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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

New AB-funded Blog is Business as Usual

I have to admit events of the past week or so have been a serious distraction. It's a little difficult to think about beer when the country appears headed for a Constitutional crisis. The first two weeks of the Trump era have been a wild ride.

Scanning my inbox and social media for beer-related news, I discovered our old friends at Anheuser-Busch are up to no good. You won't want to miss their new ad, set to run during the Super Bowl, which uses a pile of alternative facts to depict the brand's early history. Bizarre waste of money.

Then I learned of AB's latest excursion into the craft beer world. This time, they've funded a blog covering beer and the beer industry. Actually, funding for the venture comes through a creative intermediary that is backed by Anheuser-Busch. That makes the connection a little less obvious.

Honestly, I haven't read through enough of the site's content to give it any kind of objective review. But you can find a pretty good (and funny) beatdown here. Some of my colleagues in the local beer writing community have commented, mostly not in a good way.

You see the problem, right? Any publication that is funded, directly or indirectly, by the world's largest beer company is going to have a perception problem. Keep in mind that in the wake of MegaBrew, Anheuser-Busch is far and away the most dominant player in the beer world.

And here they are financing a site that covers beer. Why would they want to do that? I'd say they want a place at the table. They're certainly aware that there are hundreds of more or less independent blogs, many of which don't provide very favorable coverage of AB initiatives and brands. This blog, for starters. They'd like to have a voice.

The challenge for the new site, which I mentioned to a gent involved in the venture on Facebook, is there will be the perception of potential conflict of interest regardless of what they cover. His response is they intend to make the AB connection clear (we shall see) and are focused strictly on good coverage. Fine. But the connection to Anheuser-Busch is a huge issue. At least for me.

The good news for AB and for the folks launching the new site is the average craft beer consumer, in contrast to well-informed beer geeks and writers, doesn't pay that much attention to who owns brands and finances websites with beer-related content.

In fact, the average craft beer consumer very often has no interest in these issues. There are plenty of people who are just fine ordering Goose Island in a bar or buying 10 Barrel in a grocery store. They don't want to be bothered with the details of why it might not be a great idea to give their money to the world's beer behemoth.

My guess is the new blog will benefit from that same mindset. A majority of people who read blogs aren't beer geeks. They're simply out there surfing for information. When they come upon the site, most won't know or care that there's a potential conflict of interest in the coverage.

Indeed, consumer ambivalence is exactly what Anheuser-Busch is counting on. They've been counting on it with their brewery acquisitions, with their fake craft brands and now with the new blog. This is strictly business as usual for them.


  1. Thanks for the link! Glad you found it to be a humorous take. I'll admit I was a bit harsh when referring to the podcast.

    1. BTW, I'm not opening a brewery. Just haven't used whatever this commenting profile is for a long time.

  2. Hey, hope you eventually take a real look at the site instead of assuming.

    We're actually counting on a high level of engagement, not ambivalence. As I mentioned in that Facebook thread, the goal of the site as a venture with Zx and Condé Nast is to create its own stand-alone value as a web property. If it's just AB fluff, as you understandably assume it might be because of the backend relations, it'll never stand a chance. But the genuine effort here couldn't be further from that. And we'll let the content speak for itself.

    1. Michael, I love your work on GBH, but you must understand that even when October isn't publishing material about AB, it's only natural for people passionate about craft beer to be suspicious of all its coverage when Zx is involved. You know who Anheuser is; you know the lobbying they do in state and national legislatures; you know that at the end of the day, almost anything the company does is focused on driving sales of Budweiser and Bud Light. You know the now giant list of breweries they've acquired. You know as a journalist that it's an automatic conflict of interest on at least some level whenever you'll be covering those breweries, if there's Anheuser funding in the project.

      I read most of the launch content that was on October. It was fine, well written, and for the most part what I would expect. But that doesn't mean the conflict of interest isn't there.

      I expect you're probably frustrated by this, although I can't imagine how you wouldn't have been expecting this reaction. If you're saying "What can we do to prove our non-allegiance?", there isn't much, but covering Anheuser's legislative meddling would at least be something. I can't help but notice there's no reference on October currently to the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, for instance.

      As a regular GBH reader, it's a shame to see the site involved with AB in this way. That's just my opinion, for what it's worth.

    2. Michael, I'm not assuming anything with respect to content. All I'm saying is the site's connection to AB puts you in a difficult spot when it comes to credibility. The potential conflict of interest extends beyond coverage of AB properties and brands. What if you write something negative about a non-AB brewery? Some readers might conclude that coverage is tainted, right or wrong.

      As I say in the piece, the beauty of this venture is the average craft beer consumer either isn't aware of or doesn't care about Anheuser-Busch's dominant position in the beer world. So it's mostly just us geeks and writers who will look at October suspiciously.

      Nonetheless, I wish you luck with the project. I'll definitely check in from time to time to see what you're covering. But I don't think there's any way you can eliminate concerns about potential conflicts of interest. The site's connection to AB makes that impossible for me and many others.

    3. Exactly the sentiment that I was trying to espouse as well.

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  4. Hey guys – appreciate your thoughts. Context will be helpful here. Indulge me for a moment.

