I Don't Want to Open a Brewery (And Maybe You Shouldn't Either)

If you brew beer, it's only a matter of time before you get this question: "So, when are you opening a brewery of your own?"  For me, there's a simple (of course) answer: "Never."  

I feel like this is the homebrewer equivalent of "So, when are you two newlyweds going to have kids?"  Yes, I brew beer.  No, I may not actually want to open a brewery. One doesn't necessarily follow from the other.  And this isn't because I'm looking down my nose at professional brewers - quite the opposite, in fact.  Professional brewing, owning a brewery, and operating a business in a shockingly competitive environment just sounds like a hell of a lot more effort than I'm personally willing to put into it, and I have a profound degree of respect for those who do.  

But there's another reason: I honestly don't think I'm good enough.  Homebrewing isn't professional brewing.  Winning ribbons isn't the same thing as winning customers.  And maybe that nice feedback you get from your friends is more a combination of "alcohol" and "free" and "manners" than it is evidence of your brewing and business prowess.  

So no, I do not want to open a brewery - and maybe you shouldn't, either.

It's not You - It's Me

A cliche, perhaps, but sometimes cliches are cliches because they're frequently true.

A few years back, a friend of mine and I were discussing a prize at our club's homebrew competition: it was the chance to be "Brewer for a Day" at the brewery that my friend had recently started working for.  

I commented that I couldn't see why anyone would want that prize.  My friend, justifiably, took a bit of offense at my reaction, since it seemed to suggest that what he was now doing for a living wasn't worthwhile, or interesting, or satisfying.  I was mortified - what I said could clearly be interpreted that way, but it wasn't at all what I meant.

I meant that what brewers do is remarkably challenging and difficult.  Yes, I like my little homebrewing setup, but I also make it as easy as I can.  Working a real brewery sounded like, well, work!  To me, this sounded like an invite to be a firefighter for a day just because I like to blow out birthday candles, or to train like Michael Phelps for a day just because I like to take a five-minute swim in the ocean.  Simply put, I'm content to leave professional brewing to the professionals - and to happily pay money to buy what they produce.

So do I want to open a brewery?  No.  No, I don't.

Yes, in many ways it's a wonderful occupation and a gratifying way to spend your day.  But it's also one that demands (not requests) a very high level of commitment, sacrifice, and skill - and success is far from guaranteed.  So call me lazy if you want to, but I won't be hanging out my brewing shingle any time soon.

And then there's the customers.  Now, I'm on record - repeatedly - saying/writing that beer people are collectively a wonderful community of some of the best people on Earth from all walks of life.  But we also know that, well....this.  Owning a brewery also means subjecting yourself to potentially unfair and under-educated and often-mean-spirited evaluations of your work in a way that most occupations never have to deal with.  That takes some seriously thick skin, and in addition you know that many of those less-than-supportable-opinions ("Their beer is too hoppy and not bitter enough") are costing you dollars that your family, employees, and community would benefit from.  That's a rough road to walk.  And while I'm in many ways a very confident person (too much so, according to at least one troll-fan of the blog), I think that over time the criticism would really get to me.

What about the idea of being my own boss and making my own hours and making my own living?  Yes, those are attractive elements.  Plus I get to drink beer all day.  That all sounds great, and I'm not opposed to hard work - after all, no one works harder than someone who works for him/herself - but I also know that there's a price to be paid for all that work.  I might be willing to take that leap anyway, but there's another caveat: the ultimate measure of my success isn't purely the quality of my work product, but how that product is received by others.  That might be a bitter (no pun intended) pill to swallow.

You have to have a lot of respect for brewers (and I do): they're doing a very tough job in a very tough environment with arguably invisible and variable targets that will determine the fate of their families and friends and employees.  Taking that on takes real guts and passion.  

Which isn't to say that I'm a gutless, apathetic coward (I hope).  I know a lot of people who would rather dip their genitals in acid than stand in front of a group of students five times a day and talk about politics.  Lots of people wouldn't ever want to write, or build furniture, or teach, and would be content to let others take on those tasks.  Likewise, I just don't hit that level of passion for brewing beer, however much I love beer and brewers.  And I think that's OK.

