The rise of Michael Kiser and Good Beer Hunting has been an incredibly personal adventure for me to witness. When Solemn Oath began, I didn’t know Michael. We first met in April of 2012 when he visited our brewery while we were making SOB Batch #001.
At that time, Good Beer Hunting existed as a tumblr page with just a small and primarily local following. GBH’s captivating aesthetics through Michael’s photography and a poetic approach to storytelling drew me in as a reader. Michael’s written word has always had the ability to establish an emotional connection between me and the people and places that he visits. In short, Michael has made me give a shit about things I didn’t even know. Over the years we have become great friends and watching him grow the GBH brand and develop his own personal skill sets has been incredible to watch. The day Michael left his former professional life to pursue GBH full-time I posted this:
As we mature as an industry and develop more and different customer bases there has never been a more important time for the people involved to do all things well. Michael does exactly this. People that know me know there is no emotion more powerful to me than that of inspiration. From the very beginning of our friendship, Michael’s been someone I’ve looked to for advice, both professional and personal. The romance and grit that he’s chronicled through his journey within an industry that I love have always served as a refreshing and renewing force. The goal of Founders & Radicals has always been to highlight exceptional people I believe are doing exceptional things with the hope that you’ll think differently about what it is that you are doing with your life. Maybe you have an idea or passion you wish to pursue but you’re fearful of taking that leap of faith. The world goes to the doers and I hope you’ll draw that connection and get fucking after it following my conversation with Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting.
Founders & Radicals:
John Barley: What is the biggest myth of entrepreneurship?
Michael Kiser: That you make money right away. We have this weird notion that because someone has a business, that they’re better off financially than people who have jobs. That’s certainly not true in the early days when you’re constantly re-investing in the businesses as you struggle to get to a place where you can see 3-5 years out and start making big decisions rather than just reacting to opportunities. Even a business like GBH, which doesn’t have nearly the overhead of something like a brewery, still has a lease, we pay manufacturers, designers, writers and photographers, we invest in photography and audio equipment, we eat travel costs and pay for a lot of event help. In theory, this is all building a brand and a business that will see a big return on that investment, and we’re fortunate to see that happening already in our second full year of flying solo.
Was being creative a part of your childhood?
The first job I wanted was to be a children’s book author. I think I was around 4 years old and my first “book” was about alien mushroom people that came to earth and lived in the ground. So yeah, I think it started early on.
What is the worst piece of advice you followed since starting Good Beer Hunting?
I wanted to wake up every day and feel like what I did mattered to my city, to an industry I was passionate about, and built relationships based on shared values and a tangible outcome.
I think it was from you — you advised that I write for other magazines in addition to GBH to help build my name and reputation. But almost every time I’ve tried doing that it was a huge waste of time. No one cares about a byline. Sure, I’d write for the Wall Street Journal, who wouldn’t, but other beer-specific magazines and websites tend to ask for drivel in terms of content (more top ten lists!), and they feel competitive with the GBH brand so they’d never want to mention it. My column with Beer Advocate blew up after only a month because of those kind of shenanigans — they said I was unethical because I do work with breweries (which is why they hired me in the first place). Turns out they just didn’t like one of those relationships and decided to can the column. Almost every beer writer I know makes a living by consulting with breweries to some degree, and mostly because magazines don’t pay enough to live off, but that’s another issue. People I respect, like Joshua Bernstein are connected to great platforms like Bon Appetit, which do a much better job all around, and it shows. But in the end, I’m in a unique position. Any time spent building someone else’s brand eventually takes away from my own. Why write for other magazines when I can just create my own, according to my own values and interests, and those of my close collaborators? We’ve got real work to do to push the interests of my industry and elevate the conversation. I can’t meet that goal as a byline in some men’s magazine that wants you to click on Cialis ads.
Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and tell yourself when you started your business? What was the moment when you realized, “I have to do this.”
