An Interview With Gwen Sanchirico, Founder of Sacre Brew
I am pleased to be able to present the following interview I recently did with Gwen Sanchirico, the Founder, Owner and Head Brewer of Sacre Brew, an awesome brewery based in the UK Midlands! Gwen is a musician, philanthropist, perfectionist and all round awesome woman. This is a great interview that I recommend to anyone planning on setting up their own brewery.
In this interview we cover:
- How Gwen got started in the brewing industry.
- The importance of forming core values aligned to your own personality and using these to direct your company’s progress and decision making.
- The need to embrace uniqueness and making sure you stand out from the crowd.
- Raising brewery start up funding and how Sacre Brew got off the ground.
- The importance of robust planning in the pre-start up phase.
- Key lessons she’s learned and what she would do differently next time.
- Problems she has encountered and how she overcame them.
- The reality of owning and running a brewing company.
Here’s the interview …
Tell me about Gwen the New Yorker, Gwen the romantic (because you came all this way for love), Gwen the musician, Gwen the home brewer. How did you end up in Wolverhampton in the here and now?
One of my favourite bands is Alice Donut, a New York City band. I discovered them while I was in college (“uni” to you) in Central New York. I’d take a very unpleasant 5-hour bus ride each way just to go home some weekends when they were playing to be able to see them. After I graduated and was back in the city, I got to see them play a lot more – every chance I got. Usually it was CBGBs or the Pyramid.
I had picked up bass guitar while I was in college and played in bands as my primary creative outlet: NIghtmare, Wait Hus, 99 Stellavista, Marrella Splendens. I was looking through the musician listings in the weekly paper one day – I was between bands – and found a curious ad that said only, “Bassist wanted for band. Influences: Alice Donut. Vocals a plus.” So I called and it was Alice Donut who was seeking a new bassist. I auditioned for them, got called back for a second audition, but didn’t get the gig. They told me it was down between me and Sissi Schulmeister, who is still the band’s bassist. Which is fair because she’s so much better than I ever was.
Eventually Alice Donut broke up when Sissi and the singer moved out of the state. In the early 2000s a fan had set up an Alice Donut forum online. I discovered it after I’d moved to Boise, Idaho, and found myself with a lot of time on my hands. It had a small number of members, including the band members, and it was an amusing kind of cyberlocation. I made some new friends there and it was a very convivial environment.
Through this forum we learned that Alice Donut was planning a couple of “reunion” shows – one in New York and another in San Francisco. I tried really hard to make it to the San Francisco show, but money was really tight back then (I was living below the official US poverty line) and I couldn’t make it. Alice Donut started releasing albums again and playing just a few shows every few years, but I could never reach them.
Idaho was quite an experience and I could write a novel or a non-fiction account about all the crazy shit I witnessed and experienced over there. Suffice it to say it was hard to find work in an economically depressed place that was very suspicious of outsiders. I hustled, doing odd jobs whenever I could, worked part-time for the Catholic Diocese, and wrangled some freelance work from my connections back in NYC. My boyfriend did the same, though he eventually got a steady job cleaning floors nights.
Because we weren’t working full time, we did have a lot of opportunities to do other things. I was trying to grow as much of our food as possible in our backyard. When the earwigs started eating everything, I got some chicks from a friend who had a neighbour with too many chickens to control the pest population. My boyfriend sang and played guitar and cello and we’d record stuff at home on my computer. We tried starting up a band called the Chick Peas (the “ch” in “chick” pronounced the German way) with a neighbour and some other friends but that went nowhere. We got heavily involved in community organizing and political activism – mostly environmental but also social justice issues. My boyfriend ran for state senate and did really well, though he didn’t win. I managed several local campaigns for office, from Highway District to City Council. We helped rebuild the Idaho Green Party. We also got involved in community radio. A group of people were trying to get a radio station established, and we got on board with that. I did a lot of technical and operations stuff, but also produced a few shows. One of them was the Sagebrush Variety Show, which was political commentary and satire with an irreverent twist. There was a lot of music involved in the show, which I wrote and recorded. So that was my main musical outlet in those days. After six years, we finally gave in and moved back to NYC. Our stint in Boise had been a failure, although I’d do it again because I learned so much and got to do things I never would have done had I stayed in NYC.
