I’ve got a confession to make.
I want to be Ken Weaver when I grow up.
Ken is a freelance beer writer, author, hopefully-soon-to-be-published graphic novelist, and until recently Beer Editor at All About Beer magazine.
Now, when I say I want to be Ken Weaver, I mean I want to write about beer and get paid for it. (Don’t freak out, Ken. I’m not a stalker or anything. As far as you know.)
Don’t get me wrong. This blog is a fun hobby. But it would be nice to get a little extra coin for putting these words on the page, you know?
But, truth be told, my best fit would be a full-time gig with, you know, benefits and a paycheck and all that. I fully admit to being too much of a wuss to go full-freelance and actually fend for myself for my income. Yikes.
But I digress.
Ken was nice enough to answer some questions via email. He talks about the literal long and winding road he’s taken, from Pennsylvania coal country, to college in the Northeast where he earned two (!) Master’s degrees, to Nicaragua, to ultimately living the freelance life in Petaluma.
Beerverse: You have a Master’s in physics in college, then got another in creative writing. What was the original plan, and why did you switch gears?
Ken Weaver: The easy answer is: I grew up in coal country, I didn’t like it, and I was good at math. I’m originally from a rural part of northeastern Pennsylvania, which, like many parts of the Rust Belt, has seen some distant better days.
I had stuff I wanted to do. I didn’t make many close friends, and my personal ticket out was math. Special teachers from age six, accelerated courses, a brick calculator, lots of folks having my back. I got to do some cool stuff: discounted trip to Carnegie Mellon; paid jaunts to Cornell, MIT, CERN (the European Organization of Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. I pushed every academic button I could find. Ultimately, I forgot way more physics than most people care to.
I jumped ship from a PhD program with my now-wife to doing a creative-writing MFA, which still wasn’t the right fit. But it gave me time to write.
BV: What were your post-college years like? What kind of work did you do?
KW: Aside from a brief and glorious early reign as a Sandwich Artist…
I taught a bunch of different undergrad classes through the end of grad school — 8AM calculus, physics labs, intro-comp courses and, the best, creative writing. After that: renewable-energy consulting while trying to get my shit together as a writer. Throughout all of it, Ali (my wife) was building a firm career in renewable-energy consulting and keeping us afloat.
BV: You volunteered in Nicaragua for a short time, helping develop water and energy systems for remote villages, correct? I would imagine your physics background came in handy there. What inspired you, and what was the experience like?
KW: Ali’s impetus. We had considered a trip to Europe too, but Central America we could afford. We hooked up with Mathias Craig and the other fine folks at blueEnergy who were in Nicaragua doing good stuff with technologies we were interested in.
Nicaragua was cool as hell. And it puts you in your place really quick. We ended up community liaisons, as it were, spending three months at HQ, then the other three months in a remote indigenous coastal community called Kahkabila.
We’re talking 40+ miles by the slow boat and outboard-motor panga. We took buckets of rice and vegetables and such every time we headed out for a stay in the community: rations for a couple weeks at a time. We taught elementary-school classes to fill in, maintained the solar panels and turbines, made bricks for a tourist center, welcomed visiting fancy folks, taught one of the best kid creative-writing classes ever, and got sick so many times.
These folks were totally off-grid when we’d arrived. Candles. Crank lights, from other nonprofits. The wealthiest of the villagers had a diesel generator and some electrical cords strung along branches, connecting to houses of other family members. Gas came from a barrel and siphon in Pearl Lagoon.
We’d spent months working on sustainable projects in the community, and — in true Nicaragua fashion — near the end of our stay, we hear from folks in Kahkabila that the grid is coming through the jungle. Given bureaucratic realities, we’d gotten basically zero notice. But we did get to see the electrical grid come to that community: drilling post holes, the little celebrations. It was humbling and magnificent at the same time.
Regarding physics: Anything like electronics lab was always my worst class. I could speak ten times more Spanish than I could understand. I was not super useful.
BV: What sparked your interest in beer, and when did you decide you wanted to write about it?
KW: My college roommate at Carnegie-Mellon got me into good beer and whiskey. I also had a super-smart beer crew through RateBeer, when Ali and I lived in DC. I don’t speak many dude languages, and good beer’s always been a good way to find my people. I stumbled into the beer-writing aspect of it after finding a subculture I liked.
BV: Do you remember the first beer article you got paid for? Was that the start of your freelance career?
KW: My first beer-writing checks were probably from more than a decade ago now, when I happened to run into someone involved with the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. She’d twisted [then Editor] Greg Kitsock’s arm to have this literary-fiction guy they met at a Brickskeller event write for them. At the time, I didn’t have a sense for the language, or the chops for it at all. That initial blip was before Nicaragua and led to nothing for a long while.
BV: How did you wind up on the West Coast?
KW: Before leaving for Nicaragua, Ali and I saved up and spent a few months traveling to national parks and beer spots. I think our budget was fifty bucks a day for lodging. I think Santa Barbara was the only time we slept in our car, so we didn’t move there.
