Since Mystery Brewing Company‘s appearance on Crowd Rules in May and the introduction of our brand idea on a national scale, I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion online (and in my inbox) about our “no flagship brand” model with varying degrees of agreement or disagreement. I thought it might be a fine time to talk about what seasonal-only brewing means to us, how we do it, why we do it, and why I think that it’s the future of craft beer.
It’s easy: people love seasonal beers.
This idea didn’t just come fully formed into my head. Back when I attended my first Craft Brewer’s Conference, one slide during Paul Gatza’s State of the Industry presentation kept sticking in my head. I might get into a bit of trouble by pulling this slide out of an industry-only presentation, but here it is from 2013. It’s looked pretty much the same way for the past 4 or 5 years:
And, yes, IPA is coming up strong because IPA, but you’ll notice that the other big climber is “Variety.” These trends look the same year after year and they read to me like this:
People are no longer brand drinkers. They’re portfolio drinkers.
It’s always amusing to me that an industry that spends so much time trying to define itself as “not industrial lager” bases its primary business model on the industrial lager model, which is the flagship model: Make one beer, make it well, make it as cheaply as possible, use other brands to keep competitors off the shelf.
There’s two obvious reasons why this model has worked so well and why it’s been adopted by the craft industry.
But this isn’t your daddy’s beer industry any more and drinkers have moved on from the core brand model. A quick look at Rate Beer, or Beer Advocate, or Untappd – or even the fact that those sites exist – will show you. Very few craft fans buy one brand and drink that one brand. Drinking variety is a badge of honor, sometimes even literally.
A few years back, when I was just getting into the beer industry, I saw the results of a survey that showed that when people had a beer that they identified as their favorite – a brand that they were loyal to – they bought that beer, on average, once per month. The same survey showed that they consumed beer several times per week, and often 2 – 3 beers at a time. Some loyalty, huh?
(I really wish I could find that survey and link to it and/or see the results of those questions today.)
The young members of the drinking market – the kids just turning 21 years old – have something that their predecessors never had: vast variety. Any young drinker that walks into a beer store today is faced with not 10, not even 100, but thousands of varieties of beer. I can get 55 different pale ales at the store near my house. And that brings me to two different questions:
1) How could anybody choose just one of those without trying a ton of them?
2) With that much competition already in the market, why on earth should I make a pale ale?
If you’re a craft drinker, ask yourself these questions: When was the last time you weren’t interested in trying something new from a brewery you like? When was the last time you didn’t want to try something from a new brewery? When was the last time you bought the same beer more than a couple of times in a row?
See? It’s happening to you, too. Variety is king.
Based on that information, I decided to pursue the idea of seasonal-only brewing. There were a couple of different facets to the decision. One of them was to capitalize on the fact that people enjoy variety and enjoy seasonal beers. It’s what people buy the most, and so it seemed natural that they would also buy our seasonal beers. The other was to differentiate our brands, and not just make another golden, pale, amber, porter, stout, IPA lineup, but to actually fit into the niches that were open in an already-crowded beer market.
One of the main misconceptions about our model is that we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and have no idea what’s coming next. In reality, we have a set schedule that we brew by that is based on both style and season. It works like this:
We have four style categories that we brew in: Session, Hop Forward, Saison, and Stout.
Each season we make something seasonally appropriate within that category, and we repeat that beer each year. So, just like every other seasonal brand in the country, each beer comes out once/year, is consistent with how it tasted last year, and will be back again next year when it is again seasonally appropriate.
You can click into the graphic, but I’ll break down the styles for you here in text.
Hop Forward Line
On top of that, we also do more limited seasonals, one-offs, experimental, and barrel-aged brews. Since it seems weird to call a beer a seasonal at a seasonal-only brewery, we release them in a line we call our Novella Series. Some of them are truly one-and-done. Some of them we’ll make again. Some of them are candidates for future categories as we expand. Basically, these are where we’re trying our new recipes and styles. Now that we have an operating taproom, many of these go on tap there and there only, but we still like to be able to get special one-offs into the market in keg format.
There are, no doubt, many challenges to this model. I anticipated some of those challenges, and some of them caught me by surprise.
I, like most crazy founders of things that don’t really exist, thought that the brilliance of my idea would be self-evident and that people would immediately understand what the hell I was talking about. In reality, we opened the brewery to confusion about our model and it’s still one of the most significant challenges we face (which is at least one of the reasons I’m writing this article).