I joined a new band and gave myself the stage name of Gwen Sacre-Bleu, because everyone in the band had a pseudonym with “blue” in it. We did a mini-tour of the Northeast and Canada. I got along great with the drummer but the guitarists were assholes to me, so I quit after less than a year. I kept looking for other people to play with but just wasn’t connecting with anyone creatively. So I decided to go solo. Part of my self-assigned homework was to try to record musical “sketches” as often as possible but not spend too much time agonizing over every little detail, which is one of my weaknesses, and would keep me from getting the ideas out of my head. I called these Tone Poems (admittedly inspired by a song by Midnight Oil called Tone Poem) and put them up on Soundcloud because making them public was part of the pressure to keep working.
The recordings were multi-tracked and I decided to start working with other bassists, one at a time, to further develop these tone poems. I placed ads and got to have amazing jam sessions with other bassists. I started playing out as Gwen Sacre-Bleu with —— (a different bassist partner each time). It was different, slightly experimental, and people were captivated because it’s rare to see two bass guitarists playing together without a drummer. I had also been working on a musical project with avant-garde musician Damian Catera.
Around this time, Alice Donut had released another album and announced another show in Brooklyn. This time I was living in the right city, had a good job, and plenty of disposable income. They were playing at Southpaw in Park Slope but a group of us from the online forum agreed to meet up early at a nearby bar called the Gate. Some of them lived in the area but quite a few of them travelled far just to attend the show: Michigan, Ohio, and one of them was an English guy who came all the way from the Netherlands, where he was living. He had tons of airline points he had accumulated through work so he got free travel, but still, that’s a long way to go to see a band. Anyway, I’m married to this guy now. His name is Mark.
We hit it off instantly. Never mind that I was there with my boyfriend, who was a serious and hopeless alcoholic and spent the whole night at the end of the bar with his face in one beer after another. Mark and I kept in touch and not long after I had finally broken up with my problem boyfriend. Eventually we had our first date, in San Francisco. Mark had started a new job and was out there for two weeks for his orientation. He invited – no, actually he pestered – me to fly out and hang out with him for a weekend. At first I was reluctant, feeling like I was perfectly happy without a troublesome man in my life, but he kept working on me and eventually I said, “Oh, why the fuck not. I’ve never been to San Francisco.”
We clicked in San Francisco and continued our long-distance transatlantic relationship for about a year and a half. Then we were both running out of money for visits and decided that if we wanted to continue the relationship we’d have to get married and one of us would have to move. We got married at the end of 2011 at NYC City Hall and went for dim sum in Chinatown afterwards. It was a small party, just us, my parents, and two close friends. Later in the week we had a karaoke party with a larger group of friends, an annual tradition we continue to this day.
After we got married, I moved in with my parents to save money and researched the pros and cons of emigration in both directions. In the end, the US is really capricious about immigration and they can deny entry if your clerk is having a bad day. The UK is more by the book, so if you pay your exorbitant fees and provide them with all the paperwork they ask for, they can’t pull that kind of stunt on you. Also, my job had recently taken a bad turn when an asshole took over my department and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, whereas Mark really loved his job. So it made sense for me to move to the UK.
Mark had been living in the Netherlands but then rented a room in Surrey after he got his new job. His job requires travel all week, so he’s rarely home other than the weekends. He moved back to Wolverhampton to cut down on expenses and be closer to his family and band. He was traveling to Wolverhampton on the weekends for rehearsal anyway, so I pointed out he might as well move back there.
