Coming to America

GBH Underwriting — Coming to America with Guinness

Since 2008, Good Beer Hunting has survived at the direct expense of our fledgling studio practice, along with a modest e-commerce shop, and most recently from a group of long-time-fans-turned-subscribers called the Fervent Few. It’s been a very costly—but entirely worthwhile—journey in attempting to create the most critical, creative, and curious site in beer.

photo by Cory Smith

photo by Cory Smith

In the past 18+ months, we’ve experienced a step-change in the growth of our editorial project and our audience. We’ve been attracting more talented and award-winning writers, photographers, and designers than ever. Our stories are finding eager readers all over the globe in the UK, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. We started, and rapidly grew, a news/insights feed called Sightlines (a new iteration of that is almost ready to launch!). And the quality of our work was something we worked hard to maintain through all that growth. Which meant that we quickly outgrew our meager ability to financially support it all. The operation ran break-even for awhile, then eventually at a massive cost to the larger business. But through it all, we paid our writers and photographers competitively and faster than any other publisher they work with. The work they’re doing is some of the best in the industry, and I say that as someone who’s lucky enough to read it myself every day. The expense of all this now far exceeds any gain we once could rationalize via a sort of virtuous cycle effect on the studio business. But, if you know anything about GBH, you know we’re playing a long game.

We’ve experimented with a few advertising ideas in the past—quite conventional ones, at that. And it turns out, as anyone in online media will tell you, selling display ads is a full-time effort with diminishing reward, one that often leads to a the kind of content we at GBH wouldn’t be proud to produce. We didn’t want to become an advertising company at the expense of our focus on editorial, nor did we want to crank out clickbait for the sake of pageviews and the ad dollars that come with them. So we came up with a different idea: GBH Underwriting.

You may have seen things like GE sponsoring a section in the The New York Times where they self-publish their own branded content (we're not interested in going that route) or companies that support NPR financially for specific shows that are valuable to their own audiences (this is benign and interesting, but a hard sell). But somewhere between these concepts is what we're calling GBH Underwriting, which provides ways for a company to invest in the GBH commitment to dialog even if they themselves aren’t the focus of that dialog, or have a specific voice in it. In other words, helping GBH expand the platform we've created for intellectually honest content in beer.  

We started by outlining the themes our team was interested in pursuing over the course of the next year, worked out the costs, and then pitched the model to companies we felt would have a shared interest in the same goals.

One of the themes that rose to the top of our list is called Coming to America. It’s a look at what iconic brands and new startups from all over the globe are doing to compete in the U.S. market in the age of “local.” Drinkers turning 21 in the States today might think a Saison is something invented by their local brewpub, or that a foreign extra Stout is…extra Stouty? The narrative is getting lost. But these drinkers, and those who still remember the days of seeking out Belgian Ales and German Lagers, have a lot in common—discovery of origins.

And then there’s the newly-launched and American-inspired startups all over the world that are like prodigal sons returning to the States with a message that sounds both familiar and profane. An all-Saaz Double IPA from Germany? What is even happening!? And then there are breweries that are attempting to unseat their forbearers as the iconic brand of their country, bringing a story of Costa Rica or Australia to a new generation of immigrants and expats.

Guinness saw clear value in the concept, far advertising. This October marks the 200th anniversary of the first recorded shipment of beer from St James’s Gate to American shores. And there’s a contemporary relevance as well as their next chapter is unfolding in Maryland as they work to build a brewery and brewpub on the east coast of the U.S.—an operation that will bring an iconic import to bear on U.S. soil. Will that give the brand new relevance and energy for U.S. drinkers? Is the hospitality concept going to connect? Will they lose the historic “import effect” by brewing Stateside? I don’t know, but we’ll be watching!

In the meantime, we have a lot of other stories we’re going to be telling, and first up is the history of importing Pilsner Urquell to the U.S., which has surprising ties to the Midwest. And Brasserie Dubuisson, a Belgian brewery older then Belgium itself, one that happens to be making some of the best wine-barrel-aged beers I’ve ever tasted, unfortunately stacked in obscurity on America’s buckling shelves.

As part of GBH Underwriting, you’ll see display ads from Guinness and partners that we onboard throughout the year, representing breweries big and small, and companies who find value in our audience even outside of beer. We already have the second one lined up for later this summer. And you’ll see Coming to America, a series of stories and podcast episodes, which is specifically made possible by Guinness investment in the platform, helping us reach beyond our current capabilities to track down those stories. Those will show up monthly. The relationship is born of mutual interest in the topic, but the editorial will be strictly off-limits from any other influence—as we’ve always maintained, even from our studio side. We worked to ensure the financials of the underwriting were handled cleanly upfront, one transaction for the whole year ahead, so we wouldn’t feel any pressure or undue influence for any future stories coming from the underwritten theme. And this will be true of any and all underwriters going forward. I only bother to outline this kind of minutiae because I know there will be fair questions. And for Guinness, it was a no-brainer. They’re happy to be here, contributing to an editorial voice they find valuable, and helping a theme with clear relevance to their own future turn into critical and revealing dialog. Beyond that, it’s hands-off and thumbs-up for everyone.

We appreciate the team at Guinness for considering and ultimately supporting our concept. This is the single-biggest step toward making our editorial site break-even—and we still have a long way to go. And because it’s a single transaction, and because the plan is already laid out, and because we’ll be bringing on other Underwriters over the course of the year, we can ignore the need to chase down advertising dollars and worry about clicks that atrophy our passion and perspective over time. Instead, we can focus on what we do best—developing a progressive, challenging, and gorgeous beer publication.

If anyone is interested in more details on how to become an Underwriting partner with GBH, please get in touch. We have plenty more topics we want to kick off, and we only need the runway to do it. Any thoughts or questions? Hit me up on Twitter so we can chat about it in public!
 

Words by Michael Kiser