There are two ways to look at the title statement.
What is needed to succeed in Craft Beer?
What IS needed to succeed in Craft Beer.
This is something I have been thinking about during the past few weeks when looking at the number of new breweries in the planning stages in Maryland. I think I am going to need to focus more on the first statement than the second. Because if I felt confident that I knew the answer to the second, I would either have my own craft brewery or consulting to help others start theirs. So I will speculate.
This one is kind of a gimmie. Craft Beer is something that many have become passionate about in the past few years. But passion is a funny thing. It’s a little bit fickle, because it needs guidance. It also needs care and feeding.
Not all craft brewers will make it. And I bet if you talk to some of the ones that don’t make it, you will notice that their passion is not what it used to be. I’m not saying that these guys weren’t passionate to begin with, because I am sure that they were. But any small business is tough, and when a company is in a tough financial predicament it can be hard to keep that same level of enthusiasm and passion that you had the day you decided to jump in the world of brewery ownership. The need to take care of the passion and keep it at a high level, might be what separates a failed business owner and one that survives a tough time.
You can provide all of the care and feeding in the world to your passion, but if it is misguided it might not matter. Most that are jumping into craft beer are doing it because they have a passion for the beer. However, there are more and more that are entering the industry because they have a passion for money. Some may be able to succeed with money as their primary driver, but many that enter the industry for this reason will likely cut their losses and sell their assets as soon as they can. Craft beer is not a get rich quick business, and those with that passion will become quickly frustrated.
It seems that there are more and more ways to become educated about beer and brewing. In past blogs I have spoken about the Cicerone Program and have mentioned some about the Beer Judge Certification Program. These programs are great for educating you about tasting and serving beer, but only skim the surface when it comes to brewing.
A lot of brewers learn a lot through home brewing, and the home brewing community. Craft beer was born from home brewing. Of the craft breweries that began in the 90s, very few did not rise from home brewing. But there is a significant learning curve between running a homebrewery to a 7 barrel brewhouse to a 200 barrel brewhouse. As craft brewing has grown, breweries have begun to rely more on the expertise of brewers that started in the world of Budweiser or Coors. Running a large production system needs a skill set, that doesn’t always come naturally to the homebrew types.
Craft brewing has also come to rely on classically trained brewers too. Brewing schools have become much more popular. Many accredited universities are adding brewing programs to their curriculum. CraftBeer.com is a great resource for noting the growth of these programs. These programs, and which one is completed, can also shape the type of brewer is produced. One of the most highly acclaimed is the Doemens Academy in Germany. This school, while educating in all styles, will provide a certain degree of bias toward German styles. While the brewing program at UC Davis is going to provide a great way to brew in a Neo-American style. But not all education is about brewing. Portland State University offers online certificate programs in areas like Craft Beverage Business Management, Strategic Craft Beverage Marketing, and Finance and Accounting for the Craft Brewery.
Even while noting how important education is in a brewery. It is also important to note, that it doesn’t have to come from classical means, or to some degree, it doesn’t have to be acquired at all. If you have the last element to success.
In many industrial businesses, this would be one of the biggest requirements. But it seems in brewing, this is the most optional. Sure a lot of brewers will migrate from the macro breweries to the craft market. And many brewers will jump from craft brewery to craft brewery seeking a job or culture that better suits them. Many brewery founders have little or no experience brewing on a production scale.
Part of this is that many brewers that come from a large production environment are happy being brewers, and don’t have the desire to own a brewery. And it may be because these same brewers have seen all the headaches that come along the way to making a brewery viable.
Once again, this can be an optional requirement. This is an element that can provide an advantage, but it can also be a hindrance. In any industry, you are taught how to do things a certain way. This can be great, but it can also lead to some bad habits.
Market and Marketing.
Let’s talk about Market. A brewer really needs to know up front what segment of craft beer drinker they are after. This is something that can change down the line, but be careful, since overcoming first impressions can be difficult. Some years ago, I did an interview with Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal. He knew exactly what market he was going after. I feel he wanted the drinker that was educated about beer, artful, funky, adventurous, and was willing to spend a little more money to have beer produced by someone that was very similar to them. His partnership with tattoo artist Lee Verzosa, has helped further idea, and is creating what are arguably the most beautiful beer labels in the industry. The other thing that Brian does exceptionally is tell a story with his beers. I remember reading a quote from him, which he likes to picture a scene in his mind, and then craft a beer that will portray what his vision was. That scene wasn’t a taste, but rather a time, places, sounds, and people. The way he creates adds to the brand and market he is after. Honestly while a beautiful way to approach it, it certainly seemed to have its share of risk. But his passion got him past the roughest part, and he also makes a great product.
Then there is the marketing side of it. Since most startup craft breweries have just poured all of their funding into infrastructure, ingredients, and legal fees there is little left for anything more than a website. Maybe an industry paper ad if there is some left over funds, like the Mid Atlantic Brewing News if they’re in the Mid Atlantic, or The Celebrator for other parts of the country. But the best marketing is the marketing you don’t have to pay for. The way that makes the most sense, is just create such an incredible product that everyone is talking about it. Two examples of that are The Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead. Another way is to get people’s feathers ruffled. I imagine this method is not usually intentional since it brings a lot of risk with it. Take Clown Shoes for example. A few years ago, they weren’t available in Maryland, so I wasn’t very familiar with their beer. However, I began to become more and more familiar with their brand because of the controversial label art they were using.
If you noticed both parts of this come back to label art. Which while a silly thing in some ways, are going to be the main marketing and advertisement a beer will have. This is a surprisingly important element. To the right you will see a picture of two beers I had lying around the house. They are both somewhat minimalist, but one is much more attractive than the other. I would say that if the same beer was in both bottles, for the same price, I would choose the bottle on the right almost every time.
This is obviously an intangible. But really it’s a compilation of every intangible. And in many ways you can create luck by how you perform in the other elements. And oddly enough, poor performance can be lucky too. Take for example Dogfish Head’s Festina Lente. This beer is to many the holy grail with Dogfish Head. And it was an accident. When the beer was released it was just supposed to be a Peach Ale. But along the way it became infected. It was likely infected from wild yeast and bacteria from the skins of the peaches. But it created a beautiful medal winning sour beer.
I think every brewery has at least one story about how luck effected them. And while it’s not something you have complete control over, it is something that needs to be expected to show up at some point.
Yes, money. It can be the great equalizer. It can overcome many of the short falls throughout this process. And it is also the thing that young breweries have the least of.
Have a passion for beer, but don’t know how to brew? Hire someone that knows how to brew.
Don’t know how to scale your brewhouse from 7 barrel to 200 barrel? Hire someone that does.
The one thing that money can’t completely overcome is properly directed passion. And the funny thing about money is that it can change the brewers focus in positive and negative ways.
If a brewer is only concerned about what is going to sell they are likely going to be more conservative, which could in the long run hurt them. This is where balancing passion and money comes in. It is difficult to take leaps of faith when running on a shoestring budget, but it is those same risks that come with great rewards.
This musing about what it takes to be successful in craft brewing is just my layman perspective from the outside. I would love to hear what others think about this; especially those in the industry. Does this sound accurate at all? What elements am I missing?
Please leave me comments, and tell me what you think.