"Influencer." What do you first think of when you hear that word? What exactly does it mean? Is it a good thing to be an influencer and can such power be used for good?
A Beer is Born
Meetings came and went, we filed in the Streetside taproom several times somewhat secretly, meeting and greeting (many of us for the first time) while eventually ironing out the details, timeline, and of course, what the hell this thing should be. As I said above, these weren't just beer nerds. This was a robust team of Cincinnati creatives with a finger on the pulse of what's hot in just about everything. Yet suddenly, that almost seemed to work against us. The beer nerds did what beer nerds do; they wanted to go super indie-hipster on everyone.
"How about we take an IPA and dry hop it with an actual Pastry Stout?!"
"No, scratch that. We fake an IPA, but it's actually a Pilsner but with a crazy high IBU."
"NO, WAIT! We make a brand new style.. the API. Think bout, it bro. The future of beer bro"
"Bro, that's blowing my mind, bro."
*Disclaimer: none of that conversation actually happened. Yet we did debate for what seemed like an hour*
Surprise, surprise; The Gnarly Gnome wanted to make some traditional style, but then we reminded him he was at Streetside Brewery. We were all going in different directions, my notepad was a mile long, and Garrett Hickie (Recipe writer, Brewer, and Managing Partner) looked somewhat concerned and puzzled. Speaking of which, Streetside is a brewery that can brew about anything well, but let’s face it. They really like to churn out heavy-hitting (often barrel-aged whenever possible) stouts, fantastic NE IPAs, and are known around the entire city for their Berliner Weisse finesse- mainly which possess high ABVs to boot.
Yet, ironically, in the end we didn’t brew any of those styles, but we came close. The final three were between the beer that would eventually win out and become Socially Influenced, a Pastry Brown Ale with Waffles, some type of milkshake IPA with marshmallow, or a Pink Guava Berliner of some sort. How did we decide? A simple vote which was somewhat guided by Garrett Hickie, of course, the brains behind the brewing operations and the one who writes the recipes at Streetside Brewery. We shrunk a list of over what seemed like 30+ ideas brainstormed over the course of a month down to one solid option that the overwhelming majority seemed to be in favor of. The secret behind the formula? Well, technically, once again Garrett, but the winning idea was courtesy of Abby Allen, who literally texted or emailed me while trashed at brunch “I’VE GOT IT! A BROWN WAFFLE BUTTER ALE!!!”
Where are the people that say that drunk ideas go nowhere now? Nowhere.Both myself and Streetside Brewery were challenged with this tough question when a unique project was brought to life. Spoiler alert: Cincinnati now has a truly special community beer collaboration several months later.
The age of the Influencer, A Dirty Word?
Driving along 275 one strange-weathered Cincinnati morning like most, my mind was racing with a million thoughts as it often does. I started to think about ideas for articles, interviews, cool features, and overall content that I thought would be fun to write about for the website. At this point, the Instagram account was beginning to snowball in popularity, and the blog was getting increased traffic.
It was then something else popped into my head. I thought to myself about all the people in our local community like me. People who share what they love with anybody who will listen. Words, pictures, blogs. It’s all just a tiny blip of data among the enormous social media universe. So why do we do it? Is it fame? Fortune? Getting free shit? Or could a group of people all have one common ground; being passionate about their community? Maybe a mix of everything? Next, I thought about a word I’d always deeply despised: influencer.
“You know, I don’t hate the word influencer because to me it just means that somebody respects my opinion. Somebody wants to hear what I have to say.” — The Gnarly Gnome
Why does this word make me cringe? I couldn’t come up with a valid answer as much as I thought about it. I assumed it was because it was always a term associated with overdone reality TV, a slew of hopeful somebodies all striving for the most likes, or even the get rich quick toxic social media personas. To me (and many of us), social media has always been a magic trick, one of the greatest illusions that anybody and everybody now all has access to. The tools are free, and the magic trick is easy to perform. The age of social media, while still in its infancy, is widely used as everyone’s very own greatest hits album in picture format, to be put on display for your peers and the rest of the internet to marvel at or even be influenced by.
It’s well documented that social media has done a ton of damage to our generation’s realistic expectations of how our lives are led and what we should look like. It’s even troubled many mental health experts who caution social media is further separating us from reality. Yet everyone, including me, has one (or two, OR THREE?!), and even worse, Cincy by the Pint has begun to get popular and trend in that direction. I mauled over all these conflicting thoughts as I just realized I’d lost track of the last 15 minutes as I mentally auto-piloted the rest of the way to work. Finally, I was at my day job, and it was time to put my mind to rest for the moment.
Maybe I’m the problem? I’ve always enjoyed sharing my opinions with others. Yet, I am very shy of ever being regarded as an expert. Personally, I think being considered an expert commands a particular expectation and consistency with the title. I don’t consider myself an expert on, well.. anything. The label also holds you in high regard, and maybe most troubling of all, it puts a target on your back for critics and keyboard warriors alike to disagree and challenge your educated opinions. No thanks. I’m way too sensitive.
