Tag Archives: brewery tours

34 days out …. sneak peak at our Layout

Not much to say on this post.  I am a little foggy this morning, and needing to get 2 blog posts out as I missed one from yesterday.  The first post today will be around the finalized layout and look of our tasting room, and the exterior elevation of our space

We agonized for months over how exactly to design and locate the entire production and front of house spaces.  There were likely 5 or 6 meetings with our architects to get this correct, and hopefully at the end of the day, we got it right from a production standpoint, but also a tasting room standpoint.

Some keys about the front of the house:

  • The tasting room has a direct connection to the brewhouse, where most of the fun stuff happens in brewing beer
  • The art gallery is directly connected to the tasting room, allowing people to view some artwork while they visit the brewery
  • We have 2 long communal tables, which is a direct result of bring people together through beer.  If you want to come to our brewery and sit quietly on your own, you might have a tough time
  • We will have lots of natural light.  There are about 14 windows across the front, that will provide heaps of natural light into the space
  • There is a moderately separated retail area from the tasting room, which will allow the patrons of each to not interfere with each others good time
  • The lines from our serving tanks to the tasting room are crazy short, as the cooler is right there
  • The front of the house has really high ceilings, something you can’t really see in the drawings, hopefully making the space very interesting and welcoming

As for the exterior of the building, not much to do other than clean it up, repaint and put a few new doors in to make the building secure and a little more functional.

There was a lot of found value in the space, which we have tried to salvage and add to in a positive and authentic manner.  Both Iain and like things that are authentic and interesting, and we hope to have created a space that is, if nothing else, both of these things.  We hope you pop-in and say hi the next time you are in the area.

Architectural drawings Oct 31.2014

 

Marketing Decisions

One thing I have underestimated up until now is the number of decisions that need to be made for marketing.  I always thought the big marketing decisions were the tough ones, but now walking through this process, it is the small ones that suck all your time and cause the most headaches with the schedule.  Paying others to do some of your work will help bring in a fresh opinion, move things forward, and get you to a place you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.  It will still take hard work and lots of re-working things to get them right.

As a craft brewery, we kind of thought that marketing was secondary to making really great beer, and having a great tasting room to hang out in.  For the most part, it still is but the gap has narrowed quite measurably.  With so many amazing breweries swinging open their doors in the past few years (Brassneck, Parallel 49 Brewing, Powell Street Brewing, Postmark, 33 Acres, Steel and Oak, Yellow Dog, Main Street, and many more), it is now imperative that your brand be spot on.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you need to have a perfect brand for customers to see, rather I think you need to achieve a few important things in your message:  Authenticity, why you did this, and what makes you so different.

Yes, yes the quality of beer is still paramount.  Make crappy beer or have the same selection of beer at your brewery week in and week out, and you will find yourself floundering.  At the end of the day, consumers care most about this.  But the people that spend their hard earned dollars at breweries also want to see a brand that meets their expectations.  What makes it harder for a brewery to meet these expectations, is that no 2 people have the same ones.  Some want authentic, and others want playful, some want seriousness, and others want unique.  What do you want?

Getting back to my original point, we decided to go in the direction of making something we think is representative of us.  Authentic, Fun, and pretty straight forward.  However, what you set out to do, like everything in this process, is not necessarily what we are going to end up with.  You see, making thousands of decisions over a period of months, if not years, puts you down a path that you didn’t necessarily intend.

For instance, we always wanted our brand to be what it has become.  But to think that we named our company Strange Fellows Brewing is somewhat comical.  My partner and I always wanted a more serious name, but through indecision, other names being taken (this is huge) and the input of others, we ended up with Strange Fellows.  This set off a cascade of events that has slowly morphed our brand into something that neither of us could have imagined.

Also changing where we ended up is the list of decision that we needed to make, with each of these decisions having hundreds of little decisions to make the big decision:

  • website design and look and feel – hundreds of decisions in this bucket
  • can versus bottle versus growler – design, size and look
  • label for all product
  • logo – you will need to pick something that works on its own, with your can design, and in sizes all the way up to a decal on your car to sign-post at your brewery
  • bottle cap
  • merchandise
  • growler design
  • your story and how it relates to your brand
  • business cards
  • tasting room design meshed with your personal taste, budget and consumers taste

Each of these, and many others, have hundreds of layers to the decisions you need to make.  Its not as simple as just making the choice and living with it in a bubble.  Your decisions are not mutually exclusive, as one decision will impact another, often forcing you to rethink exactly what you are doing.  Let me give you an example.

