Tag Archives: How to start a Craft Brewery

How to Keep all the Balls in the Air – A Schedule!

Having a schedule for the process of opening a brewery is huge.  I am not talking a little to do list of what needs to get done and when.  I mean an excel spreadsheet with the major items of starting a brewery in headings and then a timeline of when decisions need to be made.  It is the only way to keep all the balls in the air and make sure you don’t delay in decisions that need to be made, or forget others.

Unfortunately, we have gotten away from our schedule and it has come back to bite us in the ass a little bit.  Let me explain, and hopefully you can create your own so that you don’t have the same thing happen to you.

When I was first writing our business plan, I had a schedule of all the things that I thought we would be doing.  It was really about 30-40 lines of action items, with a date.  Click the link below for a copy of an older schedule that I was using, and while I updated it partially along the way, it was never really a living document.

Schedule for LCBC

What we really needed was a document that my partner and I updated weekly, that was really much more thorough than the one you can view by link.  I would have put various headings like:

  • Sales and Marketing
  • Equipment
  • Retrofit of Warehouse
  • Accounting
  • Raw Materials
  • Electrical
  • etc, etc

Under each of these headings I would have subcategories with all individual items that need to be done.  For instance, under the equipment heading I would have the following:

  • Brewhouse
  • Kegging
  • Packaging
  • Conditioning/fermenting
  • etc, etc

This way we could track all the details that need to get done.  This is really important.  A lot of details can fall through the cracks, so make sure you have a living schedule document that you can refer to on a regular basis.

There are some other benefits to a schedule. It can track timeline for decisions, like getting quotes from suppliers.  A schedule can also set drop-dead dates for decisions, which I highly recommend, as if you delay some decisions they will have a snowballing effect on other decisions.  A schedule can also help to identify who needs to do what in a partner ship.  Having a responsible person for an action might seem redundant, but it can just make sure there is someone doing the work, and not a moment of, “I thought you were doing that!”  Lastly, a schedule can help you sleep at night.  Instead of thinking about all the things you need to do, just go to bed knowing that there is a list, and so long as you keep the schedule up to date, you need not lose sleep.

So next time I start a brewery (insert laughter here), I will be sure to use the schedule like I have used the cash flow, marketing plan and retrofit budget …. as much as I can.  Let this be a lesson for you as well.  Create a schedule and make sure you update and check it weekly.

 

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General Contractors and Sub-contractors

One of the most important decisions you can make is around construction of your brewery.  Do you want to have a general contractor guide the process, or do you feel like you have enough time and energy to take the lead on piecing together the build-out?  Depending on your skills, the amount of time you have, your preference for this kind of thing and most importantly your budget, your decision may already be made for you.

We decided to work with a general contractor, Graham Disher of Disher Contracting.  The process for looking to team with a contractor was relatively painless, as at the end of the day, we decided to work with someone that was willing to work with our constraints.  In other words, we are able to offer some ownership shares in lieu of having to raise the money and then pay it as a fee.  In fact, because craft beer is growing so much right now, you could take this approach with many of the different trades that come through your space, and you would be able to do well for yourself in foregoing fees.

At any rate, Graham was also a good choice for more than just his willingness to work with us.  He had the time to dedicate towards our project, he has good experience that will serve us well in various aspects of the buildout, he was trustworthy (and he has continued to show us that), and what he doesn’t know, he goes about learning in a quick and positive manner.  When you add all these things up, we felt good about teaming with Graham Disher, and we would not hesitate to recommend him for your brewery (once he is finished ours of course).  Get in touch with me if you want to be connected, as he is one of those contractors who is too busy to worry about a website and all that.  In other words, he is hard to find online.

Back to the process of looking for a general contractor.  We met with 4 different GC’s after tossing around the names of about 12 or 15 that were passed our way or in our “rolodex”.  The 4 we met with all had experience, but were all at different stages of their business life cycle.  One company had been around for about 30 years, another just a couple years.  When you meet with these companies you take a list of questions, usually around the process of working with them, budgeting, who is on job, costs, estimates for work, their ideas for your job, experience in this field, etc.  When you start asking questions you will clearly see that there is a big difference in how each of these guys run their business.  Everything from their presentation, to how they budget, when they invoice, what jobs they sub-out, and so on.

