Explaining the (Almost) Unexplainable — The Little Barker of Bridgeport
Some of you have reached out to inquire about the most recent episode of The Beer Temple podcast titled “#55 Better Late Than Never,” in which a local brewery-owner, Ed Marszewski of Marz Brewing (who also owns Lumpen Radio, and has an host of family connections to businesses like Maria’s Packaged Goods and Kimski’s) made some pretty bold claims about GBH, and more specifically me. He made claims about my trustworthiness, the intent of GBH as a business, and generally built a case that I’m some sort of charlatan masquerading as a journalist. I’m not here to defend any of this. We’ve been open and honest about our business since the beginning, and this year we even wrote an article detailing our evolving structure, clients, missions, costs, goals, etc. We like being on the same page with people. And our business continues to grow because of our work ethic, talents, and unprecedented transparency. You can make up your own mind about all that. I’m not selling you anything.
As for the Penrose narrative he's spinning, the secret pay-to-play claims, the previous claims that GBH wants to "destroy small businesses" are all antithetical to anything resembling GBH, and intentionally false. I say intentionally, because he knows better — we wrote about his brewery back in 2015.
What people do deserve to know, however, is the context of Marszewski’s claims. And that has very little to do with any genuine criticism he might believe he has. Rather, he’s carrying out an intentional slander campaign that began as some weird offense he took over me not helping him attain some AB-Inbev sponsorships for his radio station, and openly debating some of his rhetoric and misinformation involving Goose Island.
That’s when this story might have started for Ed. But for me, it goes back even further than that.
About ten years ago when I first moved to Chicago as a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was writing art criticism for a local monthly art rag. The editor of that publication assigned me to interview Marszewski and write an article about his self-proclaimed “Community of the Future.” I got Marszewski on the phone, conducted an interview and found him to be a smart, charming, highly associative intellectual who was working on a ton of cool shit. He had magazines, ran a gallery, produced an art festival. It was all impressive, and still is. And that’s the piece I wrote. The editor, however, was confused why I didn’t tear Marszewski apart from head to toe. Apparently, even back then, Marszewski already had a reputation for shit-talking and slandering his competitors, and this editor was sick of it. He was hoping that I’d pick up on Marszewski’s shady side and expose it. I didn’t though. I didn’t even see an inkling of it. It all seemed like personal beef between these two guys in the art scene, and I told the editor to do whatever he wanted with my interview, but otherwise take my name off it, and I walked away.
Eventually I learned what that editor was upset about. Lupen Magazine, a publication run by Marzsewski and company was leading the charge on anti-gentrification of Wicker Park back in the day. And that's fine — as an arts organization, he had goals that served people other than real estate developers. But rather than be a positive voice for change, it turned into one of his earliest political scams running a column that the Chicago Reader claims they now "readily admit, spread false neighborhood rumors, gossip, and innuendo," as part of their agenda. As a result, many businesses that had been there long before gentrification got roped into the backlash, mis-characterized, and even vandalized. In Marzewski's publications, apparently, it was all fair in war. "These were fascist tactics," claimed one business owner. "They said they wouldn't attack me anymore, but then they'd attack me again." After a local bookstore was run out of the neighborhood, another local business owner explained: "All I read in the Lumpen Times was slander, false reports, misinfomation, and acts of cruelty and vandalism." It's a pretty insane story, but should give you some sense of the tradition Marzewski hails from. And how little he cares about the impact of his behavior. These days he's apparently not concerned with gentrification as much as he is leading and profiting from it in his new neighborhood battleground of Bridgeport.
Ten years later, and Marszewski’s in the beer business. And he’s setting out to make some new enemies.
It’s a story as old as time — if you’re a little guy and you don’t have a marketing budget, all you have to do is pick an enemy, create a culture war, and let the people hold you up as some sort of folk hero. It works in politics — and beer is chock full of politics, genuine and otherwise. The important part is that none of the battle has to be real. It just has to sound believable.
I’ve worked with Marszewski on a number of projects over the past few years — I gave him GBH photography for his Mash Tun magazine about beer to help it get off the ground. I wrote an article for it too. My team performed an historical reenactment about prohibition at his Mash Tun festival. And when he started his radio station — another very cool project — I agreed to host a live version of the GBH podcast as a way to beef up awareness for his project and bring some beer content into the picture. It was fun. I liked working on the projects, but always kept Marszewski at arm's length. He was notoriously scatter-brained and always ended up needing lots of help last minute — and I had a business to run.
