Edmar’s Top 13 Tips For Opening A Brewery

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Ed Marszewski ( Edmar) is the Publisher and Editor of Mash Tun Journal. He is also the co-founder and owner of Marz Community Brewing Co. based out of Chicago.  (Photo credit: Edmar – Tony Magee & Eric Olson hanging at Marz.)

In the past few years I have incubated and launched  a brewery in Chicago with a group of friends and members of my family.  It has been an amazing journey. These are  a few tips I scribbled down for people interested in getting into the biz. These  insights were inspired by the horrors of opening a business in Illinois, but I think some of these tips will help you wherever you decide to make your liquid dreams come true.

1. Just brew it!
No matter what you do: make beer! Test your recipes, tweak them, tweak them again and then again. Join a co-op or home brew club. Meet other brewers. Ask them for advice, criticism and “pro” tips. Listen. Maybe your coconut ghost chill porter really isn’t that great. Add some lacto? Hmmmm.

2. Find some money.
Well obviously you need money, but how much money is dependent on the size of your brewhouse, tank farm, chillers, boiler (if needed), bottling or canning lines you will need to buy and/or build. If you start as a nano- or pico- brewery you can probably find enough cash to start your project. If you are a welder or super smart guy, you can build your own system and save a lot of money. If you have investors or happen to be a trustafarian, well, cool. But you still need to think about how much money you will have to spend and just get on with designing a system that can help you reach your goals.

3. Make that business plan.
If you can secure funding, you then need to make a business plan. If you don’t know how to do that, you better learn how to do it or find someone to help you.  Some questions to answer when making your plan: Are you going to start off contract brewing? Are you going to wait for your system to be installed before you brew? Do you need to make accurate forecasts to find investors? Do you know which retailers might buy your beer? Do you know how to price your beer? Are you self-distributing or do you want to sign up with a distributor? Do you know how many employees you will need to make your beer? If you can’t answer these questions right now then you better do some research. Just know your business plan is a living document that will always evolve and change. And don’t worry about this fact. Roll with it.

4. Look for buildings.
This sucks. Looking for fantasy facilities when you don’t even have any money or a solid business plan is pretty futile. But you must look. You must determine what size place you want to open and where it will be located and how much it will cost before you can begin even making a plan. It will drive you crazy. You will meet awful landlords and building owners and skeezy real estate people. They will try to squeeze as much money as they can out of you. You also have to convince the owner of the building to give you a conditional lease based on whether or not you get your licensing approval. Which means they have to wait 6-12 months for your sorry ass to get your shit together with your brewers notice and licenses from the state and still hold onto the property for you should you even get to that point.  Not many property owners will do that.  Also make sure you find a space that is zoned for manufacturing and make sure the local politicians or officials will allow you to open up a tasting room. Do not believe them when they say they can change the zoning for you. Make sure its zoned for that type of activity from the get go. You must serve beer on premise if you want to survive and grow your business.

5. Decide on a brewing system.
Visit every brewery around you and see what system they are brewing on. Get the specifications of their systems.  Ask questions about the durability of their gear.  If you’re lucky maybe you can volunteer at a local brewery and learn how they work on their system. If you have time and tuition waivers, learn how to brew at the Siebel Institute or a university that offers a degree in brewing. The formal education will help you make better decisions on choosing a system to brew on and make you a better brewer.

5. Can you make great beer (or at least good beer)?
If you can’t make beer that is as good or better than the ones being poured at your favorite watering hole then really sit back and think hard. Maybe you shouldn’t do it. Don’t open a brewery. We don’t need mediocre beer. You will be one of those guys ruining it for the entire category. But if you believe you have the gumption to make great beer then revisit Tip #1.

6. How much money can you bleed?
You will spend at least one year spending tons of money without a prospect of earning a single dime. The start up burn rate is scary but it is what it is. If you can’t stomach or afford to lose all that money then you might want to consider NOT opening a brewery. Breweries (like all small businesses) are riskier investments than dot com stocks in 1999.

7. The TTB is your friend.
Government bureaucracy = bad. And the forms that need to be filled out to get your Brewers Notice might as well have been written by Kafka’s boss. But do not be afraid. Call the TTB. Ask them questions. They are really nice. Or if you’re lucky, someone you know that started a brewery will show you how to fill out the forms. You could also pay them for their time. Brewers sure need the money.

8. Hire a graphic designer that doesn’t suck.
If you cannot hire or have in your employ an outstanding designer that can realize the aesthetic considerations of your company brand and the individual beer brands you hope to create, then you better find one or find the budget for one now. DO NOT hire your family members to do the design. DO NOT do it yourself. You are not that good at it. (Otherwise you would not start a brewery, right? You would be a graphic designer.) You will not be able to sell your beer if you cannot create a brand that looks as good or perhaps even better than the taste of your beer. This is just my personal opinion as many breweries make great beer but have shitty packaging and marketing materials and they still sell tons of beer.

9. Brewers are not therapists.
People in the industry are busy. They have a lot to do. Do not share how hard it is for you to start your brewery with them. In reality no one really cares about your problems. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable by sharing your sad songs and expecting them to hold your hand or give you a back massage.

10. Murphy’s Law is always in effect.
No matter how well you make plans, everything you think will happen will not. All of your plans will not fall into place. So fail fast. Accept it and learn from it. Equipment will break, your Standard Operating Procedures need constant tweaking, you will forget to order something, you will have to buy more equipment you didn’t even know you needed. Everything will break. Everything. And you need to fix it. That’s yer job.

11. Make sure you can do everything.
Speaking of your job.. If you want to truly understand your brewing business you need to be able to do everything it takes to operate a brewery like: create recipes, secure contracts with suppliers, brew beer, clean everything, package your beer, sell the beer, do accounting, do yer taxes, hire and train people, deliver beer, schmooze, and make everyone believe your beer is the best in the world. By understanding all of these roles you will be well equipped to tweak and forecast the costs of your goods and labor. You will be able to use these figures to determine how much liquid you need to brew and sell to get out of debt. Maybe some day you will make a few bucks and take a day off.

12. Never release mediocre, or even worse, bad beer, to the public.
If you do not know if your beer is bad then you are in deep shit. If you discover you have made flawed or bad beer then do not release it. Dump it. In this marketplace, you can only make a few mistakes before you will get a rep as a shitty brewery. And then it’s a slow death.

13. Don’t be a hater.
Just because you think you’re hot shit, doesn’t mean you are.  So please don’t shit on your fellow brewers and breweries because you think you make better beer than they do. The one thing that will kill this industry is the insecurity and fear of competition that craft brewers have for newcomers to their market and the new kids on the block. Remember, we are all competing against two companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, who now own more than 200 brands based in 42 countries (including 18+ in the U.S. alone). We have a long way to go before the entire craft brewery industry of over 3,500 breweries even makes a dent in their massive empire. Not all businesses and certainly not all breweries will survive. The failure rate is very high in the hospitality industry and the breweries that suck will eventually close. Don’t be dogging other breweries because you feel the heat. Just make your own beer and shut the fuck up. Let the people who drink beer decide what they like and leave your insecurities in the mash tun. The breweries that make garbage will close.

Ok, Good Luck.. You will receive even better advice  by seasoned cholos  in issue 6 of the Mash Tun Journal!

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