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Black Husky Brewing Deep Thoughts
(or Rambling Streams of Consciousness)
It’s All Good Until You Start Killing Cows
Nary has a week gone by when I don’t get an e-mail from someone wanting to open a brewery. They’re all nice and well-being so I don’t want to be a hater. But as they go on about how much they love beer, and their friends all love the beer they make, I get the feeling they don’t appreciate how hard running a brewery is.
Aspiring brewers too often look at the business from the consumer’s point of view: I like beer; therefore, I want to run a brewery. That’s like saying “I like meat so I want to be a butcher.” That’s all fine and good until you have to start killing cows.
That is kind of how I look at running a brewery. One of my first responses is that brewing, while an integral part of running a brewery, is really the easy part. There are the obvious difficulties in getting licensed by the feds, state and local governments but that is more frustrating than it is difficult. It’s like trying to ballroom dance with snowshoes on. You’ve got to go real slow otherwise you’re going to be stepping on peoples’ toes.
The next issue is forming your business model. Brew pub, or brewery. Brewpub everyone shouts. Hey, if you think your job is frustrating now wait until you have to manage wait staff and kitchen help. Your turnover is about 350% a year so now you’re spending all your time hiring, training and firing employees and picking up their shifts because they called in sick.
Ok, you say, maybe a package brewery is better. Yeah that sounds better. Now you’ll need to borrow more money than the GNP of Belarus to buy equipment and a building, and your bottler will work at about 30% capacity of what you expected and your walk-in cooler will cost you far more to run too. You will sign with a distributor who is looking forward to taking on a ‘dark’ beer and the other ‘flavors’ you make.
I don’t mean to make it sound all bad. There is all the cleaning you get to do too.
Seriously, we love the brewery but don’t be naive. It is probably more work than you have ever done in your life. It seems the options are to work yourself into the ground and hold onto control or even out the work and debt to partners, but lose control.
Running a brewery is not a glamorous job. Your groupies aren’t girls in bikinis. They are fat, short, bald guys like me. You don’t spend all your time sitting around drinking beer and despite what some have said it is as well represented by assholes as any other industry. It can be difficult to maintain focus on your plan because there is so much publicity about this new brewery and how great they’re doing or this beer and how great it is and you wonder how come I am not doing that? Maybe we need to go in another direction.
So next time you have a beer and think about running a brewery just remember, it’s all fun and games until you start killing the cows.
The Brewing Empire
When we started our brewery our idea was not to make a lot of money. And at this point we are doing great at not making money. You could even say it is our strength – but I digress. Certainly we wanted to be able to make a living but Toni and I were looking for something we could do together – we actually work very well together – and do something we were good at and believed in.
I bring this up because it’s real easy to get caught up in growing and getting bigger. People try our beer and say “This is great. I know the guy from _______ and I can get you in there.” Now I know they are well meaning but we have never been interested in making an empire. Well maybe a little empire. An empire-ette. We’re not looking to be in every gas station, big box or retail outlet just to sell beer.
We want to make really good beer and make a living at it, and be able to leave something for our kids so they don’t have to be a slave to the man. Give them some control over their future.
You see as I see it, you grow and hire people so you can have more time to run the company and market and smooze and you end up spending time in the office and you’re not making beer and have lost the whole reason for getting into the business. Now I like the office as much as the next guy. It’s warm in the office; I can get comfortable and play Solitaire – which by the way I am quite good at. I am winning over 41% of my games.
But as with all things you need to have some balance; some time in the office and some time in the brewery, some time with patrons…. you get the idea. It’s real easy to get caught up in the craft brewing movement and then you’re making widgets.
I always like to keep Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in mind (see below). What do I ‘need?’ Food, shelter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, financial security, a future for the kids, a nice hat that isn’t too tight so I get a headache but not too big so it looks like an umbrella, some 18-year-old Lagavulin and some comfortable slippers.
That’s a pretty modest list. We don’t need an empire to do that. Besides, in my observations, in order to get the empire you often end up compromising your core beliefs to get there. Right now our most popular beer is Sproose Joose. We ‘source’ the spruce from trees on our property. So far that has worked well. But if we are going to make 1000 bbls of Sproose Joose, we are going to have to source our spruce elsewhere. You can see where this is going. What compromises will we have to make to get 3000 pounds of spruce tips? I just don’t want to go there.
I see a lot of breweries that are doing well and growing and sometimes I get the itch to get the empire going but what are we willing to compromise to get there? At this point – nothing. In fact, I would probably be willing to give up a good hat if we are able to keep our integrity. The hat I have now that I picked up at the gas station is just fine and since its blaze orange keeps people from shooting me… accidentally.
Terroir or Terror?
So recently I saw a program where a guy referred to "terroir" in relation to his cheese. I had a vague idea of what it meant in relation to wine. It looks a lot like “terror” but it actually comes from the word "terre," meaning “land” and how it relates to and influences the flavor of wine. Okay, that’s great. It’s wine – let them do their wine thing. But I have also heard it thrown about by brewers. WTF! Let me make one thing clear – beer is not wine.
In wine you use words like Beaujolais, champagne, sommelier and terroir. (Incidentally, none of these sound anything like they're written.) Evidently the French don’t use r’s or k’s or any hard vowels.
In beer we use words like stout, porter, bitter, lauter tun, and rauch. All hard vowels and it sounds like people who have lived hard lives and like it that way. Even the freaking Belgians, who are almost French and make great beer, make triples and dubbels, which incidentally are also baseball terms. Oooh, what if we made a Belgian-inspired beer and called it a homer. Write that down.
Anyways, I know as “craft” brewers we are trying to draw a distinction between mass-produced beers and craft beers. But we aren’t wine and shouldn’t try to be. Do we have such a problem with our beer self-esteem that we feel we have to try to cozy up to our snooty wine relatives? They are all nice guys and gals in wine but if we move into their neighborhood they’re just going to move out.
We should be satisfied in knowing that what we do is make great beers with a huge range of flavors and ways to enjoy them, which you can decide on your own. I don’t need a sommelier or the new beer word “cicerone” to tell me what I should drink my beer with. Here’s a beer pairing tip: You should drink your beer with people you enjoy. I gave that tip to Hannibal Lecter and it went all wrong, proving my point that we should stay out of the recommending and pairing and just let people drink.