Beer School:
Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery
By Steve Hindy & Tom Potter
John Wiley & Sons
288 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Jack Curtin
Feb/Mar 2006

Steve Hindy's and Tom Potter's Beer School may be the first business book ever which could set the cold heart of a Hollywood producer racing. This one has it all, Mr. DeMille, and if I owned the rights, I'd already have my people on the line with your people.

Beer School is a happily-ever-after success story featuring two engaging heroes who triumph (just barely at times) in the face of overwhelming odds in the nation's most difficult market; intricate maneuvering through the arcane world of big finance; a successful venture into the distribution side of the game and a less rewarding leap into the disaster that was the fad; nervous sit-downs with union guys straight out of The Sopranos; even more nervous moments facing hooded criminals waving guns and demanding cash, and, of course, romance. Okay, it's the heady romance of beer and brewing rather than the "do we go for a PG or R rating here?" kind, but for an audience such as the readers of this august publication, there is no truer love story.

We first meet Hindy as an Associated Press foreign correspondent on his last day in Beirut in May 1984, awaking to the sound of mortars exploding in the parking lot outside his hotel room before having a final breakfast with fellow correspondent David Ottaway of the Washington Post, who will play a major role in what follows. Back home, working as Foreign Editor at Newsday, Hindy takes up homebrewing in his family's new Brooklyn digs and shares a lot of it with downstairs neighbor Potter, an Ivy League educated banker with an itch for a new career. Hindy's developing passion for creating a brewery in Brooklyn finally wins over a skeptical Potter when he attends the 2nd Annual Microbrewers Conference in Portland in 1986. After developing a business plan and raising $300,000, their first beer, Brooklyn Lager, was introduced on March 30, 1988.

Over the next three years, Brooklyn Brewery raised more money in a second offering to investors and reworked its business plan to start distributing other beers. When things got tight, Hindy returned to a one-year stint at Newsday, working at the brewery before and after his "day job," while Potter handled most of the operation. By 1994, distribution grew account for almost 70 percent of revenues, a third investor offering was successful and Garrett Oliver signed on as brewmaster. In 1996, the company finally built a brewery at 79 N. 11 Street, helping revitalize a struggling neighborhood, and the Ottaway family (remember that Beirut breakfast?) became the company's primary financiers. David Ottaway's sons, Robin and Eric, are today Hindy's partners, the family having bought out Potter and the other small investors in 2004. Potter retired and became executive director of the Institute of American Wine & Food last February.

Brooklyn's distribution operation flourished for several years and the company even ventured into Massachusetts. But all distribution contracts were sold off by 2003 (not easily and not without some difficult moments) as brewery growth outpaced that increasingly difficult aspect of the business. There was also a failed, and expensive, attempt to launch, an internet-based national beer distributorship. Both of these ventures, separate entities from the brewery itself, created some dissention and hard feelings in the company as employees and even one or the other of the partners sometimes felt left out of the action.

Beer School is arranged into chapters written by one of the partners and then commented on and given a grade ("school," get it?) by the other, making for the expression of frank and honest opinions. Potter admits, for example, that his role as "Mr. Inside" to Hindy's "Mr. Outside" sometimes left him a bit jealous about his partner's getting all the attention. That's neatly counter-pointed by Hindy's acknowledging the twinge of regret he feels during GABF 1994 when he realizes that his newly hired brewmaster will rapidly become of the face of Brooklyn Brewery. "To this day, I defy anyone to try and get between Garrett Oliver and a rolling camera," he writes. They surprise you now and then as well: it is Hindy the journalist who approvingly quotes tough guy CEO Jack Welch suggesting that ten percent of any organization be fired every year and Potter the banker who writes "I don't think I'd want to work at a company where a certain percentage of people are routinely fired, and I don't want to run a company that way."

There's solid, if sometimes obvious, business advice in these pages, but the stories are what most readers will remember. Which leaves only one thing to say: Lights…Camera…Action!

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

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