Behind the Barn Door: The Haw River Blog
8 Things We’ve Learned During the First Few Months of Owning a Craft Brewery
1. You have to stand out amongst your peers. The craft beer world is one of the most collaborative, most supportive, most amicable business environments out there—it really is an amazing world in which to live and work. But the fact is, breweries are opening every day across the country, and when it comes down to it, we’re all still in business to keep the lights on, right? To become appealing to the wonderful world of beer bars and craft-centric restaurants out there, you must have a clear, distinct brand (your logo, website, look & feel, and general story behind what you’re doing), so your prospective customers know what they’re buying into, and what they’re representing to their own customers. Ask yourself what makes your brewery, your beer and your brand different from five of your favorite local breweries, and then think about how best you can showcase what makes your brewery different enough from theirs to stick in the minds of your customers in an appealing way (and without seeming boastful or degrading to anyone else, of course). And please, please, leave the inside jokes, the sexist symbolism and the overt shock value out of your message. You're a craft brewer now—it should be fun, but you also gotta act like you belong in the big leagues.
2. You have to pay attention to your calendar. Consider the first couple months of the life of your brewery, and what’s naturally taking place during that time. Is it the dead of winter in a summer seasonal town? Are you opening the week after graduation in a college town? Consider seasonality of both the world around you and the beers your brewing (is your flagship beer a milk stout and your opening day in April?). January is a notoriously slow period in the craft beer world (everyone seems to either take the month off from drinking or heads back into the gym before giving up on that resolution around the first of February), so make sure you're not amassing bills in December that'll need to be covered in January (especially if all you get back when delivering beer during January are your keg deposits... keep reading for more on that!). And by paying attention to your first few months on the calendar, you can also take advantage of certain holidays or events to bump up your cash flow—release a special batch to coincide with a fun event that's already on peoples' minds for a quick cash infusion!
3. You have to build yourself a trampoline. Most business advisors will tell you to stockpile a little extra money in the coffers from the very beginning, in case you run into unexpected expenses (and owning a brewery, you will definitely do just that). But consider special instances, like keg returns on that successful second run of sales: the first batch of beer flies out the door—huge success, right? But then when that second delivery to those same accounts heads out, you're gonna get all those empty kegs back, the deposits for which are deducted from your second round of invoices. Suddenly, that same batch of beer isn't netting you quite as much cash during that second month. And then a weld splits on your vent stack and a batch of yeast goes bad... gotta bounce back up somehow, so you can keep production going and things running smoothly. Having a little extra cash on the side will help keep things running without any hiccups in ingredient reorders or bottle shipments, which is essential during those first few months.
4. You have to begin creating demand well before Day One. You’ve worked your asses off and spent a metric ton of cash to get the doors to your brewery open… so now what? If you get to opening day and head out to sell that first keg to your neighborhood bar, you’re in for a mighty steep climb, friend-o. We were lucky enough to build some local demand for Haw River before we opened by hosting pouring events, selling branded merchandise*, putting up a handmade soda booth at our local farmer’s market the summer beforehand, and maximizing our social media accounts for years beforehand to help tell the story of what our brewery would become. By <doing this>, we were able to sell all the beer we packaged during the first three months only reactively, to customers who contacted us, rather than heading out to actively sell our beer to local bars. Having at least a hundred possible accounts awaiting those doors opening is a much smarter, much more efficient way to handle your initial sales.
*Hey, while you're at it, take a little extra time with your brewery's merchandise to design something kinda cool that people actually want to wear. Slapping your logo on a t-shirt is fine, but your customers will appreciate it if you have your designer pull together some additional fun clothing and branded mercy that, again, helps tell a story about your brewery. Oh, and keep an eye on where your clothing is made—preaching "BUY LOCAL" from the mountaintop doesn't have quite as much punch when all your shirts are made in southeast Asia. We source our branded tees from TS Designs, a local company that makes its clothing from cotton grown right here in North Carolina, then prints them just down the road from our brewery using water-based inks. Good stuff.