The plan was that I’d find work anywhere in the country and once I landed that, we’d move. We discussed places we liked and ranked them but in reality I was having a really hard time even getting an interview. After a few months I was applying for jobs beneath me and it was getting increasingly desperate and getting very fed up with the futile and demoralizing job search. At this time I heard of the Wolverhampton Portas Pilot competition and wanted to enter with a business idea, but I didn’t know what type of business that would be. I was out drinking with Mark and his mom once night and I think I was complaining about the beer I had and how my homebrew was infinitely better than this swill that had been sold to me. My mother-in-law suggested I start a brewery and submit that idea for the competition. I liked it.
I entered the competition with the concept of an American-style brewpub, but had to scale down the ambition a little bit and start smaller. I was a finalist in the contest but it was the “homework” they gave us and the business planning workshops they required us to attend that kept me going. Without that, I probably would have lost steam but that little bit of pressure got me to write a business plan, do all the financial forecasting, and stick with the project. And here I am in Wolverhampton, owner of Sacre Brew. And that was the short version.
It sounds like you’ve had a very interesting life so far.
I love the name Sacre Brew. How did that name come about?
I was having trouble coming up with a name for my brewery – a small but important detail over which I was agonizing. I asked my friends for suggestions and one of them suggested that I revive my stage name – Gwen Sacre-Bleu. Another friend, musician Damian Catera, took that idea a step further and suggested Sacre Brew. I liked it.
You seem to have a very clear sense of self and what you want. I’ve read your Company manifesto. How important is it to set your values at the outset and then make sure you stick to them as you grow and develop the business? How do you make sure you stay true to self?
I have many idealistic ideas and I am one of those people who takes responsibility for her actions and thinks long and hard about the consequences, not only of what I do but what others do. I’m very technical and take an interest in processes: how things are made, what goes into them, and what kind of resources are used up and what kind of waste is produced. There are so many ways of doing things, and some ways are better than others. Some processes are wasteful, or dangerous, or polluting, while others are less so or not at all. These are choices we can make as informed people. Many people don’t give life that kind of analysis; but I do. So I try not to be an asshole in how I go about doing the things I do. I want to survive in this world doing something gratifying that doesn’t hurt anyone and that lots of people will enjoy.
I view Sacre Brew as an extension of myself, so I try to hold the brewery to the same standards. Writing out a company manifesto at the outset helps you define your business and sets up the framework within which you will design your processes and policies. More importantly, it helps you budget for it. For example, if you want to pay your employees a living wage, as opposed to the inadequate minimum wage, it’s going to cost you more, so you have to plan out your expenses. It takes a few years before a business, especially a brewery, starts to make a profit, so if you don’t plan ahead you’ll find yourself trapped in what you fell into without thinking it through. Consistency is very important, so if you’re constantly changing your policies because you didn’t think about it in the beginning and you’re being reactive rather than proactive, you come off as flakey and possibly insincere.
Your beers have a very unique style. Both in terms of the brews themselves and also in the branding and the design of the bottle labels. I think the branding seems to capture the quirkiness of the message you are putting across. How did you go about making sure that your branding and business image matched up to your core values and vision for the business? Or was it accidental?
I definitely wanted to stand out. I’m a New Yorker brewing non-British styles of beer, so that’s a good start. The Sacre Brew logo is really just a stylized “SB” – the initials – and combining it with steam spiralling up from the mash or boil during the brewing process.
The guitarist in my husband’s band, who is a very talented graphic designer, took my sketches and created that final logo for me. That was very important to me because I knew I wanted to integrate art onto the bottles.
I love art but I especially adore the idea of functional art. Why shouldn’t the mug I drink my tea from not be awesome looking? Why shouldn’t my knife be really cool looking? It just adds extra value to mundane activities. When I took pottery classes, I made functional things: bowls, mugs, plates – all beautiful, unique, and perfectly functional.
So, I make beer and I have this glass bottle it goes into and it’s not very sexy.
I could buy really cool and unusual bottles, but they are out of my price range. But the label is an opportunity for creative expression.