To stop being afraid, which is pretty much what I told myself every day for a few years anyhow. I just didn’t say it loud enough. The thing about analytical thinkers is that it’s easy to see the risks and talk yourself out of ideas. Eventually I forced myself to take the big dumb leap, knowing that I had a history of being smart, adaptable, and working hard enough to make any situation turn out well. But that was all still logic. The final thing that pushed me was the shame I felt for knowing that I had every opportunity and still didn’t do it. I’d done my homework, saved up six months salary as a buffer, and knew I could take freelance gigs at a moment’s notice if I needed to make ends meet. It was bullshit that I hadn’t made the move, and I could sense that other people knew it. It was the shame that forced me to go for it.
With contributors placed all over the country, how do you build an internal GBH culture?
Holy shit. I don’t know if I could describe what GBH is now, let alone ten years from now.
I’ve experimented with a few different approaches and watched how it played out. I’ve learned that for people looking to write about beer in general, it’s rarely a good fit. Those folks are just looking for another paying outlet that helps them get into events and drink for free. Or they’re just looking for another place to sell their photos or a few words. That’s not good for GBH. I need people to walk into a brewery and have empathy for the business they’re asking for time from, and to understand that they’re part of a mission, not a byline. What works best for me is finding people who want to be part of a culture that goes deeper, farther, and expresses something important about the industry they love. It can be passionate designers and beer fans like Cory Smith out of Brooklyn, or Tobias Goth from Stockholm, or Kyle Kastranec who has so much Midwestern beer pride it might kill him. And now we have Mike Sardina who clawed his way into Societe Brewing and now helps run the Brewers Guild out there. People like them are insatiable and they have a strong desire to document the important moments in this industry — not beer reviews or top ten lists. There’s something in GBH that resonates with them — they do it for the same reasons I do. I can see it in their work, and I know they’d never write a piece of beer wiring unless it was for a place like GBH. Those are my people. I’m proud to be a platform for their voices and visions. I practically have to force them to take the money. And then there’s the business side of things — the brand and product development practice. That’s a whole track of the business that has a similar culture — but on that side we’re dead serious about creating value for our clients that no design firm, PR agency, or business consultant can do like we can. I bring together design and strategic talent, and a network of specific expertise in operations, retail, and market development to support the growth of start-ups and mature breweries alike. We’ve developed new-to-the-world brands, re-positioned breweries in the market, developed new product lines and categories for some of the world’s biggest brewers, and even help companies outside of beer gain a better understanding of how a craft ethos might change how they do business in soda, coffee, and food products. This team is pretty obsessed with ensuring that “craft” isn’t just a new flavor — we want it to be an industry with insane growth potential for the long-haul.
How do you define beer journalism and is GBH a part of that or is it something else?
The term journalism matters a helluva a lot to the people who are card-carrying, educated, experienced journalists. I respect it immensely. And it has value in the beer industry too. But describing myself as a journalist is a false notion. I write from within the beer industry, not about the beer industry. I’ve been consulting on brand and product development for breweries for nearly eight years now and that’s the real business for me. Along the way, my stories picked up momentum and audiences, and expressed something that people resonated with. From there, a brand was born. Now I have a consulting practice and a storytelling practice. I do not operate a beer journalism outlet — never have. I’m also someone who believes that bias exists in every expression, including the most objective pieces of journalism. Long-standing rules for journalism, in my humble opinion, exists to balance subjectivity, not eliminate it. And the voices I admire most are often very subjective. People don’t follow reporters, they follow information. But when they follow a journalist or storyteller, they’re following a worldview. That’s the side of the line I’m on. I’ve always admired the work of National Geographic writers and photographers, Hemingway in the war, thinkers like Tocqueville. These are people who can change the way you think about something, not just with the information they provide, but with their personal perspective and embedded eye. Who cares if that’s called journalism or not. You can call it propaganda and it’d still change my life.
What will the beer industry look like 10 years from now?
