Imagine waking up for work every day to go do something that you truly love. Throw in getting to wear colorful flannel shirts, tasting incredible beers all day while you’re on the job, growing a gnarly beard, and high fiving all your competitors. Sounds pretty great, right? You might even get to collaboratively make beer with a group many outsiders see as your biggest competition. The dream is real, my friends!
We’ve all heard the story time and time again—getting into the brewing industry is the best decision they’ve ever made. There’s certainly a reason for that. Over the past five years, the craft-beer industry has been bourgeoning, and most of those people could never imagine doing anything but creating, brewing, tasting, selling, and talking about beer. But what about the other side to this fairy tale? What challenges do new breweries face in 2017? And is owning a brewery really all that it’s cracked up to be?
Financial Struggles and Triumphs
Kirk Lombardi from Zwei Brewing candidly points out, “One of the things I love about the brewing profession is that boredom is never an issue, but that comes with a price.” When Kirk got into the brewing industry, he says, “Things were tight,” and he had no idea that he was going to be “working 65–75 very grueling hours a week, making very scant wages.” But what Kirk truly wasn’t prepared for was that “at each and every turn on the business side, there’s a new entity trying to take away as much as they possibly can. Whether it be the many music licensors, the City Use Tax Department, craft-beer festivals, charities, the County Property Tax Department, friends and family looking for handouts, insurance, utilities, repairs, or the State and Federal excise people, the list just goes on forever.”
To Kirk’s point, there are huge numbers of people out there who want to snatch away a slice of your successes, but there are other struggles that happen before you even open the front doors. Emily and Lee Celghorn, owners of Outer Range Brewing Company (Frisco, Colorado) put up their entire life savings to open their brewery about four months ago. “We think we’re crazy on a daily basis for sinking our entire life savings into this business. When we met, we were both homebrewing and didn’t think much about costs, but when you start brewing to scale and are unwilling to sacrifice quality of ingredients, things get incredibly expensive.”
There’s also the planning fallacy that everything costs way more than you think. Things cost way, way, way more than you think: “We spent 40k alone just on our water/sewer tap fees, and as costs mounted, we ended up building walls and doing things we had no business doing.”
This financial theme continued throughout my dialogs with other brewers. As Bill Eye from Bierstadt Lagerhaus (Denver, Colorado) passionately points out, “people have a mistaken notion that breweries make money like owning a printing press. Nothing could be further from the truth.” In fact, it is quite the contrary. “All of the people I know and respect in this industry are now struggling or have struggled in the past.” This struggle and triumph are tangible components that I could literally feel throughout my series of interviews, but I think Bill makes a very revealing and declarative statement. “If you don't love making beer more than you love money, don't bother opening a brewery. It will tax you more than you can tolerate.”
Breweries, Breweries Everywhere
Beyond the financial struggles, there are a number of other issues that brewery owners are dealing with in 2017. The United States surpassed 5,000 breweries in November 2016, and with the huge numbers of breweries still in planning, there may be somewhat of an identity crisis currently happening in the brewing world. “The biggest issue that I think most brewery owners face in 2017 is trying to remain relevant and stand out when there are so many other great beers being made throughout the United States,” says Sean Nook, owner of Black Bottle Brewing (Fort Collins, Colorado). Sean adds, “it feels like there are countless breweries today that are just out there to cover the standard beer-color spectrum.” He calls them “tourism breweries.” A stout, a pale, two IPAs, an amber or red, a porter or brown, and voilà, you have a tourism brewery. Sean adds, “It feels like everyone is copying everyone these days, with the beers, taprooms, marketing plans, and packaging. It just seems like everyone is solely focused on appealing to the standard craft-beer drinker. We try to remain relevant by making the kind of beers that we want to drink, and we try to create things that will boldly stand out. You’re not just selling beer anymore in 2017; you’re selling a lifestyle.”
There’s no doubt we live in a copycat world, and creating and establishing a unique identity is challenging in this ever-so-crowded market of hops and barley. I can promise you this—no one gets into the brewing industry to become a marketing expert and shrewd negotiator, get rich, work 70 plus hours 7 days a week, or deal with any number of people who are trying to eat away at profit margins. But like it or not, these are all very real components of owning and operating a brewery in this new era of craft beer. And not everyone does it well. While breweries continue to open in large numbers across the United States, breweries are also starting to close and will continue to shut down operations in the weeks and months ahead.
But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the beer. When speaking with Kirk, Lee, Emily, Bill, and Sean, the one thing you just cannot measure through the words on this page is the passion and enthusiasm that they all have for the beer they make. Brewing beer is their life, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the hardships and challenges that they all face, they truly love what they do and have managed to create unique and idiosyncratic businesses in a very crowded brewery landscape.
Should you think twice before you open a brewery in 2017? Absolutely! Think three, maybe four times about it. But if your passion for making great beer outweighs everything else you do and you are 110 percent committed to being a part of this eminently challenging—yet incredibly exciting—brewing reverie, do your homework and go all in. Bill sums it up beautifully: “This is an industry populated by interesting, passionate, opinionated assholes, but these colleagues and competitors are the best people in the entire world.” The dream is real, my friends, but it might come with a serious dose of the night sweats.
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