Let me show you a picture that was posted today on the Facebook page of one of our favorite local bottle shops, Sam’s Quick Shop, featuring beer that they’ve just had arrive.
I have one word for this: gross.
Amazingly, that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the fact that I think that pumpkin beer is vaguely disgusting. I know a lot of people like it and they should be saying “gross” too. The date today, in case you don’t feel like looking at the byline, is July 13. We are now 21 days since the first day of summer. That’s not even a whole month. These beers are for autumn and, ostensibly, to fall in around those “pumpkin” holidays that you like to think of: Halloween, when people wear pumpkins, and Thanksgiving, the only time when people actually eat them. The nearest of those is 109 days away. The latter is 130 days away. Over 6 months.
Now, I’m all for seasonal beers. After all, I started an all-seasonal brewery. We’ve got a pumpkin-like beer in the planning, and we’ll be releasing it the week of Halloween. You know, when it’s in season. Pumpkin beers present a unique challenge for brewers and I want to talk about it here to highlight the insanity of a pumpkin beer hitting stores in July and why it is so wrong and why you, the drinker, should boycott that utter bullshit.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac which is, in my New-England-grown-mind, the best possible place to find information on farming, pumpkins have a very long growing season. 75 – 100 days. In northern growing zones, they often require starting seeds 2 – 3 weeks before the last spring frost. In North Carolina, where I am now, the last frost of the year is generally around April 15th. We are the coldest of the 3 warmest growing zones in the U.S. (Zone 7). Zone 9 (the warmest that you can grow pumpkins in) sees its last frost around February 15th.
So, for the sake of arguing, let’s use Zone 9 as the source of all the pumpkins used for pumpkin beers in the U.S., ignoring completely that we are a niche of a niche market for pumpkin production. A 90-day growing season with a last frost on February 15th puts harvest time right around May 15th. That is the absolute earliest you could possibly have pumpkins available. Let’s also assume that the entire crop was harvested in a day and that those pumpkins were then picked, processed, washed, chopped, pureed, and then sent to every brewery within, oh, 12 hours of coming off of the field. Let’s assume that every brewery had overnight shipping of their pumpkins, and that they were waiting, with empty mash tun, for the pumpkins to arrive in their brewery on May 16th.
For beer to hit the shelves with fresh pumpkin in it on July 13th, you would have had to brew, ferment, condition, carbonate, package, ship, order, pick, and deliver all of that beer in 44 days. Sometime last year, I saw a study (and I’m sorry, I can’t find it now – I believe it was something by Sam Adams/Jim Koch at the Wholesaler’s Assoc. Conference last year), that showed that, on average, for a widely distributed (ie – not local) brand, there is a 5-week lag between when beer leaves a brewery and when it arrives on a retailer’s shelf. 5 weeks. That means for beer to arrive on July 13 on a shelf, it left the brewery June 1st, which gives the brewery a grand total of 2 weeks from the earliest possible arrival of pumpkins.
Here’s a most likely scenario: This beer was brewed back in March or April using canned, drummed, or imported pumpkin puree – assuming there is actually pumpkin in your pumpkin beer and not just pumpkin pie spices. Your seasonal beer is, by definition, not seasonal as it is almost definitely not using seasonal ingredients (ie – ingredients that are IN SEASON.)
I know that might sound insane, but I hear tell that Great Lakes Brewing Company is currently brewing their Christmas Ale. In July. Wrap your mind around that as we go through the rest of the article talking about pumpkin beers.
Note: Redacted! Brewed for Christmas in July to my delight! Hooray! Fresh!
Right on. Now let’s talk about the shelf life of beer and how MOST (but not all) bottle shops, bars, and restaurants keep their beer in storage.
Beer is a perishable product. Its shelf life is short. On average, when beer is kept at a cool temperature (50 degrees is great, colder is better), the shelf life of a beer is about 90 days. 3 months. When beer is kept warm, that shelf life drops significantly and can be as short as 30 days, but usually you’re talking 45 – 60 days on average for a craft beer that’s kept at room temperature. The hotter a beer is kept, the shorter its shelf life is.
To be clear, what we’re talking about here isn’t spoilage at 60 days, it isn’t when the beer will go sour or anything incredibly disgusting. Those are infection problems. The end of shelf life is the point at which off-flavors will show up, most often oxidation and staling flavors, most notably cardboard-y/wet newspaper-y flavors. By this point, most-to-all of the hop character has diminished from the beer, and the chances of carbohydrates and proteins precipitating out in the bottle in the form of chunks or flakes is much higher. Is the beer drinkable? Sure, and it might taste okay. But it is not and can not be as good as it was when it was a fresh beer. Fresh beer is good beer.