When I started this thing, every brewer I knew was selling every ounce of beer they made before if even left the fermenter. Who needs strategy in a market like that?
Hopefully it’d be just that, the beer industry, and not some increasingly stratified market where we determine a beer’s value based on how “craft” its ownership is. The underlying qualities and the intent behind a beer are what matter to me most. And I see indicators that things are heading that way. The anti-AB rhetoric is starting to flatten out as breweries like Lagunitas become behemoths in their own right and Steve Hindy’s “revolution” begins to age. Revolutionaries are either co-opted or killed, and if they’re not their ideas tend to age poorly. So it think we’re headed into the long now of breweries like Hill Farmstead and Side Project being sustainable due to their restrained expectations. Others, like Solemn Oath are hell-bent on growth because it’s kind of now-or-never if your goal is to be mid-size or regional in the next five years. In short, the beer industry will be more diverse than ever, separated into some cliques, more competitive and less collaborative, but it’ll always be collegial — which it’s been for hundreds of years. Hopefully people will develop a vocabulary for talking about the beer industry with as many diverse business models as there are beer styles.
What will GBH look like ten years from now?
We’ve got real work to do to push the interests of my industry and elevate the conversation.
Holy shit. I don’t know if I could describe what GBH is now, let alone ten years from now. We’ll certainly continue to grow as a cultural institution. And our ability to serve breweries from a strategic and creative standpoint is accelerating rapidly right now. And then there are spin-off projects that I can’t really let out of the bag quite yet, but it’s safe to say that we’re going to be working deeper and deeper into the industry as producers across the board. We’ve already seen some amazing growth and impact with the “products” of GBH, incredible things like GBH Camp, Uppers & Downers, and collaborations we’re developing with breweries across the country. GBH Camp took on a life of its own from the get-go. We brought dozens of chefs, brewers, coffee roasters and creative folks together for a weekend at Camp Wandawega, and then we watched proudly as so many of those people kicked off their own collaborations in the months that followed. And Uppers & Downers, our ongoing coffee beer event series with Intelligentsia, seems poised to explode this year as we look at NYC and LA, even Scandinavia as potential next sites for the festival. Not only is the event itself gaining momentum, but we’re literally helping change the way coffee beers are being made right now — we’re creating knowledge and instigating experimentation all over the world. I get emails every week from brewers telling me about what they’re doing differently now, or a roaster they found and partnered with as a result of the Uppers & Downers push. So in ten years? I’d hope that we’re seen as a center of excellence in both strategic thinking, and creative development for the entire industry. Whether as a hired agency, collaborative partner, or just a passionate crew, I want the things we produce to help define the future of craft.
Who do you most admire and why?
I’ve always admired poets above all else. That’s what I studied through grad school, so it’s the kind of person I spent the most time contemplating. But even among poets, two of my favorites were Wallace Stevens and T.S.Eliot. The common element there is that these guys were both business men. They understood the workings of capitalism, competition, and ambition. And at the end of the day, they turned that analytical perspective on humanity into some of the most beautiful words ever written. I admire them for not playing to the old adage that a person is either/or, but can be completely both. Saying “I’m a creative” or “I’m a maker” isn’t a positive affirmation of something you’re proud to be — it’s the fear that you’re not something else. I’ve made a rich, and rewarding career (a number them already) out of doing and being whatever the situation called for, and following my curiosity.
What is another business you would like to start?
I want to start a blending house. I’ve actually been kicking this idea around with a talented brewing/fermentation friend for about a year now. We should probably just get it done already. I love breweries, but blending houses are as quiet as libraries and everything is alive. A man can do some great thinking in a place like that.
One question I love that The Great Discontent always asks people is: In general, do you feel a responsibility or desire, either personally or through your work, to contribute to something that feels greater than you?
I used to think I was at a huge disadvantage for not having a father around when I was growing up. But I see so many guys that live in the shadow of their fathers and never really break out of it.