After that first show, he asked if I’d be willing to transition my show to his radio station. It was an interesting idea — it could possibly help GBH reach a different audience interested in the broader arts and cultural aspects of a city we love. Plus he had a ton of gear I didn’t have the budget or space for at the time. But with my travel schedule, there was just no way to commit to a weekly show with a predictable time-slot. So I had to decline. He went on to recruit Chris Quinn of the Beer Temple, and that seemed like a great fit. Quinn also was attracted to the gear set-up and the audio expertise. Quinn already had a concept for a podcast he’d been looking to try (we'd discussed the idea at length many times), and he was much more available on a regular basis. He was also a curious guy with good questions about the industry, which he understood from his little corner of the wold of retail — which is a unique angle. I was happy to join as a guest periodically.
That’s when Marszewski asked me for the thing he was really after — money. Now, there’s no shame in raising money for the arts, or even a project that has a business angle to it. And as the head of a number of non-profits and a variety of commercial projects in this vein, Marszewski has a lot of experience working with sponsors of all sorts. But in this case, he was asking me to help him get money from one of my clients, Goose Island and AB-Inbev. It was an odd request coming from Marszewski, although I don't think he was explicitly interested in their money over anyone else's — he was just working a connection. But considering his typical and well-documented anti-corporate rhetoric, it felt a bit off. But he already had full-page ads from Goose running in his beer magazine, so I guess the inconsistencies were perfectly consistent. I don’t really care about that. I suggested he talk to Goose or AB-Inbev himself since I wasn’t really comfortable asking my clients for money on someone else’s behalf. Or maybe even Lagunitas, since he’d had Tony Magee on the show and they seem to hit it off. He was visibly disappointed in the moment — he had a lot of financial ground to cover for the station and he was surely worried about filing that gap — but I offered that I was happy to continue promoting the project myself and if any other ideas came to mind, to let me know.
That’s when things went off the goddamn rails.
Marszewski’s rhetoric became increasingly anti-corporate (hey, to each their own) and he started complaining openly on the air about all the money that AB-Inbev and Goose Island spent on marketing things like Bourbon County Stout. This was a weird thing to say considering they were his biggest advertiser in his Mash Tun Journal, but that wasn’t even the biggest inconsistency — he went on to specifically complain about the “hundreds of consultants” they can afford to pay to make movies for them. He was talking about the Grit & Grain series we helped produce in the run-up to Black Friday. I originally chalked it up to some silly pontificating, but as he continued to deepen his bite, I gave him a shove over email and Twitter. We knew each other well — a pointed, but friendly retort was it order. "Inviting you to this so you can see it all in one go, all nine chapters, and hear about how it was actually made," I wrote in an email about a screening we were doing for the film. "Maybe then you won't be such a jagoff about it." He loves the word jagoff — it's sort of an inside joke.
Grit & Grain, of course, wasn’t produced by hundreds of consultants, it was produced by me and a few guys from Goose in a fairly scrappy way. I invited him to a screening so he could see it, and learn much more about the effort about which he was terribly misinformed, and subsequently misinforming his audience. He wasn’t interested. And that’s when he detached from any recognizable reality. That’s when the threats started. He went on to send some pretty nutty follow-on emails. I’m a sellout, a parasite, blah blah blah. And in his own threatening words: “I am capable of naming names and have plenty of venues to do that.”
Even Quinn’s own reaction at the time was “holy crap.” It certainly gave him pause. “The show isn’t for personal beefs,” he wrote. But since then, it’s gone on to become a platform for exactly that, unfortunately. I sympathize. It’s gotta be hard to have that conversation with the guy who owns your microphones and is helping you build your own brand. But deciding then not to correct the problem has proven to be Quinn's biggest mistake.
It was a very confusing interaction. Threatening to “out” GBH as someone who works with Goose Island would be fine by me. We promote that work every chance we get, along with the work we do for every other start-up brewery. That’s how we get more work, duh. Grit & Grain is one of our most publicized projects, which helped us get more incredible video documentary projects. So what he was threatening to do wasn’t “out” GBH at all. The real threat was that he was going to try and frame the debate in a very dishonest way. He wanted to make it appear that we were hiding something, so that he could then “out” us for that thing, despite the fact that we’ve been openly promoting it ourselves already.
Since then, the show that he owns and frequently joins as a guest or just crashes when a topic suits him, went on to repeatedly bash Goose Island and AB-Inbev (nothing new there, whatever) and then moved on to GBH. They even produced a series of episodes specifically designed to challenge the idea that BCS Rare was worth $60 a bottle, despite the fact that his own brewery has some of the most expensive 750s on the shelf — and they’re just pale ales. Smoke and mirrors. Anyone who closely follows GBH and The Beer Temple saw that debate play out very publicly. But that’s all it was — a voracious debate over the content of an argument, at least from our side. It was heated at moments, no doubt, but it was a debate. It wasn’t this smear campaign that continues to slowly poison that podcast.