There are a few things that can increase the shelf life of a beer:
1) High alcohol. In general, the beer will still oxidize and stale, but in the case of higher alcohol beers the staling flavors will probably be more pleasant, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes old beers, even high alcohol ones, just taste old and nasty. Aging is a gamble.
2) Pasteurization. In this scenario, you flash heat the beer in the package to kill any spoilage organisms that are in the package. This also has the effect of slightly arresting the aging process and can significantly change the flavor profile of a beer. A pasteurized beer can be good on the shelf upwards of 6 months.
Most small breweries do not pasteurize their beer. I don’t have strict numbers on this, but if I had to guess the number of breweries pasteurizing their packages, I would say “less than 10% of breweries.” I could be wrong and if anybody knows, I’d welcome that information.
Kegs are not, and can not be, pasteurized. You just can’t heat the liquid fast enough. That’s one of the reasons that beer can taste different on tap than it does in bottles – I mean, aside from age and the fact that kegs are often kept cold.
Okay – lesson in shelf life over. Let’s talk about how beer is kept. Fortunately, distributors are getting pretty good at keeping beer. That might sound a little snarky, but for a long time distributors weren’t really equipped to deal with the fact that they’ve got 500 different brands of beer to move around. They were moving 6 – 10 brands. Not 60 – 100, or 600 – 750, so for a long time distributors didn’t have great warehouse space to keep beer cold. We’re past that now and most distributors are pretty good, notwithstanding the fact that they have to order things in, get them shipped, get them in inventory, and organize them before they can sell them, and then finally deliver them which adds weeks onto the distribution process and takes weeks off of the life of a beer.
Now, think about your favorite bottle shop. The one you always go to because they have the most diverse selection of beer available. Okay, good? Now, how much of that beer is cold? The 5 of you that thought, “all of it!” are really lucky. The rest of you are thinking about shelves and shelves and shelves of beer that are sitting there, warm. Warm beer has a significantly shorter shelf life. If the same beer has been on a warm shelf for over a month, it’s probably old and stale.
So, now, you’ve got pumpkin beer arriving at a store on July 13. It is already a few weeks old. It’s a hot summer and nobody’s shopping for pumpkin beers right now so it’s going to sit on the shelf for – what? A month, before somebody even considers buying it? Two?
You’ve got seasonal beer arriving in the hottest part of the summer and sitting around until it’s stale before it’s ever being sold.
You know why? Because the sales figures show that pumpkin beers are popular, and so people make more and more pumpkin beers and, of course, instead of just making the best pumpkin beer they possibly can (challenge enough in itself), they strive to make the first.
And you know what’s most disgusting? People buy it.
So, to summarize my thesis: Seasonal creep – the fact that these seasonal beers keep coming out earlier and earlier – is training you to buy and enjoy old, stale beer.
Why do you stand for that? Do you go to the store and buy old vegetables? No! You would bring that shit back in a heartbeat and complain. You don’t buy old stale bread why do you buy old stale beer?
I think it’s time for people to take seasonality back: Stop buying seasonal beer out of season – and if something is old on the shelf, leave it there. Don’t fall for that marketing garbage. Instead, actually drink something that’s well-made, good, and fresh; don’t buy crap made with old ingredients that sits old on the shelf. You deserve something better for the price you’re going to pay for it.
There are so many great beers – and great TRULY SEASONAL beers – available fresh from your local brewery. Drink those instead.
This past weekend, while we were running our little temporary taproom experiment over at Mystery, somebody – one of the fine patrons that came and joined us that evening – stole a poster from the bathroom of our office.
It was a kind of a cheap poster, but it was fun – the Awdrey-Gore Legacy poster by Edward Gorey. It’s a little murder-mystery poster, a little macabre and a little funny. Moreover, it was my wife’s poster and we’d had it hanging in our house for a while, but we brought it into the brewery when we opened up mainly so that the bathroom would stop looking so empty. So, while it sucks, it’s not like someone stole our smoker or anything. It wasn’t anything of significant monetary value, or even something of practical value, but something of sentimental value, instead.
And that is precisely why it pisses me off so much.
Here we are – we’re a young business. We’re still getting our feet under us and trying to get a solid footing in the market. We’re not rich. We work our asses off to pay the bills just like everybody else. So, we’ve opened up our doors to try to stay engaged with people while we’re struggling to get our taproom open and somebody comes in and, essentially, betrays our trust and our hospitality by stealing something of literally no value.
Dear asshat – go and buy your own fucking poster. That one belongs to my wife. And while you can now put it up in your house and say, “Oh my god! Isn’t this cool? I totally took this from Mystery!” Any person’s response to that statement should be: “Wow. You’re a douchebag.” In fact, do yourself a favor, save your money – don’t buy my beer, and go buy a poster instead so that way I don’t have to waste my time and money replacing it.
