Are We Having Fun Yet?


I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked, “Are you having fun running a brewery?” Or, “Are you glad you opened a brewery?”

“Uh, well…” I often start out, “it has its good times, but it is challenging and a lot of work.”

I really don’t know what to tell people. I know they have the best of intentions when they ask, and I think they expect me to get excited and tell them how wonderful it is to go to work every day where the focus is great beer. I don’t want to make it seem like owning a brewery is somehow a horrible life choice, but on the other hand, I don’t want to make it seem like all we do is party and cash big checks from distributors. It isn’t anything like that. It is constant work, hard work. As a business owner in a very competitive market with hundreds of new competitors jumping into the market every year, you face new challenges every day and the vast majority of those challenges have absolutely nothing to do with beer.

You can ask any business owner if they’re having fun. I think most would respond the same way. Most of what you do when you open a brewery is the same stuff that every business owner does. You work on hiring the right employees, finding the right suppliers, working with distributors, keeping the building upright, making payments, and a million other mundane things, like paying taxes and keeping the bathroom clean for customers.

But don’t get me wrong. Even though running a brewery is a tremendous amount of work, even though it has its frustrating challenges, there are some great times. I do love meeting people geeky about beer and I get to do many events. Lately we’ve had the opportunity to do collaborations with brewers and breweries that I really respect. That is a blast. I also get to hire smart, fun people and surround myself with them. That is a benefit of any business, but I think, (like the software world) the craft beer industry just attracts a fun crowd.

Of course, I was doing a lot of this same stuff before I opened Heretic. I could have just kept on doing the fun parts and skipped all the challenging parts that come with owning a brewery. But, I would have missed the satisfaction that comes when you take on a substantial challenge and succeed.

The other day I was walking through the brewery late at night and there weren’t any catastrophic problems dangling over my head. Everything was clean and organized. Beer was fermenting and I was happy. I was satisfied. In fact, I was pleased with myself and everyone else that is part of Heretic. We’re not just working in a challenging industry, but we’re doing a great job of it. And that is where satisfaction comes from, a job well done. And yes, that does make me happy I opened a brewery.

Butt Kicking 101


I met several people at this year’s National Homebrewers Conference in Philadelphia who are interested in opening their own brewery. One of them asked me what was the most important skill they would need.

I can think of many. Perseverance is a big one. You can’t let the enormity of things stop you and you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other if you are going to succeed in this business.

Usually I answer, “business skills.” People need to know how to run a manufacturing business (production brewery) or a retail alcohol/food business (brewpub or tasting room). I think most breweries fail from a lack of common business knowledge. I know that is where I am weakest and we have incurred some setbacks because of it.

Once, for whatever reason, I told one person that butt kicking was high on the list. Based on my recent experience, it is perhaps the most used skill in getting a new brewery built. Everyone acknowledges your deadlines/specifications/budget, but almost nobody wants to follow them. Perhaps they are too used to dealing with large corporations or the government, where money flows free and the person in charge is not the person supplying the money. That isn’t to say you can’t get people who will do great work at a fair price in a reasonable time. But if you’re going in with that expectation, you will be disappointed more often than not.

“Oh sure, that is no problem, we can do that,” is how the discussion goes before you sign a contract. But inevitably, delays, cost overages, failed parts, misunderstandings, and a whole pile of other stuff starts falling in your lap. You have no choice at that point. It is usually too late to switch to another vendor at that point if you want to open in the same decade you started.

And that is where your butt kicking skills come in, but you can’t just start swinging for the fences. Great butt kicking, the most effective butt kicking, is a skill, perhaps an art. Sometimes it just takes a little tap. If you are too hard, you ruin the relationship. Sometimes you need lots of little taps and other times you need one bigger thump. But whatever you do, back it up with the written word.

When you agree with someone to provide a service or sell you some product, put it in writing. Detail what it is you’re getting and detail what it is you will pay. The more detail the better. If they balk at putting what they’ve been saying down on paper, let them walk. Someone telling you the truth will not hesitate to put those same words on paper.

Keep in mind that your power comes from your own backbone and the fact that you hold the money. Never give anyone all the money up front or you will have given him or her all the power. Even when purchasing equipment, don’t accept anyone’s claim that 100% of the payment is due up front. See if they will take 50% down and 50% on receipt. Most significant purchases are done on terms, so don’t be afraid to ask.

And when it comes to needing to kick a little butt, realize that sometimes a gentle kick is more effective than a powerful one, but back it up with paper.

Dogs in the Brewery


I love dogs and children. They are amazingly loving and want nothing more than to be a part of a loving family (your pack). Whether you’ve had a great day or a tough one, they are there to share your happiness or your sorrow. They are always there to give you strength, there to let you know you are loved.

Unfortunately, dogs and small children are also fairly delicate when it comes to the brewery environment. Most brewers would never let a small child run about barefoot and unsupervised in a brewery. Even supervised, most breweries exclude small children from tours for safety reasons. I feel for families that come for brewery tours, but then can’t take the whole family through the brewery area. It is for safety. There are caustics and acids that can result in a nasty burn or even death. There are excessively hot bits, very heavy things, lots of moving parts, and some sharp stuff as well. A small child, as wonderful as they are, could accidentally be seriously injured or killed in the blink of an eye.

