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Session #75: Making beer & making money

The SessionChuck Lenatti at Allbrews hosts The Session #75: The Business of Brewing. He’s looking for comments and observations from those who have first-hand knowledge about the complexities and pitfalls of starting a commercial brewery.

Nineteen years ago this week Daria and I sat down at the bar in Armadillo Brewing on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, and ordered beer. The brewing tanks were right behind the bar, so close that the bartender had to step around the brewer, who was drawing a sample from the mash tun. The brewer proceeded to squeeze an eye dropper of iodine into the sample to see if starches in the grains had converted to sugar (and the wort was ready to boil). Basic homebrewing stuff, but something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen in a commercial brewery.

But how was the beer? Lousy, but not infected. The guys behind the bar, apparently owners, had a copy of Steve Johnnson’s On Tap: A Field Guide to North American Brewpubs and Craft Breweries in hand and were talking about where they might open their next brewery.

When we checked a year later Armadillo was out of business. Eventually, another owner gave brewing a shot in the same building, opening Katie Bloom’s Irish Pub. That didn’t work, although Katie Bloom’s continued to operate after selling off the brewing equipment. One time when we were in Texas we drove by and the storefront was vacant. Today Pure Ulta Lounge “brings the excitement of Miami’s South Beach” to 419 E. Sixth Street.

The beer was better at the Armadillo than Babe’s: The Brewery in Des Moines, a large downtown restaurant that added a brewery because . . . actually, I’m not quite sure why. Every beer we tried there was buttery, and some of it was sour as well. A pleasant level of diacetyl is one thing. This was something else.

As we admired the duct tape used to repair a tear in the fabric of our booth we listened to a customer at the bar. He was leaving town for an extended trip and talking about how much he’d miss the beer, because he knew he’d find nothing he liked as much while traveling.

The Brewers Association’s Guide to Starting Your Own BreweryCoincidentally, Babe’s was located at 417 Sixth Avenue. However the lesson here is not to avoid opening a brewery in the 400 block on a Sixth street. It is to know what the hell you are doing and be careful who you listen to. In announcing the topic this month Lenatti wrote, “Making beer is the easy part, building a successful business is hard.” Yes, it’s important to understand that there’s more to the business than brewing beer. But you really need to know how to make great beer, and then to assure it is great clear to the consumer’s glass.

The best advice I can offer somebody thinking about opening a brewery is don’t. But if you must, consider reading The Brewers Association’s Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery (revised edition) before doing anything else. [See disclaimer below.]

The Table of Contents should convince you. The updated version ships in June and both Brewers Publications and Amazon are taking preorders now.


Diclaimer: Brewers Publications published three of my books — For the Love of Hops, Brew Like a Monk, and Brewing With Wheat — so we have something of a relationship.

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6 Responses to Session #75: Making beer & making money

  1. Maureen Ogle May 3, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    When in the world did Babe’s have a brewery in it? I don’t remember that, and yes, it sounds like THE oddest thing ever. (But might have happened after Babe died and owners were trying to figure out how to save a Des Moines institution, and at a time when downtown DM was struggling with its identity.) (Yes, am from central Iowa; ate at Babe’s many times in my youth.)

    • Stan Hieronymus May 3, 2013 at 11:40 am #

      Hi Maureen – We were there in July of ’95.

  2. chuckl May 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I’ve had similar experiences in pubs and brewpubs where obviously to me anyway there was something very wrong with the beer. Not that I didn’t like the style, but the beer was infected, the lines were not clean. Something very wrong was happening.
    Do we as relatively knowledgeable drinkers have a responsibility to tell the server and/or brewer that something has gone amiss and risk their wrath or should we just pay, leave and let the chips fall where they may?

  3. Stan Hieronymus May 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Yes, but.

    The night before we flew home from England about a month ago we had dinner with Martyn Cornell and his family. The server delivered a pint to the table, Martyn took and sip, told it was not quite right and she took it away without a question.

    That might an aside, but it illustrates you need to understand the context. This perfect sense in that pub.

    If, for instance, I get a Boulevard Wheat on tap anywhere and there is something off I am going to hand it to the server and suggest he or she smell it. That’s a product I know, and I can say with confidence what it is supposed to taste like.

    But in a brewpub a little more tact might be in order. Ask if this what the beer is supposed to taste like. In as friendly a voice as possible.

    If the server, then the bartender, whoever says yes my opinion is you should still be able to say, “I’m sorry, but this is not what I expected. Can I get something else?” and expect not to be charged.

    That’s one more reason to ask for a taste of something new, doubly so at a brewpub that is new to you.

  4. RLW May 6, 2013 at 1:17 am #

    This article was quite thoughtful, but one point stuck out to me. You mentioned that you’ve never seen an iodine dropper in a commercial brewery. I work in a large Canadian craft brewery (the largest in one of the largest provinces) and we use one to check the mash all the time. Now I can’t comment on other breweries, but I’ve certainly never thought it was a poor way to test conversion!

  5. SteveH May 6, 2013 at 5:52 am #

    When I think of “failed” breweries I immediately remember Chicago’s Berghoff taking over the Sieben’s micro-brewery in Chicago’s River North district (back in the mid 90s or so?).

    No matter what they did, who they brought in, the beer just never cut it. The last I heard, the restaurant was bought out by a Mediterranean restaurant and the great brewing equipment sits idle.

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