Tag Archives: Craft beer

39 days out …. The beginning of the home stretch

Its about time we can say this:  We are now in the home stretch!  Man-o-man that feels good, as this process has really dragged on  …  What I have come to realize is there are many challenges to opening a larger than average brewery, and while it will work out for us in the long term, it has made both Iain and I much more grey!  We also understand that bigger breweries are usually the domains of big companies and investment groups, as cash gets sucked up pretty quickly on a million and one things.

So we are about 39 days from opening, and the list of things to do is immense, not the least of which is blogging to help everyone prepare for this step in their process.  Trust me, you will be tired, tired or being tired, broke, tired of being broke, looking at a to do list about 100 things long, anxious about the beer you will make and if everyone will like your brand, hopeful that you get good reviews, and most importantly enjoying the most amazing ride of your life.  Both Iain and I find that we don’t celebrate our little victories enough, and it is something I would suggest you do at every stage of the process.  There are many milestones in the road to starting a brewery, and take each one in stride.

From here on out, I am going to try and write a blog post every day, so I can highlight some of the details in the home stretch and what that means to you.  There are a lot of details to come together in the very end, and hopefully by sharing these bits of information, you can prepare for the end of the job, which is the most important part of things.  Getting sloppy here can give you bad beer, poor marketing, less than ideal staff, and a host of other issues you never thought possible.  But have no fear, there is no rocket science involved in things … just hard work and strategic decision making.

 

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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.

 

Its official, we are going to be delayed in opening …

We received some disappointing news about a week ago!  We have been synthesizing what it means and how it will impact our business, but more importantly what we can do to mitigate the risk we are going to experience.  It looks like we are going to push our opening day from late October to December 1st.

We know how people really hate a company saying one thing, and then going about their business only to do something else.  It was not our intention, and to those people who have been following closely, we are sorry.  Not unlike anyone else, it was never our intention to put a date out there that we couldn’t make.  We tried to keep our foot on the gas pedal, while being realistic with our expectations.  We lost quite a bit of time at different points, considering the number of trades we had coordinate and the size and scope of our retrofit.  I have written about managing the schedule, working with a contractor and other items around the build in the past, so I won’t rehash those again.

This I know as true:  The bigger your build, the more expensive your build will be and the longer your build will take.  I would use the analogy of having both the wind and tide against your boat, where the wind is money and the tide is time.  The sum of these 2 problems becomes greater than each part.  Let me try to explain, when you have a bigger build than you expect, it will cost more than you budgeted because of the size of all your work gets bigger.  Like longer electrical wire runs, mechanical runs, more concrete, etc.  What also happens is it takes longer to build, which means you will need more money in getting to day 1.  No matter what you pay for lease, insurance, wages, etc on a monthly basis, whether you are ahead or behind the schedule.

Getting back on topic, some components to our build will be delayed by about a month.  So instead of having these items in place to move things along, our build-out of the brewery will be measurably slowed because of this delay.  It is crushing and cruel all at the same time.  All the effort we have put into beating drop-dead dates, the overtime we have paid to our construction crew, and the early mornings and late nights we have experienced all seem for not right now.

The biggest impact of this delay will be to our finances.  Instead of having the money we need to make it to day 1, we are now going to dilute our company, and raise more money.  There is no creative accounting that can make up for a 1 month loss of revenue, while still experiencing many of the fixed and variable costs our business will come up against.  We don’t quite know what options are available to us, but hopefully we can find a solution that keeps us afloat and allows us to make it to day 1 intact.

So I guess the good news is that I will keep blogging, as I seem to have a little more time on our hands.  More importantly, we can stop rushing so many decisions in order to make sure we make the correct choice.   I plan on blogging about a few other things, all of which will help with people who are following our path.

 

10 BBL Brewhouse for Sale

During the process of starting a brewery and writing a blog about starting a brewery, I have met and continue to meet many fascinating people.  These are people who are willing to do as others have before us, and risk everything they have achieved in order to start a business.  You see all sorts of personalities and business ideas come through, and they run the range from amazing to crazy.  Some people have leased a space without even having a business plan, and others have strong marketing backgrounds, and others lots of home brewing but no commercial brewing experience, etc, etc.

One of the groups that I have recently met purchased a brewhouse with the hopes of using it for their own purposes, but their circumstances have changed and they are looking to sell this.  So there isn’t much more to say than this:  If you are looking for a 10BBL brewhouse with all the parts and potentially someone to help consult with you, send me an email, and I can connect the two of you.  I don’t know the price, and I don’t even know all the equipment that is included in this set-up, but from the quality of the individual who is selling it, I am sure it will work out well.

If anyone you know is looking for used equipment, please pass along this information.  I know it is very difficult to find equipment in the marketplace, given the growth of craft beer throughout North America.  Having  an inside line like this can be a huge help in starting a business and saving cash on the most important part of your business.