Maybe you do - but I still think you ought to reconsider opening that brewery.

It's Not You - Wait, Actually, Yes, it IS You...

Not all of you.  Some of you either are (or could be) outstanding brewery owners and professional brewers.  You might have prepped, trained, saved, and planned this for years.  You all can skip to the bottom.

[Waiting for those folks to scroll by.......OK, they're gone.]

Now that it's just us, let me say that I'm not passing judgment on you.  This isn't me sitting enthroned in wisdom and God-like power, dispensing brewery leases and business loans and liquor licenses.  I'm just saying that I've been to a lot of new breweries (and they keep popping up - I'm doing a "new brewery tour" of the Philly region this spring as soon as the semester ends!).   A lot of these new breweries fall flat and/or produce average-or-worse products, and when they do I'm seeing a lot of overlap in their narratives.  It seems like they're making a lot of the same errors.  I'm hearing a lot of the same statements.  There's a common set of threads that have come to set off warning bells in my head whenever I hear/read/see them.  So this might all be wrong, but if any of this sounds like it applies to you, then maybe you ought to rethink your brewery plans.

Homebrewing only marginally prepares you for professional brewing.  It's kind of like the difference between flying a model airplane and piloting an actual Cessna (and given the "I totally homebrewed for a year" qualifications I see at some breweries, it might even be the difference between flinging a paper airplane and flying a 777).  You'll know that basic process, some of the biology/chemistry/physics, and a bit about beer evaluation.  But that's a far cry from being qualified to produce and evaluate beer that you're going to sell.  This isn't a question of linear scaling.  At larger volumes you're introducing all kinds of new variables to the brewing process, and those are going to change your beer.  This is going to take some humility and a hell of a lot of willingness to learn and adapt.  If the only training you're counting on to guide you in this endeavor is some time (even a lot of time) as a homebrewer, making 5- or 10-gallon batches, then there's a good chance that you're wildly optimistic about what it is you think you're bringing to the table.  

Your brewery isn't going to be unique.  This isn't the 1980s.  Hell, it isn't even the 2000s.  Whatever the plan is for your special, unique snowflake of a brewery is, I can pretty much guarantee that there are already breweries doing it.  "We're going to produce nothing but authentic Belgian farmhouse beers, but with a modern twist."  Got it.  So is everyone else.  "We're going to make extreme beers that push the limits of your definition of 'beer' and totally blow your mind."  Got it.  That ship already sailed.  "We're going to use hops in ways that totally redefine IPA."  I'm not even going to bother with that one.  The short version is this: with nearly 5,000 craft breweries in the US today, there's nothing new under the sun anymore (and get that beer out of the sun, anyway).  So you're going to need to do it better, not just differently.

You might not be that good.  Remember, most of the time we're getting a heavily biased information flow on our beer.  Don't trust that feedback.  It's one thing to have people go back to the tap again on your beer when it's free - it's quite another to get people to pay for it.  Even if your friends, family, and beer-competent associates are sincere in their praise, you still might not be up to the challenge of succeeding in what might be the most hyper-competitive beer market in history.  Being good isn't good enough.  You need to be better than those that are already out there and have been at it for longer than you.  This is going to take a realistic assessment of your current and future skill and creativity, not just a sense that people like the free beer you give them.

Brewing is an activity - but beer is a business.  Marketing.  Legal.  Payroll.  Licensing.  Distribution.  HR.  Health Codes.  Accounting.  Quality Control.  Taxes.  Customer Relations.  Does all of that sound like fun?  Because any one of them (and more) could sink your brewery no matter how good your beer is and/or how hard you work.  The best breweries I know started with competent brewers who were also business jacks-of-all-trades that could keep the curtain up long enough to make some money and hire experts to get their business to the next level.  You don't want to jump into this with the idea that all that it takes is learning to use your new larger-scale brewery to make good beer.