We knew we wanted to put our beer into cans, so we charged ahead with this.  However, we didn’t know what kind of beer to put into cans.  So we had to decide which of our favourites we were going to brew, and put that out there to the world, without ever actually brewing these beers.  Which means you need to talk about flavour, alcohol percentage, etc without ever having tasted the beer.  Then you need to make a description of the beer, a beer name, a theme to your beer, create a UPC code, get preliminary approval from the LDB, get all the details on the can correct and be happy with where it is at about 10-12 weeks before you plan on packaging this product.  You see, cans need to be manufactured and that takes some time, which means before you even do anything, you need to have all your marketing complete.

It also means that once you make decisions, going back on those decisions will change other aspects of the design.  Invariably you will makes changes, and while you have your head down in the sand making all these decisions and changes, you end up with a can that may be great, but also may be quite far from where you intended to end up.  We’d be lying if we didn’t admit to this, as well as every other craft brewery in the Province.  So go easy on those people who have missed the mark with their marketing, as they may have gotten to a place they didn’t intend, and have no way of getting out.

To me, marketing matters most in terms of how much I connect with a brand.  This is everything from; what are the owners like, what is their message, what does the beer taste like, what are their thoughts on craft beer, why are they making beer, is this their passion, what other breweries do they like, and are they helping to keep Vancouver at the forefront of craft beer.  If a brand conveys all this information to me, or if I pick up on these things along the way, my decision on whether I like the brand is already made.  A company could miss 2 or 3 of these things and be alright, but if they miss 2 or 3 of these things and one of them is the quality of the beer, then I will move on.

For us, we’ve had the luxury of time, which has been our worst enemy for cash, but our best friend for crafting our story.  Having a brewery build-out that has taken about 9 months, in addition to a 12 month period that we were actively working on our brand, which comes after about 1 year of starting the process.  All this has meant we’ve been able to work out the kinks, and get it where we are pretty happy.  We could still make a few changes to our marketing, but for the most part we are pretty stoked about it.  I went through my diaries and have the following summaries from just our name selection:

  • January 2010 started working with my brother on a brand called The Crafty Monk
  • Over the next 18 months came up with a logo, and design for label
  • January 2012 met Iain Hill and started our partnership.
  • March 2012 Iain and I agree that we need to come up with a name together that is indicative of both us.
  • July 2012 changed name to Low Countries Brewing
  • Sept 2012 worked with Iain’s wife Christine on logo and branding.  We had a really tough time making the name look interesting and work well.
  • October 2013 after a year working with Low Countries Brewing, we decided to ditch the name as it was boring and not exactly what we wanted to do anymore,
  • January 2014 false start on Allegory brewing
  • February 2014 with our partnership about to dissolve over indecision about our name, we finally agree to Strange Fellows.
  • March 2014 to present we worked on our branding and marketing to end up where we are, which we hope is a pretty good place.

Without the time we had available to us, we might have ended up with a name like The Crafty Monk, or Allegory, both of which would have led us down a path that is much different than where we are today.  So take your time in making decisions, as creativity knows no time boundaries.  It would also relate to this entire process, as for us, getting all aspects of this project correct the first time is the most important thing.

 

50 days out update … this may be my last

For a long time this blog has been a pleasure to write.  I enjoyed going over my notes of things, and putting that into the greater community.  The response and positive energy I received along the way was amazing and helped encourage me to continue writing, especially at times that I was either tired or busy (which seems like all the time).  About 2 months ago, the blog started becoming more of a burden, as the amount of time I spent working at the brewery and on my computer increased weekly.  Add in a complete gut of a house my wife and I purchased, and all of a sudden all of my free time evaporated.  Poof!

So given the state of my personal and professional life, and for the sanity and health of my family life and longevity in business, I have made the decision to free myself from the burden of having to write this blog.  Rather than see a note pop up in my calendar every Sunday night to write a blog post, I have removed the reminder from my calendar, and will let things run their course.  For those of you who follow my blog with regularity, feel free to email me with questions you have.  Also, I promise to continue taking my notes, and should I not find the time to blog about this process until the day we open, I will catch up afterwards.  That way this process will be complete.

So for now, this last blog post may actually be 4 or 5 posts rolled into one, as I update all the different aspects of starting a craft brewery that happen about 2 months out from opening.

