Editor John Holl first suspected something was amiss in the fall of 2016, when his boss—Chris Rice, the owner and publisher of the venerable Durham-based All About Beer magazine—told him the company would no longer use direct deposit, instead reverting to paper checks.
It was temporary, Rice assured him. Holl and his staff trudged along, resigned to the reality that print publishing is full of uncertainty, and maybe Rice just needed flexibility. But then, Holl says, Rice started asking him to hold on to those checks—to wait until the weekend was over, until the company was flush again.
Sometimes, Holl says, those periods stretched beyond the weekend. Sometimes Holl, managing editor Jon Page, and other employees waited as long as two weeks before getting the green light to cash their paychecks. Other times, they were told to cash them, and Rice would cover whatever fees they incurred if the checks bounced.
The troubles only mounted from there.
Soon, the vendors with whom the company worked to put on events, the web developers who kept up the magazine’s online presence, and the freelance writers and photographers whose interviews, stories, and photos populated AAB’s pages began to call Holl and Page, concerned that they hadn’t been paid in weeks, even months.
“It was hard working with writers and photographers who weren’t getting paid for six, eight months,” Page says.
By early 2017, in addition to running a nationally circulated niche publication, Holl and Page say they also had to play middlemen to a growing chorus of angry third parties.
It wouldn’t last long. Holl and Page both left the company within a few months, unable to deal with the insecurity of a full-time job that paid when it could, and unwilling to continue telling writers, photographers, and vendors that their checks were coming soon when they had no idea if that was true.
For thirty-nine years, All About Beer was home to some of the scene’s most regarded writers and was a prominent player in the craft beer movement, both nationally and in North Carolina. Since its founding, AAB’s influence had stretched beyond its pages. The magazine and its staff were behind the beloved World Beer Festival and were instrumental in Pop the Cap, the 2005 change to North Carolina law that allowed the state’s beer scene to take root.
All of that abruptly ended on October 19, when the beer blog Beervana reported that AAB was effectively dead—its employees had been laid off, and the magazine had ceased publication. As Beervana noted, some AAB subscribers, many of whom had been reading for decades, were enraged—not just that the magazine hadn’t published a new issue since January, but that they hadn’t gotten the refunds they were promised when they complained.
Its former staffers, meanwhile, weren’t surprised.
“All About Beer was synonymous with quality and excitement in the beer world,” Page says. “The idea that we’re not seeing issues of it on the newsstand anymore is just sad to see.”
All About Beer was founded in Southern California in 1979 by printing executive Mike Bosak and a handful of beer-enthusiast friends and investors. The magazine published irregularly through its first decade—as many as eight and as few as four issues per year. By the mid-eighties, it settled into a bimonthly schedule, which it maintained until this year.
At the magazine’s founding, there were fewer than one hundred breweries across America, nearly all of which were mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. But even then, AAB quietly heralded the ultra-nouveau movement of craft and small-batch brewing. Its fourth issue had a brief mention of newcomer Sierra Nevada—today the seventh-largest brewer in the U.S., with production facilities in Asheville. In the decades that followed, AAB found itself on the leading edge of an exploding scene.
The magazine’s ownership changed hands a few times throughout the 1980s, before Daniel Bradford—then, a regular AAB contributor and a founder of Colorado’s Great American Beer Festival—purchased it in 1992 and moved it to the Triangle when his then-wife and soon-to-be editor, Julie Johnson, took a job at Duke.
Rather than the promotion, expansion, or even documentation of the budding craft beer movement, Bradford’s mission was always one of education.
“I’m not here to create drunks,” says Bradford, who owned AAB until 2014 and is now a consultant to up-and-coming breweries and beer publications. “I have a personal history with drunks that motivates me to educate the public about beer appreciation and beer quality. That was always my motivation.”
It was under Bradford and Johnson’s purview that AAB evolved from a male-centric lifestyle-of-beer document, one whose stories skewed more superficial, into something more erudite, informed, and thorough. Focusing on long-form, deep-dive journalism from renowned writers such as Michael Jackson, Fred Eckhardt, and Jeff Evans, AAB was soon regarded as the elder statesman of beer publications.
