For the Love of the Craft: Guest Interview with Ezra Johnson-Greenough

by: Kathleen Martin

We got the lucky opportunity this month to talk with Ezra Johnson-Greenough founder of one of the most popular blogs in the craft beer industry The New School as well as the guy behind some of the industry's most popular events including the Fruit Beer Festival and Portland Beer Week. When it comes to craft beer, this guy has just about done it all from beer label design and brewing to event planning and marketing.. When does he sleep? He didn't divulge. But he did share with us some of what's gotten him where he is today.

You’ve got a hand in just about everything beer-related in the Northwest - from brewing to beer label design and a slew of festivals and events like Fruit Beer Festival and Portland Beer Week. You also created one of the industry’s most popular beer blogs, The New School.

When did you begin The New School, and what were your initial goals for the blog?

I started it on January 1st 2010, seemed like a good time to launch something new and something that was all new to me. It was like embarking on a new adventure. My goal was to get a conversation going about beer and the industry. I wanted to get a lot of feedback, perhaps ruffle some feathers but only in the sense of getting a conversation started that went beyond just praising everything about the industry.

When you began, were you doing all of the writing for the blog? How did you begin cultivating contributors, as well as building up your readership?

Yeah I began doing it all myself and one thing I learned pretty quickly is that if you want to cultivate a readership you have to post very frequently. I originally thought I would post once a week, that seemed like a lot but a challenge that I was up for. Pretty quickly I found the more often I posted, the more readers came back to read it day after day instead of just going once for a particular story. From the early days, though, I always thought it would be cool to have more voices in the mix. 

For instance, a lot of sites do beer reviews but I thought I would add a twist to it by getting together a panel of 3-5 guys or gals who would each offer their own take on the beer. I also wanted it to seem less like a personal blog and more like a magazine, and it seemed like an original idea at the time to have different contributors. No one around here had writers other than the founder at the time, now it seems pretty common place. The hard part has always been finding good contributors and then keeping them writing regular. It's like at first I thought having the other contributors would be a weight off my shoulders, but then it was a lot of work getting their stories and editing them.

Have you met your initial goals? Have you gotten any unexpected results from the blog’s success?

My initial goal was just to have a good amount of regular readers and I achieved that pretty much instantly. A lot has been unexpected, like the amount of connections and friendships I have got out of it and the notoriety in the industry. Many times I have also gotten burnt out on it and other times I thought it was taking away time that I should be spending on paying work, so then I thought if I am going to keep it up I should make some money on it and do advertising on the site. That was a lot more difficult than I thought--not selling the ads as that's actually been a lot easier than I expected--but the work of keeping them updated and collecting checks. Possibly the most shocking thing though is actually getting referred to as a professional journalist, that still cracks me up when people call me that, really I dont know much about writing and have never claimed to.

How did you get your start in the craft beer industry in Portland? Education or professional experience that  helped lead you to where you are now?

I really came in at every level. First it was just as an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer, but I was also an artist and somehow had fallen into booking and promoting local bands. So pretty soon after getting to know some industry folks I was offered an opportunity to do a label for Roots Organic Brewing and was asked to book bands for the Brewers Summer Games at Pelican Brewery. Not long after that I got into the service industry and did a lot of beertending at some of the best beer spots in town from Belmont Station to Apex and Upright Brewing's tasting room, which helped me meet even more people. I really only have become successful enough in the industry to quit bartending a couple years ago. 

You’ve helped several well-known beer events get their start here in Portland. What do you think has helped make those events successful, in terms of your marketing? After all, there are a lot of events in the area; building interest in something new on the scene seems challenging.

Well I think the biggest thing I bring to the table is just knowing what different consumers/customers are looking for while trying to balance that with what the brewery or other client wants out of it. From there you make a quality product and then the challenge is reaching the audience you want. I am good at this just because I spend a lot of time thinking about it and turning it over in my head. Really it just comes down to I am good at it because I care to be good at it.

Do you still do a lot of design work in the industry? What are some recent projects you’ve worked on?

I don't go looking for any design work ever, which is not to say that I am so popular it just comes to me. I probably get one different design or illustration job a month, maybe less in the slower winter months and that to me is a perfect amount of work. 

What are some of the things you do to stay inspired creatively?

As an artist I dont feel like I need to find things to inspire me. They are all around everywhere and in everything. I do have a decent library of great art books but I rarely ever open them unless I am at some sort of impasse. Actually, that's one reason I dont go looking for illustration or design work because I hate jobs where I am told specifically what I am to design and that leave little room for creativity; ironically, those are the jobs that I feel the least creative or inspired. And in those rare instances I will flip through some of my old favorite comic books or open one of my old school design books or something.

One of the things I think is great about the work that you do is that, while you have worked with plenty of  individual breweries, your true calling is in the service of craft beer in Portland and beyond. What can you tell us about balancing individual competition with the overall health of the industry's ecosystem?

The thing I am passionate about is the art, the creativity of it whether it be a beer or an illustration or an original song.

There is not much competition between the people I work with. There is very little competition in the industry as a whole because it is still such a young industry and the future has always been so bright. At the same time we are starting to see more legal battles over trademarks and branding and I think tha'ts a sign of the industry getting larger and more mature which is good and bad. On one hand brewers are going to have to be more business savvy, and perhaps yes even more competitive, but the challenge is also to resist these changes and keep it fun and keep it about the beer and not the money. 

What would you say are the top three things you’ve learned from your experiences with event planning? Advice for anyone thinking about creating their own event?

(Chuckles)... Well, my first inclination is to tell those people don't do it! Keep your day job. And that is because I see so many people trying to start a fest because they think it looks easy and that they can do it too. More constructive advice would be don't think you can plan a great event just because you have been to a lot of them yourself. I recommend helping someone more experienced with their event and working behind the scenes. As just a fest/event attendee you really won't be able to understand how it works behind-the-scenes and the reality of things. Perhaps the biggest challenge of organizing an event is all the little details from remembering to get wristbands to pitchers to pour the beers into to ticket collection buckets. And certainly marketing and promoting your event. Don't even try to do it yourself if you have not done it before. Festivals are expensive. You may think you can't afford to hire someone to promote it for you but really, you dont have the money NOT to hire someone to promote it for you.

Thanks, Ezra! 

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