Absolutely. I grew up back-woods Pentecostal in Pennsylvania, which is about as crazy as an upbringing can get, so almost my entire work ethic is wrapped up in the belief that there’s something huge we’re all supposed to contribute to. Whether you believe that’s a god, or an economy, or a communal well-being, or even a company, it’s all a driving force to make something bigger than the self. And then I immediately get jealous of “it” and want people to realize I did it all. I used to get really bent out of shape when I’d get emails saying “I love what you guys at GBH do.” Who’s “you guys?” But eventually my sophomoric pride gave way to an appreciation that people were confused by the amount of work I was doing, not the nature of that work. And that freed me up to invite others in to help build something even bigger. If people think it’s a whole crew over here, I might as well have the best crew possible. And the blammo, it suddenly is bigger than me. Just like that.
In one sentence, what would you tell someone considering opening their own business?
You should be ashamed of yourself for not doing it already. Giddyup. But before you do, ask yourself if you’re running away from something you hate, or toward something you love.
What in your office do you most cherish?
The GBH Studio is essentially a collection of things I cherish. So that’s a tough one. But I’d have to say this 2015 free calendar that the Leitelt Bros foundry sent me. There’s nothing special about it materially. It came partially torn and rolled so tight it’ll never lay flat. But it’s the foundry that helped make our Beer Peen hammer. And while it might not seem impressive that we worked with a foundry, it actually represents a major development for me personally. Like I said before, it’s easy to talk yourself out of things. I’d never worked with a foundry, didn’t know anything about casting, 3D modeling, costs, timelines, nothing. It was a completely opaque process for me, and historically that would have meant that I’d never pursue it. Instead, I just threw myself in, and when I’d hit a wall, I’d just say “Hey, I don’t know anything about this, show me.” and they would. They loved it. And they sort of fell in love with GBH along the way (showing up with bottles of BCS and 18th Street beers at meetings probably helped). Now I understand a little bit about the world of non-ferrous metals, and a lot about how to overcome anxiety of the unknown. So yeah, when they sent me that calendar, they made me feel like I was a part of their world, and I cherish that gesture.
What would you say to a young brewer who’s just starting out?
Keep your head down and ignore anyone telling you that there’s too much competition. Brewers now have it easier than ever in a lot of ways. It’s easier to get equipment (and it’ll get even easier as some used equipment starts becoming available again), transparent business models, quality and exotic ingredients at you fingertips, and better distribution networks than ever before. You think Ken Grossman had those things? The only thing you have harder now is competition, and that never made anybody worse.
Who inspires you photographically?
So so many. But in the GBH vein, I was greatly inspired by The Selby. He started a project were he went into people’s studios and homes, their creative spaces, and documented them in intimate ways. “The Selby is in Your Place” is a beautiful book that cam out of that project. I was also inspired by fashion blogs like Street Etiquette who found ways of making a post about a simple pair of sneakers feel like spending an entire afternoon in the streets of NYC. I also have a long history studying fine artists like Sally Mann who documents her family’s history in stunning images, Herman Leonard who captured the jazz culture we all see in our heads now, and Thomas Struth who captures architecture and occupancy better than anyone.
What makes a good beer-inspired photograph and why is beer so captivating to you?
Context. Context is everything for me. For me, beer is a cultural object, like a time capsule or a piece of scripture. Something we take part in, share, and pass down. So when I’m moved to capture a beer-inspired photograph, I practically forget that beer is in the picture at all. I’m looking at people, an interaction, an exchange. That’s where the story of a beer is, and that’s what I’m really looking for. Anyone can make a good beer. I’m looking for a reason to care about it.
In a three sentences what would you tell someone who wants to improve at photography but maybe doesn’t the best eye or skill set?