As always, send any information to:

startingacraftbrewery@gmail.com

 

60 Days Out

Without a doubt, things get busier as you get closer to opening your brewery.  For us, there is so much going on right now at the brewery, it is hard to keep track of sometimes.  It is also a point that we are beginning to notice parts of the job getting significantly completed, and others that seemed so far off a few months ago, getting started.

One thing I know for sure, the less you have to complete and build in your space, the faster this project goes.  Since we have taken possession of our space early in the year, Yellow Dog has gone from building to finished, Moody Ales will go from start to finish before us, and a host of other breweries literally leapfrogged us during the past 6 months.  It is both an indication of the complexity of our project, but also the challenges we have faced and will continue to face with our space.

At 60 days from opening, there is a lot going on and as I said earlier, keeping on top of all that stuff can be a lot of work.  If you stop for a second and look down, you are going to miss what is coming at you.  Little things like Tap Handles, coasters, label deadlines, getting UPC codes, positioning of electrical outlets, timing of deliveries, and hiring of staff, can all creep up on you if you don’t think ahead and plan for the decisions you need to make.

One of the bigger issues we have right now is that there is so much going on in the brewery, its hard to schedule everyone at the right times.  We have electricians working overhead, sprinkler installation people, carpenters, mechanical contractors, floor coating technicians, welders, and our team of people helping where we can.  This means that with everyones tools, equipment and supplies, there is not a lot of room to work.  I would suggest that when you build your brewery, you encourage people to get their work done as quickly as possible and as early as possible.  The longer people wait to get stuff done, the more it makes your brewery busy and jam-packed.

Some of the big decisions we have to make are:

  • What beers are we going to launch with in the tasting room
  • Beer Names
  • Tap Handles
  • Order Chairs for tasting room
  • Beer Prices
  • Hiring of Staff
  • Hiring of General Manager for the front of the house
  • Delivery truck
  • Ordering of bottle caps
  • Ordering of 1st piece of new capital equipment
  • A million and one things in the brewery
  • Colours

Just writing this list gives me a strong desire to get working and stop blogging.  As such, I will carry on and leave this post here.  I could write more, so much more, but time would be better spent elsewhere.

The Cooler

Busy doesn’t even begin to describe our life right now.  We are so busy trying to get things organized with regards to all aspects of this brewery, it is literally starting to make us crazy.  We are dealing with it the best we can, but it seems we are taking less and less time to make constantly more important decisions.  There is just no time to think, it is more of a reactionary process now.  One of these things we have been reacting to over the past few months is the cooler.

Early on in the process of building a brewery, you will need to make some decisions around the cooler.  Most likely, the first will be where the heck to put the thing.  There is a bunch of factors in making that decision, like if you will have a tasting room, where are your shipping docks, how high are your ceilings all over the warehouse, how much space do you have, etc.  Generally speaking, if you are going for a model that has a tasting room, and you are planning for some production, make sure you put your cooler very near the tasting room, and make it big enough for whatever your beer sales are at year 3.

After you pick out the location, things start becoming more and more detailed in your decisions.  A big one is whether you want to have your cooler pre-fabricated or built on site.  A pre-fab cooler is a quicker option, but you may not get exactly what you want.  Also, depending on the size of the cooler, you may need to build a box around it to support it.  There are some coolers that are not meant to support any weight above them.  If you build your own, there are engineering costs, and the time and effort of putting the things together.  The bigger you build it, the more the costs for everything like labour, materials and professionals.

We also did a few extra things in our cooler that has made it more expensive, but will enable us to have a more functional cooler, and one that works better with our situation.

  • We insulated the ground beneath our concrete to R20.  This was an extra few thousand dollars to do this in extra digging, dirt removal, labour and materials, but we hope the energy savings will benefit us moving forward.  Cool air falls after all, so we thought best to insulate the floors.
  • Since we poured new floors underneath the cooler, we put in drainage.  I think Iain would say that drainage is a must in a cooler, but it can be a time consuming and difficult process.  We just decided to put all new concrete down, so we didn’t have to worry about these things …. we just did it.
  • And since we put in new floors we also put a slope on the concrete so water would run to the drains.
  • Make sure you put footings all around the cooler for the walls to sit on.  Since the cooler will be wet and damp, you should avoid having the walls touch the ground.
  • We made our cooler structural, so that we could store boxes, pallets and other stuff up top of it.
  • Don’t use drywall on the inside of your cooler … even the stuff that is rated to handle wet situations.  You can talk to Dave Varga about that one, as he told us at 33 acres they want to rip it all out.  Use marine grade plywood.
  • If you have any breaks in your moisture barrier, you will moisture in your cooler.  So plug these holes.
  • Use a big door for your cooler, and have a second man door.  The bigger your door, the easier it is for a forklift or pump truck to move pallets in and out of the space.  You want to try and avoid turning on the inside of your cooler with the forklift.  Our cooler is about 25 feet wide, and our door is about 18 feet wide or so.
  • Use a little man door to walk in and out of to avoid needing to open the big door to get something little.
  • We incorporated a cooler very close to our tasting room, so that we could have really short runs for the beer we will have on tap.  Again, Iain could tell you exactly why we did this, but all I know is that it will save us a lot of headaches in the future.
  • We will have jacketed tanks, so this means they will not be inside the cooler.  This frees up a lot of space and will allow us to store finished product in a cool place, ensuring it lasts longer and stays as fresh as possible.  This goes back to making sure your cooler is big enough.
  • Retail doors are important.  One thing we like about Bomber Brewing is that their cooler is also a place to put packaged product.  So you can grab a 12 pack of cans directly from cooler doors and purchase them on site.  This means you don’t need to get a separate cooler to do this, saving energy and costs.
  • We are placing 4 double stacked 15 hectolitre tanks in the cooler for holding our beer.  This will mean we don’t have to change loads of kegs for our most popular beers.  We have been told how much of a challenge this is, as tanks of your most popular beers can run dry 3 or 4 times a day.