Meanwhile, I’ve constantly fought with the thought of something becoming popular as associated very heavily with sell-out culture. As a massive fan of music, I’ve watched many of the bands I’ve followed throughout the years grow from small stages to selling out arenas. Should I dislike them for it? It seems crazy when I propose this question out loud, but every single one of us has jumped at the chance to tell somebody that you’ve personally liked something before it was cool. It’s that chance to claim your dominance of opinion, to be an early adopter because you knew it would be cool. An Influencer perhaps? Furthermore, once somebody or something is massively known about and widely recognized and cheer-leaded, it’s easy to become a target for criticism or accused of losing touch with its origins. Maybe that’s what I disliked most about the Influencer role? Selling out? Losing track of where things began? Or perhaps being associated with every ‘Instagram model’ hocking any and everything to the masses, searching for their 15 minutes.
Flash forward to an event that has come and gone; Beer, Booze & Bonks. I was invited to help organize a fantastic experience by the owner of the Fowling Warehouse of Cincinnati. Here, the Influencer title was tossed around heavily with conceptualization, the official press releases, and marketing efforts. It was clear at this point it was a title I felt that I would have to make peace with eventually. It was then that I was chatting with my other co-host, The Gnarly Gnome. He said something along the lines of “You know, I don’t hate the word influencer because to me it just means that somebody respects my opinion, somebody wants to hear what I have to say.” That simple perspective changed everything. To be put so simply by somebody I look up to quite a bit put it all in perspective for me.
Although I’ll always picture Kim K when I hear the word, that conversation stuck with me.
During this same timeframe, and along with those same mental mind Olympics (it’s exhausting), I had an epiphany. What if I reached out to every Cincinnati ‘Influencer’ that busts their ass to create their own brand of content, that simply shares their favorite things about Cincinnati with their followers? There is a vast community of Cincinnati creatives, from diverse backgrounds, across a wide range of years active, that have at least one thing in common with me; we all do what we do because we love doing it. We don’t make any significant money (in my case 0); we like simply being a voice, sharing our opinion, and sharing our city. What if we put those voices together in one room? What would it sound like? Why has nobody done this before?
In the current ‘pay-to-play’ culture of social media influencers trying to cash in on the gold rush coupled with local “news media” accounts masquerading as unbiased publications, these everyday Joes and Janes are the real heroes to me. A passion for community and love for Cincinnati would quickly become the requirement and groundwork that would shape our theme for the entire project. It just so happened to turn out there was one Cincinnati brewery I had in mind that embodied these same characteristics.
Enter Streetside Brewery. A small taproom with a big personality and an even larger following. Family-owned and well regarded by just about everybody in Cincinnati, it made perfect sense to reach out to them first and foremost to gauge their interest. Although they were definitely intrigued when I pitched the idea, it wasn’t a 100% slam dunk as I thought it would be in my head. Truth be told, Streetside was indeed interested, but that came with some reservations. Collaborations are a two-way street. If executed correctly, they can be insanely popular and exciting. Without the other party’s mutual efforts? The final project is a direct reflection of the confusing relationship. Unfortunately, the latter was the case in some of their previous collaborations with various entities, the owner of Streetside Brewery, Kathie Hickie, explained. Knowing the Hickie’s before this, I was very aware of the lengths they go to ensure each business decision is the right one. It was absolutely my top priority we did this right, and I wasn’t going to be responsible for a failed project. What happened next eased all my fears.
It took a tiny bit of convincing, but eventually, my (soon to be our) foot was in the door. Next came assembling the crew. I wanted everybody working on this project to be essentially hand-picked by me and okayed by Streetside. Why? I had a clear vision of the type of personalities I wanted to work with and a handful of names already in mind. I wasn’t interested in anybody with outside bias, both paid or simply stuck in their ways. I did take suggestions to round out the group, and I’m happy that I did. My criteria were simple:
- Passionate about Cincinnati
- Dedicated and would see the project through
- Not powered by advertising dollars
- Would generally get along with a large group
- Feel like a piece of a puzzle that was something more significant than any of us
- Not piss me off
- Absolutely not a member of Chowdown Cincinnati administration. They never approve any of my posts, and I hope they’re reading this too. Seriously, just approve one.
Easy right? It was. Seriously, almost too easy. A dynamite team was quickly formed, an impressive mashup of creative talent slapped together from all walks of Cincinnati. From Bloggers to Podcast Hosts, tenured veterans, and new blood. Each person brought a unique point of view to the table. I don’t think I could have ever asked for a better group of individuals to all sacrifice their time and energy to see this project through. The group meshed quickly and a few meetings later, we had both a name and a style.
Every person I reached out to initially replied with an emphatic yes, and we’re thrilled to be part of this project. The most staggering part? They all stuck it out to the finish line as they had promised me from the very first call, text, or email. I think that speaks volumes of our team alone.
