Food & Drink

What It's Like to Run Your Own Brewery, According to Brewmasters

Beer keg
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Nowadays, the new "Screw it, man, let's start a band!" seems to be "Drop everything, we're opening a brewery!" With the massive number of home-brew kits on the market and the insatiable crowd of beer nerds eager to try the latest craft ale, almost anyone can start their own place. But heading up a brewery is no joke. We spoke to nine founders -- including folks new to the game and those with decades of experience -- about what it takes to run your own place. There's just as much free beer as you would expect, but also way more spreadsheets.

You need to be fearless

"Before this, I was pouring concrete. My family had a concrete plant and I was third-generation in it. I loved the business side of it, but I just did not like concrete. So I realized if I was gonna make a switch, now was the time, and we started to put the wheels in motion for starting a brewery. Mind you, I had the best wife ever for letting me quit my job and start a brewery." - Grant Pauly, 3 Sheeps Brewing (Sheboygan, WI)

"My partner in the business, Dick, ended up in Colorado around the same time. He was a home brewer, so I convinced him to teach me. We were sitting around talking and said, 'We can make beer, but if this beer thing is going to happen, what are we gonna do? We’ve gotta get jobs, I have a baby coming. Gotta do something and it’s now or never.' So we started brewing." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing (Longmont, CO)

"I had been a waiter, and bartender, and manager since I was in college. So it had been 12 or 13 years. And Shaun [my partner] was already brewing professionally, and we just said, 'Let’s open our own place.' We’re already doing the job, let’s do it for ourselves instead of doing it for someone else." - Nico Freccia, 21st Amendment Brewery (San Francisco, CA)

Brewery action shot
Courtesy of Jennifer Robison

Money is always an issue

"We opened on the day of a snow storm in a town of 1,600 people. And it was funded by five maxed-out credit cards." - Dale Katechis, Oskar Blues Brewery (Longmont, CO)

"You might be selling all the beer you make, but that doesn’t mean you’re making money yet. We’ve talked to other breweries who took 18 years to break even. Hopefully it won’t take that long for us." - Xandy Bustamante, Elevation Beer Co. (Poncha Springs, CO)

"Dick and I put in roughly two-thirds of what we had saved during our time in the Air Force. The other third came from two friends, my Dad, my brother, and Dick’s Mom. Classic. So we started with $149,000. And that was definitely scrapping. I think we were down to $11 in our checking account when we opened." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing 


You’re kind of a door-to-door salesman

"It’s literally going to retail -- whether it’s a bar or restaurant or beer store -- and going, “Hey would you like to try our beer?” - Dale Katechis, Oskar Blues Brewery

"I couldn’t even get a distributor in the beginning, so I had to go sell it and deliver it myself. That was a pretty weird deal for customers -- like, wait a minute, you’re getting beer out of the back of the station wagon? Is this stuff safe?" - Jim Koch, Samuel Adams (Boston, MA)

"We were opening a business in a part of town people didn’t go to. It wasn’t dangerous, just vacant. So we had to come up with a strategy to draw customers to the restaurant. They had to find us." - Dan Kopman, Schlafly Beer (St. Louis, MO)

"It’s getting out there every day and giving samples and talking to bar owners and restaurant owners, and showing them the product and who you are. We spend a lot of days on the road. A lot of evenings after brewing all day going to liquor store events. That is really just crucial, being in the public eye." - Grant Pauly, 3 Sheeps Brewing 

Barrels
Dave Baldwin/Thrillist

You never stop tweaking your beers

"I still taste a sample of every batch of beer that we make." - Jim Koch, Samuel Adams

"We tweaked things at least the first six months, trying to understand our local water supply and raw materials. It’s hard to make good lager. Making lager is like going to a party naked. Imperfections will be noted." - Andrew Nations, Great Raft Brewing (Shreveport, LA)

"You’re never done changing and adjusting your recipes. The moment you think your beer is perfect, you’re no longer relevant." - Xandy Bustamante, Elevation Beer Co.