As it turns out, the most common question you’re asked as a new brewery is, “What’s your flagship?” When you have an answer that’s a paragraph and not a sentence, people aren’t excited to listen and that’s because – as I was surprised to find out – most of the people who are buying beer at bars and restaurants don’t really care about beer.
I will almost definitely catch some sort of flak for that, but it’s true and, what’s more, it will always be true. You can almost definitely say the same thing about wine, liquor, chocolate, hot dogs, or any other specialty product. Because the people who are most likely making these decisions are making a myriad of different decisions and purchases, and they’re just not excited by the nuances of the brewing industry, nor should they be. They want to make an easy decision about one small facet of their operation and then get along to the next crisis in their day. Plain and simple, it’s not their job to care about the difference between your business model and the next guy’s. In many cases, beer is a set-and-forget kind of purchase. They will buy one brand until sales start to dip and then they will buy a different brand. If you go into a bar or restaurant with a brand that will go away on its own (or will appear to), then it looks to them like you’re just giving them more work.
We’ve honed our elevator speech, we’ve made charts and graphics and flyers, and we’re continually working on more ways of getting information out to bars and restaurants on a regular basis. Still, our largest challenge is defining our business to the customer in a way that they easily understand. We have a hard time convincing bars that they could just, say, always keep our stout on tap and that it creates variety in their lineup for them without any further work on their part.
The same goes for our relationship with our distributor. We’ve had a great time with our distributor, but we’ve found out the hard way that we were not providing enough information to their reps in order to best sell our beer. Sales reps fall in the same place as bar managers and beer buyers. We are just one brand in their book. If they don’t have a good understanding of what that beer is, what it tastes like, or why it changes, it’s a lot easier to sell something else. We’ve had to come back into the brewery and make changes in how we are handling information and what we’re expecting from sales. It was our assumption that beer reps working for our distributor would naturally be interested in learning more about the product and representing it correctly, but it’s a naive view of a crowded market. We don’t just make another pale ale, and if our beer is difficult for a rep to sell, they won’t sell it. After all, it’s just one small facet of their job.
Seasonal-only also contradicts how distributors are built to sell product. There is an onus in distribution to push the flagship brand of a brewery in order to qualify a retail establishment for inclusion on seasonal releases. To put it more plainly: If you, as a retailer, order a bunch of Crappy Golden Ale from Brewery X then you are virtually (but not legally) guaranteed that when Super Popular Imperial Stout comes out from Brewer X in the fall, you’ll get some. But if you don’t buy Crappy, you can kiss Super Popular goodbye. When all of your brands are seasonal, it’s hard to play that game.
Consistency is the challenge that I correctly anticipated. My feeling was that in order to get people to trust an ever-changing beer lineup, you have to make sure that the beer that’s going out is consistent within the brand and that it’s always great. Simply put: You cannot have your entire lineup change four times per year if half the beer you put out is sub-par. What’s more, the beer has to be consistent year-to-year, so that the flavor that customers loved last year is back again for their enjoyment.
We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure that we have an excellent lab and good science. We manage 95% of our own yeast propagation, we test every batch through the system for any sort of contamination, and we’re in the midst of starting a tasting panel program to make sure that flavor consistency isn’t just a decision between me and my brewer.
All this said, I do believe that seasonality is the future of craft, and that these challenges – particularly the ones in which people don’t understand our business model – will fade away, precisely because more breweries will eventually buy into the idea.
If I were to polish up my crystal ball and tell you what I think the future of beer looks like, I think it goes a little like this:
Small craft brewers face a number of future challenges from both inside and outside craft.
The big guys are losing market share, and they know where it’s going.
MillerCoors just expanded their “craft” division. Tenth and Blake just got a fancy new building and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of new MillerCoors-funded “craft” brands coming into the market. Anybody who isn’t concerned by that from a small business perspective should take a look at Blue Moon sales numbers and then taste the sours that are coming out of ACGolden’s barrels and think again.
