Key criteria for microbrewery success
Owning a brewpub/microbrewery/tap room can be very fulfilling and very rewarding. But starting any business is not easy, and statistics indicate that four out of ten business startups fail by year five. With the market for new brewpubs going strong, the probability of success might be higher than other businesses, but it is still not a given that a business will succeed.
So what are the keys to success? We have picked up quite a bit over the years through listening to our customers, and while there is no magical 'formula' (the nature of human desire keeps this elusive), there are three main ideas that keep popping up. The three key criteria we repeatedly hear (and see) are:
1. Brew great beer. This almost seems to go without saying, but needs to be said. Keeping passionate about your brewing (or finding a passionate brewer), using good methods and record keeping, sourcing fresh ingredients, and maintaining good sanitation are all keys to brewing great beer. Be open to what customers want (not what you think they need) and adapt. If it's peanut butter stout that brings them in (even if that sounds anathema to you) be open to trying it. A pilot system is a great way to try a new recipe and get feedback. Offering $1 pints for the first twenty pours of a new recipe might be a great way to bring people in AND get feedback (if they purchase a second pint you know they like it!).
2. Find a good location. If you are the first in your area, great beer alone might be all you need. But if there are others when you open, or if others come, having an easy to access location is important. A location that has other attractions nearby (arts, entertainment, restaurants etc.) might also draw more people, and ideally provide lots of foot traffic.
3. Create a remarkable atmosphere. Like number 2, if you are the only craft brewery in your area, the good beer alone MIGHT be enough. But people want a 'remarkable' experience — which means that they go away and 'remark' to someone else about how great your place is. A key aspect of remarkable is the atmosphere you create, and decoration is in most situations very central to that. Make it a unique and interesting space. If unique and interesting aren't your thing (most people are passionate about something that could be translated into a unique space), find someone to help you who has a great aesthetic sense and creative imagination. There are MANY ways to make a space interesting; having flourescent lights, white drywall with a few posters and boring tables and chairs is not going to be interesting for most people, and in fact, if it is depressing in there, even if your beer is fantastic, they might not want to come.
In additional to these three criteria, there are a few other things that our customers thought are important.
A. Have a clear vision
Several owners responded with this high on the list. Scott Keddy (3 Dogs, BC) said:
A clear vision as to what kind of brewery you want and a plan to get there. In our case for example we wanted a community/neighborhood brewery that was easily accessible for local patrons. We wanted to offer a variety of styles that would appeal to a wide audience. Other options might be a destination brewery where you want to draw people in to the brewery from a wider area or a distribution brewery where the focus is on production and moving product out to stores, bars and restaurants.
Scott DeLap (Next Chapter Brewpub, NY) added:
You need to find a niche that fits in within the community you locate. Besides the beer styles, the setting/atmosphere, the food you offer, the attraction you provide in your place is so important.
B. Find a location that matches your atmosphere
We mentioned above that location and atmosphere were important, but there is synergy between the two. Scott Keddy said:
The location needs to work with the vision. If you want a community focused brewery it has to be in the community and easily accessible for locals. It doesn’t do much good to put a community brewery a 10 minute drive into an industrial area where there is no foot traffic. An industrial area might be more suited to a destination brewery or one that is more focused on a distribution model.
C. Surround yourself with the right people and engage with your community
Josh Lockman (Axe and Arrow Brewery, NJ) had this to say:
Craft beer drinkers have a lot of options. You want to make sure your servers are knowledgeable about your product. Craft beer drinkers are becoming more and more interested in how the beer is made. What specific ingredients go into it. I try to interact with everyone that walks through the door. Even if it’s just giving them a sticker and thanking them for coming in. I think that goes a long way.
Matt Tilley added:
Surrounding yourself with the right people, especially customers. You can't run a successful brewery, or business, without the support of customers. We host a lot of community based events, through the university, lending agencies, local business, local artists, and our customers really respect us for it and continue to come out because of it. Beyond customers, hiring the right people who will push your brand forward and trust that they will do things to your standard. And even other breweries. Sharing equipment, ingredients, knowledge, etc will only benefit everyone involved.
Scott Delap said:
You need to have great customer service to get them to stay and come back.
D. Be passionate and work hard
It's been said that 'the best things in life don't come easy'; several owners attested to the truth of this with successful brewpubs. Matt Tilley (Bootleg Brew Co, NL) advised:
Understand the amount of work that goes into everything compared to the payout is not what most people are expecting. We consider what we do, along with many other breweries, to be a labor of love. Being in the service industry as long as we have, we've seen every level, and the most successful business's are those who are super passionate about what they're doing. And it shows in the final product, passing along that passion to the customer...Running a brewery is a really interesting case study on 'hurry up and wait.' The brewing process/fermentation is definitely not a quick process and patience for waiting until the yeast is completely finished is very important (cutting corners or rushing will show in your final product), but at the same time, there never seems to be enough time in the day to accomplish everything you need to get done.
And Scott Keddy wraps it up nicely:
Realize that it’s going to be more than you think. Starting your brewery is way way more than you think….It’s more work than you think it will be, even if you think it’s going to be a lot of work it’s going to be more. It’s going to take longer than you think it is to open the doors, it’s going to take more money than you think to open the doors, it’s going to take more hours per week than you think to keep the doors open and most importantly once you get the doors open and people into your brewery its going to be more fun and rewarding than you think.