Interview: Homebrewer to Running a Brewery

We conducted an interview with Brandin Stabell, the former co-owner of North River Hops and Brewing. He gave us the scoop on best practices, avoidable pitfalls, and educational resources. This is a must read for those who have dreams of taking their homebrewing skills to the next level. So grab a drink, take a seat, and read about how you can turn your passion of running your very own brewery into a reality.

Interview: Homebrewer to Running a Brewery

Introduction: We conducted an interview with Brandin Stabell, the former co-owner of North River Hops and Brewing. He gave us the scoop on best practices, avoidable pitfalls, and educational resources. This is a must read for those who have dreams of taking their homebrewing skills to the next level. So grab a drink, take a seat, and read about how you can turn your passion of running your very own brewery into a reality.

How did you get into beer making? Any influences?

I had actually received a full extract beer brewing kit for Christmas shortly after I was drinking age. I made those two kits, with positive results. I thought about how fun the process was and ordered some more of the kits. After about a year or so, I went from bottles to kegging, and switched to all grain brewing at the same time. Mostly for the added complexity, but also adding full control over what ingredients went into the beer. I started developing my own recipes, which got me more interested in the art of brewing and not just the science. I continued experimenting and making up recipes. Eventually, this led to me going through The Siebel Institute’s Online Brewing course and then starting my own brewery.

Once I got into making beer, it really opened up my eyes to what beer could be. Before that, I had my share of Guinness’s and Harp’s, but ultimately it didn’t expand my palate until brewing my own. Dogfish Head's craftsmanship was what really pushed me into enjoying craft beer and gave me the inspiration in making my own. The beers were just so different, and more flavorful than what else was readily available.

What kind of beer did you love making the most?

I really enjoy making all beer styles. Things that were not readily available in the US at the time, or styles that weren’t fresh when being imported. What I enjoy most is making beers using more unorthodox ingredients (i.e.- prickly pears, yarrow, dill and basil) that require a little thought and experimentation to marry them into the right style or flavor profile. It’s not just about doing it for the sake of it, but how you actually get those flavors to work. Also, can they really work together? Not all of them were winners, but you definitely learn every time you make a “bad” mix or over-do an ingredient. It helps you realize the thresholds and better understand what limitations each ingredient brings to the recipe. Every beer style also brings its own complexity to this. Beers with more flavor require heavier dosing, where as lighter beers take less.

How did you know when it was good time to start opening up your own brewery?

For me, it wasn’t necessarily knowing when, but rather when was a possibility. After brewing for a few years, and being in the Audio/Video business for about 10 years, I felt it was time for a change. I had intentions with trying to start working for another brewery. I wanted to gain more experience with a better understanding of commercial brewing, however, my father-in-law came to me and asked if I had considered starting my own brewery. I did indeed, in the sense of how cool it would be and what we could do, but not fully in depth to have everything planned out as far as full costs and potential profits. With the idea of starting a brewery now at the forefront of my mind, I began doing the extra leg work required to truly consider the option. How much would we really need to make it happen? What was the likelihood of success, as well as the potential profits? Can it really be done on a small scale? I really dug into what it would take and what we could do. After figuring out what was necessary, we put a business plan together over the next few months. We went back over everything a couple of times while searching for potential spaces where we could make this idea a reality. We eventually found a small place, with good foot traffic, access, and decent rent. We signed the lease and began our build out. The construction took about 8 months. We were held up a couple of times by the neighbor's plumber failing their inspections. They were leasing some extra footage from the vacant space we were taking over and the floor was all getting poured in at the same time. Luckily, we had planned for some delays so it didn’t put us too far back, it but could have been way worse. It’s still crazy to think about how everything came together and what we were able to accomplish.

What resources were available for you regarding beer-making? Where did you begin?

There was a large amount of information available online then and it continues to grow and change with the industry every day. Also, most brewers have a passion for beer and are willing to discuss their practices and experiences to help another fellow brewer. They can be great resources for helping to avoid pitfalls, such as, what equipment is or is not really necessary and what carries the best return on investment when starting out. I would read any book on brewing that I could get my hands on. “How To Brew” by John Palmer, “Designing Great Beers” by Ray Daniels, and “Radical Brewing” by Randy Mosher were a few that really got me started on the path of making beer.

What kinds of programs did you take advantage of when trying to open up your shop? (eg: business loans*, grants, fundraising)?

We had looked into getting grants and business loans. Ultimately, we felt that the grant process was extremely long and tedious, with the potential of not being all that fruitful. The potentially high interest rates and lack of experience in the industry, ultimately made us high risk investments. We ended up really looking at what costs could be cut and what we would be able to do ourselves, to lessen the output. It also helped to prevent too many people being involved early on, keeping more control of the process and products in-house as much as possible.

*Brewmation partners with North Star Leasing to help finance your project. Click here for an application.

How long did it take you to open up your own brewery (from concept, licenses, branding, receiving tanks and controls, brewing, and cutting the ribbon)?

From full concept to opening, it took us about 2 years. That involved finalizing the finances to finding a location and build out. Buildout will always take a good amount of time and that should be expected. The larger the project, the longer it will run over your expected timeline. It is always a good idea to plan for some delays, especially when budgeting. If, for example, it takes you an extra six months to make your debut, but you planned for two months, then this will eat into your startup capital. This will impact your carrying costs required for opening and really selling your product. It is always good to try and plan for those extras. There is almost always something you miss or that is forgotten, or just things that take longer or cost more to get done. It is better to end up with extra, versus going out of business because you don’t have enough capital to actually get the doors open and get things started. It’s a lot to do and it requires a lot of planning and research. Even more so if you are going to be getting investors or dealing with a bank for loans. Grants can take years before you actually have money in the bank from them. You could have everything on buildout and financing planned out and going smoothly, only to have an issue getting your licensing paperwork from the state or feds. This can slow you down or prevent you from opening.