All of the decisions around this cooler are pretty much made, so it is just a matter of implementing what we have planned.  The last decision we have to make is whether to use spray foam insulation versus standard insulation.  There are major differences, not the least of which is price and ease of install.  Like every other decision we have made, I am sure the answer will come to us in time …. and hopefully soon.

That is about all I can think of when it comes to our cooler.  For us, we definitely underestimated the spend on an engineer for this, as there is much to figure out when you are building walls that are 14 feet high, and span a 25 foot length.  There are lots of plates and reinforcements you need to install so that this thing will stand through worst case scenarios.

Have a few questions that I am not thinking of???  Send them along and I can surely help you out.

 

90 Days Out?!?!

Give or take a few days, we are about 90 days from opening our brewery, and the list of stuff we need to do and decide on seems to have only gotten longer and bigger.  When you are about 90 days out, the major decisions have been made, but there is still a lot of decisions to be made that can change the outcome of this process.  Let me recap where we are in the process so you can see what needs to be done.

We have finished all the in-ground mechanical work.  So plumbing, running conduit, reinforcing of concrete for tanks, upgrading floors, pouring curbs, trade waste interceptor, flow meter, drains, and a bunch of other stuff has all been decided.  That means we have made decisions galore to get to this point.  Having someone on board like Iain Hill, who has experience in starting a brewery is huge.  He has been down this road before, and knows what is a need to have and a nice to have.

We are currently getting all of our walls built  for the brewery interior, and while there is little work for the partners to do, there a lot of office work for us to complete.  The work of our carpenters is really important, albeit very slow.  Building walls and making sure they are square, level and plumb is tedious work at best, and requires a crew to make sure it all goes well.  While construction is at this point, there is a lit of other things we need to accomplish.

Most of the items revolve around the front of house.  We need to take the bar from conceptual to design.  That means we need to know what we are putting in the bar, the dimensions of those items, where we want shelves, drawers and other items, where does the sink go, where the POS goes, how many POS, etc.  All of this information then gets meshed with the best practices of our architect and then created into a set of drawings for us to send out to tender.  Once we choose who makes them, they then need to be manufactured, delivered and installed. The whole process seems to take about 12 weeks, so timing is of the essence.

While all of this is happening, our mechanical contractor is running pipes overhead, to and from all the important locations in the brewery, and our electrical contractor is upgrading our power and making things happen from an electrical point of view.

Now is also the time to start deciding on exterior colours and upgrades as we are nearing the time when this will need to be completed.  We have been working towards getting our sign ordered and it has been a bit of a mess in knowing who to use and what to get.  Our exterior sign is old and is going to cost a bunch of money to repair.  So do we pick something that is going to hold for a couple years, until we have cash to really replace it, or do we make the big upgrade now?  We are leaning towards saving the money as we have made a mess of our budget.  Saving money when we can seems really important.

All of our major equipment has been ordered, and we are just looking for odds and ends to round out the brewing side.  Iain is busy working on the draft system/growler fill area, and what we are going to do and how all that is going to come together.  I can’t say I know much, but what I know seems to confuse me.  Looks like we can go with a few different options, and each has pro’s and con’s, which I can fully describe at this time, as I haven’t been working in that bucket.

The schedule which I spoke about in my last post, gets changed almost daily, and drop dead dates are really important to adhere to.  So is having regular meetings to stay on top of all the decisions that each partner is making.  For instance, I have the exterior sign, website construction, marketing buckets to figure things out in, and Iain has the bar and equipment buckets to work in, and before you know it, you can make decisions in your own mind without talking to the other person.  So you seem to spend hours writing emails and following up on things with your partner, just so they know what they heck is going on.  A bit tedious, but sooooo important.

From here, we have lots more to do, and while we are very close, it feels in a way like we are so far away.  Its hard to think that in the next 90 days, all that is our space and mess of things, will get cobbled together into a usable brewery and tasting room.  Sometimes it still doesn’t feel like it will happen.