Why be bland?
From the outset I wanted to find local artists to create the artwork for my beer labels. It’s taken me this long to finally connect with them, and I’ve got new designs from local talent coming up, but until now I’ve had to ask my arty friends in the US for help. Tom Antona, the singer of Alice Donut, created three labels for me: Man on the Oss, Sirenia, and Marsupiale. Another friend, Paul Roman (aka p. earwig) in Seattle – who I originally met through the Alice Donut forum – gave me about 20 designs to use. My ex-boss gave me his painting to use for Buffalo Beer.
From a marketing perspective, when someone goes into a bottle shop and they see a wall of beer bottles, how do they choose what to buy? There are several factors but you want your beer to be noticed before it can even be considered by a customer. Quirky labels do help, and lots of people tell me they love my labels and that’s how they chose to try one of my beers in the first place.
But having cool labels is only part of my concept. I like the idea of getting people involved. I want Sacre Brew to be integrated with the place and community, and having the artwork made by other fellow artists reinforces those connections. It gives it more value and more meaning. Most people won’t know or care, but enough do and it certainly means something to me.
It’s important to mention that taking advantage of social media is crucial. It’s free advertising and outreach, and you’re a fool if you run a business and don’t take advantage of it. As a small business owner, and an unconventional one, using traditional forms of advertising is a complete waste of money. If you’re good, people will talk about you and word will get around. If you take the time to engage people on Twitter, Facebook, etc. that will earn you tons of brownie points because people appreciate being engaged.
In a market place that is bursting at the seems with competition, how do you ensure you stand out from the rest? And, how important is it to make sure you identify your unique selling points and differentiators up front?
I’m not planning on global domination. I’m of the opposite philosophy and increasingly thinking about going hyperlocal. People in the UK seem to care a lot about localism and provenance. I see people choosing a beer because it’s local even over other beers that are way better but come from another place. Wolverhampton is a great place because there isn’t much competition. There’s a huge regional brewery in Wolverhampton – who makes a completely different product, as far as I’m concerned, so just forget about them. And then there’s only one other microbrewery – Brough’s – who focuses on traditional English styles. Again, we’re making different products, so there’s no stepping on each other’s toes. Besides, this town is big enough for both of us and there’s room for more.
An analogy I use all the time is musicians. Are there too many musicians? Too many bands? No, I’ve never heard of anyone ever thinking that. There’s no animosity among musicians – we usually share equipment and cross-promote shows, and partner up for gigs and it’s all very cooperative.
I think it’s the same with breweries – microbreweries, that is. We do collaboration brews and invite each other to our beer festivals or bars, or share equipment or go half on a bale of hops. That’s for the brewers who do it because they love what they do – like musicians.
You do get the mercenaries in both spheres, and they mess up the formula: commercial musicians making horrible music and purely profit-driven brewers making cheap beer to increase their profit margin. They’re the ones who don’t like the competition because it threatens to expose them as the frauds they are.
Beer had a shitty period in recent history in your country and mine. Thirty years ago, home brewing was legalized in the US and once home brewers realized their beer kicked Budweiser’s ass, things started to change as they set up their microbreweries and, as more people got exposed to the alternatives, public demand for microbrew exploded and is still on the increase. It’s truly a grassroots movement.
In the UK, this is kind of where the US was maybe 25 years ago. The revolution is just starting. More choices are not a threat. Diversity makes life interesting and more fun. The only threat is that little, independent breweries are making beer a million times better than the old, established, dinosaur breweries and that people are starting to notice.
I give out my recipes to home brewers if they ask. I have no problem sharing my recipes. Even if another brewery appropriated one of my recipes, it wouldn’t be exactly the same. Remember grandma’s apple pie? Mom’s was never as good and neither is mine because only grandma could make it the way she made it. So I’m not worried.
