Starting a Brewery is Mostly Not About Beer

Work on Modern Times has finally gotten to the point where it makes sense for me to start offering regular progress updates. Now that I have a building, there’s more or less a defined series of steps between here and opening day. That is a good thing.

For those of you familiar with the “I’m-starting-a-brewery” genre of blogging (and I am über-familiar, having read countless such blog posts as I ramped up this project), it’s pretty well-tread ground. So I’m going to take a slightly different approach. Rather than just updating you on the minutae of construction and licensing schedules, I’m going to dive a bit more deeply into one aspect of the process each Monday.

Today’s theme is beer, or rather, the absence of it. One of the remarkable and frustrating things about starting a brewery is that, for the most part, there’s very little beer involved.

Most of the issues I work on would be the same whether I were starting a brewery or a cardboard box factory. The first stages, fundraising and entity formation, have almost nothing to do with beer. An LLC is an LLC regardless of what it does, and money is money regardless of what it’s used for. So that was a solid 6 months during which beer was almost exclusively the provenance of my email exchanges with Mike, in which we’d hash out the recipes for the test batches he’d be brewing. That occupied about 2% of my time.

Finding a building was similar. There are the specific and somewhat exotic logistical requirements for a brewing facility (clear height, utilities, etc.), but every factory has certain needs. There was the small consideration of the tasting room but—other than occasionally asking myself, “Would anyone in their right mind come to this place for a beer?”—it wasn’t the driving force behind the location search. Finding a suitable, affordable building was far too difficult to be picky about things like ambiance or architecture. (Alright, maybe I was a little picky.)

Ordering the brewing system was probably the most beer related thing I’ve done yet, both because of the self-evident fact that it’s what we’ll make the beer with, but also because the details of the brewing system are driven in large part by beer style choices. Critical issues like lauter tun diameter, platform design, tank mix, port location, and a million others are driven by the kinds of beers that will be made on the system. (That these decisions also have many tens of thousands of dollars in immediate consequences adds some, uh, gravity to the process.) (Terrible, terrible pun.)

I’ve almost finished hashing out these issues with the help of half a dozen very knowledgeable and skilled brewing folks, and while it’s been stressful (as everything is), it’s also been quite fascinating. The good news is that tanks are set to arrive in mid-February and the brewing system in early-to-mid March. How long it will take to get the doors open after that is anyone’s guess.

Construction is next on the horizon, and while it will occupy a huge amount of time and money, it will not be particularly beer-related. Sure, the building will need to house a brewing system, but most of the struggles will undoubtedly be related to things like building codes, which are mostly the same regardless of what a business does. For instance, whether I was starting a brewery or a trapeze academy, I would have to spend a great deal of time and at least $15,000 making my bathrooms handicapped accessible.

The reality is that I work on issues like recipe formulation and test batch brewing—the tasks about which I am most passionate and enthusiastic—as a break from my “real” work, i.e. the work of starting a factory.

If all of this makes me sound like a Debby downer, my point is just to warn others who might want to start their own brewery. If your goal is to immerse yourself in beer (non-literally), consider that I spent far, far more time thinking about beer as a homebrewer and beer trader. Opening a brewery to devote yourself to beer is like opening a hospital to devote yourself to surgery.

Mercifully, the closer Modern Times gets to actually existing, the more beer-related my work becomes. Running the brewery will, of course, include countless non-beer related issues too, but hopefully by that time I won’t still be the only employee.

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