5. You have to differentiate your product by telling a story. Seriously, how many (fill in the blank with same ol’ beer styles) does your neighborhood bar really need? Note that this doesn’t mean you have to throw a bunch of wacky stuff into each of your beers, for the sake of a gimmick that stands out. But you should have a reason why you’re brewing what you’re brewing. At Haw River, we’ve got a really great Pale Ale. "But wait, Ben—what's so great about a Pale Ale? Didn’t you just say we need to differentiate?" Sure did, bub. Thanks for paying attention. We're certainly not reinventing the wheel here, but our year round Pale Ale tries to stand out a bit by using Belgian-style yeast for a little dryer finish and an increased "fruity" ester profile that weaves throughout the big hop finish from Crystal and Galaxy hops (a combo that's a bit less common than, say, Cascade and Centennial might be). It's also named after the quaker that started the cotton mill in which our brewery lives as well, so there's another small nod to what we're doing and where we're coming from. It fills a need for our customers to have hop-forward sessionable beer in their lineup, but still stands out enough to offer them something a bit more unique than a true-to-style American Pale Ale that can be found on just about any tap lineup.
6. You have to find good people, and you have to pay them more than their position may be worth. There are a lot of breweries out there, and they all need a brewer, a salesperson, a tasting room manager. How are you going to make sure your door isn't revolving faster than your empty keg returns? Find staff members who have a passion for what you're doing (again, your brand story should be important, both to your customers and your staff) and try to treat them better than any other brewery in the area. You're not gonna pay yourself for a little while, so make sure you're covering your staff and offering them as many incentives as possible from Day One. It's important that your customers have a steady supply of your flagship brand, but make sure you give your brewers the chance to brew their own recipes on a small system, and then plan for special releases in your tasting room. You may think you can "do it all" yourself, but I'm here to tell ya: You're wrong. Find good people, treat them well, and pay them more than they're worth, on time, every pay period. The benefits will be reaped in both your beer and your kismet.
7. You have to have really thick skin. You see that guy over there with the Warby Parker frames and the Joy Division tee on? He hates your beer, and there’s not a damned thing you can do to change that. He’ll probably ramble through that list of off flavors he pulled from some Thrillist article any time someone mentions your brewery in his presence, and you’re just gonna have to put up with it. Don’t unnecessarily engage him on social media, don’t let it keep you up at night, and don’t worry so much about bad reviews, random feedback and the occasional "meh" that's uttered at your bar. Just because social media is a two way street doesn’t mean you should always hop behind the wheel. Use UnTappd and its kin to engage your audience, inform folks of events and interesting aspects of your brewery, and discuss your beer with the portion of your audience that actually offers legitimate feedback, but let the haters hate and move on.
8. You have to have fun. Seriously. You just haaaave to—I mean, we’re in the beer business! The stress will get to you—really quickly. Day in and day out, you’ll be worried about your staff, your bills, your vendors, your production schedule, each & every batch in your fermenters, and a thousand and one other things on your perpetually long to-do list. But remember that a lot of your customers probably think you sit around and drink beer all day, so make sure you stand back and realize you’re not running a concrete company (no offense, concrete dealers... you're important, too). Try to make time to meet your customers (and their customers, the folks who actually drink your beer) on their home turf some time, taking a break from your workload to go visit your customers’ bars and restaurants, eat their delicious food and try a glass of your own beer (tip from Captain Obvious: always pay for your beer at your customers’ places of business, and always leave a note or something thanking them for making your product available to their own customers). Hang out in your own tasting room and have a beer with your customers when you can, and spend some time away from your accounting software to plan fun events around your beer. Your customers will appreciate it and your brand will benefit from it.
The craft beer world is one of the most unique, most rewarding places in which to spend your entire life (and then some), so keeping an eye on the bottom line is just one aspect of a rewarding experience with your own craft brewery. With the astounding rate at which craft breweries are opening these days, you have to be careful that you don't fall into the trap of "hey, we make great beer... it'll sell itself!" and keep an eye on every other aspect of your business. It'll help keep the quality of the industry up where it should be, and will help you sleep a little better at night. Cheers!