So, with brewers understanding the need to protect small children, why do some let pets roam? I certainly don’t think it is my place to tell anyone what to do or not do in their brewery, but I just don’t understand this behavior. There are wonderfully trained dogs. There are dogs that just lie down and never move also, but every dog that I have known is prone to getting up and going where you don’t expect every once in awhile. If that area happens to have a little hot caustic on the floor, then the dog is going to be in serious pain. And what if that forklift happens to back up into that cool, dark corner where your best friend moved to get out of the heat?

Oh sure, I know people are saying, “But my dog is different, so well behaved.” Yes, I am sure your dog is smarter than most humans, but until your dog puts on brewer’s boots and knows how to run the eyewash station or dial 911 I still doubt that it is well prepared for the brewery environment. I am sure there are plenty of breweries that have had dogs, cats and other free roaming pets in the brewery for 25 years without a single incident. I certainly hope every brewery has been so lucky, but for me, I am unwilling to take that chance. Call me a curmudgeon or something worse, but we do not allow pets or small children in our brewery area.

It also happens that many states have rules about animals present in a food processing plant and many states (if not all) consider a brewery a food processing plant, so we’re just following the rules. Rules that make sense to me.

I think I’ll go give my dog a treat for being such a great part of our pack.

Mountain Climbing


Many people considering opening a brewery gaze in awe at the enormity of the task ahead of them. I had that same feeling. I faced that same mountain. From a distance, it looked enormous. A mountain I thought I might never climb. My worry, like so many before me, was that the cost of starting the climb would still be significant. If I didn’t the top, that failure would be quite a burden on my family.

Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I began my climb. As the mountain loomed ahead, I became even more uneasy, especially as the costs of climbing gear began to mount. The first part seemed so steep that it made me hesitate; perhaps it wasn’t too late to turn back?

I fought off the doubts and pressed on only to find that what I thought was the start of the mountain was just a hill. Beyond that hill was another and another. Some were steeper, and some were higher, but there was no mountain after all. It was just a collection of hills, which from a distance had seemed unattainable.

The first hill turned out easier than I thought and I gained confidence from that first climb. Others were much harder and I struggled. Some were so easy I barely broke a sweat. If I felt strong, I ran after that next hill. If I was tired, I rested and tackled the next hill when fresh.

By focusing on the hill under my boots, I wasn’t discouraged by the enormity of the entire task. It took awhile to reach my goal, but standing at the summit of the final hill gave me a great sense of pride in what I had accomplished.

The same is true for you. The enormity of the tasks involved in opening a brewery may seem huge, but you can tackle it one little bit at a time. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will reach your goal.

I can hear the question now, “But how do I start?” Start anywhere. Find a hill that you know you can climb and knock that out of your way. Then, with success under your belt, assess the remaining hills. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see them all. If you think you know all the obstacles to opening your brewery, then you are mistaken anyway. If the sum of the parts seems overwhelming, make your next hill an easy one. If you are feeling particularly bold and fit, go for that big one all covered in cactus.

If a hill defeats you, don’t give up on the climb.  Rest and tackle a different hill tomorrow. Your goal is just ahead if you don’t give up. Just keep telling yourself it is only one more hill. Keep telling yourself there is no mountain you can’t climb, because you know it is really just a bunch of little hills. When you get to the top, you will find great beer there. Beer you made.


Beer Mecca


In the grand scheme of things, I really haven’t been a beer geek for very long, but I remember back when I first got geeky about beer, the places people dreamed of going to visit on beer holidays were exclusively in Europe.

You went to England for the sessionable, malty ales, Belgium for the abbey beers and the sours, and Germany for the exquisite lagers, hefeweizen, Kölsch, and alt. That is still mostly true. I just returned from a trip to Brussels and it wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Cantillon. There are plenty of beer mecca sites in Europe, but now there are some sites in the United States that qualify as well. Continue reading ‘Beer Mecca’ »



I don’t hide the fact that I am not a fan of pouring beer at public beer festivals.

While there are some passionate craft beer lovers mixed in the crowd, there are usually more people there trying to get insanely drunk for as cheap as possible. Continue reading ‘Tasteless’ »

Risk and Reward and Risk and Reward


I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking, but somehow I had this idea in my head that I’d take all my risk up front in getting Heretic off the ground and once it was past a certain point, there would be a lot less risk. Ah, poor, simple fool.

We started out sharing a building and some brewing equipment with another brewery, so our costs were lower, but we still had to come up with a considerable sum to fund the fermenters, kegs, delivery vehicle, malt, hops, yeast, employee wages and more. Once the beer started flowing Continue reading ‘Risk and Reward and Risk and Reward’ »

Uncertain Barrels


“A barrel full of certainties won’t roll very far.” – Gerd de Ley

From the beginning, I was certain that we would make barrel-aged beers at Heretic. We are close to Napa so it is easy to obtain used wine barrels and I really like the interesting character that develops from aging beer in a barrel.

I have had many people ask me why barrel-aged beer sells for significantly higher price than non-barrel aged beer. Continue reading ‘Uncertain Barrels’ »

Brewery Nightmares


A reader asked me, “At what point does someone have enough knowledge to become a [professional] brewer?

Or do you hire someone to do the brewing and then learn from them?” That is a really good question and one that I think many more people should ask themselves when opening any kind of business. Continue reading ‘Brewery Nightmares’ »

The Price is Right?


The current craft beer market is booming. Passionate beer lovers seek out new beers and are willing to pay a premium price for new experiences.

These aficionados are a tremendous boon to the craft beer world, especially when it comes to the success of new breweries.  The fact is, without those customers, new breweries would struggle to stay in business. The larger a brewery grows, the better their cost of producing beer becomes. Continue reading ‘The Price is Right?’ »