How to build your own personal beer empire

How to build your own personal beer empire

VicesOctober 14, 2014

You live in Colorado, so you obviously brew amazing beer that everyone deserves the pleasure of drinking. Before you go off and rent that rundown warehouse and start hawking your dishrag dunkle, however, take some advice from the professionals to see if you’ve really got what it takes to build your own beer empire.

1. Good Beer
If every time your buddies come over, your keg of pale ale not-so-mysteriously vanishes, it’s damn near time to open a brewery, but what about the exploding hefeweizen still in your basement? There’s no time for mediocre when a new brewery opens every month. Once you start, you’ve gotta brew what you love and what you’re good at. If your quality is consistent and amazing, you’ll have people belly up to the bar faster than you can say taco-truck Tuesday.

“The raw material procurement is a big logistical issue, and as you get bigger, it gets harder. The two main ingredients, hops and malt, we contract out ahead of time. Hops in particular, we contract out as far as six years. It’s a big part managing to make sure we get the quantities and quality that we want. It’s a big part of letting us brew the quality that we do.”
— Wynne Odell, Odell Brewing Company

“The bottom line is you have to have a passion for beer and a passion for business. It has to be both. I was around in the ’90s when there was a boom and a bust in the brewing scene. Everyone thought if they put it on the shelf, people will buy it, but there was a lot of bad beer and bad businesses. The ones that survived had a good business plan and good beer. If you want to get into this, and this is the big one, brew more beer than you drink.”
— Dan Weitz, Boulder Beer

2. Business Plan
If you got an A in economics and are taking business classes in between your stints in the call center, you’re off to a good start. Breweries cost a chunk of change. If you want to make money, you’re going to need a solid business plan that includes detailed financials, what kind of brewery you want to open, what kind of beer and how much you intend to produce. Will you be using bottles, cans or kegs to distribute, and how do you intend to do that? Spare no detail before you go in front of investors.

“Be very thoughtful and diligent when you put your business plan together. Add as many details as possible on what you want your brewery to be in terms of atmosphere, community, volume and sales channels, those aspects that drive your business plan, fundraising, branding and location.”
— Josh Robbins, Mountain Toad Brewery “

“Work on your business model, and don’t follow where the industry has been because it’s not going to work anymore. If you were to go to an under-served market that would work. You’re going to have to try to find what it is that’s going to carve you out and be unique.”
— Brian Lincoln, Funkwerks


“Take advantage of the industry, ask a lot of questions and get to know people, which is harder than it sounds, because brewery owners are very busy. But one thing I always say is everyone’s gotta eat lunch. If you can catch them on a slower day, take them to lunch, and pick their brain. That for me was invaluable, to sit down with brewery owners and ask how they did it, how did you get started, what’s the next step? It’s info you can’t get from a book, it’s free, and we’re in Colorado. There’s a wealth of information here.”
— Brian O’Connell, Renegade Brewing

3. Capital
Opening a brewery isn’t like having your buddies over for a home brew barbecue for the game; it costs a lot of money. Existing breweries raised capital in one of two ways: self-funding or seeking investors. Both have their pros and cons. With limited money, you can only do so much, but with a bunch of hands in the pot, you could end up with a brewery that looks nothing like you’d hoped, in a bad way.


“If you’re getting into this for the money, you’re delusional.”
– Craig Rothgery, De Steeg Brewing


“Don’t give up equity. We totally bootstrapped it; we built ourselves up from cash flow and then eventually started going to banks, but I hear horror stories from peers. When you have outside investors who aren’t involved in the business, they have different ideas about what kind of returns should be coming up, how fast you should be growing and different ideas about when you should liquidate. If you can retain control, it slows down how fast you can grow, but it makes it so much easier to make decisions and stay focused on what it is you want to do.”
— Wynne Odell, Odell Brewing


“We embrace being small. We like brewing a lot of different recipes. We have fun brewing variety, mixing it up, new ingredients. We like being strange. Because we’re small and we’re 100-percent independent, we can make crazy one-offs.”
— Tim Meyers, Strange Craft Brewing

4. Location
That abandoned warehouse you are so keen on would be the perfect place to start up your new life as brewmaster. You can already see your 10-barrel system set up in the corner where the raccoons are now, and the bar will go right over there next to that wall that surely wasn’t insulated with asbestos. Picking a location is the hardest part. You’ll need an architect and a contractor to help you bring the space up to code and install any brew equipment. A competent one will also be able to keep you abreast of any zoning issues surrounding your location of choice.


“Real estate is a big piece of the puzzle. You need space, and in Aspen space is a lot. Build-out was expensive. I had a good idea of the ballpark cost, but you need to get close to that and then double it. Once we found the right place, we had to deal with zoning issues, updating the building to code; you have to expose every last detail.”
— Duncan Clauss, Aspen Brewing

“Don’t do it all yourself. Some of these places that open quickly have phenomenal spaces and hit the ground running. They had a whole team in place. It’s not just a brewer and your pub and the chef. You’ve gotta have a general contractor and architect. Get those experts in there.”
— Tim Meyers, Strange Craft Brewing

5. Pull Together a Crack Team
If you’re the kind of person who spends all of his money in Blackhawk on ripe hookers, you should probably hire a bookkeeper, a lawyer and someone to take care of the front of the house. And if your home-brewing pal has bailed you out of jail a few times, you’re on the right track. No matter how awesome you think you are, you can’t be a brew master, a business manager, a bar manager and a book keeper at the same time. If you want to build a beer empire, you’re going to need to put your friends or at least some well-vetted brew lovers to work.