“[AAB] helped elevate the image of beer in the public’s eye,” says Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery. “They helped people see that beer could be as well-respected as wine.”
In the mid-nineties, the magazine expanded to include the World Beer Festival. Cut in the image of Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, the WBF brought brewers from around the country to Durham, furthering Bradford’s mission of beer education in a way magazine stories never could.
Yet as AAB solidified its reputation as a premier outlet for beer coverage, its local readership was still legally prohibited from imbibing many of the beers the magazine wrote about. In the early 2000s, North Carolina’s alcohol laws prevented any beer with more than 6 percent alcohol by volume from being brewed or sold in the state. By comparison, Budweiser’s ABV is 5 percent.
“People were driving into Virginia, spending hundreds of dollars on exciting new beers, and bringing them back into the state,” Johnson says.
Toward the end of 2002, Johnson opined on the “silly law” in her regular News & Observer column, offering a New Year’s resolution. “Eliminate the words ‘and not more than six percent (6%)’ and the problem is solved,” she argued. “We only need to remove seven words from the statute books.”
After outlining seven steps to removing those words, she concluded with a New Year’s resolution: “So, next Wednesday, among all of us who are resolving to lose weight, volunteer, get more exercise, or pay our bills on time, is there a critical mass of beer lovers who can open up beer choice for North Carolina?”
The response was immediate, and Johnson was flooded with queries. Back then, North Carolina had a few microbreweries doing their best within the law’s confines—the Outer Banks’ Weeping Radish, Greensboro’s Red Oak, and Ashville’s Highland Brewing among them—but there was an entire world of hoppy IPAs and boozy stouts that were forbidden.
Soon, Johnson, Bradford, and Wilson organized what they thought would be a small meeting at AAB’s offices. More than thirty people showed up, passionate for beer and sparked by the idea that change was on the horizon.
The Pop the Cap movement was born. Its argument was modest: Loosening the old laws wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything, but it would create jobs.
“And I was the secret weapon,” Johnson says. “I guess [legislators] expected to see a drunk frat boy arguing for beer. But sending in a middle-aged lady? They were shocked to see me.”
By 2005, Pop the Cap had pushed lawmakers to raise the ABV limit from 6 percent to 15 percent, which opened wide the doors to beers from the likes of Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and Dogfish Head. Breweries started popping up left and right, and a state that had previously counted five breweries became a hub for microbreweries and highly curated bottle shops. Today, according to the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, there are at least 260 breweries and brewpubs in the state.
While Pop the Cap was a huge moment for North Carolina’s beer culture, the magazine that helped birth it was struggling to adapt to the digital age. Courtesy of a wave of web-based competition, beer coverage had flourished and democratized. AAB remained the studious upperclassman, but there were lots of exciting upstarts—blogs like Beervana and Good Beer Hunting, as well as AAB’s chief print competitor, the Arizona-based DRAFT Magazine.
In 2013, following her divorce from Bradford, Julie Johnson left, returning the academia. Bradford tapped contributor John Holl to take over.
“Daniel took a chance on me,” Holl says. “I wasn’t qualified.”
Though Holl had never edited a publication, he’d become one of the most recognizable and respected voices in the craft beer industry—a “rock star,” Page says. Soon after, Bradford brought Page on board as managing editor, tasked with ensuring that the trains ran on time. The fresh blood reinvigorated the magazine. With Page living in the Bay Area and Holl in New York City, AAB again became a leading national outlet despite the proliferation of beer coverage online.
By then, Bradford had owned and operated AAB for more than two decades. And while his passion for the community was evident—he still attended every editorial meeting and was a visible presence at conventions and beer festivals—after he suffered a stroke, he decided the time had come to move on.
“I needed to make room for younger people,” he says. “[Craft beer] is such an exciting industry. It changes a lot, and I knew it was time for me to get off the stage and make room for other people.”
On July 2, 2014, Bradford sold AAB and the World Beer Festival’s parent company, Chautauqua Inc., to Chris Rice, a partner at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Brewery who was already ensconced in the industry.
“He was at Carolina Brewery,” Bradford says. “I’m a partner at Top of the Hill, so we had a lot of friends in common. I interviewed a lot of people in the industry about him, and a lot of people I respect had recommended him.”