What we came to was a list of pro’s and con’s for each contractor, which you then weigh against all the other factors.  Big ones for us include:  What is their mark-up, when could they start, who is going to be site supervisor, how much time are they going to dedicate, how many other jobs do they have, what is their crew like, what is their vision for the project,  what is their timeframe, what are the biggest challenges and how will they overcome, how are they with change … you get the drift.

As for subcontractors, this is really a 2 step process.  The first is to meet with various sub trades that are going to be important to your job.  Likely you will meet with electrical and mechanical  trades people.  You will also do this with the help of your general contractor.   The first objective of meeting with them is to understand what changes you can make to your plans to save money, while at the same time meeting with them to understand who is going to be the best fit for your project.  We met with 4 or 5 electrical and 4 or 5 mechanical contractors.  That allowed us to get some feedback and gauge who was going to work within our constraints the best.  Usually you are basing discussions off a set of drawings that aren’t yet complete.

Hopefully soon after this you will get some IFC drawings for the build-out, and then you can distribute to the 2 or 3 sub-trades that you think would be the best fit.  Once you get the estimates back, you can play them however you like, to try and get a better deal and position the job in the best position for your interests.  For us, number one was not money believe it or not … it was time.  Who could get started and complete the job (in other words, who could dedicate the most manpower to this job) in a fair period of time.  Second was money for us.  Of course all the companies we met with had the proper experience and were keen to be a part of this … that was just standard.

We picked our Electrical Contractor – Clear Energy Solutions.  They have solution in their name for a reason.  They offered us great advice on what to change and what could be streamlined to save money and time.  I would highly recommend these guys to  be at least a part of the bidding process.

We picked our Mechanical Contractor – Nathan from Meridian.  They are a great outfit that has experience in residential and commercial work, they were willing to work with our timeline and they were excellent on price.  I would also recommend these guys to anyone else for all their mechanical needs.

If you want more information on any of this stuff, let me know and I would be happy to add to the information I have put out there.  Bottom line, there are lots of great companies and lots of bad companies and general contractors to work with, just make sure you take your time to make the right choice.  Saving a little money won’t seem worth it if you have to spend extra time on a project.

Webcam is up … and almost working perfect

We have added a webcam to our brewhouse, and after earning a undergraduate degree in this kind of thing, it is now live.  While there is nothing to see this weekend, and the feed needs a little refinement, we are now able to broadcast live the process of starting a brewery.

We hope that in combination with this blog, and the other information we have put into the world, we will encourage many others to follow their dream and start a craft brewery.  It is a labour of love, but something that you will never regret IMO.

Anyhow, we will be sure to post a schedule of when things are happening, so that you can watch the process of starting a brewery from the comforts of your own home.

Click here for the link and I promise that within a couple days the feed will be more clear.  For now, the camera is pointing to the South half of our warehouse, but as things happen it will shift back and forth between both areas, so you can see everything that is going on.

Bottle vs Can for a Craft Brewery

One thing we have long struggled with is the type of packaging we are going to put our finished product in.  Speaking with other craft breweries, we are not alone in the uncertainty we face in making this decision.  I have summarized the pros and cons of each decision, and I hope at the end of the post, you can give me some feedback on what is the best in your mind.  Starting your own brewery is a great thing, but it is important to have a firm sense of what you want, and merge that with the financial and marketplace dynamics you face.  In other words, what you started out wanting may not be what you end up with.

Really there are 2 choices that you can put beer into.  Either cans or bottles.  Before I dissect each of the options, here are some general comments.  I had long thought that cans were the clear environmental choice, but a few articles haver pointed me back in the direction of uncertainty.  Click here to read one article.  So with no clear winner on the environmental side, what about taste.  I hear anecdotally that people can taste the plastic in cans.  Does this mean they don’t pour the beer out of cans into a glass (yikes).  Also there is the image.  Is the wider market really ready for high quality craft beer in cans?  I know Steamworks and Central City have their beer in cans, and by all accounts do very well, but could you imagine a much smaller player, like 33 Acres or Bridge Brewing putting their beer in cans?  Would it make a difference at all to your perception of them.

Cans:   Cans are a good option for a brewery for a variety of reasons, but there are some downsides to them, which I have tried tried to summarize below.  Essentially, there are 2 options for can sizes 355ml or 500ml.  The smaller can is more North American while the larger can has a much more European feel to it.

