Whatever happened to Unemployed Reporter — the beer that made Jon Campbell famous?

Fifteen months ago, Jon Campbell’s Unemployed Reporter beer went viral. Journalists loved the bottle label, which said the beer’s ingredients “included chocolate and roasted barley malts that are as dark and bitter as the future of American journalism, and a high alcohol content designed to numb the pain of a slow, inexorable march toward obsolescence.”

Campbell’s home brew had “not yet expanded beyond the five-gallon bucket in my closet,” but he told me in February of 2013 that he was “exploring” the possibility of a limited edition brew.
So what happened to Unemployed Reporter beer? I wondered.

“I’m still brewing the beer for myself and friends when I find the time – I have a few bottles in my closet right now – but still working with only a five gallon bucket,” Campbell writes in an email.

He adds that he doesn’t have plans to get it on liquor store shelves.

My inquiry, he says, “is a good chance to clear up some pretty funny miscommunications surrounding all of this. …Unemployed Reporter Porter was never anything more than a label and sub-par homebrew created to amuse myself and a few friends.”

The whole thing began when I emailed some photos of my satirical label to a former colleague. I thought she’d get a laugh out of the dark humor. (In fact, I created the label, strictly for my own amusement, almost a year before I showed it even to her.) Before I knew what was happening, she’d sent it to my former colleagues at the Hartford Advocate, who posted a short blurb that got picked up elsewhere.

After it got some attention, in an act of pure opportunism, I did briefly entertain the idea of getting an established brewery to produce it – and when I say briefly, I mean I sent out two emails – but that went nowhere. That I thought such a thing might be possible just demonstrates how pitifully little I know about the brewing business.

Many of the stories about Unemployed Reporter brew reported that Campbell had been laid off from the Hartford Advocate.

“In reality, I wasn’t let go from the Advocate,” he says. “I relocated to California, quite voluntarily. We parted on good terms and I really enjoyed my time there. It’s a great group of people. But in true internet fashion, the story mutated as it was reposted. Pretty soon I had been ‘laid off,’ ‘fired,’ ‘jilted,’ and had moved on to a new career, none of which was true.”

The story grew more dramatic as it was retold, he says.

I would have corrected the record but appropriately, the label started to go viral just as I was laid out with the flu. In my sickly state, I wasn’t really up for responding to the emails I was getting which, bafflingly, came from publications as far afield as El Salvador, New Zealand, Spain and Germany. And most of the blogs who wrote about the beer never reached out anyway, so I didn’t have the chance. All in all, it was a lesson in the internet telephone game and the media echo chamber.

Jon Campbell

Jon Campbell

It was all a little funny to watch. The sentiments I expressed seemed to strike a chord with some in the media business, and I got a few emails from people who had strong reactions, positive and negative. But it also made me a little nervous. At the time, I had recently applied to graduate school and was waiting on the acceptance decision.

When I saw my potential future professors tweeting about my cynical, expletive laden creation, I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. But it seemed like they all got the joke. And I’m glad people found it funny. I met a number of people in graduate school, professors and students alike, who had seen the beer before they met me, which was pretty amazing. I can only hope some of my actual journalism gets so much attention someday.

The 31-year-old journalist graduates in a few weeks and begins a fellowship program at the Village Voice in July.

* February 2013: Lots of buzz for Unemployed Reporter beer (jimromenesko.com)