Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at Portland’s annual WebVisions conference entitled “33 Lessons about Beer, Life and Building a Business.” In the presentation, I explained the origin of the 33 Beers books, which are the reason behind this blog (and of course, the fact that I love beer, especially new beers). I received a few requests via the @33Beers Twitter stream for an online version of that presentation for readers who couldn’t attend, which is below.

Tasting Kentucky Breakfast Stout during the presentation.

The 33 Beers books truly began in September 2009, when I and a few other members of the BS Brewing blog (my first beer blog) attended the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. We’d reported on beer festivals before, attending media previews at Portland’s Holiday Ale Festival, Oregon Brewer’s Festival, and Eugene’s KLCC Beer Festival. Most of those fests seemed quite large, with 50+ beers for tasting. There was a challenge to reporting on them, but one we ably solved by printing out color-coded spreadsheets of the “must-try,” “want to try,” and “might try” beers beforehand. We took notes on the spreadsheets, sacrificing personal dignity (I was “that guy” more than a few times) for the benefit of our readers.

Dave Selden and Sam Calagione at GABF 2009

But GABF was a whole other level. With more than 2200 beers on tap, taking notes on individual beers was a near-impossibility, and to be honest, we stopped trying after a few. The blog recap of the festival never came, but a good time was had by all, which was really the point of attending.

Fast forward to November 2009, when I attended an AIGA (graphic design organization) event in Portland on the topic of “green design.” Several printers gave presentations to the assembled audience of graphic designers, among them Pinball Publishing, who spoke about their “Scout Book” product, a pocket-sized, 32-page notebook composed of 100% recycled paper and printed with soy inks. The wheels began turning as they explained how the books could be customized in a relatively inexpensive way. I began to think about a beer-tasting notebook.

Scout Books

As I listened to Pinball owner Laura Whipple’s presentation, I recalled an episode of a favorite TV show, “Three Sheets,” which follows host Zane Lamprey around the world as he explores local drinking customs and beverages. In the “Newcastle” episode, Zane visited the Newcastle brewery, and the brewers walked him through a tool they used to ensure flavor consistency between batches. I can’t recall what they called it, but at the time it struck me as an interesting way to notate beer.

Three Sheets Newcastle

The “Aha” came when I combined all three elements: pocket notebook, beer reviews and what I began to think of as a “flavor wheel.” The idea is and was a quick way to take notes on the beers I was drinking, so I could focus more on the fun aspects of beer events, but still be able to recall the beers’ details later, when I wanted to write about them.

Thirty Three Beers

I went home and started designing the book immediately. Within days, I sent a draft version to a few beer friends (hat tip to Jeff Alworth of Beervana and Chris Ormand of Belmont Station) for feedback, and a day later, the files were at Pinball.

My initial order was 1000 books, which cost me about $1600. Based on that, I estimated that I needed to sell just about 500 books at around $3 each to break even. It sounded like a lot, but not that many, and I figured it was probably better than the money languishing in a savings account at .00001% interest.

While the books were being printed. I began designing a website to sell the books. My day job is as Creative Director at Pop Art, a Portland-based web marketing agency, so this was actually one of the easier steps for me. I had to bootstrap a bit, though, and decided to keep things relatively simple by using PayPal as my shopping cart. My friend Scott Vandehey did the CSS/HTML work for me, in trade for some cutting boards I made for him to give as Christmas gifts.

I also developed a list of influential beer bloggers who I hoped might blog about the books, and I sent e-mails requesting their addresses so I could send samples when the books were finished.

Like all good capitalists, I launched the website a few days before I received the actual product. and sent the link to a few friends. San Francisco beer lover and business adviser Chris Tacy placed the first order, and I was off and running.

In a little less than 14 days, I went from having the idea to having a business, which is pretty crazy in retrospect. When I picked up the books from the printer, they surprised me by saying that my request was one they’d had three times prior; I was the first one to actually follow-through on the idea of a pocket beer-tasting notebook, though. As Woody Allen said, “90% of success is showing up,” and I am now a firm believer in that philosophy.

A Good Beer Blog

Most of the bloggers I contacted reviewed the books, and sales increased to near-daily orders, but generally just 1 or 2 per day. It was amazing to me how much my emotional state became tied to whether or not I received orders. I had no idea how personal business could be. On days I received orders, I felt validated and confident. On days without, I began to question my idea.

The blog posts beget more blogs, and those blogs beget other media coverage. Tasting Table, a “foodie” e-mail newsletter I’d never heard of, featured the books in an e-mail newsletter, and sales exploded. I spent hours every night for a week stuffing envelopes, and I sold out my first 1000 books in just 30 days.

Tasting Table

Several “offline” publications contacted me after that coverage, including Sunset, Imbibe and Food + Wine magazines, and of course, Lisa Morrison’s wonderful beer radio show. With each publication, sales rose, and today I’m getting 5-10 orders every day, including international orders from Europe and South America. I recently worked out a test market with Innspire Ltd, a leading craft beer importer in Australia, to retail the books in Oceania through their distribution network.

There’s a lot on the horizon, too. 33 Wines debuted in April 2010, and I’m working on a coffee-tasting notebook now, with cheese, whisk(e)y and several others down the road. An Android app for 33 Beers is currently in development, too. It’s been a wild ride so far, and I’m excited to see what’s next.

3 Comments on “33 Beers: The Backstory”

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  1. Matt says:

    Great job Dave! Cool to read about your journey with the book. I’ll have one in my pocket for the OBF.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks, Matt! Are you going on Thursday? Bruce and I will both be there in the afternoon, and during the parade …

  3. Matt says:

    Yep, I’ll be there tomorrow. Got the whole day off of work. You can find me in one of the lines.

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