You have so many responsibilities

"We don’t have a CFO, so I watch cashflow. I work on a lot of the strategic stuff, too. I’m constantly tweaking our 10- to 15-year plan. Understanding where the cash is coming from, and how much capital is going to be required to make each step. Making sure that communication is happening throughout the brewery. Doing constant tastings whether it’s for flavor notes for internal use, developing new recipes or beers, or recurring weekly quality testings. It’s waving the flag, doing events. I have three kids that I have to take care of also." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing

"We run brew stats basically every day to make sure the beer is developing as it should. I sit down with the chief of operations, figure out what orders need to be filled, what raw materials we need to restock. Sometimes I’m working with our designers for new bottles, or talking to the media. There are a lot of balls in the air. We have to plan out 2016 already." - Andrew Nations, Great Raft Brewing

"I travel a fair amount to markets. I do events and beer dinners, educate people, share experiences with people, and hope they like what we’re about. There’s meeting with distributors. When I’m in Colorado or North Carolina, I try to walk the floor a lot and stay engaged with day-to-day operations. My job has grown with the understanding that the pirates have now kind of taken over the ship." - Dale Katechis, Oskar Blues Brewery
 

The hours are insane

"It took about 16 months to get this on the market, and it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked." - Tim Miller, National Premium Beer (Baltimore, MD)

"Three years in, I’m still generally starting my day around 6:15am and ending around 8pm." - Grant Pauly, 3 Sheeps Brewing

"We didn’t know squat when we started. We had to learn how to operate the equipment, how to do our tax filings and quarterly reports to the feds. How does the wholesaler relationship work? Just all kinds of things. Whatever needed to happen, we did it. So we worked huge amounts of hours and did whatever it took." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing

It’s still a business

"Brewing becomes a very small part of what you do every day. The beer has to be good, but if you’re out of cash or can’t figure out how to do your accounting, you’re sunk. It’s tough. Very tough." - Grant Pauly, 3 Sheeps Brewing

"I think a lot of people forget that it is a business. It’s not just drinking beers with buddies in the back. You have to have your ethos, a payroll. All the stuff that goes along with running a business. It’s really 20% beer and 80% running a business." - Xandy Bustamante, Elevation Beer Co.

"We spent a lot of time building spreadsheets, trying to figure out what kind of revenue would be generated. And a vision for what kind of brewery we wanted. For instance, how big of a place could we afford? And how big of place did we want to manage? How big of a place did we need to make the numbers work? It took us almost five years of planning." - Nico Freccia, 21st Amendment Brewery
 

You have a crazy amount of competition

"Most breweries are struggling with staying relevant. A new brewery is opening every single day in America. Consumers have so many different options." - Andrew Nations, Great Raft Brewing

"Right now, something like 40% of all draft handles are rotating. That’s a problem. It’s hard to have consistent business when 40% of the handles are turning over on a weekly basis." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing

"In our county alone we have four breweries and only 18,000 people live here. So it’s all about figuring out how you’re going to stand out and be authentic." - Xandy Bustamante, Elevation Beer Co.

"The landscape is changing dramatically and hyper-local is becoming the theme. People want to buy local, so our challenge is how do you be local in Florida, when we’re not?"
- Dale Katechis, Oskar Blues Brewery
 

But the community is great

"You get to work with really cool people who are equally passionate about beer and brewing. And who are knowledgeable. If you’re really into beer, that’s just a great experience. You can bounce ideas off each other. I really enjoy doing the tastings with other brewers, because I learn from them." - Jim Koch, Samuel Adams

"It’s just a happy industry. Coming from construction -- where your competitors hate you, your vendors hate you, your customers hate you -- to beer -- where everyone is having a good time -- is so refreshing. It’s such a different mentality. - Grant Pauly, 3 Sheeps Brewing

"Everyone you talk to loves beer and what they do. I think a lot of people in this industry made the same sacrifice -- you know, 'I could’ve made more money, but I did this because I didn’t want to be miserable.' To know that you created something that people enjoy is a great feeling." - Xandy Bustamante, Elevation Beer Co.

"It’s such a great industry. I’ve been in it 20 years and it’s still the sort of mom-and-pop business it was back then. We all go to trade shows every year, and run into the same people. We share stories, we share recipes, we share best practices, we ask each other questions. It’s a cool camaraderie." - Nico Freccia, 21st Amendment Brewery

Brewery tanks
Courtesy of Jennifer Robison

And you have some seriously sweet perks

"The obvious one is that you get to brew anything you can imagine. That’s a lot of fun."      - Jim Koch, Samuel Adams

"Well, I get to go to cool places. I’m generally involved in events that have beer, food, and music. And there’s a lot to like about that." - Eric Wallace, Left Hand Brewing

"Beer makes people happy, so it’s fun to be working in a business where the end result is making people happy. And I like to say it’s not life or death, it’s not rocket science. Which is to say, have fun with it and don’t take for granted what a great business it is." - Nico Freccia, 21st Amendment Brewery

Kristin Hunt is a Food/Drink staff writer for Thrillist, and would probably need better math skills to run her own brewery. Follow her to calculators at @kristin_hunt.