Brewhouse:  Ideally, you will have your brewhouse arrive about 60 days prior to opening,  Definitely make sure you put any coatings on your floor.  Also make sure you have your installation procedure decided well in advance.  I am sure by this point you know what you are doing, but it had to be said.

Tank Farm:  Big or small, your tank farm should also be in about 60 days prior to opening, most ideally just before or just after your brewhouse goes in.  Be sure to have your Glycol system scheduled for installation, which needs to be done before you can move your tanks into position.  Also plan for your unloading of tanks for the truck and installation into position.  This can be a really finicky process that needs an experienced touch.

Kegs:  You ideally would get these delivered with about 30 days to go until opening.  Getting them delivered too soon (like we did) means you lose valuable real estate in your brewery that could be used for some other things.  More on use of real estate later.  At the end of the day, get the kegs early, but not too early.

Electrical:  If you are getting major upgrades as we are, make sure you the majority of the work done as soon as possible.  Don’t use an electrician who doesn’t commit to getting things completed by certain dates.  More important than saving a few thousand is someone who works with your schedule, and is always ahead of the game.

Mechanical:   I could literally write the same thing again for this heading that I did for electrical.  Make sure the work gets completed when there is the space and option of doing it.  Never wait for stuff to get done.

Marketing:  Holy crap, the marketing becomes a beast by this point in time.  The decisions you make mean the brand you are creating is formally taking shape.  The big important decisions are long complete, but there are a million and one details.  And the saying goes that the devil is in the details.  Some of the important balls in the air right now are:  Website, content for website, business cards, merchandise, increasing social media presence, glasses, sell sheets, coasters, keg labels, etc.  I would say marketing at this point will likely be taking you about 15 hours per week if you are doing anything similar to us.

Tasting Room:  This is one of the last things to get finished, as the production equipment needs to prioritized, but certainly by now the tasting room is well on its way to completion.  You are definitely making the finer decisions now on this.  Things like designing tables, finishing of walls, merchandise area, etc are all needing decisions to keep things moving forward.  We are about to start on construction of a bar, and I can tell you that there are a lot of factors that go into putting this together, and I promise to one day blog about it.

Accounting:  By now, I hope you have figured out a system for managing your books.  It is easily something that gets left, and before you know it, your GST reporting is due, and instead of a few hours work, you have 3 days worth of book keeping to catch up on.  Dave at Powell Street Brewing gave me the recommendation early to do your accounting every 2 weeks, and while I haven’t yet gotten to that frequency, I can see why he recommends it.

Organizing Trades:  We are sooooo thankful we have a general contractor.  Trying to organize and manage the schedule is a full time job, and one that we couldn’t have imagined not having the support of Graham Disher and his fine team.  They have helped us immeasurably every step along the way, and we are firm believers that paying someone to help is the best move we made.  Organizing trades and their schedule is so important as you come down to this point, as when things get done (or not) has a cascade on all the other things that have to happen after.  Any delays means a delay to every subsequent job.

Cold Room:  After going through the building of a cold room, we are really happy we did this, but man, we think getting a prefab cooler would be a lot better choice next time.  I know we will get exactly what we want and need, but the process of building a cooler is an expensive one, that takes a lot of time, and draws people away from other tasks they could be completing.  Depending on your space and the size of a cooler you need, strongly consider a pre-fab.

Cash Flow:  Hopefully you are meeting your budget, but most likely you are not.  This is where you need to make a decision if you have investors.  Do you take a bigger loan to cover your shortfall or do you raise more money.  In about another month we are going to be pressed with this decision, as we will be out of money.  Managing your cash flow until you get open is the most important part of this process and one that you need to keep on top of constantly.

Government Stuff:  Make sure you keep on top of all the interactions you have with government.  You can easily drop the ball on this one, and the resulting error could be catastrophic to your business.  In British Columbia the government has a website that itemizes all the things you need to do and I suggest you refer to this consistently.

Hiring of staff:  About 50 days out you need to figure out your staffing situation, and start getting ready to hire people.  For us that means people in the brewery and also in our tasting room.  We have been dragging our heels on this one, so do as I say and not as I do.