I come from a culture that is obsessed by individualism. I’ve always done what I wanted to do, in terms of artistic expression, and not worry about what other people think. Sacre Brew is like that. A lot of people ask me why I don’t brew a bitter or why I don’t do this or that. I make beers I like; if other people like them, too – which they do – I’ll continue making them. But this is another aspect of the brewery being an extension of myself. If you take everything personally (as painful as that can be sometimes) your business will inherit your personality. And just like you, some people will love you and others will hate you. But if you are true to yourself and allow yourself to be yourself – as a brewer – everything falls into place. People can recognize this and hold a great deal of respect to independent businesses who allow themselves to be personality driven. That’s how you differentiate yourself from the profit-driven mediocrity out there, and the other brewers who are just as passionate will have different personalities. Beer drinkers love these differences and notice them, even if your beers aren’t all that different.
But you have to go into it with this attitude – you can’t fake it. Thinking about how you extend your personality to your business allows your unique selling points to manifest. For me, it was the non-Britishness, the integration of art, science, and nature, the experimentation, and the very high standards.
This is a fantastic description of your process for integrating self and business. I love the amalgamation of science and art and personality. Is this something that you apply to all areas of your life?
I try. You only live once, so why not make it as interesting as possible? Why participate in mediocrity? There’s too much of that already. Why not try to excel and stand out, in a good way? I love the beauty of nature and I’m an information junkie and I like understanding how things work – this fuels the creative process in that you can make connections between things that are seemingly unrelated. Patterns emerge from the abstract that you never knew were there. Exploring these connections can result in some pretty interesting art and ideas. And conversely, imaginative artistic connections can help you look at real-world problems in a new way and solve them creatively. It’s just healthy for your brain, I think, and it makes you a more interesting person.
How critical was the planning stage of your business start up and how did you go about it?
Oh, it’s critical, alright, especially when you don’t have any money. You need to get a clear picture of how much your start up costs will be, how much your operating costs will be, and what your profits will be. Once you have that mess estimated, you can scale things to make the business sustainable, as well as find ways of funding your start up costs.
NOTE: Our Nanobrewery Project runs low cost online brewery start up business planning courses that take you through the process step-by-step. Click here to find out more.
As I mentioned above, if it hadn’t been for the Portas Pilot competition, I wouldn’t have gotten through all the business analysis and financial planning without their mentoring. Since then I’ve found that there are a lot of networking and workshop opportunities offered by local and regional agencies to new entrepreneurs. They’re free or charge a small fee to attend and I recommend attending these sessions to help you keep motivated and learn more. I went through the Wolverhampton Business Solutions Centre but there’s a similar body in Birmingham and another for the Black Country.
It was also helpful to me to network with other entrepreneurs who were in different fields to learn about their concerns and how they go about gathering market information or costs (what is it with no one wanting to tell you how much they charge in this country?). Even if it seems like you have nothing in common, there’s always some overlap or analogous problem that you can learn from.
Many of our subscribers are asking me how to raise funding to subsidise the start up process. How did you fund the start up of Sacre Brew and would you do it differently if you could go back and try again?
I had a small pension, which I cashed out. Since I’m nowhere near retirement age, I was allowed to liquidate the account but a large percentage of it is lost as a penalty for early withdrawal plus I had to pay US taxes on it. So that was a little bit but not enough for my estimates.
I decided to try crowdfunding. I did a lot of fundraising when I was in Idaho, and that was for electoral campaigns and their ilk. I figured it would be way easier to raise funds for a brewery than for a Highway District campaign. But when I was doing campaigning against the USA PATRIOT Act, people would mail me cash, unsolicited. So if you can get people interested in what you’re doing, all you need to do is ask. They’re a lot more generous than you think.
I used the Indiegogo platform because they allowed me to use beer as one of the perks, whereas Kickstarter doesn’t allow you to give away alcohol. You can choose from various options outlined on their website but I chose a target and met it within the time frame I allotted. Indiegogo got a percentage and, because so many of the donations went through PayPal, I lost a lot to PayPal fees, too. I had calculated this in the beginning so I knew it was coming but it still hurt.
