Friday, January 06, 2017
The New Project
I'm just beginning year eight of full-time writing, and the project of supporting myself remains a work in progress. Writing itself pays crap, as most people are no doubt aware. There is a tier of professional nonfiction writing that is very lucrative (your Ta Nahisi Coates, Michael Lewises, and Malcolm Gladwells). Somewhere below that tier is the one I'm on--where it's possible to publish books and articles to your heart's content and still not make enough to live on. The entire enterprise of publishing--newspapers, magazines, books, online--has been hemorrhaging money for years, and there's less and less of it to go around.
So we do things like find sponsors for our blogs, as I began doing last year. Another thing we can do is consulting, which I also started to do, more slowly and with spottier success, last year. The idea I pursued actually came from Sally, in a discussion over beers (naturally). One of my skills is being able to see a narrative arc amid the riot of activities that constitute a brewery. This is something, by and large, that breweries themselves aren't great at, so they don't often do a great job of 1) understanding their own stories, nor 2) communicating it well to their partners (distributors, retailers) or the public.
So I drew up a list of breweries I admired whom I thought could use some help in that capacity and offered to help them tell their stories. Some turned me down (The Commons, pFriem, Breakside, Ninkasi) and some took me up on the offer (Ft. George, Pints, Block 15, Ninkasi--after reconsidering their earlier rejection). To be clear, this wasn't ongoing marketing or brand consultation--I was contracted to deliver a story for the brewery in much the way I would deliver a story for All About Beer.
As a matter of ethics, I think that last distinction is highly relevant. Being employed by or having ongoing relationships with breweries creates a conflict of interest when you're writing about them. Even this level of involvement requires, at a minimum, full disclosure so you can judge for yourself whether I'm in the tank for one of these breweries. These breweries understand that there is no ongoing relationship, and I will continue to cover them independently. (They also understand that I may be doing similar work for their competitors.) As always, you as the reader will render the final judgment. I also know hive mind is not silent with its opinions.
All of which gets us back to the point of this post. The one big project that did emerge from this is one I'm pretty excited about: I'll be writing a book-length biography of Rob and Kurt Widmer for the brewery. They are interested in an accurate, complete history of the founding era while most of the major players are still around to tell it. Kurt has already retired, and Rob will someday, too. If Craft Brewers Alliance survives for decades, as many breweries have, it will be an invaluable resource to have a biography of the founders to guide the company. (I was surprised by how vividly the presence of Arthur Guinness remains at St. James Gate; the way people speak of him, you half expect him to walk through the door. Breweries continue to live their legacy long after the founders are gone.)
I would have written a company-facing hagiography if that's what CBA wanted, but to my great relief, it's not. We're going to get into the mistakes and controversies. I sat for two hours with Rob and Kurt yesterday afternoon and listened in great detail to the failure of Altbier, the founding product, which almost sunk the brewery before it got started. To their credit, CBA recognizes that success stories are built on mistakes and miscalculations as much as they are on good planning and smart decisions. I'm going to tell the whole story.
Throughout the year, I'll be passing along information I dig up that I find fascinating. (For example, this amazing fact: the Widmers dumped the first ten batches of Altbier before dialing it in to their satisfaction--while, of course, hemorrhaging money.) One element of the project is acting as a bit of an archivist. I'll collect cool photos and documents to reproduce in the book, and I hope to pass some of those along as well.
Everything else around here should look about the same, if a bit more Widmer-ized than usual. (I'll put a notice any time I write about the brewery to alert people to my relationship with them.) Because of the Widmer biography, I don't plan on doing any more consulting this year, but if I do, I'll mention it. I'm also going to add a tab at the top of the page with a list of breweries I've done work for so you will have all the facts.
This is going to be a good and fun year for me--and one not tinged with financial stress, as a few recently have been. I hope you find it interesting, as well--