You can take classes to learn the technical stuff. Watch YouTube videos. It’s all out there for you to soak up. The part you’ll really have to work at is being a person who sees things. And to do that, you actually have to give a shit about people. You have to be perceptive. You have to enjoy people enough to study them, anticipate their movements, and develop empathy. It’ll help you see the image you want before it exists. I think being a good photographer requires you to be a good person.
Was starting Good Beer Hunting a risk?
Sure was. When I started this thing, every brewer I knew was selling every ounce of beer they made before if even left the fermenter. Who needs strategy in a market like that? But I was betting that things would get competitive, and that brewers would be eager for some strategic and creative thinking. I thought I was three years ahead of the curve, and had already started working on transitional concepts with that in mind. But I had my first brand strategy gig, with a Chicago start-up called Forbidden Root, before I even left the day job. And the phone’s been ringing ever since. Now the risk is over exposure. We’ve remained pretty selective in who we work with because one douchebag can ruin everything if he’s out there selling some shitty interpretation of what you worked on and telling everyone it was your idea. We can’t have that. So we do some soul-searching and get personal with every client. In the earliest days of a project, we spend time with them in their breweries, I meet their friends and families, and I see how they run their business. They don’t have to be the coolest kids on the block — they just have to be earnest and ambitious, and want to work with us for the right reasons. We hate it when people see us as outside consultants. If I wanted that I could consult in a lot of other very profitable industries. But I chose beer because it has a unique culture — and we’d rather be partners at the table with an emotional stake in the outcome same as them. I find that opportunity when I’m with two guys graduating from their home-brew garage, and I find it in the conference rooms of some of our biggest brewers. It’s not a size thing, it’s a passion thing.
What do you dislike most about the perception of GBH?
There are so many different perceptions, so really it’s about which perception I dislike most. The one I hate the most is that we write about breweries who pay us. To this day, we’ve never taken a dime to write about a brewery. Not only do I think that’d lessen that value of GBH as a brand and a resource, but it insults my business acumen. Sponsored content isn’t the future of making money on the internet unless you’re Thrillist and Buzzfeed, and it’d be far cheaper to buy pixels on GBH than it would to partner with us and actually create value in other ways. Instead, I work with breweries and other brands to produce customer experiences, create new brands, and develop concepts that push the industry and my clients into new territory. And in the end, we both benefit financially, far better than if I sat at home in my underwear and created link-bait for advertising every day. Sponsored content is the laziest form of revenue. And we’re anything but lazy.
What article or event through GBH do you feel put you on the map?
Man, I don’t think I ever could have anticipated the success of Uppers & Downers with Intelligentsia. I knew there was a vacuum in that discussion, and I knew Stephen Morrissey from Intelligentsia and I had a chance to lead the way, but if you told me we’d be able to get over 600 people in Chicago to attend a coffee beer and espresso festival, I would have thought you were crazy. But that’s the value in how we approach things. We didn’t just promote a festival – we started a small movement. We took the long view and hosted panel discussions, roasting tours, home brewer competitions, and immersive tastings not he way to a festival. So by the time we hung out first flier for the festival a year later, our audiences were already begging us for it. And now we have requests from both coasts and Europe to do the same thing. And we will. Beyond that, this was a big year for industry criticism for us. Occasionally, we offer a birds-eye view for the state of the beer industry, but this year we also felt compelled to write about Tony Magee’s leadership at Lagunitas. We believe that our greatest criticisms usually come in the form of silence. But in this case, we decide more good could be done by offering our perspective, which was both rational and passionate. Beer is the industry I work in every day, and I felt like it was being damaged by Magee’s tactics. So for the sake of my industry’s future, we wrote a very critical piece outlining the many hypocritical and anti-competitive actions from his brewery over the past few years. I knew it’d be a source of much debate, but what I never expected was over 100,000 reads and counting, and personal emails from the founders of breweries that I greatly admire. That article was read out loud at all-hands meetings across the country, and blasted to the inboxes of every employee at breweries far and wide by their leaders. Whatever criticism we implied through silence in the past — this is clearly one that needed to have a voice. Not everyone agreed with our perspective — far from it — but it seemed to provide some heart-felt and intelligent debate. I even got emails from friends at Lagunitas who appreciated the risk we took. In the end, we all have to work in this industry, and we like to think we’re doing out part to make it a more fair, transparent, and edifying place to work.