A year later I was desperate for a decent bottle filling machine but didn’t have the money for it. I decided to launch another crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds for one. This time, I simply put a “donate” button on my web site and skipped Indiegogo, so I’d lose less in fees. That was a success and in three months I was able to purchase the new equipment.
It’s good to use an established online crowdfunding platform like Indiegogo for start up funds because no one knows who you are and this gives you some legitimacy to strangers who may want to invest but want to make sure you’re legitimate and not just taking their money.
What I would do differently is ask for more money for the start up. It’s absolutely true that whatever start up figure you come up with should be doubled or even tripled. If you’ve never been in this particular business before, no matter how smart you think you are, there’s lots you don’t know about what will utterly derail your calculations. And there will be disasters and problems, and other obstacles. So raise even more than you think you need to help you get through that. It’s no fun launching a business and then being hogtied for months because your equipment is inadequate but you don’t have any money to modify it.
NOTE: Check out our article on Brewery Start Up Funding.
What are the distinctions you’ve found between being a ‘brewer’ and ‘owning a brewing business’? Do you think that anyone can set up a brewery … as long as they can brew? Or do you think the two skill sets are very different?
They’re different roles. Ideally, the brewer is the artist and the business owner is the facilitator.
The brewer creates wonderful beverages that inspire and amaze. The facilitator has to keep up with the administrative side of the business and also make tough decisions about spending and find acceptable compromises that won’t conflict with the business’ core values. Decisions such as: “We can’t afford the fair-trade cacao nibs for this brew, but we can afford the non-fair trade cacao, so we won’t make it at all because we don’t want to support the slave trade surrounding the chocolate industry.” Or, “We can afford only X bales of Mosaic hops this year, so instead of brewing that amazing beer 12 times a year, we’ll have to settle for brewing it only 9 times this year.”
How you approach it depends on your personality and how disciplined you are. Some people can’t bear making tough choices that compete with their creativity, so they really should get someone else they trust and understands them and is totally committed to the company’s philosophy to handle the business.
Some people can do both, though just in terms of time, it’s very difficult to juggle them because there aren’t enough hours in the day. I went from being very organized and doing things ahead of time (something that took me forty years to discipline myself to do) to being scattered and filling out paperwork right before the deadline. Hell, lately I stick on a label just before I hand over the bottle to a customer.
NOTE: Check out our article on How To Juggle A Job And A Brewery Start Up.
Some brewers shouldn’t brew. They’re like the school cafeteria cooks of the brewing world. Another option is to hire a brewer who is technically skilled but doesn’t have a lot of creativity of their own to brew for you. You create the recipes, if you have the knack for it, and hand them over while it gets brewed for you and you handle the administration.
I can’t afford to hire anybody so my only option is to do everything myself.
Given the fact you are currently having to do both the brewing and the administrative side of things, what methods or processes do you adopt in order to cope with the massive workload? What are your little tricks and ‘hacks’ that get you through?
When you have so much to keep track of in your head, it’s easy to become forgetful and unfocused, especially if you’re tired.
I make lists and spreadsheets for lots of things and update them regularly when I have a moment. I make lists of things I need to buy (from toilet paper to reducing sockets). I keep a brewery notebook in which I’ll note things I run out of as I go, as well as less urgent equipment I’d like to get some day. This helps you prioritize how you spend your limited funds and keeps you from forgetting to buy something you’re going to need for your next brew.
I start my work day with a to-do list. If I’m brewing or packaging, that’s straightforward, but on days where you have a lot of little tasks, this helps you be more organized and efficient. Especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it gives you more purpose each time you cross something off the list. I rely heavily on a calendar and set up reminders for everything. I’d miss deadlines and appointments if I didn’t do that. I have a brewing schedule that needs to be updated constantly because I don’t force any processes so if something’s not ready for the next step, I have to wait. But planning the brews ahead – for the whole year – is important so you can plan your initial hop purchase after the harvest, to budget out your ingredients and supplies for the brews, and have some idea of what you’re doing and what you can take on if you get special requests.
