Serious Eats: Drinks

So You Think You Want to Open a Brewery...

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Brewing industry work may not be what you expect. [Photographs: Collin McDonnell]

I brewed my first batch of beer at home about seven years ago. It took me three years to land my first professional brewing job, and one more year to start HenHouse Brewing with my partners Scott Goyne and Shane Goepel. It was humble beginnings—a year of jumping through legal hoops and fine-tuning some recipes, followed by two years of brewing beer 60 gallons at a time on nights and weekends on a brewing system Scott built from an essential oils extractor and a 1960 A&W Root Beer Syrup kettle, while we all worked other jobs and daydreamed about the future. In November of last year, HenHouse raised enough investment capital to hire me full-time and expand from nano-brewery to micro-brewery status, which is the most dream-come-true thing I've ever experienced.

Curious about what it takes to go pro and start a brewery? Looking for advice? I've got some. A lot of it, in fact. The bad news is that what I'm about to say may not make opening a brewery sound like that much fun.

I've come to a general theory of brewery work: it's not what you think it is. None of the jobs I've had in the brewing industry have been close to what I expected they'd be. Is life working in a brewery—or opening your own—for you? Read on.

Is Brewing for You?

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The joke is that brewing is 90% cleaning and 10% paperwork. Except that it's not a joke at all. It's just how brewery life is.

At my first brewery job as an assistant brewer at The 21st Amendment in San Francisco, I was crazy-disappointed when I started and the head brewer only had me coming in for cleaning days. "But I want to make beer," I remember thinking, because I, like so many other homebrewers, thought the work was boiling things and adding hops. Little did I know, Zambo had put me right into the thick of the beer making process: cleaning everything.

Beer requires an absurd amount of sanitary vessels to make and the fermentation and packaging process leaves a trail of very dirty vessels, tools, and instruments in its wake. If you're considering this line of work, you better be the kind of person who finds doing the dishes relaxing. Cleaning floors, cleaning tanks, cleaning hoses, cleaning kegs, cleaning glasses, cleaning drains, cleaning parts: every day in a brewery starts with cleaning and ends with cleaning. I've used the word "cleaning" 10 times so far in this paragraph and it does not begin to come close to the amount of cleaning (11) that goes on in even the smallest brewery.

You're a clean freak? Great! To be a good brewer, you'll also need to be patient, methodical, and not easily bored. Even when you're brewing a new beer every day, the process is almost completely identical each time. Huge differences in recipes reflect only small changes in the workday of the brewer. Because the process is so repetitive and the differences in process so small, record-keeping is incredibly important. Almost any action in a brewery can be expressed as "Clean, record data, action, record data, clean."

Another surprise in the life of a brewer: there's a lot of basic handyman work involved. Breweries use equipment in really hostile ways: everything is wet all the time, the equipment is cleaned with harsh chemicals and near boiling water, and everything is being used constantly. Things in the brewery break, invariably at very inconvenient times, and you'll need to fix them. Folks with knowledge of small motors and electrician training are revered, and stainless steel welders are legendary. Are you ready?

In addition to being wrong about the workload before I started working in a brewery, I was wrong about the beer drinking. Everyone thinks brewers are constantly drinking beer, and they are, but it's a strange kind of drinking. You sip a beer, notice something about it, become curious how that thing manifested in the beer, pull up the brew log, compare it to other brew logs, make everyone else in the brewery taste it, reference the guidelines for brewing that beer, call your boss, debate the personality of that beer, question its necessity in the brewery's portfolio, and then return to a warm, flat beer. Flavor and process become the same and it can make drinking beer significantly less enjoyable if you can't turn that analysis off.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned 'knowledge of the brewing process' as an essential facet of a brewer's qualifications. Knowledge of the biological and chemical science behind brewing process is certainly useful, but your job as a brewer will be cleaning and paperwork first and foremost. A couple years ago I interviewed at a mid-sized brewery, and they asked me what I felt were my weak points. I replied that I didn't have a formal brewing education. The head brewer's response is lodged in my mind because it was so revealing. "Oh, we don't care about that. We can teach you about brewing."

One last warning: you'd better enjoy being at work, because you will be there all the time. Fermentation is a 24/7 activity that doesn't really care about your weekend plans. And you're doing it for the love of the job: you will not make a lot of money as a brewer. I had an unpaid internship before I got my first $8-an-hour brewing job in San Francisco, and that's par for the course. At the beginning of your brewing career, you likely need to have more than one job to pay the bills, and you might want to consider living with your parents for the discounted rent.

Still want to be a brewer? I hope so! I still believe that brewing is magical. Sure, it's hot, dirty, and wet. It's labor-intensive work that will make you forget how to enjoy drinking beer and give you some borderline-OCD cleaning tendencies. But it's also an ancient art, one that yields deliciousness at the end of the process, and I can promise you there is nothing quite as fulfilling as having people enjoy beer you made.

Is Starting a Brewery for You?

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I remember exactly what I thought owning a brewery would be like before I worked in the brewing industry: I would make beer and people would buy it.