  1. More transportable and lighter than bottles
  2. Beer keeps better in cans than bottles
  3. Per unit cost is less expensive than bottles
  4. About 66% of all beer sold in BC is sold in cans
  5. Government liquor stores want new listings in cans
  6. Canning lines are more expensive than bottling lines and notoriously more finicky.  We have quotes for a canning line at $90,000, and the price can go sky high from there
  7. Minimum orders for cans are about $30,000
  8. You need to figure out what beer you are going to sell and then hope the market likes it, as production time for cans is much longer
  9. Image of someone drinking from a can doesn’t always conjure up quality craft beer
  10. Lead time for can orders is much longer than a bottle label order
  11. A couple different sizes of cans which completely change the look and feel of the marketing

Bottles:  On the other hand, bottles are a great option for a new brewery, as the 650ml bottle is the standard size for craft beer, and is well established in the BC marketplace.  Not unlike cans, there are both pros and cons to packaging beer in bottles.

  1. About 33% of all beer sold in BC is sold in bottles
  2. A beer bottle doesn’t put off any odd tastes, whether perceived or not
  3. A beer label allows for more colours and detailed artwork
  4. The amount of time needed for artwork and printing is much shorter than producing cans
  5. Bottling lines are less expensive than canning lines, and you can buy change-over parts to switch between bottle sizes
  6. We have quotes for bottling lines at about $60,000 and the price can go way up from there
  7. There is a much wider variety of bottles available to put beer into (all are in ml):  330, 341, 350, 500, 650, 750, 1000
  8. Government liquor stores are trying to get out of bottles, so a listing with BCLS is much harder to obtain
  9. In my opinion, a bottle of beer put out a different image than a can of beer

So you can see how we are conflicted on the decision that we are going to make.  We have flip-flopped back and forth from cans to bottles and we have really wrestled with the decision.  What would you do?  What would you want us to do?  The trouble we now have is that we can no longer waffle on this decision.  We need to place our order so that we can get our equipment in time for the launch of our brewery.

So vote here, and let me know what you think.  I would love to hear from you as well.

The Odds and Ends of this Process

One thing that takes a lot of time, especially of late, is the final layout and design of the space.  It is quite easy to get approximate locations of the brewhouse, walls, grain room, bathrooms, etc., but it is another thing to lock in the exact location.  This goes against what I ever thought would happen, and makes you choose between saving time, saving money, but only getting one of these at once.

Are you as confused as me?  Maybe the words are not flowing from my brain to the keyboard this early in the morning, but the final location and final detail of things is taking a lot of time.  Why are these things important?  Well, without knowing how long of runs you need for mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, your general contractor and others, you can’t really get accurate quotes on work needed.  If you can’t get an accurate quote, when it comes time for an electrician to do the work, and they need to do something that is not in the original package, there is an up charge for this.  In other words, if the electrician needs to run power to 10 extra lights that were not in the plan, they charge extra.  It is also the time that they can “bend you over the table so to speak.”

So in trying to button down all the details of what to put where, it makes life really difficult for the individual(s) putting together the final plans.  For us that means our architect, our brewhouse designer, and our contractor are all working in tandem, with emails and phone calls going back in forth at the rate of about 10 per day, with weekly meetings, and with miscommunication at every step of the way.  It is very difficult to orchestrate, as often people are not focused on our project alone, meaning sometimes it is not convenient for others to work on our project.  There are also vision issues, time issues, communication issues, and issues with our issues.

One of the biggest issues you cross when it comes to the odds and ends, is saving money versus saving time.  At the end of the day, we try to save both at every step along the way, but it has proven impossible.  If you want something done quickly, you are going to pay more as you narrow the window of options you have.  On the flip side, if you want things done economically, often the time needed to save the money is huge.  For our project this means trying to balance out these 2 things, so that we can save a little time, but also a little money.  Let me give you an example.

Should you build a cooler yourself or have one prefabricated and installed by someone else?  There is something about a cooler that makes it very expensive to pay a company to design and install.  It is not like the engineering is difficult, the materials are relatively inexpensive, and the amount of time needed to put it together is nothing exorbitant.  So when you get a quote from a company that specializes in putting this into your brewery, the cost blows your mind.  The cooler can literally cost $40,000 to supply.  WTF.  So this naturally leads us to look at designing and building our own cooler.  Quickly you realize that you can build the same thing, and save yourself about $20,000 which is huge in the grand scheme of things.  The challenge with this route is the time involved.  The time needed to procure the pieces, put together design specs, meet code, coordinate trades, etc, etc.  What we are now realizing that building our own cooler will save us money, but it will suck a lot of time from spending it elsewhere.