What would be some advice you would give to a new owner? What pitfalls can/cannot be avoided?

I would say the most important thing is to plan for as much as possible. Have a pretty solid business plan, but realize this will likely be somewhat flexible as you progress. Things can change as you get closer to opening, or as you are going through the process, that make you have to adjust it as you go. Also, it is important that you pick equipment based on what styles, techniques, and processes you plan to use at first, as well as what you may be interested in doing in the future. If you are going to start with a pretty standard approach, but will eventually plan on doing decoction mashing, an electric brew system will not be able to do that. It would require you to get creative and likely add equipment down the line to make that happen.

You want to look at the costs of setting up your system that can handle and anticipate future brewing plans. It will almost always cost more to do it later down the line, and may or may not impact your production schedule which could decrease your cash flow. Yes, it may mean more financial outlay up front, but work the numbers and make sure it does not make sense to do it with the initial build out. My brewery was originally going to start with a fewer number of fermenters. We had intentions of doing two 3BBL fermenters, one 7BBL fermenter and one of each of the 3 & 7BBL brites. Our space required us to remove a window in order to get the tanks in. The layout of the space also made it a little difficult to easily add new tanks into the space. With the estimated costs and potential down time getting the tanks in and up and running, we decided to get the extra tanks then and obtain the max tank capacity. This ultimately made it easier to just add production when needed, versus running out of capacity to then have to wait for new tanks to arrive and get running before being able to increase production. It was definitely an expensive add-on to the front end, but made growth and production a whole lot easier.

It is not necessarily best to look at what you can produce and sell from a specific sized system. You should really look at what your total overhead is, what reasonable expectation you have for on-site sales and what you plan on doing for wholesale. Use more conservative numbers to ensure you are more likely to meet or exceed those goals. This way you aren’t coming up short on capital and end up scrambling to increase revenue or cut costs. This usually lessens the product and can have a huge impact on your customer relationships. Figure out the volume required to cover all those sales and distribution channels. Once you have what is needed as a baseline, look at producing that volume monthly by brewing only 2-4 times per week. You want to have room to run more batches to increase production if necessary, but also don’t make it so you are working insane amounts of hours to start. Can it be done where you go into a small space with small equipment and brew 8 times a week? Yes, but you will likely get burnt out quickly in a scenario like that.

What are some best practices for shop and brewing efficiency?

Brewing beer is a lot of work, especially if you are the owner and have to figure out all the other aspects of running your business, and not just brewing beer. It takes time to clean and fill kegs, as well as clean tanks and move beer through the process. It is also a lot of work running/maintaining a taproom, keeping your books balanced, ordering ingredients, marketing your business and advertising your products. Even if you sign with a distributor, advertising your product will still be your responsibility. Even more so if you are able to self-distribute. It is important to consider all the work you have to perform when operating a brewery, so you are better prepared when you start the business and are working all the time. If you don’t account for something that will end up taking you days, you have to find time to work that in. Usually by pushing brewing to overnight shifts while doing everything else during the day. You can’t always account for everything, but it is good to try and consider the possibilities to avoid early issues that really personally impact you and the company’s growth.

If you plan on increasing your production to multiple batches per day, confirm you are set up to do this early on, or have a plan for how this will be accomplished at a later time. Knowing you only have enough electrical amperage to power a single vessel at a time will require you get creative. An example would be using your kettle (KTL) to heat initial strike water the night before and have your hot liquor tank (HLT) timer run that morning. It will help to decrease the length of the brew day, but is not necessarily the most efficient way to multi-batch. Maybe it is getting everything in place to add an On-Demand water heater at a future date, to speed up the heat times in the HLT. If you are going to oversize batches, ensure that the elements or burners will provide enough BTU’s for the larger batch size. Increasing the production time adds costs. Even if you are doing it yourself, it means that you can’t be working on something else and this will likely require you to add more time or find things that you can shortcut to make up for lost time. It helps to be prepared for these considerations as oppose to being reactionary because these scenarios typically increase the associated costs.

How did you decide on selecting Brewmation to make your brewery system?

We had researched and contacted quite a few equipment manufacturers before making a decision. Ultimately, what sold us on Brewmation was the owner Kevin's responsiveness. We were leaning towards an electric brewhouse and with Brewmation being local, it just sealed the deal. We were looking at electric because it had less requirements for site preparation and less potential risk in smaller spaces. With the panel design and GFI configuration, the system also had more safety features than any other available systems. If we had issues or needed parts, we would receive an immediate response. We would not be waiting for time zone offsets or shipping delays for most things.

What kind of system did you have? How did it run?

We were running an advanced 3BBL electric brewhouse, with 3BBL and 7BBL fermenters. It was a serious workhorse for us. We ran it weekly for four years and didn’t need to replace anything until about year 3. Even then, it was for minor parts, like a float switch and a couple of relays. The system was running strong until the day we dismantled it and sold everything.

What was it like working with Brewmation when you were building your brewery?

It was great, honestly. The work was clean and handled professionally. Their customer service was quick to return a call if I did not immediately speak with someone. If I needed parts, I was usually able to pick them up same day and within a couple of hours.

You now work in Brewmation’s production and technical support department. Do you feel your experience of running a brewery using a Brewmation system will help service others and inspire them to have their own brewery?

Yes, I feel very confident in my knowledge of the products that Brewmation has to offer. Combine that with all the other experiences I have had around the beer industry along with opening, owning, and operating a brewery, it gives me a deeper understanding of the entire process and not just the equipment. This allows me to be a better resource for our customers to get started and potentially help them avoid some of the pitfalls that can make opening a brewery difficult.