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On going pro

This Friday is the May 2013 Session: that monthly gathering of beer bloggers to talk about one subject. When I started blogging for CBW I stopped participating in it, because I figured it was weird to talk about other breweries as a business myself. The whole point of the My Embeered Life series was to reconcile that, of course, so when Risk competitor Alex suggested I get back into it I figured the time was right. The topic for my second participation couldn’t be more perfect: allbrews has proposed the topic “The business of brewing”:

In this Session, I’d like to invite comments and observations from bloggers and others who have first-hand knowledge of the complexities and pitfalls of starting a commercial brewery. What were the prescient decisions that saved the day or the errors of omission or commission that caused an otherwise promising enterprise to careen tragically off the rails?

Because I like silly things, I decided to modify headings from song titles from Circa Survive’s On Letting Go.

The difference between hobby and obsession is in the dose

I think every homebrewer has, at some point or another, considered “going pro.” I’m not really sure why, because I was fully capable of playing video games without wanting to be Peter Molyneux and listen to music without auditioning for the nearest The Who cover band. And yet pretty much the entire time I was homebrewing I was fantasizing to some degree about making beer as my full time job.

So it was that when Ethan emailed me in May 2010 about opening a brewery I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

I learned pretty much immediately that there was no way I could have done this myself. The most illustrative example is when everyone (then sitting in Ethan’s basement) was discussing potential buildings. Greg said that one had big enough water pipes for us, and I very clearly remember thinking “Pipes come in different sizes?”

I’m the internet guy, shut up.

The greatest lie

This is where our coolers and retail space currently are.

This is where our coolers and retail space currently are.

I like to say that the biggest lie homebrewers tell themselves and their significant others is that brewing beer saves money. On the commercial brewery front, the biggest lie we tell each other is how long it will take to open.

If you’ve followed us long enough, you might have talked to me at the Bidwell farmer’s market in spring 2011. The most frequent question asked there was “When will you be open?” “Well,” I’d say, “if everything goes quickly, early summer. Late summer is probably more realistic, with fall if things move slowly. We definitely want to be open by the end of the year.”

For those keeping track, we opened the next April.

Some of this was our fault: we thought things like building our cooler would be finished far more quickly than they were. Other delays were bureaucratic: our building is technically both 13 and 15 Lafayette, and we decided to officially operate out of 15. One section of our TTB application listed 13, so it was sent back. We revised it, resubmitted and went to the bottom of the pile again. The TTB said an application would take “no more than 90 days”: it took 171.

Then there were construction woes…

Semi construction criticism

This is where our mill room, brew stand, etc now sits.

This is where our mill room, brew stand, etc now sits.

How complicated and demanding your building and construction needs will be will vary widely. Some nanobreweries spiff up their garage and the local zoning code finds it sufficient. We’re a 1.5 bbl brewery in a space that could easily hold a 10-15 bbl system, because Buffalo’s existing code considers all breweries great and small to be the same. It’s very egalitarian of them, except that we’re not Budweiser and never will be (I mean, probably. We haven’t ruled out plans for world domination entirely).

(Much of this has already been documented in our Roadmap to Beer blog series, but I’ve been at this for almost three years so I don’t expect you to have read everything I’ve written. I’ll give you at least a week for that.)

Our brewery was a warehouse when we moved in. We had to install a new gas line, increase the power capacity, replace a water pipe. That god damned water pipe. In case you don’t feel like reading that update, we raised over $15,000 on Kickstarter and replacing a single pipe drained (ha that was a pun) all of it and more. I think some of us still have nightmares about that pipe.

As well, we had to build an explosion-proof mill room, a few concrete pads, construct the wall by the retail area, run pipes willy nilly, and oh yeah, build our own walk in cooler and fermentation rooms.

If you’re opening your own brewery you might not have to do all of this. You might not have to do any of it. You should consider yourself lucky if that’s the case.

With both how long it will take and how much it will cost to open your brewery, you should come up with numbers. You should be prepared for each number to be much bigger, and also know that in reality they will be even higher than that.

Your friends are gone

Well that sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Take it up with Anthony Green.

What I mean by “your friends are gone” is that they might still exist, but you shouldn’t expect to see them anymore. Or your family. I recently found myself wistfully thinking about the days when I only had a 30 hour a week job and an 18 credit courseload (because time passing gives one a great pair of rose tinted glasses).

Community Beer Works has two full-time owners and two part-time ones. “Full time” is a little misleading because it’s laughable to think Rudy or Ethan only works 40 hours. Greg and I are the nights-and-weekend crew, meaning some days we head straight from our day jobs to the brewery to staff retail or wash kegs or work on finances or whatnot. There’s an  awful lot of work that goes into a brewery, and a surprising amount of it has nothing to do with beer.

Let’s say you increase capacity so you can make more beer. Making more beer means selling more beer which means more money, right? Well, yes. But you have to have somewhere to sell the beer to: who’s doing your sales? Who’s taking it there? You can hire a distributor, if you want them to take a chunk of your profits, but for a brewery as small as us it makes more sense to self distribute. Our beer is in Lockport, East Aurora, Amherst… Ethan’s the one who has to drive there. Then those kegs he’s driving: how are they getting clean? If you use a service like Microstar that’s taken care of, but they require you use a distributor, which you aren’t. I hope you like being at the brewery cleaning kegs until midnight.

In the morning and amazing

This sounds an awful lot like I’m trying to talk you out of opening a brewery, doesn’t it? I’m not. There are some harsh realities you need to face: it’s going to take a lot of time, and money, and time (and money). It’s not always going to be easy.

Come on, everybody's thinking it.

Come on, everybody’s thinking it.

But at the end of the day? I own a brewery.

It’s hard putting my son to bed and immediately leaving to wash kegs when all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch Parks & Recreation. Washing kegs, though? It’s pretty fun. I listen to an episode of Nerd Poker or play Daft Punk and have a one-man dance party. It’s a Sisyphean struggle, because kegs come back dirty just as fast as I can wash them. Clear out the stack? The next day there are 10 more. So I put on Alive 2007 again, pull on my rubber gloves and get right back to it.

Opening a brewery isn’t easy. But it is great,

One comment on “On going pro

  1. Joe Fisher on

    You guys are totally my heroes. I can’t wait to follow in your footsteps.

    I look forward to you guys coming down to NJ to drink my beer!

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