Going from homebrewer to pro brewer

“When are you going to start selling?” “I know a guy who runs one of the biggest beer distributors in New England.” “Hey, if you are serious about your brew, hit me up. I have some amazing space that would make for a great first brewery…”

These are all questions I’ve gotten from my amazing and well-meaning friends. It’s one thing to enjoy baking and sell cupcakes as a side business, it’s quite another to love beer and open a brewery or even become a “gypsy brewer“. When people ask about going pro it’s easy to shrug it off or come up with a non-answer. When a journalist asks that question needing a quote, not so much. Sarah Thomas asked me that question on the record, a question I had been asked tens of times, in her profile for The Beverly Citizen, and I struggled to come up with a clear and concise answer.

HomebrewTalk user Cape Brewing made the leap with two partners who opened their own brewery in Massachusetts. He goes into great detail in describing what they went through and all the red tape involved in this thread. I don’t think there is a twenty-something that while hanging out with his buddies that talked about opening a bar. These are usually the people who end up on Bar Rescue drunk at their own bar wondering why they’re losing money. Likewise I am sure the thought of opening a brewery has at least occurred to every serious homebrewer.

As a creative person who loves beer I have thought about opening a brewery and/or brew-pub. My girlfriend worked at an award-winning brew-pub. She also has a cooking blog that receives hundreds of hits a day and would love to be involved in a brewpub again. At the same time our discussions have never progressed beyond a fanciful “someday when…”

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs on both sides of my family. I know the risks involved in opening a business and have none of the experience of starting or running one. I have never even had a job where I have had to manage another person. The only time I ever had to come up with a business plan or budgets was for a project in college. I wouldn’t know where to begin in regards to raising capital. It would take research and soul searching to find out if that would be something I would want to do or would be viable. To go pro I would almost have to enroll others to help finance and run the business.

Beyond the legal and business hurdles is the most important aspect: THE BEER! As the profile in the Citizen states I have spent most of my time brewing experimenting with and learning different styles. Contrast that with The Maine Beer Company. They started out as homebrewers and continually tweaked their pale ale recipe until they perfected Peeper, their flagship. To open a brewery or brewpub I would have to perfect a few flagship beers that we could serve year-round, and that people would come back for.

Professional brewing involves a lot more heavy, manual labor and cleaning than homebrewing. Scaling up a recipe to brew on professional equipment is it’s own challenge. A professional brewer has to be skilled enough to brew each batch consistently. The taste has to be consistent because that’s what the customer expects. I’ve been out and had two people I was with order the same beer where one was noticeably better than the other. That can’t happen at a well run brewery.

It’s one thing to experiment and make beer I like to drink; it is another thing to make beers that can stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace. The number of breweries has doubled since 2006. It’s not enough to open a brewery because you like beer, launch with a flagship IPA, and merely have a better product than Bud Light. Most of these new breweries make good beer, but is it good enough or memorable enough for a beer drinker to buy it a second time? The reason I don’t brew a lot of IPAs is because there are so many commercial examples out there and I struggle with how to make one that feels like it’s my own.

I strongly feel that a brewery needs a story or an identity. The early craft brewers were fighting to bring good beer back to America after consolidation had left us with only Bud, Miller, and Coors. Offering choice and reintroducing lost styles was enough of a hook. The challenge was to get the Bud drinker to try something else. Now the challenge is to get the craft beer drinker to try your beer. There isn’t a lot of bad craft beer out there. With so much competition it is difficult to truly differentiate from the rest of the marketplace. It’s not enough to make a good beer. It has to be a great beer or there has to be a story and concept connected to your brewery. Notch Brewing did both by making excellent session beers and creating a niche that everybody else is now jumping into. Gneiss up in Maine uses wheat in all their beers. Jack’s Abby is the first all lager craft brewery. A local brewery can use “pride in place” to get the locals to rally around a beer. Narraganset reinforced this by partnering with other notable Rhode Island brands like Del’s and Autocrat. Yuengling is everywhere in the mid-Atlantic, even if they’ve found the Bay State a tougher nut to crack. If you can’t stand our or carve out an identity your brewery can end up like Watch City in Waltham that abruptly closed and auctioned off all their equipment.

We came up with Bleacher Brewing Co as a name for our home brewery and baseball themed beer names because we love baseball. Unless we opened next to a ballpark, a baseball themed brewery or brewpub does not make a lot of sense. Fenway Park and LaLacheur Park both already have a BeerWorks nearby, maybe we could build a brewery at Frasier Field. It wouldn’t even make sense open in the remote Finger Lakes region of New York near the National Baseball Hall of Fame as even tiny Cooperstown, New York already has a world-class brewery.

I have a couple ideas I have been kicking around. At this point it’s just that, ideas. As long as I can remember I have always had Walter Mitty fantasies about a lot of things. Will it ever go beyond the conceptual stage? I can’t answer that. I would have to nail down the beer side, the business side, and the financing side. From here all three seem equally daunting. It would have to be something I really want to do, and I would need to have the right people in place to help to make it happen.



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