Tag Archives: Strange Fellows Brewing

6 Months after opening – part 1

I just visited my blog again for the first time in about 6 months, and I was shocked to see that people are still visiting it, looking for information on starting a brewery.  I felt a little inspired so thought I would jot down a bunch of things that come to mind regarding running a brewery.  In no particular order, it would be the following:

  • Man you will be tired:  Unless you are flush with cash and you can afford to have extra staff around, you will be working like a dog.  Minimum 60 hour weeks, week-in and week-out.  Get ready for this, or if you are adverse to this kind of thing, get ready to hire additional staff to make life easy.
  • Cash flow:  People look at our brewery and see that we are doing well, and we are.  People love our beer, we have great tasting room staff, we love what we do, and craft beer in Vancouver and BC is on such a huge upswing.  However, cash flow is an ongoing challenge and something that needs constant attention.  The bigger you grow, the more of a buffer you need for working capital.  So know this:  The cash flow needs of your business will get worse over the first 6 months and not better.
  • Managing people:  I don’t say this in terms that it is an issue or a problem, just something that you need to be aware of.  When you are building your brewery, you manage yourself and a team of people that sooner or later will leave and move onto something else.  However, when you hire staff there is so much more to the relationship than a do this do that approach.  You must deal with peoples feelings, strive to make the staff get happiness from doing what they do, and strike a delicate balance between being the good cop and the bad cop.  There are many other small components as well, and to be honest there will be days you suck at being a boss and others that will come easily.  For me, I need to work on this part of my skill-set continuously.
  • Dealing with government:  Don’t know what else I can say here.  Just get ready for inspections, forms to fill out, paperwork, bureaucracy, bitting your bottom lip, and general frustration in this bucket.
  • Customer is always right:  We get lots of feedback from people on all sorts of things.  Mostly though, people who pass along feedback have found something they don’t like or think could be improved.  There are 2 ways to take this information:  Defensively or as constructive feedback.  As much as we may disagree with what people say and how they approach us, there is always value in taking this information and using it to make your business better.  You may not always do what a customer wants you to do, but you can always take a little from the conversation.  Moreover, if you don’t listen to your customers and they take their hard earned money elsewhere, you will have nothing.
  • Did I tell you this process is tiring:  Can’t overstate this enough.  Get your ass in shape, prepare people around you for the workload and find your release so you can stay sane.  For me its exercise … what about for you?
  • Not enough time in a day/week/month to get everything done:  You will need to prioritize on a daily basis as there is never enough time to get everything done.  The fulcrum is never in balance, just make sure you are always checking on where it should be.
  • Know when to hire and add staff:  Hand in hand with the point above, before you burn out, hire someone to help.  Each person has a different threshold for workload, stress and the ability to get things done.  So don’t judge a partner or employee for what they are or aren’t doing.  Just focus on getting your work complete, and help others where you can.  When the burden of your to-do list becomes too much, spend some money and hire someone.
  • Stick to your plan but detour when necessary:  This is a tough one, but certainly one that should not be lost.  There are times when you should stick to your plan and resist going off course, and there are others where you should do the opposite.  How you know which way to go?  For me, taking an extra day to make a decision is often one of the best ways to find my path.
  • More to come … I actually enjoyed writing these points.  Maybe I will start finding time on a weekly basis to fill this sheet in.
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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

 

37 Days Out …. Tasting Room Details

With the changes to tied-house and the ability to have a tasting room and retail area within the brewery, there has been a paradigm shift in the way breweries in BC construct their operations. For a long time, many spaces just took a little retail area, cobbled together a small bar and sold their beer.  However, led by Main Street Brewing, Brassneck and 33 Acres, there is a new breed of tasting rooms that have fundamentally altered the model we are all following.

We have benefited from starting our brewery at a time when these tasting room areas are now allowed in Vancouver by-laws, and as such, we have focused a lot of resources and energy on building and designing this space.  We hope to make it everything we would want in a tasting room.  We have learned a few lessons along the way and it seems right to pass them along.  I have written posts in the past that relate to the tasting room, but this has the best nuggets of information in one place.