After the sale, Bradford stayed on in an advisory role, maintaining an office at AAB and contributing to its pages. Rice focused on growing and modernizing the company, remaking it into a multifaceted beer-adjacent empire.
Under Rice’s direction, All About Beer sponsored local tastings at grocery stores around the country and created new beer festivals. The company’s updated website teemed with the news stories, reviews, and stories its readers had long grown accustomed to reading.
At the same time, however, Page and Holl say they began to get troubling calls from vendors who weren’t getting paid on time, and Rice began asking them not to cash their checks.
“We stuck it out as employees because it was always somebody else’s fault,” Holl says. “[Rice] was always blaming someone else.” They were told the vendors had miscalculated or the rental companies had gotten dates wrong, Holl says.
Jude Desnoyer, who was hired as events manager in 2016, says he was inundated by calls from unpaid vendors. When he reached out to events companies, he discovered that AAB had been blacklisted. In November 2016, Beer Quest—a festival AAB planned to throw in Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark—was canceled one day before it was slated to take place, after AAB bounced a check, Desnoyer says.
By March 2017, Holl had left the company, and Page and Desnoyer left a few months later. Digital manager Daniel Hartis was promoted to editor.
“There was a lot of turnover from the time John Holl and Jon Page left,” Hartis says. “There was a snowball effect. It seemed like we were losing key members every week.”
“I wasn’t able to read the writing on the walls,” Desnoyer says. “But the growth we were always being promised just wasn’t happening. And after talking to people within the company about how writers and designers weren’t getting paid, I thought, this is not going to get better.”
Despite the apparent financial woes, Rice purchased DRAFT Magazine in August 2017, announcing that AAB would replace DRAFT in subscribers’ mailboxes, while DRAFT would become an online-only resource. Quickly, though, DRAFT stopped producing original content and became little more than an aggregator, reposting stories from other blog and websites.
Things seemed to be unraveling, Hartis says: Beyond the continuing calls from unpaid vendors, subscribers began to comment in online forums about missed issues, magazines they had paid for that simply never arrived.
This August, DRAFT’s staff in Arizona was padlocked out of its coworking space after missed rent payments, Hartis says. What remained of the AAB staff worried the same thing would happen to them in the Triangle.
Hartis was laid off in October, but he says he’s still owed four paychecks. It took Desnoyer six months to get what he was owed upon his departure.
Beyond his own pay, it was the lack of commitment to readers that weighed most heavily on Hartis. “The hardest part was subscribers reaching out, asking about the status of the magazine, and my not being able to give a significant answer,” he says.
“A lot of the [staff] took it all personally,” Desnoyer adds. “Those people had put blood, sweat, and tears into the brand, and they were just being washed away.”
Several former employees interviewed for this story lay the blame for AAB’s demise at Rice’s feet, arguing that he mismanaged the company. But it’s difficult to know for sure what went wrong. No one aside from Rice really knows, and he isn’t saying much.
Last month, Rice told Beervana that the AAB wasn’t actually closing: “We’ve had our struggles like so many print-centric publishers, as you know. … We do have a significant shift in the business currently underway. I look forward to sharing more details with you in the near future.”
What that shift entails isn’t clear. Rice declined numerous requests for an interview for this story.
It’s possible, perhaps, is that AAB had simply run its course, and its apparent end is merely a sign of the times. From the monolithic to the niche, magazines all over the country are shutting down or cutting back their print runs. (As Beervana noted, Celebrator Beer News ceased print publication earlier this year, and BeerAdvocate announced last December that it was switching its print schedule from monthly to quarterly.) Combine that with a market flooded by blogs and websites, and maybe AAB just became obsolete.
The magazine’s former employees reject that notion. Over nearly four decades, they say, AAB had created something special, something that connected with disciples of craft beer and its attendant culture. In better hands, they say, AAB could have thrived.
“When I saw the article about the death of All About Beer,” Johnson says, “I shocked myself by crying. I thought that there had been enough time, and I had been pissed off long enough that it wouldn’t make me sad. But it made me terribly sad.”
Follow Michael Venutolo-Mantovani on Twitter @christglider. Comment on this story at email@example.com.