Brad Ring’s magazines offer advice and instruction to a fast growing number of hobbyists who have turned their garages, cellars and kitchens into micro-breweries and mini-wineries just for the fun of it…
Hearing him tell the stories of his homebrewing adventures (not all of them explosive) does make you wonder if there is a remote connection between a young post-grad making his own beer and his eventual ownership of not one, but two excellent magazines about homemade beverages—today, Ring’s job is to cover every “how to” there is about everything from IPA and New Belgium clones to Chardonnay and Chocolate Raspberry Port. Both magazines—written, designed, edited and compiled in Manchester Center—are like Bibles to a fast growing number of hobbyists who have turned their garages, cellars and kitchens into micro-breweries and mini-wineries just for the fun of it. Ring has owned and published Brew Your Own magazine and WineMaker magazine for the past twelve years. He is the founder and president of Battenkill Communications, which occupies a historic house and barn on Main Street. This quiet but influential publishing company is turning hundreds of thousands of thirsty fermenters into loyal magazine readers and, hopefully, better brewmeisters than Ring himself was at the start.
The beginning of Brad Ring’s story is not about a family tradition of bootlegging and booze, of course, but about a serious grad student who took a love of literature, writing and learning in a direction that in many ways, he seems to have planned all along. Raised in northern New Jersey and later, Wilton, Connecticut, Ring’s Vermont connection started with his undergraduate years at Middlebury College in the late ‘80s. He wrote for the college newspaper and was an announcer for the campus radio station, getting both a taste of ink and a sampling of what life in broadcasting is like. He completed an advanced degree in journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago at the Medill School, and he describes their curriculum as “a perfect fit” for him, almost a nuts-and-bolts trade school format where he studied the business of publishing and broadcasting from the executive angle.
Because his educational focus was broadcasting, it is no surprise that while still in school, he landed on television news—the young, tall, handsome reporter with the foam-padded microphone in his hand, was smack in front of the lens, doing interviews and live on-air reports. During the (first) Bush administration, Ring had a hot Capitol Hill press pass, an abundance of camera-charisma to go with it and a fair shot at a broadcast career. But he asked himself, did he want to be Brian Williams?
It turns out he did not. “I wanted a normal life,” he says, and he began looking more seriously at publishing, specifically the management and marketing aspects of magazines. He can list masthead mentions with nationally-known titles where he worked during the ‘90s, all the while learning the ins and outs of publishing: there’s Saveur, Garden Design, ArtNews and Worth, among many others. Today, at age 45, Ring is as normal as he is going to get; he is married and is the father of three girls, aged 14, 11 and 9. His wife Julie is also part of the corporate team assigned to special projects.
With all that legwork on career building, was he still brewing beer in his kitchen? Yes, because as he puts it: “The winters in Minnesota where I was living then were really long.” In 1999, after working for a short time with the founding publisher of Brew Your Own and WineMaker magazines, he bought both publications, plus a share of the physical assets of the company, all of which fit into one rented Ryder truck. He drove from Davis, California to Manchester, Vermont, and set up shop as Battenkill Communications, a corporation which now has ten full- and part-time associates.
Both of the high-production magazines, their corresponding pumped-up websites, the lively homebrew networking on Facebook and Twitter, several new books, some special publications, and recently, even podcasts about beer- and winemaking have all performed well, Ring says, because so many people are swept up in the trend of making beer and wine as a pastime. With over 100,000 readers for each of the magazines already, and Ring’s estimates for the number of homebrewers and winemakers at about 1.5 million people across North America, he forecasts that his “how to” publishing enterprise will grow even more.
Although he was confident from the start that he could be a successful publisher, he admits he did not predict there would be big jumps in the magazines’ circulation numbers to the tune of tens of thousands within a short time and such a huge potential for developing correlated media and new events within his niche market. In 2002, Ring created the world’s first international amateur wine competition, still held every year in Manchester. Although people could enter their homemade wines for ribbons and prizes at any number of local or regional contests at country fairs and such, there was no nationwide event where every conceivable kind of homemade wine could be professionally judged and garner international acclaim for its makers against a broad field of competitors.
