By Jack Curtin
Podcasts had a major breakthrough in 2016. These audio files online provide an alternative to the trash heap that is commercial radio and the viciousness of social media while giving listeners a comfortable and convenient way to pursue specific interests. They are inexpensive to create, conversational in nature (no scripts needed), easy for listeners to consume and, because listeners seek them out because of the topic matter, speak to a targeted audience. The format has become extremely popular in the beer community because of the broad interest in our favorite beverage by both consumers and homebrewers.
Among the most avid beer podcast listeners are individuals looking to open new breweries. A typical example is Miles Wilhelm, who is planning to launch a farmhouse brewery in Central Oregon in 2017. “I’ve spent the last five or six years listening to The Brewing Network,” he says, “and added MicroBrewr and BeerSmith more recently.
The Session from The Brewing Network was my go-to podcast for years until I discovered its more-focused Brew Strong spin off. When on a long trip, I usually load up my phone with as many episodes as will fit. All those podcasts have made me a better brewer and fed my excitement and enjoyment of this hobby turned career.”
Many of the most popular beer podcasts are born as live radio shows and then made available on venues like iTunes and Stitcher. That’s perfect, because radio is where beercasts began. What was almost surely the first beer-focused broadcast program in the USA was Beer Philadelphia Radio, started by Jim Anderson in 1997, six years or so before podcasting became a thing. Anderson was a mover and shaker in the early days of craft beer in the city, creating beer events of his own and covering the scene in a bi-monthly publication and also being one of the first to do so online. “I started the show in an effort to see if beer could be a viable cross-medium topic in the way that food was,” recalls Anderson, now a citizen of Scotland. “The first show featured Tom Kehoe and Jon Bovit, the founders of Yards Brewing Co., in studio and a trans-continental, happy-hour phone link with Iain Lowe of CAMRA from the White Horse Pub in St. Albans, England.”
One of the primary sources for beercasts today is The Brewing Network, which Justin Crossley started in his garage in Concord, Calif. in 2005 with his show, The Sunday Session. Now renamed just The Session (it’s broadcast at 6:00 PM PST on Mondays), that program remains the flagship among the seven programs on the network; the list include the likes of The Sour Hour, Brew Strong and Dr. Homebrew. All of them are live broadcasts because, says Crossley, “from the beginning we wanted the feel of live radio, what people were used to, and ability to get listener feedback.” They currently are broadcast from a studio at the network’s sister company, The Hop Grenade Taproom, which opened two years ago. “Patrons can listen and watch us through the studio glass while tasting the beers we are talking about,” says Crossley. He adds that a second Hop Grenade will launch in Fort Collins, CO this year. “We’re not putting in a full-time studio there but are setting aside a room for private functions and will go and broadcast from there from time to time.”
Another early broadcaster was Basic Brewing Radio, which started the week after The Sunday Session launched and focuses on homebrewing. “They do a great job and, in one sense, are the antithesis of us,” laughs Crossley, “a little drier and more serious. You could say that we’re Howard Stern and they’re NPR. We’ve developed something of a symbiotic relationship. We send people who get tired of our entertainment approach over there and vice versa.”
Excellent beer podcasts abound these days. One such is Beer Sessions Radio, hosted by publican Jimmy Carbone from Roberta's Pizza in NYC every Tuesday at 5pm over the Heritage Radio Network, which is based at the same location and defines itself as "the world's pioneer food radio station." The shows are available as podcasts after the initial broadcast. Carbone and the late Ray Deter founded Beer Sessions Radio in 2010 and there currently are 400 shows available for listening. Each features multiple guests and usually has a theme of some sort, and individual shows draw as many as 60,000 listeners from all over US and overseas. On the guest appearance list are names like Garrett Oliver, Charlie Papazian. Ken and Brian Grossman, Tony Magee and Larry Bell. A NY State Craft Beverage Grant last summer allowed Carbone to record and produce four special regional shows and "On the Road with beer Sessions Radio” will expand into other states in 2017, with a focus on beer tourism.
Spirits also get into the act. Ryan Maloney, owner or Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, MA, hosts his live radio show, It's the Liquor Talking, from 11am to 1pm. He and co-host Randall Bird, he says, "keep it tongue in cheek and try to entertain." The program is strong on personalities and built around a lineup of regular segments. He and Bird do a weekly bit called “Yay or Nay” in which they grab a product off the shelf and tell the audience "whether to go out and buy it or avoid it altogether." There is a news segment, “Booze in the News” and a "Wine of the Week." Employees of the store are also participants and each has his shtick and theme song. Nick Barnes is the beer guy, “Bearded Beer Ninja,” and Bird is "The Spirits Medium." Toni DeLuca is “Diva of the Vine,” Kenny Sadowsky is “The Beverage Whisperer” focusing on non-alcoholic beverages, and “Inside the Bottle” features interviews with industry people. “A Drink with Ryan & Randall” features local business owners who bring in their favorite drink for the host and get to tell the audience about their enterprises while the beverage is being consumed by the hosts. A more serious touch is added by “Ryan’s Rants,” the owner's take of current events in the drinks world.
Apparently, if you broadcast it, they will listen.