After 39 Years, All About Beer Magazine is Dead
No one likes to talk when things end badly.
Two weeks ago, on October 2nd, I received a tip that the venerable All About Beer magazine—which remarkably preceded the craft beer renaissance—was effectively defunct. I’ve spent the intervening time trying to confirm the news, but those close to the situation didn’t want to speak on the record. Yesterday, however, editor Daniel Hartis emailed to confirm he was no longer at the magazine and that he had been one of the last employees on staff. The “staff” page at allaboutbeer.com would seem to confirm that—the sole name listed is publisher Christopher Rice’s.
There Before the Beginning
Founded in 1979 by Mike and Bunny Bosack, All About Beer was the first magazine devoted to beer. It was a strange time in American brewing. Consumption and sales were at their peak, but consolidation had reduced competition and diversity to all-time lows. There were fewer than a hundred breweries in the country and beer culture, such as it was, had become as mass-market and homogenized as the beer itself. The early issues of the magazine reflected this situation. Julie Johnson, who along with Daniel Bradford took over the magazine and brought it in line with the burgeoning craft beer market, wrote in 2015: “Features on imported beer, beer can collecting or homebrew techniques were interspersed with articles about chili cook-offs, football, barroom lore and other topics apparently tailored for a male audience.”
Despite the desultory launch, AAB had one thing going for it: timing. From the fourth issue, when a small piece announced the arrival of Sierra Nevada, it was the leading news source documenting the rise of craft brewing in the US. John Holl, who took over as Editor in 2013, told me, “All this was done in an age before the internet, so All About Beer was a go-to resource. On each page you could learn from the best and brightest in beers. Columns by Fred Eckhardt and Michael Jackson, tasting notes from Charlie Papazian, Lisa Morrison, Lew Bryson, Garrett Oliver and more.” I was one of those voices, writing the “Classic Beer” column for a few years under John as well as the Beer Bible Blog.
Magazine failures are depressingly common, but this isn’t the typical obituary, where the story is so often a failure to adapt to new media realities. Rather, the people I spoke to cited the kind of garden-variety financial mismanagement that ends so many businesses. For years, writers have seen checks arrive late or bounce, and I was contacted by a brewery owed money when I was still writing for the magazine. When Patrick Emerson and I joined AAB’s proposed suite of podcasts, promised ad buys were infrequent.
And yet the amazing thing is that as recently as a couple years ago, the magazine was in the midst of its most impressive period of content. The magazine looked great and Holl had the best writers in the business working on excellent, deeply-reported stories. The design of the magazine—never its strength—was also rich and interesting. And, Holl told me, “Even as online news became the standard, when I was editor we saw print subscriptions rise.” The problem wasn’t editorial—it came from the business side.
Those business problems forced Holl to call it quits. “I left the magazine at the end of March 2017. It wasn't an easy decision, but Rice wasn't reliably making payroll and had bounced several paychecks. My daughter had just been born and I needed to do what was best for my family. Also, writers, photographers, and vendors, like the printer, weren't being paid as scheduled and I wasn't able to help that situation. I know at least 10 other people in the company who left shortly after I did for similar reasons.” Holl credited his replacement, Daniel Hartis, with doing his best amid very trying circumstances, pointing to Rice as the problem.
Failed Promises and an Erratic End
Recent moves suggested an owner scrambling to find a way to bring in cash. A little more than a year ago, AAB announced it was buying one of its main competitors, Draft Magazine. Subscribers to Draft would start to receive print copies of All About Beer, while Draft would become an online source. That gambit didn’t pay off and Draft has become an “affiliate network”—which is to say an aggregator site that features content from elsewhere.
Following the acquisition of Draft, the print editions of All About Beer became erratic. After a long delay, the magazine sent out two issues in early 2018. Just one more print edition would be published, Volume 39, Issue 1. Subscribers who had renewed their subscriptions were promised refunds that never came, despite promises from management.
After receiving the tip about AAB’s impending closure, I sent Rice an email, and he responded with the same optimism subscribers received:
“Nice to hear from you, and the rumor you heard is not true. We’ve had our struggles like so many print-centric publishers, as you know. I am very glad that we can learn from what others have successfully done to evolve in an ever-changing landscape. We do have a significant shift in the business currently underway. I look forward to sharing more details with you in the near future.”
After learning that Hartis was no longer with the magazine, I followed up yesterday with more pointed questions. Rice has not responded.
The print beer media has had a tough run in recent years. Beer Magazine ceased publication. Draft is gone. The Celebrator Beer News ceased print publication. BeerAdvocate went from a monthly to quarterly format. Social media, blogs, and new-media ventures like Good Beer Hunting have replaced magazines and tabloids, which were born during a different media age.
But losing All About Beer hurts. As an institution spanning the entirety of the American craft beer era, it functioned as a reflection of the American beer industry. the late Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt, writers who helped launch beer journalism, were stalwarts in its pages. All About Beer covered every business story, new style development, personality clash, and all the trends and development in craft beer since its beginning. From mustaches to goatees to lumberjack beards—as well as the increasingly common faces of women who subvert the facial-hair stereotype—AAB captured brewers in all their phases.
It’s truly a sad way for the magazine to end. Folks like Julie Johnson and Daniel Bradford have put decades into the business, and writers and editors sweated out tough stories and late nights making deadlines. Jon Page, the managing editor during its late, greatest phase, added this. “During my time at the magazine, it wasn't uncommon to meet brewers who were inspired to start their breweries after reading All About Beer Magazine, or to meet readers who had collected years worth of issues. Going back nearly four decades, the magazine's archives are truly a treasure trove of brewing history and culture.”
It was a pleasure for me to write for the magazine as well, and I’m deeply disappointed that it’s all ending this way. Holl ended his note to me with a comment I think captures the way everyone involved with this feel. “These were two great publications staffed by dedicated workers, filled with great bylines and articles, and both publications deserved better than this.”