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The Stress of Success

A flurry of critical acclaim or a slew of medals can cause demand for a brewery’s beers to skyrocket overnight—but the stark light of day can reveal hidden cracks in the system. Here’s how three breweries have responded.

Tom Wilmes June 13, 2017

The Stress of Success Primary Image

Side Project Brewing attracted intense interest even before the first drop of beer left its taproom. People began lining up outside The Side Project Cellar in St. Louis the evening before its first scheduled bottle release, which was set for noon the next day, for a chance to taste what Founder/Brewer/Blender Cory King had been up to.

King had a well-established reputation as head brewer at Perennial Artisan Ales, where he developed beers such as Abraxas and Savant Beersel that helped to put Perennial on the map. And now that he was going out on his own with Side Project, expectations were through the roof.

“It was crazy,” King says. “Our first release was tiny—we’re talking five total oak barrels of three different beers—so a lot of people didn’t even get some of the beers they wanted because we ran out. It was definitely eye-opening. But I guess the beers tasted good because people came back.”

And come back they did. The clamor for Side Project’s beers hasn’t subsided in the two years since King opened for business, or even after he built out a new brewhouse late last year (he had been brewing his Side Project beers at Perennial).

“It’s a different kind of stress, but it’s definitely a stress,” King says of Side Project’s success. “Don’t get me wrong—lines look cool because the demand is huge for business, but no brewery wants a line. That means that people are standing and waiting and not enjoying themselves. I don’t want our beers to be hard to get. I wish I could make enough beer to where everybody was happy and I could fulfill everyone’s needs, but that’s just the nature of our brewery.”

All of Side Project’s beers are extremely limited releases that King himself has brewed, barrel-aged, and blended. Even if he brews larger batches and fills more barrels—which he has—many barrels just don’t perform and are discarded. Most are mixed-fermentation projects that take many months to reach fruition. He could scale up and hire more people to brew and package the beer, but all of Side Project’s beers are a product of King’s singular blending, palate, and perspective. What does he stand to lose if that changes?

“People are expecting Side Project, and they’re expecting our continued quality,” he says. “Maintaining our quality is what keeps people coming back and willing to try our beers blindly.

“Besides,” he says. “I’d rather have this dilemma any day than the other, where nobody wants the beer and we’re having to push it.”

The Weight of Gold

It’s a dilemma many breweries would love to have: that the demand for your beers is so huge that you literally can’t make enough, quickly enough.

But the challenges—and the temptations—that come with that kind of sudden success can strain a brewery in many ways, especially a new brewery that’s just beginning to find its feet.

WeldWerks Brewing Co., in Greeley, Colorado, experienced near-instant notoriety soon after opening in February 2015. The brewery won a silver medal for its Hefeweizen at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival just seven months later, as well as a medal at the U.S. Open Beer Championship, which prompted a slew of media coverage “and then it kind of snowballed from there,” says WeldWerks Cofounder and Brewer Neil Fisher.

Beer Advocate named the brewery to its class of 2015 best new breweries, and USA Today readers voted WeldWerks as the best new brewery in the country in an early 2016 readers’ poll. WeldWerks also won a bronze medal for its Puesta del Sol Vienna lager at the 2016 World Beer Cup. More than 350 customers braved intense heat to line up on Father’s Day 2016 for the first release of their barrel-aged stouts, Coconut Medianoche and Vanilla Medianoche (pictured at top).

“All of these things culminated in a storm of unprecedented demand for us,” Fisher says. “We’d been steadily growing at a very comfortable pace, and then, all of the sudden, we were running out of beers in days and not weeks. We were definitely strained on the production side. We didn’t have the appropriate staffing in place to ramp up production right away. We’d been shopping around for new fermentors, but we didn’t have an order placed.”

At the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference, Fisher and Co-owner Colin Jones scoured the showroom floor looking for a fermentor that they could buy on the spot.

“Cost was not a concern for us; we just needed it to ship before we left Philadelphia,” Fisher says.

And then a hoppy, hazy IPA named Juicy Bits really took off for the brewery, which strained its production capacity even further.