This past year AB-InBev took what should look less like a warning shot and more like first volley in the purchase and proliferation of Goose Island. They can shore up loss of market share by purchasing and assimilating craft breweries and this act shows it. Aggressive corporate behavior and ruthless market dominance is what took them from prohibition to the best selling brand in the world and nobody should believe that they can’t, or won’t, make beer good enough to give any craft brewery a run for its money. Everybody should also remember that Budweiser was, at some point in history, a delicious, crisp, and well-made American pilsner.
These giants and their pocketbooks have considerable influence and sway with the distribution system, which most small brewers still depend on enormously without having robust protection from franchise law. Small brewers, in most cases, still play by the same rules as the large brewers when it comes to distribution because there are no exceptions for business size written into the law in most states. Unfortunately, 99.9% of small brewers don’t have the same financial sway that the makers of industrial lagers do. They are at an incredible disadvantage there.
Inside the craft industry, we’re building our own industry giants. Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and others are so far and away larger than most of the small breweries in States that it’s almost unfair to lump them in the same industry. When we talk about “the Big 3″ we could just as well be talking about those three, since the three of them together make more beer than 98% of the breweries in the U.S. combined.
Regional and super-regional breweries continue to dominate the craft market through many of the same tactics used by the makers of industrial lagers: aggressive expansion and financial influence on local markets through event sponsorship. They get a pass from craft drinkers, though, because of two key reasons: 1) They’re still largely seen as small breweries (because in comparison to AB-InBev, they really are). 2) They make great beer.
However, as those companies continue to grow with a bevy of regional breweries behind them looking to follow in their footsteps, I find myself asking:
Can this country support 50+ super-regional breweries AND 3000+ small breweries? How long can we go before small breweries start going under because they can’t keep up with the big craft brands? How do I differentiate my company to allow it to survive?
I can’t play in the same space as these other breweries. I have neither the financial resources nor the desire to create a nationwide brand. What can I do to stop my company from being swallowed up? What advantage do I possibly have over any of these guys?
The answer is the same for any new small business: agility, creativity, innovation.
I’ll never be able to get my ingredients cheaper, I’ll never be able to make more beer than they can, have lower prices, have flashier advertising, or fancier new packaging. Our advantage – and the advantage of many other new breweries out there – is our small size. We can do things on a 7 bbl scale, that nobody would ever want to do on a 100 bbl system. Maybe because it’s a pain in the butt to manually quarter that many lemons, or maybe because finding a source for 500,000 jasmine flowers is unreasonable. It doesn’t matter why – it is.
The advantage to seasonality in a small brewery is that it takes advantage of what we do best: We make small amounts of really fresh beer, we make a variety of styles, we make them quickly, we make them well, and then they go away. We offer variety and exciting innovation in a marketplace that’s filled with overwhelming sameness. We offer exactly what drinkers are looking for, exactly when they’re looking for it.
Now, if only we can get everybody to understand that. Drinkers love the idea. Bars, restaurants, and distributors are following along, and soon, I hope, breweries will, too.
Ah, the new classic debate of the craft era: Cans vs. Bottles and which one is better for your beer.
In this podcast we:
Glad to be back in the recording chair – I hope you’re still here with me. Cheers!
This is a very late entry into this debate, and there’s a good reason why: I’ve been having a hard time articulating to myself just why I think the debate has been so… well.. wrong. I tried recording a podcast about it, but I was just a rambling mess (more so than usual) and so I felt like the best way to approach this was through writing.
To cover the backstory: Back on December 13th, a few high ranking members of the BA wrote an article in the St. Louis Dispatch titled Craft or crafty? Consumers deserve to know the truth in which the authors attempt to call attention to the problem of “faux craft” beer being made by the large international conglomerate breweries, namely Anheuser Busch-InBev (ABI) and MillerCoors, henceforth to be referred to this in this article as The Duopoly (because that’s what they are). It was timed to coincide with a press release by the Brewers Association titled The Beer Drinker’s Right to Know, which seemed to be a response to this insane interview on Forbes/CNN titled Big beer’s response to craft: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em which contains some crazypants quotes from the Executive Chairman of SABMiller like
“There’s a huge debate in the craft world about us, all big brewers, because we’re like the enemy. We’re the other guys. They think we’re stealing their authenticity. What we say is, “Let the consumer decide.” If we’re authentic enough for the consumer, that’s authentic enough for anyone.”
“I don’t think the craft movement in its current guise will continue to grow indefinitely. I don’t think it can. It’s not economic. Too many people won’t make any money. Too many of them will go out of business. And I think it will become less fashionable. These things are fashion to some extent.”
