How a Saison Dupont changed Michael Kiser’s life.
A series of interesting conversations with interesting people.
Nearly a decade ago, Michael Kiser was served a Saison Dupont at The Map Room in Chicago and it literally changed his life. Inspired to keep track of what beer he was trying on his business trips, Michael bought the URL to Good Beer Hunting the next day and he has been serving the beer industry ever since. We caught up with Michael to find out how a hobby led him to become the premier tastemaker in the craft beer industry, what successful breweries have in common, and what’s next for GBH.
You are a writer, photographer, industry strategist, and founder of Good Beer Hunting. What does a typical day-in-the life look like for you?
It’s spinning plates, of course. The morning is when I devote my time to my writers and editors for GBH and our other editorial project, October. Making sure all the previous day’s content goals are moving ahead. I get them critical contacts for interviews, review important stories, sort through hundreds of photos from our photographers on assignment, and take a look at our performance on the other side of the globe. We have a growing audience in Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia, so there’s usually a lot of social waiting for me the moment I wake up. After that, it’s up to our editor, Austin Ray, to keep the trains running on time. He’s super in-tune with our writers.
Then I switch to client work. We build and manage brands for breweries all over the place. About a half-dozen new ones a year. We also work with really large companies to develop strategic roadmaps and develop new product concepts, mostly in beer, but increasingly coffee and spirits as well. So on any given day I’m running a workshop, collaborating with our art director, Mike Duesenberg, on a new visual brand, and helping our experience director, Hillary Schuster plan major festivals and client campaigns. It’s a ton of open collaboration, some in the studio, some remotely with our designers, illustrators, and planners over Slack. Our Slack channels are constantly churning.
If I’m lucky, the day divides up that way. But invariably, there’s some major breaking news in the beer world, or a surprise visit from a brewer and we jump into the recording room for a podcast, sales reps drop in to share their new beers, and lately we’ve been spending time with the Pitchfork team on October, a mainstream beer and entertainment site we’re running as well. And of course, we throw a lot of studio parties and open our beer cellar up to our friends and neighbors.
What’s the origin story of Good Beer Hunting? What sparked the idea in the first place?
I grew up drinking Yuengling lager in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago and had my first Saison Dupont at The Map Room that it really clicked for me. After drinking that first saison, I got the URL for Good Beer Hunting the next day so I could keep track of what I was trying. This was long before smartphones had apps that could do that.
The more I traveled for my job at the time, as an Innovation Strategist, the more I started finding small breweries everywhere. I started writing about those experiences. At the time, there were very few beer blogs, and certainly none with the level of attention being paid to photography like mine. That was a surprise to me — I was inspired by design, architecture, travel and fashion blogs. But in the beer world, it simply didn’t exist. That put GBH in the spotlight right away.
About six years in, I started to see the market shifting for craft brewers. Things were growing quickly, but it was about to get very competitive. When I started, there were roughly 1,500. We have over 5,300 breweries in the US now. If you’re reading this a year from now, I suspect even that number will seem quaint.
So I decided to translate the strategic work I was doing for major corporations like Samsung, Nike, HP and scale that down to help these small businesses grow and get smart about the future. I wasn’t sure about my timing at first, I was taking a big risk. But I had my first start-up client within the first week and we’ve been rapidly developing new breweries and products ever since. It’s a thrilling industry to work in. And last year Imbibe Magazine named GBH one of the “people and places to watch”. That was a milestone we never thought we’d reach.
Good Beer Hunting started as your view on the craft beer scene, but has become a medium for other writers to share their objective views on the rapidly growing & changing industry. How and why was that decision made?
For a long time, I was the only voice. That helped set a tone and share a perspective on the beer world that was unique. We tell a lot of stories about craft beer, but our vision is a lot wider than just craft alone. We see beer evolving as an industry all over the globe. Craft has a lot to do with that. But the business of beer is a lot more nuanced and complex than the craft niche. It has history, it has tons of personalities, and its future seems profoundly different as legislation, technology, distribution, and the consumer experience adapts.
That means we needed people all over the world who could capture that zeitgeist as it unfolds. Some of these writers are long-standing journalists who have been documenting the beer story for years. Others grew up reading GBH and that gave them an appreciation for the personal journeys and the aesthetics of beer in a very different way. And now they’re all on the same platform trying to share their own views.