I have separate calendars (I use Google calendar, which lets you set up as many as you want all in one interface) for brew days, package days, ready dates, beer festivals, even when my rubbish gets picked up (or not). You need to be able to have this all in front of you.
Sometimes I fall so far behind with the paperwork that I’ll take a day off to catch up. If I have some wiggle room, I can do that. Or sometimes it means working on a Sunday, which I tend to leave open. It’s important to not fall too far behind on logging your invoices and receipts, etc. because you’ll lose track if too much time goes by. So force yourself to spend an hour a week on the accounting and you’ll thank yourself around tax time. I used to do it all on spreadsheets but switching to SagePay online accounting software was a smart move.
If you have staff, its very helpful to write out how you want your tasks performed in a step-by-step manner. Think of it as the manual that anyone can pick up, follow the steps, and be able to do your job if you got hit by a truck tomorrow. It’ll take a little time to write that up front but it will achieve two things: encourage you to nail down a consistent methodology, which will save you time because you’re always doing it the same way, and help your staff be more efficient. Another benefit is that if you find you need to change your process, having it down on paper makes it easier to change it. A big time waster is not having a set procedure because you’ll be stopping at each step to think about what to do next. A standard operating procedure streamlines your time and makes the job automatic eventually, in that you don’t have to think about it.
I used to be a software development project manager, so flowcharts, lists, procedures, etc. are my friends!
What problems did you face when you went through the start up phase of your business? And, how did you go about overcoming those issues?
I had trouble finding a suitable premises. I looked at industrial units in and around Wolverhampton for six months. I’m glad I held out, though, because I have one close to home and that was very affordable. I really had to fight for it, though. The council owns the property, and they were lackadaisical in returning my calls. I had to make a nuisance of myself and involve people in completely different parts of the council.
I faced a lot of challenges because I’d never brewed commercially before, and not at such a large scale. I didn’t know enough about plumbing and electricity – things I’ve learned since but at the time my ignorance was definitely a hindrance and it cost me time and money.
Being an immigrant, there are tons of things I was wholly unfamiliar with and, even though I tried to inform myself, still didn’t understand. People would give me advice – bad advice and outdated information. You can’t trust anybody. You have to go to the source to find out the facts: HMRC, Companies House, manufacturers, etc. and even then get a second opinion from someone else because sometimes even the source you might talk to someone who doesn’t know what the rules are, maddeningly.
NOTE: Our Nanobrewery Project runs low cost online courses that guide you through the process of setting up and registering your own brewery in the UK.
Don’t ever trust second-hand information. With me, I’m unaware of many regulations and conventions that natives take for granted because they grew up here. But it’s especially hard as a foreigner because when you’re asking questions, the person you’re talking to doesn’t even realize that you may not be familiar with the basics and will omit a lot of information.
And finally, as a woman, the rampant sexism is yet another obstacle. Some men are instantly dismissive of me because I’m female and others don’t take me seriously. This was an issue when I was trying to get myself invited to other breweries to get a look at their equipment and processes. They were happy to talk to me but, I don’t know, it was like they didn’t want to let me into their man-cave brewery. Being lectured and patronized is also off-putting and fucking annoying. You just have to keep trying to find people without any gender hang-ups who will treat you like an equal. Getting prices for things was ridiculously difficult. Vendors closely guard their prices and make you call them and have a long conversation, fill out forms, wait for their email to arrive to set up an account, then wait around till they’ll finally share their secret prices with you. It’s ridiculous. This particularly drove me crazy because it’s a phenomenon unique to the UK.
Because it was so hard to get prices, I got fed up and purchased some of my equipment from Europe (they clearly listed prices online and answered my emails). Some of the equipment was unfamiliar and I couldn’t find anyone with the same gear in the UK, so I couldn’t examine it close up. I bought some tanks with inadequate seals and ended up being unable to use them.
