Do You Have What it Takes to Launch Your Own Brewery?
As the craft beer trend continues to grow, more and more entrepreneurial enthusiasts are throwing their hat into the barrel. New microbreweries are springing up overnight, it seems, each with their own distinct take on the perfect beers.
But, is it really as easy as it may seem to start a brewery? Is turning a pastime into a career worth it? Here, we chat with Geoff Towne, founder of Zauber Brewing, which has, in a very short year, grown from a dream to a destination, about what it takes to build a brewery all your own.
Question: How did you actually get into brewing your own beers?
Geoff Towne: I’ve been at this for over a decade, brewing professionally. But before that, I was a home brewer, like a lot of guys. I just kind of fell in love with it as a hobbyist, and at the same time, was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Luckily, I was a college graduate in Biology, which helped me get into graduate school for it. Going out to get a Certificate in Brewing from the University of California at Davis was my ticket in, was what I call my smarty pants way of getting into the industry. It opened a lot of doors for me, and I got to work at Great Lakes in Cleveland, and for Boston Beer in Cincinnati as a Brewing Manager, partially as a result of being able to get the education in advance of working there. Then, the last couple years, I’ve been getting this whole thing together, so I guess, in a roundabout way, that’s my decade in brewing.
Question: When did you actually make the decision to say this is something I could actually do and I can make it successful?
Towne: I guess I’ve always had a little bit of the entrepreneurial spirit. I had passionate perspectives on beer and what you can do with it, and I always felt like I had an instinct for it. I had an appreciation for the marketing of it as well, and craft beer was emerging for most of my career, which now is everywhere and obvious to everybody. In 2003-2004, when I went out to school, it didn’t necessarily look that obvious, so when I came back to Ohio, it was like, “I can do this, I can be a pioneer, start my own business sometime down the road.” Working at a couple other breweries gave me the experience and the know-how, and certainly dispelled the mysteries of how a brewery works and functions, so I could use that practical knowledge to my advantage when starting my own business. So I always felt confident I knew how to make a brewery run, how to make it grow. Getting it started was the adventure part of it.
Question: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Towne: I guess the biggest challenges we faced were how to deal with finance and with real estate, two very big financial obstacles obviously that have their own cultures attached to them. Trying to find the right fit that made sense for the the long term sake of the business was a lot of hard work. I remember banging my head against the wall trying to find the right series of pieces that would work for us and the sake of the financial position of the business. So hardest things were: raising money and finding the right building.
Question: Seems like those are always the biggest problems starting a new business. Was there any point that you thought, “No, this is not going to happen for me”?
Towne: I’d say no. I think I always had a very specific way that this was going to work in mind. It was a collection of things, and depending on what level modest start up we would go with, there were always steps along the way I had to get over to get to the next step. So, starting out the pilot brewery with the growler station (Norton Avenue), that was a safe step to get started, get in business, demonstrate what I could do on a very small scale. I always felt confident that would make it easy to sell the concept to investors and bankers for the sake of loaning me money or buying into the business in order to make it workable.
Question: Talk to me a little bit about what it’s been like working in such close proximity with other craft brewers, because I imagine there are advantages and disadvantages to having other craft breweries so close.
Towne: I think we all have really good relationships with each other; it’s one of the unique things about our industry and our segment of the industry. Because we’re all so small compared to the Budweisers, the Millers, the Coors, we’re not even a blip on their radar in terms of size, and our products tend to be of a different nature; crafty, if you will. So, we’re looking for different consumers who have very different approaches from the big brewers, and we all have a common spirit of, “why fight with each other when you have lots of market shares we can capture as a unit?” This allows us to present ourselves as a unified brand – craft beer, local, Columbus, Ohio – so that when we’re going to bars and restaurants, yeah, sometimes I have to be in the rotation of tap handles as opposed to being the constant, but that allows the bars to experiment with different local beers, see what their consumers like, and for us, it allows us to know how we match up with the local environment, to know where our place is, if you will. I think we all have unique voices, we all exude in our own ways, and that’s what makes it cool and interesting. It’s not one-dimensional. You can go to other markets in the U.S. where craft beer seems to be one-dimensional because everybody’s trying to do the exact same thing. So, I think the variety of brewers we have, in particular because they’re in such close proximity, kind of in a roundabout way, makes us a brewery district, if you will, and allows us to feed off each other, to mutually benefit each other. It ‘s beneficial to brand each other together as all being local, all being friendly, and all being in it for the right reasons.
Question: If you had to pick out certain character traits that a successful brewery owner should have, what are those traits?
Towne: Thick skin. And maybe a little bit of chutzpah. Confidence in what you’re doing, as well as a never-give-up spirit. Breweries are very complicated animals, and every time you put together a brewery, build it yourself, or find somebody else to build one on your behalf, they’re very complicated machines that never go together smoothly. This is why a lot of breweries, including ourselves, take a little bit longer than we’d like to get things rolling. You have some very exotic equipment that very few contractors in town have a lot of experience with. If they had a lot of experience with it, I would be one of fifty instead of one of five, so that would be the three things: confidence, stick-to-it-iveness, and thick skin.
Question: So if there’s one piece of advice, the most important piece of advice you can give someone who wants to eventually be like a Geoff Towne one day, what would be that advice be?
Towne: I would say, Do Your Homework First. I did a lot of my homework before starting, and I think it made my transition a lot easier because I didn’t have to sweat a lot of things because I had done my homework in advance. So, my business plan, my setup, what beers I was making, that was all done in advance of the larger project. You have to take the time to figure it out, instead of being thrust into it with all these ideas at once. If you’re not attuned to, say, what your beers will be and what they should taste like, to figure it out on the fly is that much more hard, and you would stumble into mistakes as a result. So do your homework in advance. And, of course, have some fun.
For more information, check out the How to Start a Microbrewery guide on TheMetropreneur.com.
Photo by Ayana Wilson.
Columbus Underground is showcasing the local beer scene with Beer Week! From July 7th to July 13th, we’ll be sharing stories on homebrewing, guides to beer-centric bars, tasting beer how-to, cooking with beer, and more, sponsored by our friends at The Short North Pint House & Beer Garden. Every Wednesday, The Pint House brings in a different brewery to take over their taps featuring a diverse lineup of the best brews for you to try. Oftentimes, these brews are very rare or limited edition so come enjoy them while they have them! Every draft purchase is served in the brewery’s custom beer glass which is yours to keep while supplies last! For more information visit ShortNorthPintHouse.com.