Brewing Up a Biz: Doppelganger Decision
I had some key decisions to make. I decided to do two things at once: I would have to educate myself on the craft of making beer, as well as a bit about the business side of brewing simultaneously. First, I would have to teach myself to brew in order to determine whether I even liked performing the process. As sexy and exciting as researching a startup might be, once things eventually got rolling, I’d be a “beer-cook” on a day in, day out basis. So, were I to discover that I hated sanitizing equipment, couldn’t care less about the science behind yeast strains, my back couldn’t handle moderately heavy lifting, and I passed out working around hot kitchen elements, now was the time to realize it. As it turned out, I really enjoy all of the precision (and lack of precision) that these processes require. I find brewing in my home kitchen rather Zen-inducing.
The second key decision before me was that of approach. Would I open a small production brewery or a small brew pub? (Magnitude was never in question — it was always going to be “go small or go home.”) At first, I just plain wanted a brewery. I thought I might be able to perfect recipes at home, then replicate them in a small brewery setting. Plus, I have a really cool pair of rubber boots to slosh around in. I would be able to walk into any local tavern or restaurant with my Corny kegs full of amazing (not to mention local) beer and owners would welcome me as the saviour they had been waiting for. Now, although this is still a dream I’m not quite ready to abandon, I’m relatively certain it wouldn’t work out just that way.
The big breweries are smart. They can’t legally command a monopoly, but they can dangle incentives in front of bar owners’ noses to encourage them to not let any other little kids play in the sandbox. (Not quite sure what — perhaps shiny beer ornaments for the Christmas tree, beer bangles, or the like — but I know they’re out there.) So, as the unknown small guy with kegs in the back of his pickup, it would be very difficult; not impossible, but difficult.
Although I knew even less about the restaurant business (save for the statistic that they often fail) than the brewing business, it wasn’t long before I saw the merits of a brew pub operation. As with most “business” decisions, this one, too, is a double-edged sword. I’ll talk about the pros and cons a little later.
An early key decision that I had to make was how to spend the very little cash I had thus far accumulated. Would I blow it on a small commercial brewery or would I spend it on some rather expensive brew training? I only had enough coin to do one or the other. I did like the shiny high-tech mini-brewery. At that moment, I actually I had a childhood memory flash of an encyclopedia (pre-wiki) salesman sitting at our kitchen table, regaling my mother with the story of Abe Lincoln sharpening his axe for eight hours in order to cut down a tree in only one, or some such legend. So although I’m usually impulsive, and my credit card finger was itchy for the shiny tanks, I decided to go with the education.
Now, I don’t actually think that there is a “right” or a “wrong” choice. If I happened to live near a small craft brewery (which I did not) and I was able to convince them to allow me to apprentice with them on a weekly “wage-free” basis, I might have exercised this option and bought the brewery instead. But this didn’t exist for me. I believe I made the right choice or, at least, the best choice considering the factors affecting me at the time.
I enrolled in the “Concise Course of Brewing Technology” at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago: neither an easy nor an inexpensive place to get to from Prince Rupert, BC. But in just two weeks, I learned a ton. I’d highly recommend the training they have to offer. They aren’t the only institution through which to engage in professional brewing studies (UC Davis and the American Brewers Guild are other options that I know of). But seeing as virtually every major professional brewery in the world employs someone who has been there, it’s not a bad choice.
The Siebel Institute was more than brew training. It also allowed me to sneak in through the backdoor of the “beer business” world. I was rubbing elbows (and clinking mugs) with a range of people: from those with zero experience (like myself and Rick, the crazy Australian) to advanced homebrewers, small- to large-scale professional craft brewers, up to and including a bottling manager from Heineken and three executives from Modelo, whom I mostly communicated with by smiling, nodding, and in whose direction I would raise the occasional mug.
Although very intimidating at first, the rank structure soon came down and we were all just “classmates” with a love of a common career path. This degree of camaraderie (and the clinking of glasses) helped reinforce the notion that I had chosen the right business world. Although it has become somewhat of a cliché, this industry really does seem to support each other, unlike others. Refreshingly, cooperation before competition seems to be the underlying mantra. I still call and e-mail some of these people and share both brewing and business questions and insights as we each progress at our respective stages.
I hope to one day drop in on Rick’s brewpub Down Under and I’d be glad to hoist a pint with him at mine on the shores of PR.
~ Rod Daigle, Triple Island Brewing Company