Though if I had to guess, what the BA was really responding to is this:
“We have our own craft brands. We also look selectively to acquire, or form partnerships with, or cozy up to people who have incubated good businesses. It’s difficult for big companies to incubate small brands. That, at its heart, is the dilemma. To start a small brand in a credible, consistent, sticking-to-it kind of way is hard for big companies. That’s what small entrepreneurs do best.”
because that is, in reality, the heart of the matter. By the by, that article was actually a followup article to one that came out back in November titled Big Beer dresses up in craft brewers’ clothing, which nobody seemed to take issue with.
Unfortunately, the BA press release and article was taken as an attack and was received with vitriol by some of the country’s smaller brewers that happened to land on this list of Domestic Non-Craft Brewers. They pissed some people off and, frankly, I don’t blame them for being pissed. At least one of those brewers – D.G. Yuengling & Sons – was welcomed warmly during the keynote address at the Craft Brewers Conference a couple of years ago in a we’ve-expanded-our-definition-so-you-can-be-craft-now moment. Throwing them under the bus on this chart is.. well.. kinda crazy. Until this chart, I didn’t realize that the BA didn’t consider them craft anymore.
I won’t summarize the response that the BA received from August Schell. I think it sums up the sentiment that was expressed out and around the internet quite well. You can read it here: August Schell’s response to Craft vs. Crafty on Facebook
Now, here’s my thought on the whole thing:
Faux-craft can be a threat, but not – I think – in the way that this concerted press release and chart make it out to be. It’s not because consumers might be confused into thinking that some shit Shocktop Wheat IPA is craft. It’s because consumers might not have the chance to have a choice in the matter.
One of the biggest warning shots that craft has had fired across its bow in the past 30 years was the AB-InBev purchase of Goose Island. There are a million and one reactions to that purchase and most of them are ridiculous because they’re either about whether or not the beer is going to suck now or whether or not it should still be counted as craft.
I’ll tell you: No, the beer will not suck. No, it is not craft. Done. Happy now?
The problem, I think, is a far more complicated one than it appears on the surface. Here’s why the Goose Island purchase is a threat:
Because Goose Island is good beer with a good reputation that people like and have heard of.
Why is that a problem? Because AB-InBev has a program that it runs with its distributors whereupon you can become an “aligned distributor”. That means that you purposefully exclude products not from the AB-InBev catalog from your sales. In return, you receive excellent lines of credit, better pricing on your products, and all kinds of interesting incentives that give you a competitive advantage in the market. Here’s a quote from the Wholesaler Family 2011 Consolidation Guide (lifted from The Washington Monthly: Last Call):
We ask all wholesalers to use the guide’s self assessment tool to objectively consider their capabilities and goals. Wholesalers who aspire to be an Anchor Wholesaler can identify any gaps they have in these qualities and build a plan to address them. Some wholesalers might remain committed to their current market, but realize further acquisitions are not right for their business. Others might decide now is the best time to consider whether a sale is in their best interest.
There are many aspects of an aligned wholesaler, and an explicit focus on our portfolio of brands is paramount. Those who are aligned with us only acquire brands that compete in segments underserved by our current portfolio and that bring incremental sales, not brands that have a negative impact on the A-B portfolio.
In a nutshell: our brands are your priority.
Okay, fine, you say. So craft doesn’t sign on with a Bud distributor. Big deal. Except that the country doesn’t have very many distributors with the same kind of reach and network that the two big houses do. To not sign on with those distributors – in most markets – is to put yourself at a significant competitive disadvantage. Unfortunately, to sign on with those distributors – in most markets – seems to now put yourself at a significant competitive disadvantage. Because now, when a bar says, “Hey – my customers keep asking me for a Pale Ale – can I get one of those?” The Bud guys can say, “Sure – Goose Island Honkers Pale Ale coming right up.”
Not that they wouldn’t say that anyway, but now they have incentive to push it harder. It doesn’t seem like much. Alone, it’s not.