    First, GBH is a small design agency, and we work with breweries of all shapes and sizes, including AB. Been that way since day one: http://goodbeerhunting.com/thestudio

    Secondly, if you find our content up until now to be balanced, fair, critical, and thoughtful, well, you should feel just as confident going forward on both GBH and October. Not automatically, we aim to earn it.

    The conflict of interest is self-evident. We totally get that. And here's what we've done in a very practically way to handle that issue, which we take seriously.

    1. On GBH, our content is managed by Austin Ray, an independent editor out of Atlanta. All our people report to him — even me. His role explicitly exists outside of our agency team in order to increase our own bullshit meter and guard against unintended bias. He's been doing a phenomenal job.

    2. For October, while ZX Ventures is the financial impetus behind it, the project is run by Conde Nast, Pitchfork, GBH and Beer Graphs. Eno from Beer Graphs and I are the only ones making content decisions. We don't report, review, or get permission from AB on anything. We created a contractually-bound buffer. The reason we did that is that October is a venture-backed project, meaning that it has to prove its own worth and make it's own revenue, which it simply couldn't if it were an AB PR machine. That'd also be gross.

    In the end, we work with individuals and companies to make exciting things we think will have a positive impact on the industry. For tiny start-ups, that's the same thing. At a place like AB, which is a giant multi-national corporation, we work with individuals who we think can make a difference both within, and without the company.

    I've spent a lifetime working with large corporations like Nike, Samsung, HP — and I know that while it can look like a big faceless enterprise from the outside, that it's really made up of countless individuals, some of who are trying to make a difference and leave a real progressive mark on the industry they serve. When I find people like that, like the guy who wanted to start October, and fought tooth and nail to do it, we got behind him all the way.

    Totally possible that something changes and the direction for October shifts in an undesirable way. We're pragmatists. But we'd fight for it. It's a great idea with a lot of potential.

    Your skepticism is completely warranted. Not trying to change that. Call us out if you think something is demonstrably wrong. But if it's demonstrably good, I'd appreciate the open mind too.


  5. By the way, I'd really appreciate you not linking to that Brew Studs piece. I don't mind his opinion - to each their own - but we were NOT acquired in any way. This is just one of many projects for us. And the comments in that article are fake — he's either getting trolled, or trolling himself for dramatic effect. It's really shameful.

    1. You're insulting readers. The headline was obviously rhetorical. Corporations like AB InBev might be people, but people can't be acquired by corporations, at least until Trump gets his SCOTUS appointments confirmed. Was I trolled? Seems more likely that you knee-jerk ranted thinking I'd never approve the comments. Important to note that the site has never been trolled in comments before. Either way, I deleted them to give you the benefit of the doubt. I do have evidence that you threatened to sue me, though. Wouldn't that be fun to publicize? What's really shameful is calling somebody a liar for publishing facts about a beer editor running a blog labeled as a craft beer site while also being funded by the craft beer industry's nemesis.

    2. Tortious interference of a business is no joke man. You can't say a business was sold when it wasn't.

      I DMd you. I even called you. Tried to give you a chance to do the right thing. And you ignored us. If you want your words to matter, then write words you can stand behind. Otherwise express opinion however you'd like - that's nothing new for us.

      We're the fake comments another troll? Likely. You're not the first - you're actually in a club.

    3. If it's no joke, then you should probably stop saying that I said your business was sold. Called me? Did you leave a message? Didn't ignore you, BTW. Just didn't see your DM until I woke up this morning. Then I screen grabbed your threat, replied to you and complied with your request -- partly because I don't want AB InBev trying to shut down the site that I manage for 50+ kickass beer lovers, who are all amateurs. The other reason is that I kind of feel bad for the individual Michael Kiser, becasue I'm pretty sure you're probably a nice guy and I was overly critical of your contributions to the podcast (the beer in me talking). The editor for October Michael Kiser better watch out though, because there are a whole lot of beer lovers who love it for more than 'just beer' keeping an eye on you. The times we live in don't afford a wealth of opportunities for working folks, and the craft beer industry has proven to be a rare place where talented people aren't corp-blocked from doing desirable things that they know they deserve to be doing. Your new blog backer and GBH's client at times has taken multiple actions that threaten to erase that idea from the working person's landscape. I'm just one those people sniffing out signs of danger and warning my friends, and I can't help that your business endeavors are getting caught up in my process.

    4. I did call you and leave a voicemail. I got your whois data from your tech company. I think you'll find the message to be serious but respectful.

  6. Maybe you left a message on a troll vm. But it's nice that your imaginary message was respectful. Enlighten me: is that respectful like the two comments you didn't post on my website respectful,respectful like you called me a liar publicly twice respectful or respectful how you threatened to sue me respectful? Or maybe you mean respectful as in how your October financier respects craft beer brands in Southern Kentucky or how they're respecting small breweries in Nebraska right now. I guess I just need to look up the word, because there's no mother respecting message from you on my mother respecting voice mail.

  7. This Whois data was the only public contact information I could find with a phone number. No idea - did my best. I'm at not trying to go to war with you on this - I only asked you to change the misleading information. And I'm glad you did. I hope we can all go back to more important things.



Keep it civil, please.