“We had more and more people coming to the brewery and more accounts requesting Juicy Bits, and we just couldn’t keep up with it,” Fisher says. “We reached a point where we had maybe five or six beers on tap, which is the least we’ve ever had, and more customers coming into the taproom who were upset that they couldn’t find some of our beers, especially Juicy Bits.

“It was definitely a time of growing pains and finding ways that we could be more efficient in our production and also maintain our customer service. We didn’t want to overstretch ourselves, but I think we just grew really fast, and fortunately, [we] corrected fairly quickly,” Fisher says. “I also think we earned a lot of leeway and forgiveness because we were very open and transparent about it. We made it very public and said, ‘We really appreciate the demand, but we also apologize that we haven’t been able to provide the service that we wanted.’ ”

The worst thing a brewery that’s experiencing a surge of demand can do is to be reactionary, adding capacity too quickly at the potential expense of the product’s quality just as people are clamoring to try your beers. Fisher says WeldWerks found itself in a unique position to scale its own growth, and they didn’t want to lose that opportunity.

“We didn’t want to ramp up too quickly,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that, if anything, everything got better and never suffered. Our philosophy is, if we make more beer, we make better beer, and that’s the best way for us to grow,” he says. “It’s also given us complete control to say, ‘Hey, we just need to slow down a little bit and take the time to dial this process in or to get more people working in the back in production or to get our schedules figured out—all those things.’ ”

And all that proactive planning and a studied, steady approach are paying off. Fisher designed the brewhouse with plenty of room for expansion, he says, and “big plans” are in the works for this year, including a new canning line.

“Our hope is never to make a beer that you can’t get,” he says. “Scarcity marketing definitely happens, but not by us and not on purpose.”

Like a Buddha

Florida’s Funky Buddha Brewery had a breakout moment at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. Just a few hours into the first session, people were lined up at least twenty deep to taste inventive, funky beers such as Morning Wood Imperial Porter and No Crusts Brown Ale. The name “Funky Buddha” was on everyone’s lips.

“We’ve been fortunate to receive a response like that from a few different events of that caliber,” says Funky Buddha Brand Director John Linn. “We go to Extreme Beer Fest every year, and of course, GABF, and we’ve gone to Philly Beer Week. I mean, it’s affirming. First of all, it’s great that people want to try to your beer, and I think it has illustrated for us that we have a brand that’s extended beyond where we distribute and that people are interested in our products.”

FunkyBuddha-Maple-BaconCoffeePorter

PHOTO: COURTESY FUNKY BUDDHA BREWERY.

Funky Buddha opened with a 30-barrel brewhouse in June 2013 and has steadily grown its distribution footprint in the state ever since. Its lineup focuses on a mix of approachable, straight-ahead beers such as its recently released Pineapple Beach, a blonde ale with pineapple, as well as more esoteric offerings such as Maple Bacon Coffee Porter (pictured above).

And while Funky Buddha beers often find their way into trades headed all over the country and are a favorite at festivals, the brewery tends to view that acclaim more as an affirmation that it’s on the right track than as a call for rapid expansion.

“We know that there is demand out there for our product and that if we do build this out, we feel more comfortable knowing that there’s going to be demand, but ultimately, it’s about moving enough cases to keep the lights on,” Linn says. “You know a single bottle of our beer going to California or Colorado in a trade doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to be successful here in our own markets. I would say our focus now is on making extremely enjoyable beer that we think can translate into sales in terms of your everyday craft drinker.”

While outside interest is nice, continuing to focus on serving your home market as best you can is the key to lasting success, Linn says.

“If we had not been successful in our own market, then I don’t think it would matter quite as much,” he says. “It’s also becoming a tougher market in general for breweries that distribute outside their home region. You could be two states over from where you’re being extremely successful and not be nearly as successful in that state.”

And that is why critical acclaim is nice affirmation but, for Funky Buddha, a continued focus on quality and service in its home markets is the only way to grow.

The Brewing Industry Guide Spring 2017 from Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® is still available. Order this complimentary business-focused publication that features strategies for growth, how to position your brand, Stan Hieronymus on hops contracts, small brewery tips, equipment supplier directory, and much more! Get a copy today!

PHOTO AT TOP: JAMIE BOGNER