Other General stuff of note:

Use of Real Estate:  During the process of building a brewery, as you reach about 2 months out, your space is a mess.  There are a hundred things inside your brewery that are at various states of completion, which means there is a lot of stuff sitting in different areas.  For us, even though we are in 9,000 square feet, we are running out of room to put stuff.  We have kegs, barrels, packaging, tanks, wood, plywood, insulation, drywall, tools, work stations, etc taking up space all over.  My advice would be to work on being organized as best you can from day 1.  Don’t let the mess and organization become an issue, as it can overwhelm you.

Manage your Expectations:  I am someone who was raised by a very European father, who was adamant that we were never late for things.  While I am not 100% on time, I do think that making a scheduled deadline is important.  When it comes to something as complex as starting a brewery, just plan for 7 months of building if your size is 6,000 square feet or smaller.  And if you are over 6,000 square feet like us, plan for 8-9 months of building.  I know you will always be able to point to examples that go against this timeline, but do so at your own peril.  Just expect things to go wrong and problems to come up that add time.

Manage your sleep and stress:  For me, a lack of sleep goes hand in hand with being more prone to stress.  To give you an idea, right now I am working about 75 hours a week.  I easily work 12 hours per day 6 days per week, and I do try and take a 1/2 day off on the 7th day of the week.  The 2 things that I hate to lose is my sleep and my exercise.  If I do, I get more stressed, grumpy and unhappy.  So for me, I need to continue to exercise (a lot less intensely with all the physical work at the brewery) and get my 6.5 hours of sleep a night.  Any less than that, and I start to burnout.

Celebrate:  If you don’t stop once and while to celebrate the process, you will miss out on the process of following your dreams.  We are all following our dreams when you start a brewery, and if you don’t take a moment to recognize this, then the process will be less rewarding.

Decisions are now to save time or save money:  The process of making decisions has gone from really taking your time and agonizing over the details, to one that is marked by a lack of research and a plethora of going with your gut.  We are still trying to save money as we always have, but now there is a healthy dose of getting decisions made.  In fact, I would say the first question we usually ask is which option is the quickest?

Stay connected with your partner(s):  It is really easy to divide out a job and then not keep in good enough contact with your partner.  We are all guilty of this, but make sure you take time every day to speak with anyone that needs to be part of a decision.  It also helps to have a master sheet schedule, as I have talked about before, so you can itemize the decisions you need to make, who is doing it, and when the drop-dead date is.

Hopefully, with all this stuff going on you can understand why I am going to blog if and only if I have time over the next 50 days.  My to do list is insane, and I can’t keep up with all the items that need decisions.  I hope you understand!  As such, I am going to take off and get some of these things done.  Until next time …. and always email me with any questions.

 

 

 

The toll this brewery is taking on me

There are so many amazing parts to starting your own business.  Things like never having a boss again, being able to build a business and brand, making choices based on your own preferences and opinions, and how every day is a new and amazing adventure.  These are experiences beyond words and they have helped to make the process of starting a craft brewery all that you think it would be.  The other side of this equation involves many other experiences and instances that are less than glamorous, or things that become worse through this process.

One of these things is the relationship you have with family and friends.  It is not that the business directly effects these relationships, rather the extra time and attention starting a business takes will eat into the amount of time you have for those close to you.  It is a slippery slope to walk, and one that you will often find yourself on the wrong side of.  There are many ways to get back to the other side, but it takes ingenuity and changing the established patterns you have …. and lots of coffee.

For me family is everything.  I love spending time with my wife and kids.  For the most part it is a release from the challenges and grind that makes up starting a business.  However, that can become a challenge when you have a list of 40 or 50 hours of work sitting on your desk.  Things like entering information into Quickbooks, marketing, ordering equipment, budget revisions, brewhouse work, manual labour, meeting with trades people, and even writing this blog.  All these things help to chip away at any sense of release you can enjoy when not at your desk.  In other words, your mind starts to wander when you let it, when sometimes what you need is to forget about the business.  That is always easier said than done.

Starting a brewery also means that you have a LOT less time for family and friends.  Saturdays become work days, early mornings are the domain of getting to-do’s checked off your list and late nights are for preparing for the following day.  Sitting with my wife watching a little TV, figuring out who is working when, or even talking about life seems like something we rarely do anymore.  Life is busy enough with all that is going on, but to think how much time I have taken away from focusing on my life partner is a little alarming.  Same goes for my kids.  I have been accustomed to being there for my kids over the past 7 years.  I pride myself on coaching their sports teams, dropping off and picking up them from school, and helping with the myriad of chores around the house.  All of these things become much harder to do when you are focusing on your selfish dreams.