Education is key
Part 2 of the problem is that there is awful – and by awful, I mean fucking TERRIBLE – education about beer in the bar and restaurant market. Here’s the thing I find the most embarrassing in restaurants: when they’ve put time into crafting the most beautiful wine list in the world, and the beer they offer is Heineken or Amstel Light or something because that’s imported fancy beer. There is a really large emphasis on wine education in culinary institutes, but unless a chef has a personal preference for beer it is basically ignored. This goes doubly when it comes to management and server training. So, unless you’ve gone out of your way to hire a huge beer geek at your restaurant to run your beer list, an IPA is an IPA and Honkers or Shocktop Wheat IPA or Leinenkugel Big Gig is just as good as Pliny the Younger. I mean.. hey – is it cheap? Then, cool, get it.
That’s why faux-craft is a threat: not because craft drinkers might be somehow duped into thinking that some other beer is a craft beer, but because new craft drinkers might never get the chance to have anything else. It’s not an awareness problem, it’s a market share problem. Nobody doing purchasing at Wal-Mart is going to be a big enough beer nerd to call out a distributor on pushing a faux craft instead of a craft, so nobody who shops at Wal-Mart gets to see anything else. Not a big deal, right? Except that that’s the single largest retail outlet in the country.
(Alternate argument says, “But those people are learning about craft and might eventually move onto other brands,” which is legitimate. My argument to that says, “People are lazy and if they can buy a six pack with the rest of their groceries, they will. It takes education and affluence to go to a beer-only store.)
The BA has posted articles about the need for more education in bars and restaurants before, but it didn’t receive the same kind of attention that last press release did. I guess it’s easy to write off Garret Oliver as an elitist jerk, which might be one of the single wrongest sentences I’ve ever written. He’s right.
The Definition of Craft is Misguided and Outdated
Part 3 of the problem is the definition of craft. The basis of the definition is written around tax guidelines – or worse, proposed tax guidelines written in legislation that hasn’t passed yet. If you’re anywhere near the craft industry at all, you’ve seen this definition before:
Small: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.
Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.
Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.
This summary might better explain what a craft brewer is: Not The Duopoly.
In the grand scheme of things, the definition here isn’t that bad. Small and Independent I can get behind (except for the definition of 6 million barrels as small – that is complete bullshit), what makes the definition wonky here is “Traditional”. Everything about this definition is about taxes and business size and that Traditional part of the definition means that you’re making a quality call in the middle of the definition.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and it goes against what I’ve said for years, but here’s what I think should be the definition of a craft brewer: A brewery that isn’t publicly traded on the stock market.
Because when you put quality into the definition of what a craft brewery is, you run into another problem.
Craft beer does not mean “good beer”
Part 4 of the problem is that people are confused about what is craft beer and what is good beer.
Craft beer does not mean good beer. There’s a lot of shitty craft beer out there. Sorry to say. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you know what the hell you’re doing. It doesn’t mean you know how to build a recipe or package without an infection. It just means you’re small. If you want to say small breweries are craft breweries, then cool – that’s a craft brewery. But if you start making quality calls in the definition then there are a lot of breweries that are going to need to turn in their “craft” badge.
So what does that mean? It means that Utica Club and Yuengling and August Schell and Genessee and all that light beer with corn in it is probably craft. You might not like it, but you don’t stay open for 150 years because your beer is shitty, so deal with it. It also means that Sam Adams (SAM) isn’t, nor is the Craft Brew Alliance (BREW) or Mendocino (MENB), Sackets Harber Brewing Company (HBWO), Big Rock (BRBMF) or, of course The Duopoly (BUD, TAP) or any of the other international conglomerate breweries.
So, if I can sum all of this up: Craft vs. crafty. Is it an issue?
Yes, but not in the way it’s made out to be. Faux-craft is a problem because the big breweries control an unreasonable share of the market (80+%!) and, thus, have a stranglehold on the distribution system, meaning that they can control the flow of product in many markets. If they can give the mid-level suppliers – who are often poorly educated about the product they’re buying – an easy alternative to a higher priced product, regardless of how “cool” local is, they’ll control the market share and, thus, put small breweries out of business.
The BA’s position statement was, by all means, appropriate (somebody has to be a watchdog for the craft industry and call out the big guys, because craft brewers are so stupidly apologetic about The Duopoly). But, it is clouded by the fact that their own self-made definition of what craft is has a (recent!) history of changing to suit their priorities and contains a basically unenforceable criteria – quality – that they insist on enforcing based, it would appear to most outsiders, on beer color.