When I asked my staff if they knew it was missing, the overall response was something along the lines of, “What did you expect to happen when we started letting people in here?” and I think that is the saddest most sorry statement against humanity I have ever heard. That’s what I have to expect from fans of craft beer? Petty theft? Aren’t you better than that?
That’s exactly the kind of bullshit that makes it difficult to run a small business and difficult for us to justify letting people into our business, into our office, and into our lives. If you think it’s cool to steal a poster, what else are we going to have to replace? What else in the brewery has gone missing that we haven’t noticed yet? We’re trying to get people in here to make sure that we have enough money to operate, and it’s not going to fly if we have to replace even a few small things every time we let people in here. And what happens when it’s not something small and it’s something big? Damage to our equipment or stealing something that’s vital to our operation could literally shut us down permanently.
So, to whomever of you who has decided that the cool and hip thing to do is to go into a small business and steal something: Fuck you. That business that you stole from isn’t some fancy mega corporation and walking into it should have been able to tell you that. You didn’t steal from the man, you stole from me and from my employees and the hours and hours of work we put in every day so that you can enjoy that beer you came in and had. I’m so glad that we engendered enough of your respect that you felt like you had to take something from us.
Please, take this as a token of my respect for you: don’t ever come back.
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.
I’m going to diverge from beer for a moment because everybody on the internet needs to hear – read… whatever – this. This tweet, or Facebook posting. I see it every day:
OMG! Just 10 more followers and we have 1,000! We’re like totally going to give away a SOMETHING AWESOME to our 1,000th follower! Tell your friends! Will you be the lucky one!?!?!?11?3FCtrl-H
No. I won’t. You know why? Because I already follow you. And thank you so much for acknowledging that by giving a SOMETHING AWESOME away to somebody who doesn’t currently follow you. Why should I tell my friends? That doesn’t reward me at all. That rewards them. What I should really do is stop following you and watch your total to see when you get close to 1,000 and then just unfollow you and refollow you again and again until I’m the 1,000th. That’s stupid.
Give a SOMETHING AWESOME away to a random follower at that round number. Give a few. Give everybody who currently follows you a link to a free download that’s only available for a short amount of time – but they know about because they follow you! Go hold some sort public media whatsit at that round number. Send out a thank you message to all of those people wasting their time by following you. Do something to acknowledge the fact that a lot of people have decided that you’re interesting enough to listen to. Rewarding somebody who doesn’t currently pay attention to you is insulting to all of the people that do.
This article is a followup to The Long Winding Path to Startup; call it part of the Mystery Brewing startup series, if you will.
So, here it comes. We’re entering the last month before we finally, finally, should be opening our doors. In the next 2 – 3 weeks, according to every vendor and government agent that I’ve spoken to, we’re going to see all of our equipment arrive AND our federal licensing. From there, I’m hoping that the rest of installation is a snap and that state and local licensing is a breeze. We’d like to have beer in tanks by Christmas, and we’d like to launch the New Year with some Mystery Brewing Company beer.
This is by no means a guarantee, but it’s what I sincerely and deeply hope will happen.
Let me share with you, like in the last article, the phrase that’s been driving me nuts, lately:
“While Mystery has yet to announce an opening date…”
It’s not a terrible phrase. It’s normally surrounded by other nice phrases and words like “highly anticipated” or “exciting.” But, deep inside it makes me feel like there’s somehow the suggestion that we’re being lazy about getting open or that we just don’t know, and it’s far from the case. If it was my choice, I would have been open months ago. Keeping a manufacturing business moving toward market without having the ability to create any sort of income is, to put it succinctly, terrifying. At the same time, as I said before, I’m sensitive to creating too much buzz before we know when things are going to shake out.
So, before I start cranking up the hype machine, let me share the continuing saga. When we left off back in July, I had just received word from the bank that, yes, indeed, they were going to be able to fund the equipment in the brewery. I was pretty excited, as was probably evident from that article, and hopeful that it meant that, given the 18 – 24 weeks that companies need to put equipment together and get it to you, that we’d be up and running in the fall. You can see now, in December, that it hasn’t happened quite like that.
Part of that is because we didn’t actually sign on that bank loan until October.
I’m not one for throwing out figures or naming names, but I will write this as a warning to other startups: I have spent tens of thousands of dollars waiting for banks and loan programs to get paperwork across their collective desks. My aggregate total waiting time for the SBA to turn me down (twice) has been 6 months. Had I known all of this, I would have asked the bank for money to cover the amount of capital that I spent just waiting. Now, it’s lost, unrecoverable, startup cost. It’s money that I can’t spend on equipment or upfit or other useful startup items. It’s money gone to lease, utilities, and enough money for me to pay my mortgage and eat while I was waiting for other people to shuffle papers across their collective desks. I’m not bitter (well, okay, a little), but it should be a warning: Calculate the amount of money you’ll need to not get anything done, because there will be a lot of not getting things done.
