SYWTOABP: What Does a Brewmaster Do?
I was going to call this post “A Day in the Life of a Brew Pub Brewmaster“, but a more accurate description would be “Discussing Brewpubs with a Brewmaster Over Beers and a Burger”. Regardless of the title, I came away from my meeting with Claire Connolly, brewmaster at Big River Brew Pub, with good news and bad news. The good news is, so far, I’ve gotten a lot correct in this series of blog posts. The bad news? Opening a brew pub will probably cost more and take longer than you’ve estimated.
First of all, let me apologize again to Claire for not arriving on time and for being a bit hot, tired, flustered, etc. Hopefully, I still managed to find out the information I thought people would be most interested in and summarized our chat accurately. There were only five questions I wanted to get answered, but our discussions were expanded several times to talk about the BC beer industry as a whole. Perhaps, Rick will put some of those thoughts down. I will focus on passing on insider tips on running a brewpub and brewing beer at a sufficient scale to service a venue of 100-200 people.
I’ve already written an entire post on the equipment necessary for brewing beer. I estimated it would cost $175,000, but I always worried I was underestimating. It is possible to get by with less equipment or buy used equipment, but if you want to brew a half dozen different beers and serve it fresh to your patrons, you’re going to need more storage and, thus, square footage devoted to brewing equipment.
Keeping the costs down and getting a venue open is an admirable goal. But if you want to offer six different beers, you’ll need six storage vessels, one for each kind of beer. Furthermore, Claire recommends a second storage tank for each variety of beer. So, six types of beer means 12 storage tanks; one storage vessel currently attached to the taps and one to store the next beer that will be connected to that tap. You’ll need even more tanks if you have seasonal beers. For safety purposes, Clair does not recommend having the vessels stacked. As a result, they take up more square footage than the mash tun and kettle! Add to the fact that these containers cost $6-12,000 new, and you’ve added another $100,000 to your startup costs.
In addition to needing more storage than you’ve probably initially budgeted for, you need more cooling. Canadians enjoy their beer cold, this means you need to cool many, if not all, of your conditioning tanks.
Claire also advises adding a grain silo to any brew pub. Beer is mostly grain and water. So if you’re going to brew a lot of beer, you will need a lot of base malt. Having a grain silo will significantly reduce the amount of labour. Instead of moving large, individual bags of grain by hand, a truck delivers bulk malt directly to the silo. Then, when brewing a batch of beer, an auger transfers the required amount of grain from the silo, through a grist mill, directly to the hopper above the mash tun.
Finally besides more floor space, more storage vessels for beer, and storage space for grain, you’re going to need good drainage. I remarked more than once that it no longer surprises me that engineers and architects, not restaurateurs, opened the first brew pub in BC. The flow of liquid, along with the heating and cooling of it, is central to the brewing process. A well designed system is a must. Equipment vendors and consultants can help, but having your brewmaster onboard during the business planning phase would be wise.
I’ve included all the unsexy topics in this series of blog posts. One thing I wanted to learn from Claire, is how long the brewing process takes; not the six hours it takes to brew the beer, but the time it takes from when the beer begins fermenting to when it is ready to be consumed. This depends on the style of beer. But for your typical ales, it is approximately two weeks. For a properly produced lager, it takes at least twice as long.
Two weeks isn’t the most important amount of time you need to factor into your business plan. Ten weeks is. That was Claire’s estimate as to how long it would take before you can start selling beer in volume after your equipment has been delivered, installed, and tested.
So for those keeping score at home, that means the earliest you could have a working brew pub in BC is 7.5 months from now, if you ordered your equipment tomorrow. That assumes you can navigate the liquor licensing process in under 7.5 months, as well as finish all your tenant improvements and find all your staff. You already have all your financing in place right?
Time = Money
I and others have harped on the importance of location. But another important aspect of location is the lease and your relationship with your landlord. If it is going to take two and a half months to fine tune your brewing operation before you are ready for full-scale production, that means you need at least three, and likely several more, months’ rent in pocket before you’ll see any revenue from beer sales. Opening a brew pub without beer sales just seems lame, so food sales can’t be relied upon, like some restaurants choose to do, while waiting for their liquor permit to be approved. Some sort of soft opening may still be possible, but selling poorly crafted beer is not in your long-term best interest.
Experts advise having six months of fixed costs, cash in hand when you open a new business. This reflects the difficulty in opening and becoming cash flow positive. The two biggest costs in most businesses are rent and labour, most don’t consider labour a fixed cost because it fluctuates with sales volume. Ideally you’d have sufficient cash reserves to cover rent and labour costs for six months after you officially open. This is in addition to any rent and labour expenses you need to budget for while you renovate, install equipment, or fine tune your operation.
How Do You Become a Brewmaster?
There is no set apprenticeship time period or country-wide standard granting body, like many occupations in Canada. Claire, if anything, seems overqualified for her current position. She studied brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she earned a Bachelors of Science degree with Honours. She also went through a series of professional exams and worked at a large UK brewery that produced 8,000,000 hectolitres per year. She is now happily living in BC, enjoys brewing craft beer, and considers her current position “the best job she’s had in BC“.
Big River Brew Pub is big, bigger than the hypothetical brew pub this series has been dancing around. It is part of an entertainment complex with theatres and even a bowling alley, all in a part of Richmond I don’t think I’ve ever been to before. If you want to drink craft beer and bowl at the same time, you can. Having space to store grain and a large variety of craft beers, not to mention the ability to bottle or produce kegs for sale offsite, is capacity you might want to include in your business plan. However, there is a lot to be said for actually opening and earning an income. It is possible to get to the Big River Brew Pub by public transit, but it is a definite journey.
There is more to being a brewmaster than just showing up twice a week and brewing beer. Claire described her regular duties as filling an eight-page spreadsheet, in and of itself. Try as I might, I haven’t succeeded in making spreadsheets sexy. Claire suggested an online forum for pro brewers. Most any hobby or interest has its own internet forum nowadays, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that professional brewers have their own online forum. This would also be a good place to investigate or haunt if you want to have a career in the brewing industry. Claire’s duties basically encompassed everything it takes to get the beer to the tap. After that, it is the bartender or other restaurant staff who are responsible for your enjoyment of the beer she brews. Cleaning is actually a big time requirement, both the kettle and mash tun need cleaning every time beer is brewed. Then, there is all the other equipment, pipes, hoses, kegs, etc. Remember what I said about needing more drainage? This is to make all the cleaning easier.
So in conclusion, even after reading all the “So You Want To Open A Brew Pub” posts until now, you will likely want to revise your spreadsheets to allow for more storage, more floor space, even more plumbing costs. These upfront expenses, along with budgeting in several months of rent and labour as startup costs, will hopefully enable you to reach cash flow positive and brew a variety of tasty beers efficiently and professionally. Both are required to run a successful brew pub.