Drinkers are confused about what to do with this position statement because they’re being told that beer that they consider “good” (Goose Island, Ommegang, Magic Hat, Pyramid, Red Hook, Leinenkugel, etc.) is apparently “bad” because they falsely associate “craft” with “good”. In reality, those breweries are NOT craft, based on taxation definitions alone and it is not – and should not be – a measure of how good their beer is, merely whether or not they can join the Brewers Association.
Final word. Support your local brewery. If the big guys get their way, your local brewery will go away and the BA or anybody will be powerless to stop it because so many craft drinkers can’t be bothered to draw a line in the sand. The number of conversations that I have with craft beer drinkers that have an element of, “Yeah, but a Miller High Life on a hot day is awesome!” is astounding. No it’s not. It’s gross, just like it is on any other day. It’s not a good beer. (Oh, the apologetic craft brewer in me says, “But it’s a well made beer!” Sure. Your McDonalds hamburger is a well-made hamburger but it’s still a shitty goddamned hamburger.) You know what’s good on a hot day? A wit. A hefeweissen. A craft pilsner. A foreign extra stout. A really crisp IPA. I can keep going FOR HOURS about what beer is good on a hot day instead of a Miller High Life, and I will no longer compromise.
And you shouldn’t either. Here’s why you shouldn’t support faux-craft – and that includes everything from Blue Moon and Shock Top to (yes, I’m deeply sorry to say this) Goose Island and all the others: Because you’re feeding the machine that is working to remove choice from your life. The Duopoly is a consolidation machine that will, if given the chance, wipe out all competition possible.
Don’t let it.
Additional reading/listening just for fun:
God I wish this was going to be a long post, but it’s not.
Tomorrow is IPA Day, and I can’t get behind it.
Nevermind the fact that IPA is the first jumping off point for every beginning craft beer enthusiast that is trying to get as far away from premium lager as possible. Nevermind that the vast majority of IPAs are over-hopped and over-wrought and are just one-note hop bombs with very little subtlety or nuance.
Look at your calendar and look at all of the SUCH-AND-SUCH Day holidays that are on there. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day,
Secretary’s Administrative Assistant Professional’s Day. There’s a Grandparent’s Day, Boss’s Day (I assume this is about Bruce Springsteen), National Doughnut Day, National Catfish Day, and whatever the hell else you want. You know what they all have in common? They are held to bring specific attention to something that is generally under appreciated.
IPA? Really? The single best selling style in craft beer? Every goddamned day is IPA day. It doesn’t need a specific holiday. You want to know why there’s a Black History Month and not a White History Month? Because EVERY month is White History Month.
Why aren’t we celebrating a style that NEEDS a little bit of extra attention? Bitter! Bock! Pilsener! (speaking of an under appreciated style) Schwarzbier! Vienna Lager! Baltic Porter! ANYTHING but freakin’ IPA.
IPA is delicious, but it’s EVERYWHERE. It doesn’t need to be put on a pedestal, it needs to be joined on that pedestal by other delicious beers.
Join me by using #IPADay to celebrate a beer style that you feel needs more appreciation and attention, instead. Take it back and go somewhere new! I’ll be tweeting using: #TakeBack #IPADay
I am writing this post because I get an e-mail or a phone call almost every single day from a person asking me how to do this and so this is partly to help people and partly to slow the deluge of e-mail and phone calls.
As anybody who has viewed this blog for any length of time is probably aware, I am the guy behind Mystery Brewing Company. I originally launched the brewery as a Kickstarter campaign. The original idea was to do alternating proprietorship – a form of contract brewing – but that idea fell through and we now operate a fully functioning brick-and-mortar brewery. I won’t go through that whole story right now, because I already have. Read it here. We’re not a nano, but we’re not huge. We are, however, having a blast.
I don’t think I was the first to try, but I’m pretty sure I was the first to get funded, the largest funded (so far), and I might be the first operational Kickstarter brewery. I make no promises that those claims are true, but I think they are.
So, because of this success, I am asked often for advice by other budding entrepreneurs about how to start a brewery using Kickstarter. Let me give you this bullet list:
1. It can’t be done
Okay. That’s kind of glib. But consider this: I raised ~$44,000 via Kickstarter, which seems like a lot of money, right? I mean.. it is. It’s like median yearly income for an American family right now or something silly like that.