Quinn continues to enable Marszewski’s agenda, and even seems to encourage it at times as Marszewski slips in to some sort of bizarre skit called “King Kona” and enacts a thinly veiled troll of GBH while they giggle and clap around him. It’s become a wacky platform for some of Marsewski’s most profoundly idiotic ideas about the beer industry. He’s started fake social media accounts to broaden his attack, he’s written to industry people to make hyperbolic claims, and he’s even viciously targeted our clients hoping to make a dent in our business. He won’t — it’s clear to our partners from his own communications that he’s “unhinged,” “bizarre,” “a lunatic,” and “clearly really bored.” His reputation precedes him. But it won’t stop him from trying.
Why things went to this level for Marszewski, despite us not engaging him directly for almost 8 months now, will always be a bit of a mystery to me. I completely ignored it, and instructed my team to do the same. In the words of a wise friend of mine who took one look at the situation: “you don’t put out a garbage fire by climbing in to it.”
But what he thinks he has to gain isn’t a mystery at all. It seems clear that wants a fight with GBH, not because he believes any of his purported opinions, or is concerned about the industry, but rather, it’s his marketing plan. The more he can play some sort of victim, or tell a story about being the little guy up against the world’s biggest brewing conglomerate, the more juice he gets for his brand and the more product he sells. The host of that last episode, Steve Mastny, said it perfectly when he described Marszewski as a P.T. Barnum character. He’s a human megaphone, a salesmen, and brilliant storyteller in his own right. He uses the power to create some valuable and important projects in both the art world and the commercial beer world. But he also tends to use that same power to manipulate and influence people as a way of tearing down his competitors. I didn’t see it ten years ago as an art writer, but I sure see it now.
It’s strange that Marszewski spends so much time creating these problems. He’s got plenty of his own to deal with. As a start-up brewer with a host of other side-projects, you’d think he’d be spread too thin already. Every start-up brewer I know wouldn’t have time for the nonsense. But anyone still trying to get their bottling line running properly who thinks that the “AB Borg” is their biggest limiter of success clearly doesn’t understand priorities, or their sphere of influence. I’d love to have the confidence of getting a properly carbonated 500ml of Jungle Boogie off the shelf again. Quinn, who had noticed the problem, even offered to buy the last one back from me — just sayin.
The reason GBH is a competitor for Marszewski makes some sense. We both work in the commercial beer industry, we both have publications, and we both have podcasts about beer. Those aren’t really the business we’re in (we don’t get paid for it, and don’t even run ads - yet. Rather, we run a strategic design studio) — but our editorial is certainly some of our most visible and influential work. The very presence of GBH’s editorial voice seems to, in his own words “freak him out.” The same is true of Chris Quinn, who owns a bottle shop (one of our best), has a video blog, and creates the radio show/podcast that Marszewski co-produces. They work together often, hosting exclusive Marz brewing events at the bottle shop, publishing Quinn's content in Mash Tun including an article about Goose Island’s Rare pricing (again - it was a borderline obsession), and hosting the radio show. How neither of them see the hypocrisy of this is baffling to me — but I guess that's how stones get thrown in glass houses. This serves to create a clearly biased and mutually beneficial relationship that promotes both their brands (fine by me, get yours). Some brewers even call it “Marz Beer Radio” in an attempt to laugh off the incestuous relationships, even as they go on the show to promote their own brands. Free marketing is still free. Despite all that, at its best, Quinn achieves his goal of having a critical conversation about the beer world (I always listen hoping to get one of those rare episodes) but at its worst it’s been co-opted and polluted into a Pee-Wee-Herman-like skit starring Marszewski’s personal grudges. The show is eating itself, and I fear it’s slowly tainting everyone it touches.
I hope Quinn can find another outlet, and that eventually Marszewski finds another bone to chew on. He’s got good people working for him that make and sell great beer. And they deserve to have a leader who builds relationships that support the growth of his business, the industry, and their career opportunities instead of burying them under months of outrageous slander and rhetoric they have no interest in answering for. Stuff like that has a way of hurting sales. And if any of them are tired of the mental chaos, well, I have a lot of clients looking for good brewers and salespeople.
So there you have it. A guy with a serious talent for grudges and hyperbole, a history of slandering his competitors, embattled in a life-long anti-corporate campaign that ironically funds his projects, picked GBH as his next marketing campaign culture war and is using the complicity of The Beer Temple (who otherwise has a solid reputation and knows GBH well) to give it the patina of truth. For a more fledgling business, it’d certainly be problematic to say the least. People like Marszewski can do real damage to a company's reputation, and a family’s living, when he generates false attacks like this. Thankfully, GBH is growing by leaps and bounds — our different teams and our clients and partners are on a different trajectory than the one the Little Barker from Bridgeport can see from where he’s standing. And my family of four, and the families of my employees and partners are well-supported.
I’m glad it’s not happening to you. But yeah, we’re fine. GBH can bear it.
Thanks for asking. Now back to business.
- Michael Kiser