Some random thoughts on designing and building your tasting room:

  • Keep the cooler close to the bar, so your beer doesn’t have to travel a long distance to get to the tap.  Pretty self explanatory here.
  • Balance the area between tasting room and retail area.  We have a little retail area on both halves of the tasting room, which means our space seems a little bigger than it is in reality.  This might be a good thing some days and a bad thing on others.
  • Make sure your retail area and tasting room is a reflection of yourself.  Iain and I had a tough time with this, as we see things through pretty different lenses.  I am more modern and Iain is more traditional.  Our space, like our brand and everything else we do, is a amalgamation of both our opinions and preferences.
  • Plan out the flow of people.  Nothing worse than having a space that is hard to move around in when you are busy.  Think about bathroom locations, and also the layout of the retail area, and how it interacts with the bar.
  • Location, separation and number of tap handles for pouring the beer is super important.  We have gone with 2 sets, that Iain can tell you all the specifics on.  Essentially we had Bamford bar service install the lines and taps, and we followed much of their guidance on this.
  • Plan to spend a bunch of money in the tasting room.  The best way to save cash in this area is to do a lot of the work yourself and also to keep it simple.  We will end saving a lot of money, as we found salvaged wood from a few different places, and used materials from our job site in the construction of different parts of the tasting room.
  • Take your time planning the bar.  We went through this over and over on how to layout the bar.  Go see what others are doing, think about all the things you will need in a bar, and also how your space will function, down the to the last detail.  I am talking cash drawer, POS, line-ups, etc. etc.
  • Get a metal fabricator for stainless that is CSA approved.  We used a metal fabricator that is not, which is fine, except when it comes to putting in your sink, which you will need to find a metal fabricator to do that is CSA approved.

I am sure I could find a lot of other things that may or may not be worthy of putting onto this list, but this seems pretty good for now.  I am pretty tired, so need to get some sleep.  We are looking at a crew of about 3 guys 8-10 weeks to finish our tasting room.  That is a lot of work, time and energy they have expended, which also means it is expensive, so try to get everything right you can the first time.

38 Days Out … Boiler Installation and Inspection

Don’t drop the ball on this!  There are a lot of details and a lot that has to go right.  Most importantly, don’t overlook the cost on this.  When you look to purchase a boiler, expect a good chunk of change.  I believe our boiler cost about $13,500 which is only part of the cost.  Installation of the boiler can be almost double the cost of the boiler.  A few best practices that may or may not help you:

  • Get the right size boiler for your operations:  Anything too small or too big will give you headaches, additional cost, take up too much room, not have enough/too much power, etc.  This takes some planning, projecting and ultimately guessing at the end of the day.  We ended up getting a bigger space, so we figured we needed a bit bigger of a boiler to handle future production (we hope!).
  • Put it close to where you need the water:  At first I didn’t understand why Iain wanted to put our boiler so close to the brewhouse, as it was in an awkward spot.  Having seen all the pipes and connections a boiler has, and the incredibly thick gauge of pipe connected to it, put the boiler as close to the brewhouse as you can.  The further away you put it, the dollars and cents will quickly add up.
  • Pre-Inspections are important:  We had a company come in and do a pre inspection to make sure we were putting it the correct distances away from other objects, it was positioned right, and we would be able to get our eventual inspection passed.  This was money well spent as they gave us some good advice that helped us down the road.  On their advice, we ended up rotating the boiler 180 degrees and thank god we had them tell us this, as otherwise, we would have failed our inspection and re-connect all the pipping at a huge time and financial cost
  • Inspection required before you fire it up:  Before you can’t start using your boiler, and that means start cleaning and sanitizing your equipment, until you pass your inspection.  Period. So make sure your boiler is ordered, delivered and installed well ahead of time.  If not, you will be leaving no margin of error

So that is my little advice on a boiler.  Our mechanical contractor Nathan Pulice was incredible throughout this process, but especially for us during the boiler install.  I would highly recommend for anyone who needs any mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, etc to contact him … especially if you are starting a brewery in Vancouver as he has superior knowledge about everything.  Nathan can be called reached at (778) 227 8219 or visit his website here http://www.meridianplumbing.ca.

Tomorrow I will talk about finishing of the front of house.  There is a lot of navigation required for this, and a few best practices to share.

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.

 

General Ramblings

A lot of the things we have been planning for sometime now are taking shape.  The big decisions we had to make early on have all been made, and now we are left to make them all fit within the scope of this project, which is changing a daily basis.  As such, things like tap location, size of custom cabinetry, location of bar sinks, and hundreds of other little decisions need to be looked at.