In the meantime, though, we tried to keep ourselves busy.
First of all, I say we because in September, when things were getting too busy for me to really handle on my own, I brought a friend on staff to help me. Chris and I met via Twitter, and he and his lovely wife Jen have been great friends ever since. It has been just an incredible boon to have him on my side and helping me out. In fact, I am sure that without him we would be much farther from opening than we are now.
So, together, Chris and I have worked toward getting Mystery going as best as we can without the ability to a) make any sort of large amount of beer (y’know – we can homebrew) and b) make any sort of income. We’ve been getting involved in events where we can, pouring casks when possible (so long as money doesn’t change hands), and trying to be as up front and visible as we can without building up too much insane hype ahead of schedule. We might have failed that last goal by pouring at the World Beer Festival in Durham this fall, where we had a line all day. It was pretty awesome to be there, but not so great to have to tell people that there was no place to find our beer. Soon, people! Soon!
Over the course of the fall I wrote a book and had the fantastic opportunity to visit almost every brewery in the state of North Carolina. Recently, as a companion business to Mystery and with the help of Derrick Smith of Hillsborough’s Wooden Nickel Pub, we opened Nash Street Homebrew, a homebrew shop that seeks to fill a niche in the Western Triangle and far Eastern Triad.
They’re both opportunities that sort of fell into my lap. The book – and I’ve mentioned this in another blog post months ago – came to me, rather than me looking for a place to publish, and while I’m glad I did it, I don’t think I could have chosen a worse time to attempt to write a book. Starting a brewery takes a lot of your time, even when there’s no brewery there. Throw a few dozen road trips and hours and hours and hours and hours of research, writing, and editing on top of that and.. well.. let’s just say that I haven’t slept much in the last few months. I had originally wanted to chronicle my entire trip via the blog, but it became apparent to me very quickly that I had enough writing to do to put the book together. Writing a second book online while I was doing the first was just foolhardy.
You can see a all of the photos that I took, many of which will be in the book (and don’t you dare re-use these without permission) over on Flickr.
The homebrew shop was very much the same way. Without getting into boring specifics, the opportunity and the idea were presented to me together and it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. It helps that I have Derrick and Chris to help in the setup and management of the shop. All I basically need to do is manage the business end of things. It’s a great thing to have good partners.
All in all, things are coming together nicely and I’m optimistic for the future. We’ve had some rough times over the past few years, and the opportunity for rough times still exists. If we don’t see TTB licensing this month, things are going to get dodgy really fast, so we’re looking at a couple of ways to make it less dodgy for us as our final pre-opening month comes to a close.
I won’t go all NPR pledge drive on you (I’ve done that here on this post at Mystery), but this week we’ll be launching our Irregulars program, named after the Baker Street Irregulars of Sherlock Holmes fame.* It will be a comprehensive Mystery membership club that includes all kinds of fun swag (a membership kit!), opportunities to get unique Mystery beers, early admission into Mystery events, chances to brew with us at the brewery, and a way to always be a long term part of the brewery. I urge you to check it out, because I think it will be fun (and maybe even a great Christmas gift!), but it’s also a way for people to help Mystery make the final push over the finish line. We can make it at a sputter or we can take air and fly. With people behind us, we can soar into the New Year and bring all of our backers with us.
We’re also planning a New Years Eve soiree at the brewery; a way to see the new brewery first hand before the first beers even get released. What better place to spend New Years Eve than at a brewery? I’ll be there no matter what, party or no. Keep an eye out for more details on that within the next few days, and if you’re in Central North Carolina keep your New Years Eve open and available.
At the end of this all, I just want to take a moment to say thanks. People across the internet, from good friends here in North Carolina (and especially in the NC Craft Beer community), to people I’ve never met before across the country and around the world have been incredibly supportive of me and Mystery over the past year and a half while the entire startup process has been dragging on. This page – the full list of Kickstarters – just makes my jaw drop every time I look at it, and those are just the (awesome, amazing) Kickstarters. It doesn’t even list the dozens and dozens of people who have given of their time, intellect, and advice. I can’t wait to justify your trust and good will with great beer, and I sincerely hope to share a pint (or maybe a half-pint) with each and every one of you.
*The Baker Street Irregulars are a band of street urchins employed by Holmes to help him investigate crimes and track criminals. They first appeared in the first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet.