01 Jan 2010 @ 12:13 PM 

This post was originally going to be for this month’s Session, #35: “New Beer’s Resolutions, but I canned it. It’s a cute topic, but I can’t do it. I don’t believe in looking back at mistakes. To learn from your mistakes is paramount, to dwell on them is folly. They are done and I won’t revisit them, but rather stay positive with their lessons in mind and move forward to greater achievement.
The future!
At the same time, I feel like resolutions are bunk. The number one way to not get something done is to make it a New Year’s Resolution. If you want something to get done, you need to roll out of bed in the morning and do it. Screw tying it to the calendar. Just get up and go.

I also won’t attempt to make any predictions about what could happen in 2010. The problem with predictions is that they are based on the past; they’re based on our current knowledge set and our current environment. We cannot forsee individual random events or, even more importantly, what will be invented that will change the world in the next 12 months. It’s impossible and fruitless to speculate. You can only be ready for anything and enjoy the ever-living-crap out of it.

But! The dawn of a new year is an opportunity to look forward to all of the wonderful things to come that you DO know about. Here’s my personal list of things to come in 2010:

Homebrew and Competition

After withdrawing myself from homebrew competitions for a while, I plan to get my feet wet again to see what comes out of it. I’ve had some rather snarky judges in the past that have made me feel rather jaded about entering competitions, but in the spirit of “I’m going to start a business.” I’ve decided to say screw-all to the critics, throw my hat back into the ring, and wait for the Gold Medal to arrive in the mail. If the rest of my big bold headings work out as I expect them to, this will also be the last year I enter into homebrew competitions.

Here’s where my beer is going:

  • 2010 Winter Brew Bash, Carrboro NC: Start local, right? These guys are working hard to have what appears to be a really incredibly non-traditional homebrew competition. What I like about it is that it is built around a homebrew tasting, so that brewers and the public alike can come in and try all of the beers that are entered into competition. It’s a lovely PR event for homebrew and has the possibility of getting a lot of new people involved in the hobby. At the same time, I love sharing my beer with other people and it’s a good opportunity for that, as well. Finally, as far as I can tell, it’s not tied to category, and thank god for that, because I don’t fit inside categories well.
  • LoneRider Brewery‘s Brew It Forward: Another style-less competition, where the prize involves getting your beer made and sold. I’m not sure when this is coming up – spring sometime – but they’re so close to my house that it seems ridiculous to not send them some beer.
  • National Homebrew Competition: My opportunity to play to style and send something out, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll get a feedback sheet from a judge that doesn’t make me want to punch them in the throat.

2010 Craft Brewers Conference Panel Presentation: I’m a Social Media Guru Now!
One of the things that I am both looking forward to and slightly terrified of is the 2010 Craft Brewers Conference where I will be part of a panel presentation entitled Storytelling 2.0: Social Media as Conversation with some colleagues that I feel rather starstruck about. Fullsteam’s Sean Wilson (one of my co-panelists) posted a nice up front review of what we’re attempting to do. Here’s the selected excerpt from our draft pitch that sells it best:

It’s time to stop thinking of Twitter, Facebook, and blogging as simple extensions of your press releases. Storytelling 2.0 will help you discover your own unique voice, and connect, build, and bond with your fan base. It’s time to talk with — not at — your audience.

Craft brewing is story-driven. Each individual brewery has a unique story to best engage its customer base. Social media empowers your brewery to include enthusiasts in that story, giving them access to your narrative voice in an unparalleled way. Well-crafted updates, photo postings, and personalized responses engage your customers, giving them a chance to see inside your operations and meet the characters in the story first-hand.

By the by, I hope nobody ever calls me a social media guru. I don’t use it enough (I’m sure my wife would argue that I use it way too much) – on purpose – because I feel like it’s easy to spam and therefore achieve negative impact through annoyance, but I think that automatically takes me out of “guru” running.

As we work on the conference panel over the next few months, you’ll probably see a few columns here about social media and how it pertains to breweries. These columns will not be meant as part of the presentation or may not even be related, but it’s the best way I have to work through things. At the same time, I hope that my ramblings will be useful to the internet/brewing community at large.

Know Your Brewer Re-Launches

We haven’t said a whole lot about this yet, but I am working with Sean over at Fullsteam on a little project that I think will turn out for awesome. Know Your Brewer, a website that was originally focused on North Carolina Beer as part of Pop the Cap 2.0. The site provided the basic template and early content for the North Carolina Brewers Guild website NCBeer.org, which I’m also helping on, but that left a domain and a concept unoccupied. I’ve somehow managed to convince Sean to let me help retro-fit Know Your Brewer for a new life.

The re-launch is coming and it’s coming nationwide. I’m not yet sure of our official re-launch date, I can say that I think it will be pretty terrific. The site will focus on the men and women behind craft beer – the people that make it, the brewers – and look at their beer and their breweries through their eyes. We’re hoping to have writers and bloggers across the country interviewing brewers from across the country, with lots of added content – recipes, Q&A, etc, all in a regular weekly format.

I’ve already done interviews at a couple of breweries and I have a half-dozen more scheduled in the next few weeks. It’s been a ton of fun talking to brewers about their work, how they got into it, and what they enjoy the most about it. It’s been a ball and I can’t wait to share it.

What you see there isn’t the final design, but it’s on its way. Look for an official announcement here (and, of course, on Know Your Brewer) soon. In the meantime, we’re recruiting writers – are you interested? Let me know!

Announcing the Location of Mystery Brewing Company

Finally, in either the second or third quarter this year, I will be making the announcement on the geographical location of my own startup: Mystery Brewing Company.

At that point, the blog will likely go through a slight transition where you end up hearing a lot more commentary about startup issues. On of my major criticisms with startup brewery content I have found, read, and yes, even paid thousands of dollars for, is the lack of practical detail. I get a lot of “you need to fill out TTB forms and apply for licensing.” And while it’s true, it’s not necessarily as helpful as telling me what forms are around, what information they tend to expect, and what pitfalls I should look out for. Not to say I’ll be posting how to fill out your TTB label forms here, but I will, whenever possible, post practical information about the startup process specifically pertaining to startup breweries in the hopes that others coming after me will find something useful. I believe that the future of the industry lays in continuing spread of the individual small brewery, rather than the continual creation of more megabreweries, and I hope that I can help the industry in the right direction.

Back when I was in high school, as a miserable teenager, I remember somebody taking me aside and telling me: “Remember these days, because these are the best days of your life.” And then I remember thinking, “Oh god – kill me now.” They were wrong. Totally and completely and in all ways possible: wrong. They were not even remotely the best days of my life. Every year that I’ve been alive, things have just been better and better, more fun and more awesome, and I can’t imagine that changing now. I’m looking forward to 2010, for all of these reasons up here and the hundreds of reasons that I haven’t found out about, yet.

Happy New Year, everyone. It’ll be a great one.

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 16 Oct 2009 @ 9:23 AM 

The title of this post is one of the questions that keeps me awake at night.

I know this sounds like a really basically fundamental question that I should be well past as I’m working on a business plan. But I also don’t know where I’m going to be, and that has a lot to do with the answer to that question. Let me explain:

As I recently revealed in discussion over at THFB, my lovely wife is working on finishing an advanced degree. Said advanced degree is most likely going to get her a job teaching at a college or university… somewhere. Where? Well, like every other industry, it’s hard to find a job teaching college, right now. Could be anywhere. Her search currently covers something like 63 states. I bet you didn’t even know we had 63 states.

Every time she mentions a different state to me, I start writing a new section of my business plan in my head. It’s a conglomeration of: What does the craft beer scene look like in this state? What are the established breweries that I know something about? What kind of beer do they make? Will I be near them? Are they mostly brewpubs or packaging breweries? Can I co-exist without directly competing? What are the distribution laws like? Will I be able to self-distribute my own stuff?

The brewpub/packaging brewery question kills me. Deep, deep down, I don’t want to open a restaurant. I would really love to just have a little space by myself where I can make beer and give it to somebody else to serve, hopefully while I’m somewhere near by to talk about it. It’s almost definitely the more difficult way to go. Brewpubs outnumber packaging breweries almost 2-to-1. (962-to-456) and a part of me says: Hey! There’s a reason for that! Then the rest of me says, “Screw it. Do what makes you happy.” which is pretty much my mantra in life.

