What A Long Strange Trip It's Been

"How do you even go about starting a brewery?" This is one of the questions we are most frequently asked. It's something you don't really think about....until one day...and then it's all you think about. I feel like even in the early stages of dreaming of running a craft brewery, we still didn't get into the finer details of building the actual business until we finally asked ourselves that very question. There's actually more information out there than you'd expect (or at least more than I expected). There are a lot of biographical books about craft breweries that help to paint a picture of what you will be getting yourself into. The first book I read on the subject was Beer School by Steve Hindy & Tom Potter, the founders of the Brooklyn Brewery. It was an easy read and led me to many more books by similar-minded folks who opened great craft breweries, most of which are still thriving today (gives us hope!). There are also a lot of instructional and technical books out there. The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian is widely regarded as one of the go-to guides on homebrewing and Beer 101, so to speak. I also discovered Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer early in my self-instructional phase to help fill in the blanks about how to learn and talk about beer; and that book is now widely used as part of the curriculum for the educational beer program known as the Cicerone Certification so I must have been on the right track! Chris and I are both subscribers to BeerAdvocate magazine (partly because we want to do everything we can to make it on the cover at some point), which for a pittance per year (2-3 six packs, depending on your tastes) has some really interesting articles about beer, brewing, food, and everything in between. 

Chris and I also had a ton of help from the craft beer world at large. There are a number of really crafty, interactive online forums like ProBrewer, which cover a great depth and breadth of brewing and brewery topics moderated by people in the industry. And really, the warm reception we received in person at almost every brewery we've visited in the past few years was a huge help, plus a big indicator we were going into the right business. One of the best things about the brewing industry is the collegial nature of it. Beer is fun and so are the people who work to make it! There's a subculture to owning and/or operating a craft brewery, brewpub, or beer bar, and once you make it clear that you're looking to get involved in the industry I've found that you're generally accepted with open arms and full glasses by other like-minded folks. People get excited to show off their accomplishments and share some of their knowledge. The industry is still growing so more high quality, unique brews and more interesting beer scenes make the craft beer landscape around the world a much more vibrant place. Chris and I have been blessed with the support we've received from local breweries in Virginia as well as elsewhere. If you let people know ahead of time you'd like to come by or have a quick chat, as long as they can work it out with their own busy schedules they're generally happy to oblige. And that goes for folks working in distribution and other linked areas too. Honestly if you're randomly visiting a brewery and you mention you're looking to get into the business, more often than not you'll find an eager body with beer in hand willing to listen to what you hope to have in store for the world of craft. You may not be given every brewer's secret recipe for success, but you'll get a lot of good advice. Lesson of the day:  don't be shy - don't be pushy, but don't be shy. 

One of the best things Chris and I did in the early stages of going from "drinking beers and wanting to start a brewery" to "drinking beers and launching a business" was to join the Brewers Association. We actually joined the BA as a brewery-in-planning before we even registered The Virginia Beer Company as an LLC (we had a broad list of potential brewery names at that point). We are now in our third year of active BA membership...still haven't brewed a drop of beer for commercial sale, but I digress. Actually that just highlights the point; looking back, I can't stress enough the importance of our decision to become BA members. The BA is the main American trade group charged with the promotion of craft beer and homebrewing. Membership has allowed us access to a lot of statistics about the craft beer market including craft's share versus "the big three" (all critical when writing our business plan). We've been able to get access to the BA Journal, The New Brewer, as well as a number of publications produced by the BA (including Dick Cantwell's Guide To Starting Your Own Brewery...if you just want a general overview of what areas to think about as a startup, this is as good a place to start as any). And most importantly, it's been great for networking with other people in the beer industry, from other breweries-in-planning to equipment manufacturers, merchandise providers, ingredient suppliers, etc. And you get member access to national beer events such as the annual Craft Brewers Conference, which we will discuss in a future post (if you're trying to get into the business and are the type of person who swoons after meeting a craft beer godfather like Dr. Michael Lewis, this event is for you). Chris and I have really taken advantage of our BA membership, of the invaluable statistics and market research put out by the organization and of the networking opportunities nationally and locally. 

Combined with unbridled curiosity about craft beer, the BA and its resources have really helped us along in our quest to open The Virginia Beer Company. This post is in no way a sales pitch to buy these books, subscribe to these magazines, or join these trade/certification groups. But in so frequently getting the question du jour of how we even got started... Well, outside of a growing desire to open a brewery, it really did start with a little bit of curiosity, a lot of time with heads in books and feet on the ground, and becoming a member of the right groups to help us along our path. Every project is different and everyone has to do their own research to figure out what's right for them. We will definitely dedicate a lot of blogosphere to discussing the actual key components that went into getting VBC started such as the site search and dreaded business plan, but to answer the initial key question at the start of the post - lots of reading, lots of talking, lots of research, a little bit of luck, and a good amount of craft beer along the way.