For a 7bbl brewery that doesn’t even pay for kegs. It certainly doesn’t pay for a brewhouse. It’s 6 fermenters. It’s the cost of plumbing and glycol piping. You get the idea.
Okay, now remember: You owe taxes on that money. You’re a business now and you need to pay taxes on any income that you make. So that $44,000, after the cut that Amazon and Kickstarter take is closer to $40,000, and then closer to $35,000 after you pay even the most modest of income taxes on it. Then you have to pay for those prizes that you’re sending out to people plus postage (postage is expensive – one Priority Mail package to 250 people = $1,000 minimum), so now you’re down to $30,000 or so, maybe lower. That’s more like 4 fermenters.
The point is this: You need, need, NEED alternate sources of funding. Don’t count on the SBA. Regardless of what they tell you they are not interested in funding startups unless there is absolutely no risk involved (ie – you are putting in an enormous amount of capital already), same goes for banks. You need to have a lot of your own money in the bank, ready to go, or a few angel investors willing to put up at least $150,000, probably more. The total cost to starting up a 7bbl brewery, right now, with the prices of stainless and the dearth of decent used equipment, is just north of $500,000.
2. Go big or go home.
For a blog that gets more hits on an article about nanobreweries, than pretty much anything else, I am still not convinced that they are a completely viable business model. If you’re planning on starting a nanobrewery, you NEED a taproom if you want the business to be completely self-sustaining. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to brew enough beer, otherwise. If you don’t have a way to sell per pint, you need to find an alternate form of income.
If you’re still interested in going the Kickstarter route:
3. You need a pre-established community to support you.
I hate to say this, but if you don’t have a local community that’s ready to see you start a brewery, you’re going to have a difficult time finding that funding. When I started my Kickstarter campaign, I was the only brewery that had a “currently funding” project. Today there are 12 in funding and I know of at many MANY more who are looking at it, so you need some way to make yours stand out. It’s going to be YOU. That’s it. You and your local community. Use it. That community is your friends, your parents, their friends, their friends of friends, etc. I knew 50% of the people that backed me on Kickstarter personally. Of the rest, most of those knew one of my other backers. That network is even more important now that it used to be, because you’re not the only person trying to do this.
4. Have decent rewards.
People are going to back you for more reasons than just helping you start a brewery, and it’s not because they want another crappy shaker pint. It’s about the experience. They want something that’s going to make them feel special. They also want something that seems like it’s worth their while. $100 for a t-shirt is shitty. $100 for a t-shirt, a sticker, a pint glass, and a bottle opener is less shitty, but throw in a personalized beer recipe and you’re starting to talk business. Don’t skimp on prizes, people will skimp on contributing. They’re nice people, but they want a reward.
5. You need to work on it EVERY DAY.
That means you need to go bother people every day. You need to write press releases and contact every network you’ve ever been a part of. Go give a talk to your grandparents’ retirement home and contact your college alumni magazine. Call your hometown newspaper and get your mom to talk about it at her bridge club. Call people you used to work with and old friends from elementary school. If you aren’t pushing it as hard as you can and being excited about it, then why should anybody else? Making that campaign work is a full time job. It won’t come to you, you need to go get it.
6. Don’t forget where you came from.
After you’ve made it and you’re successful, make sure you don’t forget where you came from. I will be sending out Kickstarter prizes for years. No shit. Half of my donors probably think I’ve completely forgotten about them. I haven’t. These people are the reason I had the balls to start my brewery and I have so, so many plans for ways to thank them that go above and beyond what I originally planned in the Kickstarter campaign. And you might ask yourself – why? What do I owe them now? They are the original community around my business. Any and every small business is about people. It’s about the community, and these are your starter community. They are your early evangelists. Take care of them and they will continue to take care of you.
7. Stop asking me for help.
Okay, that’s a little glib, too. But I can’t tell you how to make you successful. It’s your business, make it your own and come up with your own cool ideas and tactics. I can give you all of the advice in the world, but ultimately you won’t be successful by using my model, because it’s mine and, like I said, small business is about the people. You’re not me (I hope), and so you need to go find what works for you.
Good luck! It’s a shitload of work, but the reward of having all of those people believe in your idea is worth every hour you spend on it, and worth far, FAR more than the amount of money that you might raise.