How do you compare what’s happening in craft beer in Chicago with what’s going on in the rest of the country?
The way we care about our beer is unlike any other consumer good I’ve ever seen. We treat breweries like our favorite bands, or maybe our sports teams. We watch their every move, try to recruit others to the fan base, and if they “sell out” or make a mistake, we let loose a vitriol once reserved for coaches who lose in the playoffs. People like to compare it to other artisanal movements in food and wine. And from a product perspective I think that’s a fair comparison. But the culture, that’s where craft beer seems to be completely on its own planet.
What is your perfect vacation?
I don’t think I have those anymore. My vacations are always working vacations, and I’m perfectly alright with that. I guess I’d love to be back in Portugal, drinking bottles of Vinho Verde, miles away from anything related to craft beer. But not for longer than a day or two. Let’s not get fucking crazy.
What area of your business keeps you up at night?
With so many projects underway, maintaining momentum, especially across a growing team, is critical. Whenever I sense a lull in a project, I get anxious and start looking for ways to push ahead quickly. Also, an inbox with hundreds of emails a day is the kind of thing heart attacks are made of. I seriously have to figure that part out.
Who supports you the most?
Different people at different times. There was a long stretch where the only support I had was Hillary, my wife. And she’s still the person who provides the most input and feedback. Right now I’m getting some great support from Kyle Fletcher, my design partner, and Anthony Bruno, my developer partner as we’re dig in to some big digital projects. But on a day to day basis, it’s been the readers of GBH, and those who purchase products and buy tickets to events that have supported the most. Without their contributions, we wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on, let alone fuel this goddamn rocketship. I can’t believe how passionate our readership is about all-things GBH. And there are breweries who push us to be more ambitious with the practice. Clients we’ve had like Goose Island, Pacifico, 5 Rabbit, Solemn Oath — they all seem to find ways of investing in GBH as much as we’ve invested in them. Long after the projects are done, we get beers, we grab lunch, and they offer insight into how GBH can do even more. That’s some real shit right there, when your clients are thinking about your business, and they’re curious enough to offer their own thoughts. That tells me that we’re delivering some insane value, and it’s still only the tip of the iceberg.
Finish this sentence… My life is my life because of…
Not having a father around. I used to think I was at a huge disadvantage for not having a father around when I was growing up. But I see so many guys that live in the shadow of their fathers and never really break out of it. Sure, not having a father is its own kind of shadow, and it’s a dark one, but that kind of vacuum makes or breaks you. And if there’s one character trait that’s defined my life, it’s my tenacity and addiction to always moving ahead. It used to based in fear that slowing down meant I was closing in on failure. I never had a safety net in terms of family or finances. But now I let it push me based on ambition, based on what I want from life, and the desire to ensure my own son never feels that fear — and it turns out that motivation has twice the drive.
What have you sacrificed to get this far?
I was well on my way to a long and lucrative career in consulting. Over the last seven years or so, I was leading innovation programs for some of the largest, most profitable companies in the world — Nike, Samsung, HP, even the Department of Defense. The potential impact of those programs was huge, and the work was nuanced, complicated, and often inspiring. But I wanted a connection at the local level. I wanted to wake up every day and feel like what I did mattered to my city, to an industry I was passionate about, and built relationships based on shared values and a tangible outcome. I gave up the security and success that I thought I desired for most of my life. It’s a self-actualization thing. Once you gain the security you always thought you needed, you start to crave the risk.
Founders & Radicals is a collection of ideas from some of the driving forces in commerce, art, and entrepreneurship. These people do rad shit and we hope you draw inspiration from them. We certainly do.