Five years in, giving advice about opening a brewery makes me feel like King Bummer: A brewing company is as much a company as a brewery. If you're going to succeed, you need to treat it that way. Learn about the local regulatory environment, learn about accounting and basic finance, learn about sales. As a co-owner of a startup brewery, I spend way more time working on regulatory compliance than I do making beer. Same with digging through P&L statements and writing budgets. And sales work is endless and exhausting. Owning a brewery is more about running a business than brewing beer.

Prospective brewery owners sometimes forget that beer is a heavily regulated industry. There are federal and state agencies that get all up in the business of any booze maker, and the wastewater treatment folks in your municipality will want to have more than a few words with you before you start operations. There are far more agencies you will need to report to than you realize, and the first thing you should do when you decide to start a brewery is to contact all of them and ask if they have a punch list of compliance items for breweries. More likely than not, they don't, so don't be discouraged when they can't give you advice on getting your operation off the ground.

In my experience, these regulators generally work for agencies that are underfunded, understaffed, and underappreciated, so building relationships is key. The regulations that breweries have to comply with are not one-time hurdles to jump over; there's constant reporting and constant inspection. You're going to spend a lot of time on the phone with public servants and you'll be much happier if you have good relationships with them. Always ask how the person on the phone is doing today and actually listen to their answer; these small kindnesses will translate to helpful people who want to get you through the process as painlessly as possible.

People have told me my love of spreadsheets is freakish, so I'm not sure I can tell you with a straight face that accounting and finance are fun for everyone. But tracking the expenditures and income of our company and projecting those numbers out into the future is a large part of what I do, and fortunately, it turns out that I enjoy bookkeeping. I find it calming to know how we make money, where we spend money, and how we can save. You'll need those spreadsheets; they're a powerful tool for remaining in control of your business (there is no worse feeling than not knowing if you can afford anything), and if you want a bank loan or to bring on investors, they will want to see that you have a solid understanding of your business's financial operations.

Some folks will try to hire their way out of the financial responsibilities of the company, but that seems like bad strategy to me. Being intimately aware of the financial health of your company might not be glamorous, but it is as important as monitoring your fermentations or selecting hops. You should be excited to see your profit margins for different beers and to understand labor as a percentage of total cost. Knowing these things gives you the power to control them. Don't underestimate the significance of scarcity as a creative driver, either. You may find that there are things you do to impact the cost of your beer that improve the quality as well.

(Side note: HOLY HELL STARTING A BREWERY IS SO EXPENSIVE. The best advice I can give you about financial planning is this: write a business plan and then double what you think it will cost, because it will cost you double what you think it will.)

If you're going to own a brewery, you'd better love selling beer. In my opinion, the reason to start a brewery is to share the beer you love with a larger group of people. Otherwise, why not just make beer at home?

If getting your beer in front of a lot of people doesn't excite you, sales will crush your soul into tiny pieces. Walking into a restaurant where you don't know anyone and explaining why they should carry your beer is an emotionally exhausting experience...even when they say yes. When they say no, it can really make it tough to do the same thing a dozen more times that day. Be sure that presenting your beer to people is a thing you want to do day in and day out, because that's how beer gets moved.

Many people enjoy brewing because it's rather introverted. Once you get into a regular brewing routine, it's downright meditative. It makes sense that monks do it. Owning a brewery ain't that kind of party. Not only are sales a daily exercise in putting yourself out there, there will also be an endless number of people who want to come hang out at the brewery, multiple brewfests and beer dinners every month, reporters looking to cover "this cool beer thing that's going on right now", and all that your friends will want to hear about is the goings-on of your business. Opening a brewery is deciding to talk about beer every waking hour of the day, which can be fun and exciting or draining and miserable depending on what kind of person you are.

I thrive on talking to people, making new friends, and sharing beer, but that has never been enough to sustain me through a long day of asking people to try my beer. You need a support group and you need a vision.

Vision is a hard thing to quantify, but it's a must. I knew how big an undertaking starting a business would be, but nothing I'd ever done prepared me for how completely overwhelmed I'd be all the time. I would have given up multiple times already if it hadn't been for my partners Scott and Shane. Knowing that there is a clear goal will help you keep going when you feel completely underwater. What do you want to get out of owning a brewery? What do you dream of accomplishing? You need this vision to think about at the end of a 16-hour day while staring down the barrel of another. Sometimes jawing on about "Dude, it would be so cool to build a brewery that did this, that, and the other" can seem like useless daydreaming, but that daydreaming is what will convince you to keep going. Make sure you know what you're working for.

Maybe all of this sounds pretty negative. It's not meant to be. Starting a brewery is the best thing I've ever done and I'm stoked about it every single morning. But don't think for a minute it's not hard and scary. Don't think that it's all drinking beer and adding hops to a kettle and looking cool. There are challenges along the way, but if you choose to take them on, I can't wait to try your beer.

About the Author: Collin McDonnell is the co-founder of the HenHouse Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA.

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