There is a reoccurring statement that gets told to me by homebrewers, “It’s a goal of mine to one day open my own brewery.” Many of my customers have taken the plunge and made brewing beer their chosen career. Having homebrewed for three decades, started my own homebrew store here in Vegas and created some terrific recipes that win awards, I’ve resisted the temptation to brew commercially. Now it’s time to reach out to those who left their garage and make beer for a living.
One homebrewer who took the leap is John Griffith, Owner of Mojave Brewing Company in Henderson, NV. Way back in 1992, John started making beer for himself and friends. His buddies kept asking for more as a party favorite. Winning a Pro-Am contest locally and entry into The GABF (Great American Beer Festival) national competition only drove him harder toward his goal of opening a brewery. To gain experience on the larger brewpub vessels, a jump from 10 to 300 gallons, John spent one summer interning at Joyride Brewing in Edgewater, Colorado. He described the experience as intimidating, but quickly mastered ingredient utilization and volume management issues. His cringe moment was an improperly secured tri-clap that allowed 40 gallons of gross sediment to explode out of the fermentor, all over the floor. Worse, it happened during a collaboration brew day, attended by many brewers. Still waiting on that video. In a very positive move, John is hiring a former homebrewer to assist in his brewery. “There is a steeper learning curve for a homebrewer that speeds up the training required,” said John in rationalizing the hiring decision.
Kyle Weniger, Head Brewer/Director of Operations at Joseph James Brewing Company is another example of a homebrewer who makes a living in the industry now. Starting in 2009 and barely 21 years old, Kyle shopped at my store for his garage-brewed, 5-15 gallon recipes. He and his buddies wanted to drink craft beer, but it was far more expensive than “cheaper alternatives.” Thinking he was saving money (not really as he describes the Carnival of equipment he bought), the hobby turned into a passion, then a career. Setting his sights as one of the only breweries in Southern Nevada at the time, Kyle worked as an underpaid 3rd assistant, promoted to every position up the chain, and finally earned the Head Brewer position in a rather short few years. Homebrewing was the inspiration for some of the recipes today, including the GABF medal-winning Citra Rye IPA in 2013. Asked what he would do differently, he responded, “Not a damn thing.”
How about having your parents teach you how to brew beer? That’s what happened to Matt Brady in 2005. While just a hobby, Matt decided he wanted to brew for a living, but there just wasn’t an avenue available in Southern Nevada at the time. So, in 2014, he stepped down from management at FedEx Ground to focus on opening his own brewery. With the financial backing of three relatives, he started Astronomy Aleworks. Due to some tough food and beverage regulations in Clark County and Las Vegas, he chose Henderson, NV as his location. He hired a champion homebrewer, Allen Harrison, to be Head Brewer as Matt’s duties prevent him from focusing exclusively on making the beer. One of the challenges Matt and Allen faced was stepping out of the mode of 3-5 ounces of many specialty malts. Matt describes this as “thinking in ½ bag, ¼ bag and full bag amounts” (bags are 55 lbs). With the use of a popular computer program, Beersmith, they successfully modified their best 10-gallon batches to 300 gallons. The terrific results can’t be denied, as recently, Astronomy took home the Aces & Ales “IPA Smackdown” title for their Double IPA.
It’s a goal of mine to one day open my own brewery.
The most challenging situation I’ve come across in turning pro has to be The Beer District, soon to open at 914 S. Main Street in Las Vegas. Owners Jimmy Doyle and Clyde Lipp are over a year behind their target opening date and just now received approval from the city. Fundraising efforts were disappointing and the government shutdown last December closed SBA for over a month. Backlogs prevented some permit requests in a timely manner, delaying equipment and construction efforts. Furthermore, after receiving approval for a “conditional use permit’, zoning laws in Las Vegas changed requiring a new ‘special use permit’. This is a terrible waste of time as these guys are the local homebrew clubs’ most awarded brewers. Having tasted their homebrews, the wait will be well worth it.
Co-owner and Brewer, James Lundgren at Mount Olympus Brewery, has the easiest story I’ve ever heard for overcoming the financial hurdle. His parents purchased the building in Aberdeen, WA. He acquired a Small Business Loan to finance the equipment, works as bartender to reduce costs and makes some fine ales in a heavily trafficked coastal city. Not having a kitchen to reduce overhead, the food trucks fight for the one connected spot. More than eight million people travel the road in front of their brewery each year. When asked about his transition from five gallon homebrewing to ten barrels, he modestly described it as “just figuring out what valves and switches to pull.” Somehow, the six year journey from stovetop brewing to successful brewery owner seemed too easy to be normal.
In researching and interviews, without exception, the most difficult hurdle a homebrewer faces in going pro has to be the issue of money. Whether it is the pay cut associated with working in a brewery or the daunting upfront cost of starting one’s own business, having the financial means to survive in this competitive industry is a must.