Why I Think I’m Mostly Not Crazy for Opening a Brewery

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This editorial was contributed by Jacob McKean, founder of Modern Times Beer, a brewery-in-planning in San Diego. Previously, he was Communications Specialist at Stone Brewing Co., and he has also worked as a freelance writer for a smattering of beer publications. He’s a beer geek and longtime reader of this site. You can follow the development of Modern Times Beer at moderntimesbeer.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

When I sat down with my boss, Greg Koch, to let him know that I was leaving my job at Stone to start a brewery of my own, I wasn’t feeling terribly confident. Greg took a chance on me, believing that my passion for craft beer would make up for my lack of experience. Stone had provided me with a steady paycheck, health care, and a tremendous learning opportunity for the last 2 years. I was stepping into a void, and I’m not a huge fans of voids. I had secured enough financing to get the ball rolling on fund raising, but not nearly enough to actually start a brewery.

Greg was very supportive, but he said this: “You’ve heard me tell other people this so you know not to take it personally. My advice is: ‘don’t.'” Indeed, I had heard him say it before to everyone who had excitedly told him they were starting a small business. My feeling was always that if hearing this from Greg was enough to discourage you, then he was right. But he also knows much better than most people the risks that come with starting a brewery. He’s been admirably open about Stone’s struggles early on, when the company bled money for years and survival was a constant question.

But I’d also heard Greg’s answer when someone asked him if he thought there were too many breweries opening: “There’s always room for another great restaurant on restaurant row.” To me, the key word in that statement is “great.” Let me explain why.

Lots of people have taken on the questions posed by the craft beer industry’s recent growth. Some have concluded that we’re a long way from hitting the ceiling, predicting that craft beer will eventually represent 10%, 20% or more of the beer industry. Others say that another ’90s-style boom has already crested, with the current industry bound to crash on the unforgiving rocks of economic realities and fickle consumer tastes.

Now, two months removed from my last day at Stone and well into the process of starting a brewery, I have a strong personal interest in which view is correct. After years of observing and participating in craft beer, first as a hardcore beer nerd, then as a writer, and finally as a member of the industry, I’ve come to believe that both are kinda right.


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20 thoughts on “Why I Think I’m Mostly Not Crazy for Opening a Brewery

  1. Great post, dudes. Well thought-out, painfully honest and something many of us in the industry have been saying to each other on many bar stools across this country.

  2. I love his comparison of bad contract brewed beer to bad mortgages and loans. It erodes the faith, stability and credibility of the whole industry.

  3. There is a lot of sub par beer going around this days. I think newcomers to the craft brew industry are confused by all the choices available to them. There are too many fake microbreweries out there and they need to be called out for what they are. This brewery will be a success if it focuses on great beer and less hype. The beer will sell itself. Congrats!

  4. Thanks for the comments and feedback, folks. My hope is that articles like this one bring some of these issues into the realm of public discussion. As Andrew said, these issues get discussed with some regularity between friends at industry events, but I think it’s time the entire craft beer community chime in. The democratic quality of craft beer culture is its biggest asset, and I’d like to see beer drinkers have a say in the industry’s future. Sometimes that requires calling shenanigans when things go astray, but ultimately that leads to a stronger industry as a whole.

  5. While I absolutely do agree with much of what you have to say, I believe that the desire to create an excellent product is not nearly adequate in maintaining a sustainable business model in the craft brewing industry. I would even be so bold as to say its secondary to sustaining profit margins and feeding growth. It would not take a world class brewer to produce a quality beer with an infinite budget. However, it takes an adaptable and business-first mentality to create a great product within the constraints of a start-up brewery. Now, if you deem that an excellent product is a necessity in creating a profitable company, then that in itself is a business fueled decision. (And I do agree that now an excellent beer is a necessity)

  6. Fair point Josh, but I never claimed that making great beer is all it takes to run a successful brewery. My point is that making great beer should be what motivates people to get into the business.

    And in my experience, size and budget have nothing to do with the quality of beer. I’ve had beer made on basic home brewing equipment that was much better than some beer made by well-financed commercial operations. That’s not a common experience, but the point is that anyone can choose to make great beer. They just have to make it a priority.

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  9. Jacob,
    Congratulations on taking that VERY scary step of moving down the path of opening your own brewery. I applaud your passion for quality craft beer. That comes out strongly in your article. However, after having walked this path for almost two decades (working in several micros and brewpubs before opening my own production brewery), it is my professional opinion that strong marketing (labels, twitter, product stories, etc) is as important as a high-quality beer. If the consumer is not excited by your marketing on the outside of the bottle, why would they give the beer inside a chance? Don’t get me wrong, brewing quality beer is also key but you need to hook them to show them how great your beers are.
    Any commercial brewery is a business. It is started (or should be) to make money; for the owner, the investors, the bank, etc. If a brewery is opened to “just make great beer” without a fierce eye always on the financial bottom line, that brewery will not be around long enough to make a positive impact on the local beer scene never mind the industry as a whole. Breweries are capital eating monsters: like a wild horse with a tapeworm!
    Again, very good article. I enjoyed reading it.
    Best of luck to you, keep pushing that boulder up the hill!
    Dave Ayers

  10. Dave,

    Thanks for kind words. I don’t disagree with you for the most part. As the guy who used to run the social media for Stone, I’m keenly aware of the value of marketing. It’s huge, no doubt. But I suspect a lot of people would agree with me when I say that I would buy Pliny the Elder even if it were sold in zip lock bags with a label hand written in sharpie. Same goes for anything from Cantillon; neither brewery does any marketing. My point is not that marketing doesn’t matter, only that beer quality has to come first.

    And yes, good business decisions and financial management are essential, as they are for any business. Simply being passionate for beer won’t make you a good accountant. So we agree 100% there.

    Cheers & thanks again,
    Jacob McKean

  11. Jacob,
    I truly appreciate hearing from you. If you are ever in northwest Montana, please stop into my brewery, Glacier Brewing, in Polson. I would love to buy you a beer!
    Glacier Brewing Company


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  16. I don’t know if I agree re: contract brewing. Contract brewing, done as “gypsy brewing,” seems to be working out rather well in Copenhagen and Baltimore for the time being. It might even make sense from an environmental stand point. I don’t see them as any less passionate about craft beer than yourself.

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