If there’s a stereotypical craft brewery owner, it just might be Dave Hamilton of Burd’s Nest Brewing who started dabbling in brewing his own beer in 2013 and spent the next few years finding the right location, working on all the approvals from the borough and starting the licensing process through state and federal agencies all while working on developing the company’s line of beers.
That’s all in addition to dreaming up a theme, casting a vision for the look of the brewery, working with contractors, and a dozen other tasks.
“You can’t just wake up one day and be like ‘Oh, I want to brew beer,’” Hamilton said.
Hobby to business
Like Hamilton, Mike Moll at Molly Pitcher Brewing, Matt Dunn at Desperate Times Brewery and Jeremy Rhone of Rhone Brewing Company have backgrounds in home brewing.
“With many homebrewers, it’s always in the back of their mind that they would love to have a brewery,” Moll said.
Making the jump from homebrewer to brewery owner unleashes a barrage of new responsibilities that may come without the added benefit of a traditional paycheck at the end of a long week.
“It may look easy. It may look enticing. Once you get into it, you know you have to pay all your bills accordingly and pay all of the licensing and taxes. Like I said, a hobby is definitely different than a business,” said Ashleigh Goss Corby of Market Cross Pub and Brewery.
Susan Dunn said people often see that Desperate Times is closed on Monday and Tuesday, and say that they would love to have those days off. In reality, those days are filled with brewing, prepping, ordering and myriad other tasks that have to be completed to have a successful week at the brewery.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of work. It’s 24/7,” she said.
That’s something hobbyists sometimes don’t understand as they get into the business. As a result, they only have their taproom open a couple of hours a day, or find themselves running out of beer.
“It’s a commitment business,” Moll said. “To be successful, and to have a business that can grow, you have to be fully committed.”
Setting up shop
When a homebrewer is ready to make the commitment, Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp. and the Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau can help them take the next step.
Valerie Copenhaver, director of marketing for the bureau, said the agency offers expertise in both financing and finding the ideal location for the brewery.
“The first thing we ask is if they have a business plan,” Copenhaver said.
If not, they are referred to the Small Business Development Center at Shippensburg University, which will help them craft a business plan for free. With plan in hand, the potential brewery owner can be guided to financial resources including grants such as the Tourism Development Project grant program. The program allows businesses to request up to $100,000 for projects that increase visitation to the Cumberland Valley area or that enhance the visitor’s experience.
The bureau can also assist business owners with tourism infrastructure loans that offer low-interest loans to businesses meeting certain criteria. It also can help business owners access state funding resources.
The bureau can also help find the perfect location for the brewery.
“We work with the housing and redevelopment authority to find a location or work with other people who would do that,” Copenhaver said.
Before stepping foot in a potential brewery location, the brewer has to decide what will happen in the building.
“There are so many different ways you can go. Do you want to just be a production brewing company where you’re literally just selling to the distributors, or do you want to have a tasting room?” Hamilton said.
The space has to be large enough and stable enough to handle the size of the brewing equipment, and the brewer needs to be prepared for modifications to be made to the building to accommodate it.
Burd’s Nest had to add support in the basement to carry the weight of its five-barrel system. Likewise, Desperate Times had to install a concrete slab in the former John Deere dealership to handle the weight of its 10-barrel system.
“The main thing is absolutely funding and finding the building,” Hamilton said. “You can’t just have a retail location that’s seven-foot ceilings. You have to have a very tall space.”
Finding a location and financing the dream of opening a brewery is essential before starting the licensing process, which Rhone said can be “daunting.”
Kenneth McDermott, an attorney with Tucker Arensberg who specializes in alcohol law, said local zoning approval is important to have in place prior to approaching federal and state governments for licensure.
Federal licensing has traditionally taken the longest to obtain with potential brewers waiting 5-6 months to receive their license, McDermott said.
For some, the wait was longer. Desperate Times waited nine months for its federal license.
“We finally started calling supervisors,” Matt said.
This can be the point at which a brewery enters a potentially fatal Catch-22.
The application for a federal license requires a diagram or architectural drawing of the brewery in addition to information about the brewery’s ownership, shareholders and environmental conditions, McDermott said.
“The federal side is most concerned with federal taxes of alcohol, so they’re most concerned with the security of the premises,” he said.
That leaves brewery owners with an empty building on which they are making mortgage or lease payments, and no way of making money. They’re also reluctant to order expensive equipment because of the uncertainty of their licensing.
“It put some of them out of business before they even opened their doors,” McDermott said.
This year, the wait time on the federal level has dropped to as little as two to six weeks.
State licensing can take 1-3 months, depending on an investigator’s review, and the resolution of any space or ownership issues. The state focuses more on the financing details of the brewery. For example, the state may look for an owner’s potential connections to other businesses holding a liquor license.
“They’re really trying to dig down to see if someone is providing funding to the operation that shouldn’t be,” McDermott said.
Gathering the information for the application process is tedious, but it’s what brewery owners are going to need to do as they continue in operation.