This selfishness is something we all deal with at some point.  Maybe you are looking for additional work to pay off some bills, or you are back in school trying to get a degree, or maybe you are starting a brewery!  No matter how you break it down, being selfish results in different things at different times in your life.  When you are in your 20’s, focusing on yourself is a lot easier that your 30’s, when family becomes a (really good) drain on your time.  Now that Iain and I are into our early 40’s, the lack of time for family and friends is only made worse by a lack of energy.

So with all this in mind, I should officially take this forum to apologize to my dear family and my amazing friends.  I am sorry that you don’t see me as much, or hear from me as much as you have in the past.  Or when I am around I might be distracted or preoccupied with thoughts of my life.  Just know that during this chapter of my life, my focus has changed and that I hope balance and normalcy will return one day.  Until then, maybe tell me to lighten up or crack a joke when you can, it will help me be in the moment.

Landing Page Is Live

The process of getting all your customer facing material complete is full of ups and downs, set-backs and great moments.  For some reason, we always seem to be behind everyone else in getting this stuff complete!  If you have followed this blog, you know that things like our name, our logo and our packaging are works in progress.  Some days it feels like we will never get all the the items completed in time for launch which is now less than 5 months away.  Yikes!

This week we crossed of one small piece of our brand off the list:  Our Landing Page.  It was completed over the course of about 12 weeks, and while it is pretty simple, the process was full of change and tough decisions.  In the end, we are super happy with what we ended up having.  If you want to view our landing page, click on this link to be redirected.

Key learnings from landing page development, and web development for that matter:

  1. Start on this sooner rather than later:  Don’t wait as long as we did.  Consumers want to connect with you, so make sure you allow them the opportunity to do that.
  2. Expect 12 weeks start to finish:  If you are anything like us, there will be changes, u-turns, miscommunication, and a few other things that I can’t even mention.  All this makes a rather simple task a lot more of a grind.
  3. Prepare a brand guide:  This is a key step in the process to getting your brand ideal and message known to yourself, and then to others who are going to work with you.  Don’t leave it to a 30 minute meeting to let a web developer get a feel for your brand.  There has to be something concrete they can sit and read, minimizing the margin for error.
  4. It takes a while to see progress:  It feels like trying to get out of bed some mornings.  There are a couple false alarms, there is snooze involved, a little confusion, and a lot of light steps to get going.  Sometimes, after getting going, you just head back to bed and let it go for a little.  Building a website is a LOT like this.
  5. Stay connected with those helping:  No doubt about it, the more leash you give someone, the more likely they are to go down the wrong path and end up at a place that doesn’t mesh with you and your brand plan.  So have regular meetings and ask to see enough information to be kept abreast of things.
  6. Get detailed scope of work:  When you first sit down to finalize an agreement with a developer lets say, you will agree to a scope of work for your project.  If you want to add something down the road that is not in this scope of work, you are going to pay out of pocket.  As such, either agree to a rate for extra work, or budget in 10% of the total hours for misc work.
  7. Speak up: If you don’t say what you do and don’t like, you will not end up with a finished product that matches what you thought you would have.
  8. Balance:  Not sure what else to put as a heading here.  Sometimes you need to let someone else decide what is best for your brand, which goes against your taste or preference.  Others you need to get that person to change direction, against what they like.  It is a balance and one with no prescribed way of moving forward.  Just hope that you, or those you surround yourself with, have enough similarity and differences in opinion for a healthy relationship.
  9. Build from Scratch or use a wordpress:  Thats right, you will need to decide whether your website is built from scratch or uses wordpress as the foundation.  One costs more, but gives you a very custom website, and the other is much less expensive.
  10. Do something unique:  For us, in addition to writing this blog about starting our brewery, we added a webcam to our website, so people who are interested can view what is going on during construction without having to be there.  Just having another website with the usual information is not enough in my opinion.  Craft beer is booming, which is a great thing in so many ways, but also means you need to stand out a little bit.
  11. Brand Continuity:  Make sure that your website reflects who you are, the beer you are going to make, the brewery you are going to build, and what you think you should represent.  If you get away from this, you will end up at a place that is entirely what you don’t want.

So there it is.  Another set of best practices for starting a brewery.  There is so much more to a website than meets the eye, so don’t take this for granted.  Get thinking about this early on, and start much sooner than you think you need to.