as a financial benefit to the writer or publication, despite it being worth far more than a couple hundred dollars for a flight. A typical day rate for a GBH photographer is anywhere from $500-$1,500, for example.

We've never been paid to write GBH editorial. Let me say that one more time so I don’t have to ever answer another tweet about it again: we've never been paid to write GBH editorial. Plenty have offered. After all, it’s an attractive and powerful platform for any brewery. And in every case where that’s transpired, we’ve respectfully declined and explained that our editorial is self-selected. We’ve even had cases where someone has tried to hire one of our writers or photographers on the side, and then asked for special treatment on GBH. When this happens, it gets passed along as a heads-up to our editorial team, the offer gets promptly refused, and we use it as a moment for education. 

Why would a brewery even think that’s possible? It’s simple, really, and it has nothing to do with GBH. The long history of editorial—major newspapers, industry magazines, web publications—has danced with this devil for generations. Call it sponsored content, call it advertising, call it whatever you want, but the traditional practice of buying attention in the media doesn’t make it any less problematic.

Companies have used media outlets to share their messages for as long as I’ve been alive. Radio hosts read pitches, magazines sell ads corresponding to editorial calendars, and newspapers stopped selling articles to readers a long time ago, opting instead to sell space to advertisers. All of this defines who your customers really are. Even The New York Times admits that advertising can shift editorial resources towards advertisers instead of readers. No matter how much they want you to believe in the invisible wall between the editorial and business teams, it will always be a made-up idea that works in theory, but often fails in practice.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with these conflicts—advertising, sponsored content, or otherwise. Everything needs to be commercialized in order to function and financially support the people who commit to it. But I also don’t subscribe to the idea that one form of financial influence is somehow worse than another simply because it’s been accepted as the norm. Rather, I trust individuals. And I think it’s only right to acknowledge the influence, identify it whenever possible, and move forward in the pursuit of compelling and honest storytelling.

In the end, I want to hear from voices that have an objective, unmitigated goal of reporting clear-eyed facts and perspectives on what’s happening in beer. And I also want to hear from people who have devoted their lives to this industry, are highly educated with firsthand knowledge of the implications and hope for the industry, and who have some skin in the game. I’m happy to say that we're a platform both for at GBH. And we present each as they are.

I know for some of our critics, this will be unsatisfying. That’s fine. For our fans and colleagues, we hope it’s inspiring. GBH was built on a specific set of skills and a love of beer, and the business continues to evolve around that germination point. Its opportunities remain broad and its challenges are legion. But in every decision we’ve made, we’ve worked toward a model that’s progressive, clear-eyed, willing to address influence and bias openly, and seeks to find hidden insights for both readers and clients.

We're launching at least four new breweries by the end of the year, and working with another to plan for their next 100,000 barrels. 

We can do all of this because we don’t ostracize our business from our editorial, treating one like the enemy of the other. While they may be separate teams, they’re aligned in mission in pursuit of a better industry. And they’re encouraged to engage and work together to achieve the same results—serving beer.

As for anyone else out there who’s working on a unique platform like this one, please, open up a dialog. We’re putting a lot of information out there with this overview of our business (and engaged in some pretty serious navel-gazing as a result of feeling alone in a void), but really, there’s so much we still don’t know. We’d love to hear from you about what works—and doesn’t work—in your respective experiences, beer or otherwise. 

And if you ever think we've run afoul of our "Aim True, Pour Liberal" ethos, you're welcome to let us know. We love constructive criticism. But if you just want to argue about stuff we've already laid bare, or beat a dead academic horse, then yeah, we'll probably be dicks about it. 

I can’t believe you read this far! Seriously, thank you. And if you haven't already, vote with your dollars. We even have frisbees and shit. 

Words by Michael Kiser Graphics by Mike Duesenberg