“That’s really just the start of the record-keeping process,” McDermott said.
Running a business
For some brewers, the wait for proper licensing becomes a time to work on promoting their beverages.
Burd’s Nest, for example, has promoted its line of beers through tastings, beer festivals and private events.
Rhone has been active in the community as well, not only to promote his beers but also to help develop the core brew selection for his future taproom.
“We like to use the time that our taproom isn’t open yet to give us exposure and do benefit events for different causes,” he said.
Grand Illusion has taken advantage of its future location on West High Street to offer samples of its ciders to visitors at First Fridays as well as the Harvest of the Arts festival, said Chad Kimmel, who co-owns the business with his wife, Andrea.
Once the doors are open, brewery owners have to be ready and willing to adapt to meet the needs of a growing business.
When Corby joined the family business at Market Cross, it was almost like having new ownership. She was able to bring new ideas to the table while learning from the experiences of her parents.
“I was 9 years old when my parents opened this. I thought I was going to venture out into different industry. I was a Spanish translator, and I just couldn’t quite stay away,” Corby said. “I’m so glad that I did come back, obviously, because now we can continue it on for many years to come.”
Corby said it’s vital to hire the best people and to invest in them. That commitment shows in the way the restaurant runs, and results in dedicated employees who treat the business as their own.
It’s also important to keep up with the trends. Corby said it’s easy to know what her own demographic might enjoy as it relates to the business, but she has to do research to see what customers in other demographics and socioeconomic levels might like.
Despite a growing market, the three breweries open in Carlisle have seen their businesses flourish.
“Business has exceeded all expectations from even our business plan,” Susan Dunn said.
Though not in the downtown area, Desperate Times draws visitors not only from the car shows at the fairgrounds next door, but also residents from nearby neighborhoods who walk in. There’s also ample parking for those willing to travel across town.
“It’s funny how often we hear, ‘We’re so glad there’s something on this side of town,” even though Carlisle’s not that big,” Matt said.
Market Cross is landlocked in its downtown location with businesses on both sides of the pub so Corby turned to a beer garden to add more space for patrons. The patio area is out back, next to the garage-based brewing system.
When Molly Pitcher opened, the partners thought the original seven-barrel brewhouse would last them “for years and years,” Moll said.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Due to demand, the original brewhouse is still in use, but three 15-barrel fermenters have been added. The taproom is also preparing for a move to 139 W. High St.
“We tripled our production within two years,” Moll said. “As soon as we get the taproom out of here, we expect to add three more 15-barrel fermenters to keep up with the demand.”
Seeing the success of established craft breweries inspires people to try brewing for themselves, and ultimately to open their doors to the public to see how they do in the market, Rhone said.
Rhone Brewing Company offers space for people to take the first step with their brew-on-premises set up. Those who are just getting into the hobby can choose a prepackaged mix from Rhone’s shelves, and brew it up onsite with Rhone taking care of the cleaning.
For those who hit on the right combination of brewing skill and business acumen, there’s an avid craft beer fan base waiting for them.
“It starts with the change of consumer’s palates as the craft beer scene started developing in the late 1980s. It’s had a lot of time to grow as an industry. Fewer and fewer people are going with your mass-produced domestic brews,” Rhone said.
Thinking back 25-30 years, there were far fewer selections when it came to beer, Moll said. People shaped their impression of beer on a subpar product, Moll said.
“Craft industry beer is heads and tails above what was available before. Many people don’t realize that until they try it, and then it opens up a whole new world for them,” he said.
That sense of discovery extends into the craft cider world.
“In terms of offering a bar serving ciders on draft, that can only be possible because craft beer has done that already or at least has educated customers to anticipate that or want variation in flavors,” Kimmel said.
There’s a natural evolution to people’s tastes, Kimmel said. Maybe they try a mass marketed hard cider like Angry Orchards and decide they like it. As with craft beer, the drinker becomes more educated about the product, their palate become more complex and they start to seek out different styles.
“That’s where the smaller guys come in because the big guys really can’t produce a lot of variation because they’re afraid of overextending themselves,” Kimmel said.
For now, there seems to be plenty of room for the craft brewers and cider makers to not only exist side by side, but work together in what Moll called a “fraternal industry.”
“Anytime you go talk to a different brewmaster or owner of a brewery, they’re going to be super-welcoming, and, if they’re not, they’re not going to be around for very long. It’s a huge collaboration. Everyone is so willing to help,” Hamilton said.
Corby said the brewers don’t feel a sense of competition; rather, they tend to help each other out. They send customers to each other’s business, provide a sounding board, offer supplies in a pinch and sometimes come together for a whole new brew.
“We just did a collaboration with Molly Pitcher, Molly Cross English IPA, and it was so great to work with those guys,” she said.
This sense of cooperation is indicative of the market as whole. Though a competitive business, it’s still a grassroots movement uniting craft beer fans and brewers alike.
“We’re in it for the beer. At the end of the day, what are you going to argue over?” Moll asked.