“The first year the contestants sent about 800 of bottles of homemade wine to the office,” Ring says, “and in 2009, we got 4,508 bottles from all fifty states and eight countries.” (They have to rent a warehouse now and boost the staff to thirty.) It has become the world’s largest international amateur wine contest, but not many people know it has been held in Manchester every April, because, as impressive as it is, the judging is not a spectator event.
Ring, a jeans and sport shirt kind of guy whose office has a beer kegerator not far from his desk, doesn’t personally sip every wine in the contest. A panel of fifty qualified tasters rate the entries according to the exact same critical standards by which commercially-produced wine is judged. As the man in charge of the most widely-read magazine about homemade wine though, he cannot help but be curious about a few of the more intriguing bottles once they’re all lined up and number-coded for the blind tasting. There’s a lot of creativity on display there and it is evident that he can instantly hone in on originality. “Once I tasted a jalapeño wine made by a contestant in New Mexico. It was well-balanced,” he says, with a connoisseur’s casual but serious tone. “It was pretty dry…you could drink it.” Besides that, there was a whole jalapeño inside the bottle, he adds.
The cost is $25 to enter each bottle of wine in the WineMaker magazine’s competition and Rule Number Six has be especially perplexing for many contestants; it reads “It is entirely up to you to decide which of the fifty categories [for judging] you should enter.” Seriously?—fifty categories of homemade wine? Ring gives all the entrants copies of the judges’ notes for their wine, which must be the most anticipated moment of all—to finally read what several very educated palates truthfully think of your kitchen craftsmanship.
“We’re proud to have the wine competition at the Equinox Hotel,” says Todd Fletcher, the historic inn’s director of conference services for the past five years. It’s not one of their more typical events, he says, unlike their weddings or business conventions, and—in case you’re wondering—no, he does not get to taste any of the wines personally. “We divide the Rockwell Ballroom into three sections, and it all runs smoothly,” he says. “Brad’s team has the timing on this event down to a science, making sure the different wines arrive at the judges’ tables in the right sequence over the two full days of tastings.” The winners among the amateur winemakers are announced at yet another successful event that Brad Ring created—the annual WineMaker Magazine Conference which this year was held in Santa Barbara, California. The two-day event in mid-May, which attracted 500 novice-to-expert winemakers, featured 28 seminars, several classes on winemaking, guest speakers, tasting parties and the Annual Awards Dinner to announce the winners of the magazine’s wine competition, the event which was held earlier in the year in Manchester. (The current winners are listed on WineMaker magazine’s website.)
Here’s the skinny: It is not the least bit illegal to make your own alcoholic beverages and there are zero taxes to pay on it. (President Jimmy Carter signed a law* that said so, so don’t worry about the IRS auditors or the ATF agents sending you to the hoosegow for making your own hooch.) It turns out that just writing about how to have barrels of fun brewing and fermenting in your own kitchen is big business for Brad Ring and his talented team. Flashing back to ancient times, you’ll recall that the first thing Noah did when the Great Ark hit dry land on Mount Ararat was to plant grape vines and then, of course, he made wine. If Ring had been aboard as Noah’s marketing assistant, he’d have published a breaking news bulletin about that, and he’d have probably entered Noah’s first bottle of wine in a contest.
And, amidst all his endeavors, Ring still finds the time to brew a bucketful of beer now and then. Oh, about his first attempt at cherry stout? “I did manage to salvage a six-pack out of the mess I made when that batch blew up,” he says. “I am sure there are many homebrewers like me who have mopped the ceiling more than once.” ◊Anita Rafael lives and works in Wardsboro, Vermont. In the 1970s, she made many gallons of red table wine with her two Italian uncles, Berti and Pascucci in the kitchen of their Umbrian farmhouse. It was simply labeled BP.