This is all, admittedly, just a layperson's perspective, but I've known, overheard, interviewed, and observed a lot of new brewery owners over the past several years.  Some are succeeding despite their individual limitations - but a lot are struggling and/or failing because of them, too.  Maybe you'll get lucky.  Maybe you'll be able to fix things on the fly.  But if it were me, I don't want this to come down to luck, and at least one local brewery recently went under because they were doing a little too much learning "on the job" and ran out of money before they could get things back on track.  Don't let it happen to you.  You might never get another shot at this, so make it a good one.

Be it Before you Do It

The next step in any piece of this type would be to lay out a plan for you to help you succeed as a new brewery owner.  We have a problem here, though: I don't own a brewery so I have no idea what I'm talking about.  I can guess, though.  So take all of this with a big grain of Burton salt, and read on at your own risk.  Here's what I'd offer as advice, again, based on an observation of successful new brewery owners in their natural environment.

If you want to be a professional, then be a professional.  That might sound like neo-mystic, self-help bulls**t, but it's not.  If you're going to put it out there that you're a "professional brewer," then Step One shouldn't be, "Open a Brewery."  You should build to that.  How?

First, get some professional brewing training, or at least some professional brewery experience.  It's mildly insulting to professional brewers that you think there's "no difference" between your hobby brewing and their professional brewing.  Get out there and up your skill base and broaden your experience before you start to seriously consider opening your own place.  Of course there are stories of successful brewers who jumped straight in and haven't had a day of formal training or other professional experience - just like there are lots and lots of stories about actors or athletes who "never considered doing anything else, even when everyone told them how long a shot it was."  You hear those stories because you're selecting on the dependent variable - in other words, you're only talking to people who have already succeeded.  They're probably the exception, not the rule.  You're not hearing from the many, many failed actors, musicians, athletes, and brewers who make up the statistical bedrock.  Even if it isn't necessary, it's almost certain that getting the experience won't hurt, right?

Second, get some business education.  Just like brewery knowledge is valuable, so is information about the non-brewing elements of your business.  This is true even if you have a partner that's running that side of the shop - even more so, in fact.  Do you know how common it is that people are screwed over (deliberately or not) by business partners?  You might think, "Oh, that wouldn't happen to me - we're like family."  Right.  But the thing is that we only get really screwed over by people we trust.  Otherwise, those people wouldn't be in a position to screw us.

Third, get used to hearing nonsense about your beer and brewery - because you need to hear it.  Their opinions may make no sense at all, but they're going to form part of the atmosphere and reputation of your brewery.  It's not practical or desirable to tune it out completely, and you're going to have to figure out how to make it work for you while not letting it get under your skin.  Once you're more-established then maybe you can hew to what a particularly-blunt brewer-friend of mine says: "Just make good f***ing beer."  But in the early days, you're going to need that feedback, and getting it is going to mean dealing with some absurdity.

And last, have a plan.  I tell everyone who asks (and many who don't) that with a good plan you can do almost anything.  Some subscribe to the "fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go" school of thought, but that seems both unnecessarily risky and awfully cavalier when what's at stake is your reputation, financial future, and career.  I love a good plan.  I don't even care if it doesn't work out - that's not the point of it.  The point of a plan is to force yourself to consider the details, permutations, and goals of any enterprise.  Once you have some real-world data to compare to your goals, you can see where you're off and begin to answer the "why?" and "does it matter?" questions.  That's worth a lot.  In my life it has often meant the difference between success and failure, and I've never been sorry to have worked out a plan in advance, no matter how much it differed from the subsequent reality.  My mother-in-law likes the saying, "Man plans, God laughs."  Fine.  But as Ken Follett writes in The Pillars of the Earth, "pray for miracles - but plant cabbages."  You can be willing to be lucky or blessed, but it's not something to rely on.

It's almost certainly never going to be me on the receiving end of this advice, since I don't want to open a brewery.  But if you do, I feel confident saying that this advice won't hurt you.  And let's not forget that I might be completely wrong and a victim of confirmation bias, a lack of perspective, and/or a deficit of information.  If I ever did open a brewery, though, this is the kind of stuff I would do.  Not that I ever will.   

To those who are going to go ahead and take the plunge: good luck, and I hope to taste some of your beer soon.  

Or not.

Keep it simple.

JJW