Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at Portlandâ€™s annual WebVisions conference entitled â€œ33 Lessons about Beer, Life and Building a Business.â€ 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 couldnâ€™t attend, which is below.
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. Weâ€™d reported on beer festivals before, attending media previews at Portlandâ€™s Holiday Ale Festival, Oregon Brewerâ€™s Festival, and Eugeneâ€™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 â€œmust-try,â€ â€œwant to try,â€ and â€œmight tryâ€ beers beforehand. We took notes on the spreadsheets, sacrificing personal dignity (I was â€œthat guyâ€ more than a few times) for the benefit of our readers.
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 â€œgreen design.â€ Several printers gave presentations to the assembled audience of graphic designers, among them Pinball Publishing, who spoke about their â€œScout Bookâ€ 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.
As I listened to Pinball owner Laura Whippleâ€™s presentation, I recalled an episode of a favorite TV show, â€œThree Sheets,â€ which follows host Zane Lamprey around the world as he explores local drinking customs and beverages. In the â€œNewcastleâ€ episode, Zane visited the Newcastle brewery, and the brewers walked him through a tool they used to ensure flavor consistency between batches. I canâ€™t recall what they called it, but at the time it struck me as an interesting way to notate beer.
The â€œAhaâ€ came when I combined all three elements: pocket notebook, beer reviews and what I began to think of as a â€œflavor wheel.â€ 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 beersâ€™ details later, when I wanted to write about them.
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 theyâ€™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, â€œ90% of success is showing up,â€ and I am now a firm believer in that philosophy.
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 â€œfoodieâ€ e-mail newsletter Iâ€™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.
Several â€œofflineâ€ publications contacted me after that coverage, including Sunset, Imbibe and Food + Wine magazines, and of course, Lisa Morrisonâ€™s wonderful beer radio show. With each publication, sales rose, and today Iâ€™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.