When you have time sucked away from certain things that need it, then you are delaying the process for other things moving forward.  So in other words, there is always a delicate balance between time spent on a project, and time lost on another project.  There is also a balance between money saved and time saved.

Let this be a lesson to other future brewery owners, the balance of these things is a hard thing to do, and you will spend a lot of time heading down a path, and then after a certain amount of time, backtracking and going down the other path, only to realize that you should have stayed down the first path.  The key is to always be aware which path is the best to travel down, and to recognize when you are running into a brick wall ….. because as we have learned, there is never a brick wall to show you are on the wrong path, only a few hurdles, making recognition of this even harder.

My key learning is this:  Sometimes getting overcharged is alright, so long as you spend the time you save elsewhere to move another aspect of the brewery forward, or save money.  There are other times an owner needs to make a greater effort to save money, at the expense of time, as the cost savings outweigh the time spent.  Choose wisely!

The Biggest day in this Process – Lease Signing Day

It looks like the day might finally be upon us.  This is the day that seems like it should be the first step in the process, but realistically is more like the 500,000th of 1,000,000 steps in starting a brewery.  I have thought about this day for years.  It’s like I need to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t a dream.  We have signed subject removal for leasing our space.  After a 12 month courtship, and months of negotiating, feeling elated, feeling depressed, and most importantly uncertainty, we have done it.

I know what you are thinking:  Whats the big deal?  You found a place to brew your beer.  Thousands of other breweries across North America have found a suitable place to brew their beer, what makes your accomplishment any different?  When I think about it that way, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.  But when you consider that we live in Vancouver, where land and warehouses are at a premium, it feels like a huge accomplishment.

I would say the key learnings from this process would be as follows:

  1. Don’t even consider buying a space, unless you are rich.  And that begs the question, if you are rich, why are you starting a brewery?
  2. Dilemna:  You can only have a one of the following:  A good landlord, a good location, a good space.  Which will you choose?
  3. Get ready for a personal guarantee.  Unless you have a brewery already, and if so why the heck are you reading this blog, get ready to lay whatever personal wealth you have on the line with your landlord.
  4. Expect to spend a lot of money fixing this space up.  Our bill is going to be huge, because we have a larger space, but even for small spaces, expect to spend $300,000 minimum.
  5. Use a good commercial realtor, who works exclusively in an area.  Don’t use a friend or family member who doesn’t know a lot about what they are doing.  We used Matt Smith from Colliers, and were very happy with our choice
  6. If you are ordering new equipment, don’t order any until you get your space secured.  I’ve heard too many horror stories to go down that road.
  7. Expect the unexpected.  There will be a fundamental problem with your space that you didn’t anticipate, so budget some contingency for your build out.
  8. Engage with architects, engineers and other professionals from the get-go.  They will help you understand what is needed and what is to come.
  9. Don’t lock yourself into a size of brewery, type of brewery or anything else until you find your space.  We totally changed our strategy based on the space we found.  Committing to a space is important to do before you commit to a type of brewery you are creating.
  10. Last and most importantly, PRAY.  Thats right, because when you find a space that seems really good, I can guarantee that there will be someone else who also finds the space really good, brewery or otherwise.  There is a lack of good space, and expect landlords hold all the power to pick who they work with.

So now, the process of starting a brewery truly begins.  It is hard to believe that from the time I started to write a business plan to this point in my life has been 5 years.  So patience, if not a inherent characteristic you have, will definitely be something that you develop.  If you don’t, I would say that your journey into the world of starting a brewery might be a short one.

Today will be my last shave, and I can start officially telling people that we have a space to brew our beer.  Many thanks to all those people who helped encourage and support us in getting to this point.  Without all that you have given to this process, I am afraid I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Sneak Peak at our Plans!

OK, I can’t release all the plans for our space, but I sure can give you a “teaser” of what things may look like.  More will come when we actually sign a lease …. which should be the topic of my next blog.  “Lack of signing a lease stress.”  Anyhow, hopefully those who know the rules around brewery lounges in Vancouver will appreciate the connection we are going to have.  The brewhouse is literally within arms length of the tasting room!

Sneak peak brewery