We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Think about your friends and the people in your life. You might know an artist who, while extremely creative, avoids processes and rules. You might know a scientist who, while driven to understand the relationships between the fundamental elements of life, might not ever take their ideas and research to the market. You might know an engineer who has a knack for details and is driven by processes, but might not be the person you turn to when you need to brainstorm or when you’re looking to find that creative spark. You might know a businessperson who can grow a company and quickly understand market opportunities, but might not be the person you turn to find the latest research on a topic.
While these simplified categorizations for people are certainly not all inclusive, people have natural tendencies and interests that guide their work. For an entrepreneurial craft brewer, however, becoming successful often requires pushing past their personal comfort zone and becoming each of the four types of people described above. For a brewer to grow from brewing in their home, to opening a business and ultimately succeeding, it seems to me that the founding owner and brewmaster have to be strong as an artist, a scientist, an engineer and a merchant.
Let’s start with the minimum requirement to become a successful craft brewer, having the ability to make great-tasting beer. Craft brewers are often known for their creativity and their ability to be a liquid artist as they push the boundaries of traditional beer styles and experiment with new flavors. It’s why you order a flight of beer when you go to a new brewery, so that you can see, smell and taste the different beers that they created. What sets this class of creatives apart however, is that fact that in order to create the tastes, the flavors and the characteristics of the beer they are dreaming of, the brewer has to apply multiple fields of science as the tools of their trade.
To me, what makes brewers so unique is that, in order to create that product from scratch, they have to have an understanding of and mastery in the science of brewing. Without an understanding of chemistry and biology (among others), a brewer won’t be able to control the level of alcohol in a beer. Without understanding yeast and desired fermentation temperatures, they might not even be able to convert their wort into beer in the first place. Getting to the desired level of hop aroma and bitterness requires that brewers understand the acidity of various hops types and how their characteristics change based on how long they are exposed to heat during the boiling process. We haven’t even touched on the chemistry of the water they use either, which is responsible for making up 90-95% of beer. While amateur brewers can get by simply by following a recipe, being a professional requires that brewers can attain their desired flavors, which they can only do by understanding the science of brewing beer.
Crafting a great beer recipe isn’t going to ensure that a brewery becomes successful by itself. If a brewer accomplishes their goal of making a great tasting beer, a beer that all of their customers love, rave about and want more of, they are going to have to brew more of it while making sure that the next batches has the same great taste as the first. This requires that brewers are not only able to apply science to accomplish their creative art, but also have the skills of an engineer. Ensuring temperatures, times, and quantities are consistent from one batch to the next is what allows breweries to make beers year after year that have the same great taste that you experienced the first time you tried it. It’s what allows a brewer to delegate responsibilities to their brewing team and not have to be physically present to micro-manage every step of the brewing process themselves. Being able to think like an engineer is what lets a brewer transition from making a great batch of beer to making great batches. By ensuring that the process of brewing is consistent time after time, they become able to meet and exceed the expectations their customers have with each trip to the taproom.
While the pursuit of making great beer for appreciative craft beer drinkers is the goal for many brewmasters who transition from brewing in their kitchen to being able to do it for a living, making beer is only a part of the equation. Brewing on a large scale requires money for equipment, ingredients and a place to store their beer. Are those start-up costs going to be covered by an investor? If so, the brewer should be able to talk about the unit economics of their beer. They will need to have a plan to build their distribution network so that they can fund their operations through sales. They will need to know how long they think it will take to get to that point and ensure they raise enough money to cover that time period when selling their beer won’t cover all of the costs associated with running and growing a business. Since it isn’t just a matter of “if we brew it, they will come,” brewers who don’t have a plan to sell their beer aren’t going to be around to continue brewing in the future, requiring that they also learn the skills to be a successful merchant.
The world is full of two types of professionals. There are the specialists who have dedicated their lives to one specific field and there are the generalists who often describe themselves as a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. The commercial craft brewer is a person who can’t be a specialist or a generalist, but has to truly master the skills needed to be an artist, a scientist, an engineer and a merchant. While breweries that grow and thrive will undoubtedly build a team of people with specialties in the various aspects of brewing so that they can truly excel as a business, the home brewers making the initial leap to the pros means that they have to be ready to handle each of these tasks on their own until that team can be built.
As you visit the more than 50 breweries in Boulder County, take a moment to consider not just the beer in your glass, but also the operations, the marketing, the money and the people required to get that beer into your hands. The craft brewer who has to function as an artist, a scientist, an engineer, and a merchant is one of the most uniquely well-rounded people we will meet in our lives. So if you are at a brewery this weekend to celebrate a graduation from CU or just stopping in to your favorite taproom, raise a glass to the brewmaster who helped to create a great beer, the buzz and the business.