Every year, I set goals for the business that involve me building around our strongest team members and freeing me up to pursue a new facet of the business. So last year we put Austin Ray in charge of editorial from top to bottom. He’s been a long-time fan of GBH’s approach, and eventually we met on a hop field in Idaho called Elk Mountain, which is owned by AB Inbev. There were a ton of bloggers and journalists there that day that I consider standard-bearers like Stan Hieronymus, and a few upstarts that I’ve gone on to hire, like Dave Eisenberg. Austin and I really hit it off. I could tell he had a big idea about what storytelling in the beer world could be, and it aligned well with my own. He also has a great way of communicating with people — he’s light and funny, but also very serious and insightful. I decided to build the editorial side of the business around him, and that’s been a huge boon to my ability to bring on new writers and shape new ideas going forward. Some days we’re writing incredible op-eds about critical ideas in the industry and the next day we’re showing the personal life of a six-pack of pales ales. I love the hi-lo that defines GBH editorial.
It seems that everywhere we turn a once-small microbrewery is being scooped up by a macrobrewery (Heineken’s purchase of Lagunitas being one of the latest). Once a microbrewery becomes part of a macro, is it still considered a craft beer?
It does seem to be happening a lot, but the reality is, out of 5,300 breweries, only a couple dozen have been acquired. Those breweries account for a lot of the volume that used to be counted as craft, but according to the Brewers Association (the lobbying group for craft beer) they’re no longer considered “craft.” To a lot of people that matters a lot — the definition of small, independent, and traditional defines that group. But that definition has changed a lot over the years as our understanding of “Craft” evolves. It’ll likely continue to change to some degree as it’s not just corporate brewers acquiring small breweries that concerns people, but an influx of private equity groups as well. Right now, that doesn’t disqualify a brewer from being considered “craft” but it’s arguably just as dangerous to this still niche part of the industry trying to represent so many small business owners.
For drinkers, craft can mean a lot of different things. It can mean small and independent, or it can simply mean delicious beer, or local beer. It’s not easy to define, and will only get more difficult. I always encourage people to drink according to their own priorities, the same way they’d buy groceries or pick a restaurant. Your dollars can express what kind of businesses you want to see in the world. But it’s also important to remember that it’s just beer. Despite all the talk of revolution and resistance to corporations, the vast majority of craft beer is still a manufactured product. No one’s out there arguing that we should only support small-batch independent car companies.
But! There’s a growing number of artisans breweries that are fascinating to me, and express something more than just a tiny beer factory. And those are the farmhouse producers. Many of these brewers are tied to the European tradition of brewing on farms and in small communities, getting their ingredients from the land that surrounds them, growing their own hops, grains, or working with nearby farmers to source fruits, and tapping their wells for the brewing water. These breweries are far more interesting to me, and more firmly rooted in a tradition, than anything I’d call “craft.” They get lumped in with the craft beer zeitgeist of the last ten years, but really, they’re reaching back hundreds of years as part of a much slower, more articulate idea of beer-making. Breweries like Jester King, Hill Farmstead, Propolis — these are the breweries that inspired me the way that first Saison Dupont did.
The craft beer industry has seen some of the most dynamic growth that any U.S. industry has ever seen. Do you think it is coming to a head or is there still room for more expansion?
The overall growth will slow down, partly because the larger craft breweries get acquired and their numbers are no longer counted as “craft.” But also because breweries opening now are doing so with an eye towards overall sustainability. Brewpubs, membership clubs, taprooms — these all help new breweries stay small and cash-flow positive. They don’t need to make tens of thousands of barrels and distribute across the country to be profitable.
I think we’re going to start seeing some healthy churn as unsustainable models start to fail. Parts of the beer world will become like the restaurant industry. Which is a little scary if you’re a brewery owner. But for drinkers, there’ll be a constant flow of innovation.
What are some developments in the industry that excite you most?
Origin beers, and the crossover between beer, cider, and wine through the art of fermentation is what excites me the most. Orchardists, natural wine makers, and brewers are starting to share notes and produce truly exquisite things to drink. More and more the division between these categories is being erased in favor of my understanding of fermentation. If the goal of some brewers was for beer to earn a seat at the table with wine, I think that’s been accomplished.
You’ve spent the last decade traveling all over the world seeing the in’s and out’s of hundreds (maybe thousands) of breweries. What do the breweries that have seen the most success have in common?
Focus. They know what they want to produce, and how, and rather than try to force it into the world, they’ve devised their business models to be patient enough that drinkers will come around. Conversely, those that try to convince the world that sour is the next big thing, or that a new style of IPA will take over, get caught chasing trends and scaling up their businesses too quickly. If you have enough experience and financing to pull that off, it can work. But for most people who started breweries as a way to produce something close to their hearts and view it as a craft, a “low and slow” approach to growth seems to be a consistent factor in their success.
