Brooklyn Brewery: How a journalist became the king of beer

Story highlights

  • Steve Hindy was a foreign correspondent for Associated Press
  • He set up his own craft-brewing business, the Brooklyn Brewery

(CNN)Steve Hindy has had his share of life-defining moments. As a veteran correspondent for Associated Press, he was expelled from Iran, and witnessed first-hand the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. His most defining moment? The first time he tried home-brewed beer.

The beer was made by American diplomats posted to strictly alcohol-free Saudi Arabia. It was a brew he sampled while reporting in the Middle East.
    "I drank their beer and I saw that you could make really interesting, flavorful beer in your home," says Hindy.
    This gave him the idea to start his own craft brewery when a job as a foreign news editor back in New York failed to live up to the excitement of his life as a foreign correspondent.
    "I always had this dream of starting a business, and the idea of starting a brewery just seemed like an incredible dream," he says.
    He enlisted the help of his business-savvy neighbor, and together they launched Brooklyn Brewery in 1988. While he says that there are few similarities between being a war correspondent and a business owner, he does say they both require thinking on your feet.
    "When I got sent to Iran I didn't know much about the country. But I had to learn pretty quickly when I got there and started writing about it -- I had to learn how to get around and how to deal with people there," he says.
    Similarly, when launching a business, Hindy says he had to be resourceful and ready to deal with problems.
    "You have to do things you never imagined," he explains.
    Here are five insights from his experience about how to make it in the craft brewery business.

    Find your niche

    When Hindy first floated the idea of starting a brewery with his friends, most thought it would be hard to enter an already saturated market.

    But Hindy was clear that his strategy was not to copy what large corporations were already doing: "I said, we're not going to compete with the big guys. We're not going to compete with Budweiser, Coors, Miller -- we're going to compete with the import. We're going to make import-quality beer. That's going to be our niche," he says..

    Get clever about branding

    What sets Brooklyn Brewery apart, Hindy says, is Brooklyn itself.
    "It's funny, when I started a lot of people questioned naming the beer 'Brooklyn.' They said, 'You know, it doesn't have such a great image." However, the area had been a major brewing center a century ago, and Hindy thought that its heritage, coupled with the fact its name was featured in popular movies and books, could set it apart.
    "We started exporting beer from the very beginning and it was the name Brooklyn that helped put us on the map," he says.
    "Today 40% of our sales are export so it's a huge part of our business. And the name Brooklyn is golden these days because of the growth of this creative class here," he adds.
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    Do it yourself

    In the beginning, Brooklyn Brewery found it difficult to find distributors willing to sell their product.
    "We started out brewing at a brewery outside the city, trucking the beer, and basically selling the beer ourselves. It was very difficult, but I think if we hadn't done that, I don't think we would have got established in New York," says Hindy.
    He adds that unlike in the 1980s, today big distributors are keel to get their hands on craft beer.

    Think outside the box

    Early on, Hindy realized his budget didn't stretch far enough to procure TV or radio ad spots, so he took a novel approach:
    "We decided to put all of our marketing money into donating beer to not-for-profit organizations, causes we believed in, arts organizations, and that's essentially the way we market," he says.
    "That's enabled us to build a lot of goodwill here in Brooklyn and in most of the cities where we serve beer," he adds.

    Go the distance

    "There was a very smart man early on when we started the company who told me if you work hard at this and really keep at it, in 10 years you'll be an overnight success," says Hindy. "And he was wrong -- it took about 20 years to be an overnight success."
    The journalist/brewer says it took his company 22 years to get to 100,000 barrels of production, but just three years to get from there to 200,000.
    "People have this idea that beer kind of takes off on its own. I would say for the first 100,000 barrels it took off on my back. After that there is a kind of momentum when you hit a critical mass and a brand begins to grow organically which is a beautiful moment."
    This year, the brewery will produce around 300,000 barrels.