We have made many errors both big and small along the way, as making so many decisions is bound to result in a bad decision or 2 ….. or 20!  So here are the mistakes we have made that come to the top of my mind, and things you should be mindful of not doing.

  1. Make sure you agree to delivery dates for equipment and services provided to your brewery.  If you don’t have specified drop-dead dates, you can’t hold people to a timeframe in getting things done.  For example, if your website needs to be created by June 1st, but you don’t have this in your contact with your web designer, then you are left with no recourse should things take longer.
  2. The marathon of this is truly day in and day out a grind.  I love what I am doing, and it is a passion and dream all rolled into one, but it is still a grind.  The first 6 months seem to go by quickly, and your energy reserves are used, the next 6 months you have moments of highs and lows, and then the next 6 months hit.  I would say this is where we are.  We don’t celebrate our accomplishments enough, we are knee deep in financial duress, and we are about 2-3 months away from making any money.  Take 1 day off a week, as it will do your mind good.
  3. Its better to have stuff arrive when you need it, not before or after.  This is virtually impossible, but getting a big piece of equipment early is in a way just as bad as getting it early.  Get your stuff delivered when you need it, and shade a little to the earlier side of things.
  4. There is an endless amount of forms you need to fill out for the Government, so always keep on top of this.  I try to spend a couple hours a week reviewing our progress and making sure we are doing all that we can to keep these things moving forward.
  5. Schedule meetings wit your partner.  I can’t tell you how many times my partner and I try to meet about something and it gets interrupted or cut short because of something else.  We are realizing it might be best to have meetings elsewhere that are important.  Planning the business is more important than working in the business
  6. Finding time to do social media is the hardest thing some days.  When you are working on building a brewery, your free time evaporates and days just cruise by.  Always find time to connect with people on social media.  For some that is doing it as the day goes on, and for me that means doing it twice per day.  We have learned so much from others, and connected with so many great people, it would be a shame not to have done this.
  7. Include your landlord in decisions that effect the building.  If you have an amazing landlord like we do, they will want to be a part of things, so it is important to let them have some say.  After all, it is their building and your business is their business.
  8. Always have a plan B ready for action, especially when it comes to your financials and marketing.  Getting stuck with one idea, or one way of doing things is a real challenge in any aspect of this process.  It evolves so much, that it is much better to wave in the wind like a flag and go with the flow.
  9. You will need money, lots of money, and you will likely need more as the process goes on.  If you think you are different than everyone else who has started a business, or undertaken a massive renovation, then do so at your own peril.  We thought we would be good after 4 or 5 revisions to our budget, only to have the wrench of a delay resulting in us needing more money.  My advice would be to research as much as possible, and leave a bucket of money with about 15% of your overall budget to get to day 1 so that you can mitigate these risks.
  10. Marketing needs to represent who you are.  Since we are a team of 2, it is harder to get this right, as we are both very different in what we like.  Also, we wanted something other than what represented who we were for some time.  Once we decided to go with our gut, we found a path to happiness and cool branding, representative of our beliefs and opinions.
  11. If you are having a tasting room like us, the front of the house is a big enigma that is full of unknowns and expensive items.  Walk carefully through this minefield.  We messed up tap locations, counter top height, layout, approval process, etc.  A lot can go wrong so make sure you think this through.
  12. Don’t forget about these electronic items/systems:  POS ($5,000) AV ($2,500) Security system ($1,500) and CCTV ($4,000).  They add up to a lot, but we couldn’t imagine not getting these things right.  Also, try to include these items on your electrical contractors scope of work early on, as it will save you $$$.
  13. Spend too much money on non-critical things.  Don’t spend a lot of money on a forklift, but get a used one.  Don’t pay any of your carpenters to clean up at $55 per hour, do it yourself. Don’t get a bin until you are ready for it, do a couple dump runs on your own.  You get the idea.

I am sure throughout today, I will make 10 decisions with my partner, 7 of which we get right, 1 we are not so sure about and 2 that are wrong … only we won’t know it until some later point.  The point is sometimes you need take your time and make the right decision, and others you need to make any decision, just make one immediately to keep things moving forward.  The key is to think about when key decisions need to be made, and factor that into your approach.  If a decision doesn’t need to made, take a day to sleep on it.

I am sure I would be able to add about 10 more things to this list if I had the time or more mental horsepower right now.  Hopefully you can add more to this list via the comments below. Thanks for reading and until my next entry.

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.