When I think of starting a small brewery, my back starts to ache. I imagine my shirt pockets stuffed with receipts and invoices and I get a sharp panicky feeling about when I would ever have to time to do all the things I need to accomplish. Before getting to that point, there are preparations that anyone thinking of starting a craft brewery should consider to make sure they are truly ready to take on the business of a craft brewer:
1. Learn about beer. While the dream of running a successful small brewery with dozens of styles is a dream many share, brewing when you get down to it is just plain hard work. It is all about planning, cleaning, troubleshooting, lugging, cleaning and then more cleaning. Homebrewing is where people learn to love making beer and the first step for many craft brewers, but the requirements of a hobby and that of the profession differ vastly. Consistency in the product is a big part of what the customer expects whether they realize it or not. Your future customers will come back for your beer mainly because of the taste – not the label or the brewer and maybe not even always the price. You have to have your beer production down to a very high standard. The guys at Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewery have been telling the story of their path to a craft brewery on their blog and it is all about perfecting the brew. You also have to learn about packaging, the stuff that touches your precious brew from the day you make it to the day it’s consumed. There is nothing more disappointing to a customer or a brewer for a packaging or handling failure to have ruined what might otherwise be the highlight of a beer drinker’s year. Whether it is a dirty line from a cask to a tap or – as I once encountered – whole cases of award-winning rare ales shipped from the other side of the continent spoiled due to one bad day of capping back at the brewery, the reputation of the beer and the brewer can be damaged irreparably by inattention to the slightest requirement. If you plan to brew, plan to do it right.
2. Prepare to be a mule. Last of all, be clear on one thing: you will work all night and you will be your own pack horse. Steve Beauchesne of Beau’s All-Natural Brewing keeps a blog called How to Start a Brewery (in 1 Million Easy Steps) – and that is both a joke and one of the best ways to describe a process of starting a small craft brewing operation. I accompanied Steve on a delivery run one night and have to admit that a couple of hours helping on what was over a 600 mile round trip taking more than 14 hours went a long way to dissuading me from taking up craft brewing. Steve hauled full kegs down into tavern cellars and carried heavy cases into beer stores all with a smile on his face and an eye to getting the invoices and other paperwork just right. The combination of his professionalism and the exhaustion on his face was impressive. Any person planning a life as a craft craft brewer should really spend at least a few days hauling full sacks of malt and casks of ale to ensure they are up to the less romantic realities of the business.
3. Make sure you have a money maker. “Did I miss my mouth?” In 1987, the Atlantic magazine published an article by William Least Heat Moon entitled “A Glass of Handmade” which was described the craft beer scene as it was 22 years ago. That line “did I miss my mouth” continues to define for me the feeling I get when I go back to the macro-crap after much craft beer. But it’s another image that the author notes about his visit to Bill Owens of Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub in the lower east side of San Francisco Bay that sticks more in my mind when I think of starting up a brew pub. Owens explains that he could brew a glass of lager for seven cents and sell it for a dollar and a half. Half of his gross income came from that lager. Now, they make many more types of beer and much more money, relying on that early prudent focus to create long term security. Prospective Microbrewers have to be realistic. Not everyone can be a Jolly Pumpkin that ages every drop in wood casks or an Allagash that makes only Belgian styles from their location in southern Maine. In the end, you may get to that standard but on the way you will have to make money and need to be prepared to make beer that brings it in.
4. Know the law and get an accountant. What? How dull. Not the stuff of day dreams but the fact is that wherever a brewer to be finds him or herself the laws relating to brewing trade are some of the most complex – not to mention ancient – of all regulations. Beer is food and food is one of the most reasonably but closely regulated subject matters. On top of that, the law reflects centuries of various sorts of moral response to alcohol as a part of culture. Additionally, beer has been historically one of the chief sources of tax revenue going back to the Middle Ages. All these facts mean you have to factor in the professional advice as part of the annual budget. Make sure you find someone who has some brewery experience from other clients if possible. Let someone else pay for teaching them the baby steps in this niche market. Probably this advice is about as enthralling to the prospective brewer as the delight in knowing how important cleaning draft lines might be. But as every businessman knows, getting the right help to handle what you don’t know is as important as making sure you take care of what you can handle yourself. Start identifying these professionals early on, before you need them.
5. Take the other free advice that is out there: Craft brewers are great people for the most part. Happy to share and happy to help. As a result, people wanting to learn more about beer and brewing are in better shape today than they have been ever before. One aspect of this is the host of books and other resources through which established brewers tell their story and lend a hand to those making their way up the ladder. In 2005, two of the best book of this sort were added to the library when Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, the founders of Brooklyn Brewery, published Beer School and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head put out Brewing Up A Business to tell their stories of starting their breweries from scratch. And from scratch it was. The early days of each brewery were filled with last minute crisis and second-hand makeshift equipment – not to mention constant concerns about money. But there is plenty of good advice in those two books – more than I could every put into a short article like this one. For anyone even imagining what it might be like to start a brewery, these books are practically mandatory.
This brief article just scratches the surface and really are only hints at some of the very early considerations you have to take into account if you are planning a life as a craft brewer. Next comes the business plan, the gathering of equipment and the other 999,998 hoops that craft breweries go through to get their beer on the shelf and in the glass.
by Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog
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