Here are a few of the considerations I take myself through:

Packaging Brewery Brewpub
I can go it alone for a while. Saves money on staff. Need other people involved at start; almost definitely saves on sanity.
Lower startup costs, brewing and kegging equipment can probably get me going. Serving tanks, barstools, napkins, silverware, table cloths, oh.. and food. Lots of food. Big ol’ initial investment.
Limited interaction with the consumer unless I’m really good with getting into public, long feedback loop. Immediate touch with customers and immediate feedback.
Nothing to drive customers away except crappy beer. People will come for the beer, but come back for the food. If the food isn’t awesome, people won’t drink my beer.
I want to make beer. I have no desire to make food for people.
Have to deal with some sort of distribution scheme or distributor right out of the gate. No need to distribute until your customer base is well established.
I will miss having people around and am likely to become some sort of crazy hermit before I relent and hire someone to help me. Some days people-in-general really, and I mean REALLY, piss me off.

In the end, unless I find somebody who is really excited to run the restaurant end of a brewpub that shares my vision of what a brewpub should be like, I will almost definitely start a packaging brewery. (Maybe down the road I’ll expand it to having some sort of bar or cafe.) But that doesn’t mean I don’t question: Is that the right decision?

I’d love to hear from others.

People who have started/are starting – what’s your plan? Brewpub? Packaging? Why? What’s driving your decision?

Beer drinkers: If you heard there was a new brewery opening locally would you be more excited to try it if it were a brewpub or a packaging brewery? Would you feel differently about one vs. the other?

Oh Wisdom of the Internet, pour into my discussion section!

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Tags Categories: brewery, brewpub, startup Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 16 Oct 2009 @ 01 19 PM

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 24 Aug 2009 @ 9:50 AM 

One of the most bizarre parts of starting a brewery is planning that’s far away from buildings, business plans, or venture capital, and it’s probably one of the most important decisions that you can possibly make: What kind of beer do you make first?

It’s vital. It’s the beer that first defines your brand to customers; it’s the beer that will most likely, but not necessarily, be with you for the entirety of your existence.
The ubiquitous sampler.

So, how do you decide? Do you want a session beer that people can drink a lot of? Something big and memorable that people won’t drink a lot of? Do you want to make an incredibly popular style and subject yourself to a ton of competition? Or make a hard-to-get style and hope that people will go out of their way to try it? What’s more – is there a way to balance all of these considerations?

A few years ago, when I took Siebel Insitute’s inaugural Start Your Own Brewery course, one of the largest things I took away from it was Jason Ebel of Two Brothers Brewing Company and Windy City Distribution saying something like, “If you’re trying to sell a porter, for the love of god, don’t even bother calling me. Everybody’s got a friggin’ porter.”

When I was shopping at Whole Foods this weekend, I took a stroll through the beer section and noticed that 75% or more of the beers that they had in there were IPAs or APAs.

In one panel at the Craft Brewers Conference this year, I remember a slide (wish I had a reference for you, but I don’t) noting specifically that most customers expected and wanted to see a stout on tap at their brewpub, but that it was continually the lowest-selling beer on tap.

A study by the BA in 2002 (which I can no longer find, so you’ll have to trust my AWESOME memory) suggested that craft beer drinkers who said they had a favorite beer drank that beer, on average, once per month. So on some level, all of this is subject to whim, no matter what.

It all seems like crazy conflicting information? So how do you deal with it?

For me, it’s been a weird process of elimination. I started by looking at the beers that I like. It is my personal feeling that a flagship should be with a brewery as long as possible, as a strong part of their brand definition. With that in mind, it had better damn well be a beer that I enjoy since I’m going to be the one around it most.

I cut it down to beers for which I had already made recipes that I enjoyed, so that I could then work on perfecting those recipes over the next few years as I work on the nuts and bolts of the rest of the startup … you better believe I have a beer in my hand every time I work on my business plan.

That left me with a half dozen beers to choose from. I eliminated the really high gravity stuff with the thought that I would prefer if people bought a lot of my first product, and the best way to get people to buy a consumable product is to make sure they consume it.

That left me with three. One of which I eliminated because it involved an herb that I thought would be a tough sell out of the gate.

That leaves me with an IPA and a Porter.

Tough sell.

Of course, I’m still early on in the process – it all may change in time, especially as I develop new recipes that I – and others – like.

But what about others?

Beer drinkers: What are you most likely to try from a new brewery?

Breweries: How did you arrive at your final decision for your flagship?

Other startups: How are you approaching this process?

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Categories: distribution, industry, marketing, startup
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 24 Aug 2009 @ 09 58 AM

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