We had a style. We just needed a name. I thought the name ‘comBREWnity’ was incredible during my original idea to kickstart this whole thing. Unfortunately, nobody else echoed this sentiment. Everyone shot it down in a very nice way, though, so bonus points for letting me down softly. Eventually, Craft Beer Joe would come up with the last piece of the puzzle. ‘Socially Influenced.’ Everyone liked it immediately, and it was perfect. Despite my disdain for the word, let’s face it. It perfectly summed up our project and rolled off the tongue. The rest of the story happened fast.
Streetside opened up their hearts, taproom, and brew deck to our group. For several days as Head Brewer, John Ewers, and a slew of other Streetside brewing experts walked us through the entire process from ingredient sourcing, mashing process, transferring through the various tanks, to finally fermentation. He and many others did all this while explaining each step along the way and answering what must have been at least 50 really dumb questions. Most likely the majority by me. It was an incredible experience that not many people will ever have the chance to witness and/or learn from. While the brewing process is a labor of love and not exactly lightning quick, John and his team kept us well occupied as he proceeded to showcase the ingredients they selected for our special beer, as well as taste test some super-secret future Streetside barrel-aged releases straight from the barrel.
Next came canning. A process that requires vast attention to detail, and once you’re committed, you’re in there buddy, and not going anywhere. There’s no going back when the canning line starts. We watched in awe as the tiny yet efficient canning line funneled and filled each can straight from the bright tank, capped it in perfect harmony, then rolled it along, finally awaiting a label to be slapped on. At this point, we stayed pretty far back as we watched the hypnotizing process unfold. My takeaway you ask? Sucks to be the poor guy who slaps the pak-tech on each 4-some of cans. Yikes. My hands hurt just watching him. Perhaps that’s my future entry-level brewing job. I’m up for the challenge Streetside, call me.
The Release and Take Away
It was very similar to how Beer, Booze, and Bonks felt; from conception to materialization, it went by in a blur. Truth be told, this project pre-dated the Gnome and I’s event at the Fowling Warehouse by about a month. The original idea, at least. Beers don’t get brewed overnight, and if they did, I wouldn’t drink it. Eventually, Saturday, December 11th would come and pass as each and every one of us showed up to Streetside before the doors opened and would eventually watch the first customer come in and drumroll please! Order a socially Influenced. Score!
The taproom was busy, really busy. Everyone on the team had become friends at this point as we celebrated and socialized amongst ourselves and the customers. The Brew Runners of Cincinnati showed their support by scheduling an unofficial friend and family fun run before the doors opened while toasting a pint with us afterward. Most importantly, both Streetside and their customers seemed to have approved of the final product. Even our podcasters got in on the action as The Cincy Brewcast led by the Gnarly Gnome, as well as Beer and Beards Podcast; both recorded a live episode on-site as members of the team cycled through with an added bonus of speaking with Garrett, who served Streetside’s liaison to our group throughout the entire project.
We had pulled it off. There it was displayed on the digital tap board in front of us, as well as on sale to-go in 4 packs that were flying out the door.
Surprisingly, my biggest ‘oh shit, this is happening’ moment among the entire project was the honor of ghost-writing the label blurb. It was special because it came to me so quickly and effortlessly that I didn’t have to think twice. It’s not because I’m an award-winning author; it’s because I had the fortune to be surrounded by so many incredible and inspiring co-creators working hand-in-hand with me along the way. It’s impossibly humbling to have that moment of realization in which somehow my words and feelings were forever eternalized on a beer can. One which I’ll keep forever, or until it explodes.
It indeed takes more than a village. But, whatever the cause or how many people it demands, the Queen City will always rise to the challenge because it’s filled with incredible people. Every day people that band together and support each other to create, inspire, teach, and ultimately sign the Queen City at the top of their lungs. That, my friends, is what this project always was and has been about. And that’s where the story ends, just as it began. Ordinary, everyday people, doing extraordinary things because they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is being an influencer bad or wrong? I think the jury is still hung, but I know one thing. Get ready for some big surprises next year.
A very special thank you to Kathie Hickie, Garrett Hickie, Erin Kelly, John Ewers, the entire Streetside Brewery team, and of course, our stars of the show:
- Merrell Wood (top-back) (@cincybythepint)
- Linsey Kraeling (@linsinnati)
- Dinushki De Livera & Hunter Pasek (@forkcincinnati)
- Dione Wu (@drinkingdiningdione)
- Dannielle Browne-Harper (@dannielleincincy)
- The Gnarly Gnome (@the_gnarly_gnome)
- Donald Gilbert (@wishyouwerebeer513)
- Diamon Bell (@Beerisnotforboys)
- Angelo Poneris (@bigfatgreekdrinkscraftbeer)
- The Brew Runners of Cincinnati (@brewrunnersofcincy)
- Joe Easton (@craftbeerjoe)
- Abby Allen (@deliciously_cinful)
- David McKinney (@breweryadventures)