Every fall, you and a bunch of other creative folks do an annual trip to Camp Wandawega up in Wisconsin. Inevitably a lot of collaborations come out of this camp. Tell us about that weekend, who’s involved and how it all started.
It started just as a weekend getaway for a few of my friends. A brewpub owed me a favor so they decided to cook for us that first year, our first camp beer dinner, and that set the tone for every year after. Now it’s blossomed into this fantastic industry event where I can invite my clients, collaborators and colleagues to camp where everything you eat and drink for an entire weekend is created and served by the people at camp. Amazing chefs, brewers, coffee roasters — it’s an unending embarrassment of riches.
A few highlights include a chef I met in Costa Rica flying up to cook for us. Ryan Burk of Angry Orchard making a cascara-steeped cider on-site. And last year we had a natural wine breakfast with our friends at Income Tax Bar in Chicago. And for three years running we’ve had breakfast burritos from Longman & Eagle, one of our Michelin Star restaurants.
But the best part is that everyone pitches in and helps cook, clean, and serve each other. It’s no surprise to me that new life-long friendships and collaboration spring from that weekend.
Good Beer Hunting serves beer in multiple ways, whether it be through collaborations, strategic work with breweries, or sharing stories from all sides of the industry. What type of impact do you hope to have with your work?
We really just want to keep everything thinking forward in an intellectually honest way. As rich as the beer industry’s history is, it often holds people back in what they think is possible, or what’s “right and wrong” about the industry. People tend to pick sides and start holy wars about big and little, craft and corporate. But I find more commonality in the industry than ever before. Innovation is happening at every level. I want our storytelling and our brand work to reflect that perspective. I want us to be part of the solution for a better, more vibrant industry.
What’s next for GBH?
We’re taking Uppers & Downers, our annual coffee beer festival, on the road! We just got done with an event in North Carolina, and next up is London. I’m getting emails weekly from brewers in cities all over the world, most recently Denver and New Zealand, asking us to come do it there. That’s exciting.
We’re also about to launch some new subscription services on the editorial side. We’ve become well-known for in-depth analysis of the industry lately, and we plan to push much further into that in a way that unites our consulting and editorial sides better.
You (clearly) have a lot going on. How does Pocket fit into your day-to-day?
We have a thread on GBH called Read.Look.Drink where our team shares what they’re reading, seeing, and drinking every week. I use Pocket daily to capture the things I see on the web, on Twitter, everywhere. Pocket is the perfect tool for me to bookmark things and tag them on the fly. I love the way it integrates with a couple short taps, and then it becomes really easy to revive those items when it’s time to share them via RLD.
It’s also becoming a good reader for me with its stripped-down view. I find myself increasingly saving things just so I can read them in Pocket instead of the browser.
I also use it constantly for saving recipes. Cooking is a big deal in my life. Not only does it keep me in tune with flavors, aromas, and textures in a tangible way, but it’s like meditation after a crazy week of running GBH. I post up in the kitchen on Sundays, open up a bunch of recipes I saved to Pocket, and start cooking until the evening, and then sit down with my family.
What have you been finding interesting lately / what have you been saving and recommending about recently?
I found this piece about farmers hacking their own equipment to run on their own software and breaking free from the corporations that are controlling their ability to farm independently. I found a lot of commonality in that story with the beer world and its many issues with access to market, three-tier systems, and pay-to-play problems. It was thrilling to read about farmers literally pulling the plug on tractors and taking control of their own fields.
I also find myself returning over and over again to this stupidly-simple tomato sauce recipe that I have saved in Pocket. At first I was aghast that anyone would make a sauce this way, but with two toddler boys and me and my wife Hillary running a business together, I have to admit that this has become a staple. At least during the week. On Sundays I get a pot going all day long and make it legit.
What are your go-to places — sites, apps, people, etc — for finding new stories to read and watch in Pocket?
I use Apple News increasingly. The Tweetbot integration was huge for me. Pocket is integrated into my browser on every computer. I find myself Googling “App Name + Pocket” all the time as I look for ways to get more and more of the things I want to capture and read into the Pocket app. IFTTT has been a big part of pulling that off.
If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves where would you go to do it?
I love reading by myself at the bar. But not the bars I frequent for socializing — these days it’s impossible to disappear because as a business we have so many friends in the industry. So I go out of my way to find a place where I’m unlikely to run into anyone I know.
Who would you want to see us interview next?
Dave Sonders! He’s a former colleague of mine in innovation consulting. He shares a ton of great business culture pieces that keep me on my toes as a small business owner.
And Craig Mod. He’s a photographer who I discovered when I was researching mirrorless cameras back when I first started GBH. His recommendation and teardown of the Pansonic GF-1 essentially got GBH started.
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