“When you look at it from the outside, you think ah, man, everything goes great. It’s not true. No brewery runs perfectly. … Very quickly I realized there was so much more management, running a business stuff that I never dreamt of. It took me out of the brewery faster than I’d planned.”
— Brian O’Connell, Renegade Brewing

“Just because you can cook doesn’t mean you should open a restaurant. Just because you can brew beer at home doesn’t mean you can do it professionally. Hire a professional; hire someone who knows what they’re doing. In the end, this is a business, and it needs to be run like a business. You have to hire people that are more talented than yourself.”
— David Lin, Comrade Brewing

“We’re not really brewers. Well, we are, but we’re mostly glorified janitors: clean, clean, clean. All the fucking time we’re cleaning something: kegs, tanks, lines, everything, because you will get an infection, you will spoil the beer, and you will lose $1,500 in ingredients.”
— Tim Meyers, Strange Craft Brewing

 

6. Follow the Rules
The alcohol industry is a very highly regulated one, in case you didn’t already know, especially in Colorado. You’re about to walk into a minefield of government regulations, taxes, licenses and fees. Don’t freak out, though, they’re normally really easy to comply with. You just need to have a few less beers every night and make sure you’re towing the line.

“Who’s going to deal with the government? Even if you’re small, you still need licenses. You have to get government approval for all of your labels. The owners of Boulder Beer didn’t know that. They started brewing in a goat shed. They got a bunch done, so they sold it, and a few days later this guy comes up in nice car and a suit, he asks ‘you guys selling beer?’ They say ‘Yeah, you want some?’ He says, ‘No, I’m from the government. I have some paperwork you need to fill out,’ and hands them a stack six inches high.”
— Dan Weitz, Boulder Beer

“A lot of people don’t look into that enough. I hired a really well-known lawyer to do all the hard work. That wasn’t cheap. Everyone thinks they’re smart enough to do it all; I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough for that. We got our license, our TTB approval, really fast.”
— Sean Nook, Black Bottle Brewing

“It’s an insane amount of work; it’s seven days a week, every week. I’ve never been so busy in my life. I spend four hours in the morning doing computer stuff, dealing with insurance, etc. then four to six hours in the tasting room, then I have to brew. I go home at 11.”
— Craig Rothgery, De Steeg Brewing

7. Define Yourself
Your idea to have a bike-centric brewery is so good, there are 10 of them right now. Your German-style beer garden is too, but sorry, that’s also taken. You need to stand out from the other 200 plus breweries in operation and thousands others in planning if your little bruhaus is to stay afloat. Here are some other terms you may not have heard: branding and demographic, and you want to be thinking about them a lot when you’re making labels and hoofing it from liquor store to liquor store trying to get your beer on the shelves.

“If you’re selling something, you have to believe it and love it. My style is to take a classic beer and put just a little twist on it. I don’t want to make this crazy beer, but I also don’t want to do what’s been done before. It’s getting harder and harder to make something original. We’ve been able to find our niche, and that’s why we’re taking off really fast. (We’re) putting challenging beer in cans. People are looking at that and think, wow, Renegade is doing something different. And as much as you can do that, the more you’re going to succeed.”
— Brian O’Connell, Renegade Brewing

“We came up with a very clear idea of who we were, what we had to offer, and a way to communicate it. We redid all our label graphics. Sales started going up as the new bottles were introduced and have been going up ever since.”
— Wynne Odell, Odell brewing

“That’s what keeps my blood boiling and my heart pumping is trying to be different and keep bending the rules, whatever the hell the rules are, but not follow. I always say there is no hanging from coattails here.”
— Sean Nook, Black Bottle Brewing

8. Distribution
If your end goal is to have people from across the nation clamoring for your brewskies, you’re going to have to dive into distribution. You’ve figured everything out, now get ready for the really hard part. Distributing the goods yourself is a great way to start, but you need to keep up with demand and run a taproom/brew house at the same time. Finding a distributor that is as excited about your beer as you are is no easy task. When you’ve finally found one, hold on, because you might need to start thinking about expansion.

“Distribution is one of the banes of this industry. In general, all the wholesalers have all the legal rights in most states. So if they don’t want to release you, you’re just out of luck.”
— Wynne Odell, Odell Brewing

“Once you get to a certain size, you can start looking for distributor. They don’t want to talk to you if you’re too small. Then, once a distributor starts carrying your beer, you have to manage them and make sure they’re selling your beer. It’s our job to remind consumers and retailers that it’s available and to remind the distributor to sell it to them.”
— Dan Weitz, Boulder Beer

9. Expansion
We may be getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but if you end up being really good at what you do, can manage a business properly and are making enough good beer to afford some new equipment and even a bigger facility, congrats, and you’re onto the next step: world domination.

“Expansion is great. It’s one of those things where it’s exciting but stressful. From a business perspective, I have to balance building a new, very expensive facility with cash flow from a small facility and trying to make this transition so we don’t interrupt production and disappoint our customers.”
— Brian O’Connell, Renegade Brewing

“In our last expansion, we built a state-of-the-art lab. We had a lab before, but it was much more rudimentary. We have three people in the lab. One focuses on yeast management and fermentation. One does sampling and analysis, and then the lab manager sees the whole picture. From the wort stage to six months after packaging, we have taste panels daily. We do extensive analysis of every beer.”
— Wynne Odell, Odell Brewing Company