A lot of the folks we stayed with were RateBeer peeps, or folks we’d just meet in a cool beer spot and would offer up a room. It was such a good trip. People were real kind. We gave ourselves extra days to hang in places that we had interest in. Sonoma County fit our vibe—we eventually settled in Petaluma—with Boulder just behind.
BV: Was there a “light-bulb moment” when you realized you could actually make a living as a beer writer?
KW: When the baseline’s literary fiction, you’re not exactly shooting for the stratosphere on the income front. As noted, Ali had my back. I’d gotten a cover article published in All About Beer at an early stage in my writing life (Ali ended up shooting the cover shot), and we finished the book she and I did together: The Northern California Craft Beer Guide. I did words. She did photos. We’d spent six months traveling all around northern California—a few hundred spots. Took the tour at Anchor as the last piece. Turned in the manuscript (on time) that same day, then put in my two-week notice.
BV: Why did you make the jump from Rate Beer to start 3 Beer Island? I know your other projects have pulled you away from it, ever anticipate reviving it?
KW: 3 Beer Island was a fun email-newsletter prototype for me after I had left my role at RateBeer Weekly (which we’d built to like 100,000+ active subscribers before I left). I jumped ship in fall of 2014. Joe Tucker and I talked a ton of business ideas, and he’s one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met. But I don’t last long in steady-state situations.
My eventually full-time spot as beer editor at All About Beer Magazine took up any time I had floating around for 3 Beer Island. But I love building content in that kind of space. Email newsletters are such a fun format if you know what you’re doing.
BV: Speaking of other projects, you’ve tweeted about potential books on the horizon. Can you elaborate?
KW: Still in flux. Got one coffee-table book under consideration. We’re trying to structure a solid working arrangement between the guide’s publisher (Cameron + Co. based in Petaluma) and a bigger publisher that they’ve been designing titles for. I loved how our first book turned out and want to build a bigger experience with this next one.
I’ve also been tweeting about a graphic novel, but I’m still just finding my feet in that space. Working on an 18-issue arch, hoping to have a draft later this year. Beer? Yes.
BV: I’m curious how you handle time management. For me, between working full-time and responsibilities at home, I find it difficult to create the habit to write consistently. How do you divide your time between all your projects and still having a life?
KW: I have a revolving stack of freelance gigs, after being full-time at the mag for a couple years. The most comfortable arrangement for me is an ongoing set of spaces where I have an audience I can grow with. I’ve got my different spots with All About Beer, one with Rare Beer Club, plus evolving freelance. Second book’s a natural next step. I’m always looking for folks to make stuff with.
Time management: I try to do the most important stuff first.
Ali and I don’t have kids. We both work long hours—but we don’t have that kind of a responsibility in place. We make increasing time for each other, fam and friends, and if there’s a trajectory to our lives now, it definitely isn’t in a direction of more work.
BV: Tell me about the Rare Beer Club and your role in it.
KW: The monthly beer club’s been around for like 20+ years. It was originally founded by Michael Jackson. I handle content for the club’s newsletter: brewery profiles and tasting notes, plus a brief column. They send me well-chosen beer and I do deep-dive tasting notes each month.
BV: It seems beer media is as susceptible to consolidation as the industry it covers, with All About Beer acquiring Draft Magazine not long after you left. How do you feel about the move? Any thoughts on the ever-evolving media landscape?
KW: I don’t know key details behind the move, but I’m hopeful that it means a more sustainable future for both companies. The plan is to keep my Trending column. I’ve got some new projects I’m working on, and it’s good to be back to full-time freelance work. Regarding the beer media landscape, I’ll just say we’re seeing things evolve rapidly right now.
BV: Regarding the industry in general, the Brewers Association has gone all-in on independent ownership with their recently unveiled logo. I gotta admit, I recently broke down and picked up a Lagunitas. Aside from the samples sent to you to review, is there an ownership line that you won’t cross as a consumer?
KW: I just try to stay away from companies that act like jerks or demonstrate destructive values. The world is complicated, industry groups will always have a challenge trying to fully define something, and as a consumer I just try to stay as educated as I can about what I’m drinking and the good folks who make it.
BV: Finally, based on your experiences, what advice would you give someone thinking about making a go of the freelance life?
KW: For one: I’d encourage folks to take careful stock of what they’ve already got. It often takes some months to build up clientele and for any actual checks to start appearing.
As I see things, though, this is about as good as it gets, for me. I’m an independent freelancer. I’m involved with a community of folks I genuinely feel great about. I’m able to work from home with Ali and two swell fuzzballs. I pick my clients and gigs.
I feel like much of adulthood, creepy as it is, is that very personal decision of figuring out what’s actually important, and then just focusing your efforts on those things.
Thanks, Ken. I’ll let you know when I have that figured out.
And Ken, if I can ever be of assistance to, oh I don’t know, help you with your backlog of samples, or maybe use your media pass for a festival you can’t attend, hit me up.