A major problem I had was with the brewing equipment. I bought mine from a company called Pallet Brew and not only are they disreputable, their equipment is shoddy and unfit for purpose. They used domestic heating elements in the vessels and really had no understanding of brewing. Everything about the kit was wrong, and they refused to make things right. I had to spend a great deal of money to fix the problems with their system, replace the crappy parts, and get it working to a barely functional level. This caused many delays – delays in them getting the system delivered in its entirety, as well as delays in my business because I had to discover all its flaws and address them.
What would you do differently if you could rewind the clock and have another stab at it?
Definitely. I’d ask the crowdfunders for more start up money because it wasn’t enough to get me through the initial rough patches in the beginning. I’d spend more money on a better system. The one I purchased was such a piece of shit that I ended up spending nearly four times its original cost in getting it to work “well enough” and safely. You definitely get what you pay for. I’d call more brewers and ask to look at their gear, because I didn’t have a good enough picture of the range of equipment that was out there. And I would have taken a full welding course before I opened the brewery. That’s definitely a skill that would have saved me a lot of money and allowed me to do my own customization.
I would have spent more money on better equipment that had an established reputation, such as David Porter’s gear, which is similar in design to mine but it actually works and I know many brewers who have their equipment from him and are happy with them.
I wouldn’t rule out buying Chinese equipment. They make very high-quality stainless steel gear that has many benefits over the traditional English brewery style equipment and at attractive prices. I know my manifesto says, “buy local whenever you can,” but if there’s a quality issue, I have no problem looking abroad for decent equipment if I can’t find it locally.
When I started, I was determined to never use plastic vessels. But when I had the problematic fermenters with the crappy seals, I ignored my own decree and went ahead and replaced them with plastic ones. Plastic was all I could afford. They were an instant solution but a temporary one. Plastic develops microscratches easily and eventually harbours undesirable microorganisms that will ruin your beer. And that happened. Never buy plastic, no matter what.
Our subscribers all share the dream of wanting to set up their own commercial brewery or related business. What advice would you give to our subscribers who share your dream of transitioning from home brewing to the commercial arena?
So many people have a ridiculous romanticized view of what its like to be a brewer. It’s completely unrealistic and most people couldn’t hack it.
Prepare to give up your life.
Owning any business is like having a child, one with severe disabilities. If it’s not all consuming, you just don’t care enough and it will probably fail from lack of passion.
My husband is home only on the weekends and I don’t have many friends, so I’ve got plenty of time to sink into the brewery. Most people have other commitments, so I’d suggest you volunteer for a brewery for each of the different brewing activities: brewing, packaging, cleaning, labelling. Do it from start to finish; don’t leave early when it’s clean up time. Then decide whether you can handle the physical work and the long hours. If you have a spouse or children, think long and hard about how it will affect them.
It’s not easy and you won’t see profit for at least three years. Being broke, tired, achy, and under-socialized will take its toll and it’s not for everyone.
The rewards – the satisfaction of seeing people heartily enjoy something you’ve created – are intangible but wonderful. But if you’re not throwing yourself into it, the pieces won’t fall into place.
You need to be able to make yourself work hard, day after day, and keep going even when everything’s going wrong and things look really dismal. You have to have the patience and determination to get through the many rough patches you will encounter.
You could easily make mediocre beer with cheap ingredients that probably enough people will buy to keep you in business. But what’s the point? People don’t fall in love with mercenaries; they fall in love with poets.
Are there any key habits or attitudes you think are essential for anyone wanting to make the plunge into the brewing industry? And can these character traits be learned or developed?
You need to have incredibly good hygiene – in the brewery, that is. Cleaning is what brewing is mostly about, but they don’t show you that on the brewery tours. And you can’t cut corners on that because your beer will suffer. You can’t be lazy with cleaning. You can’t afford to not take everything apart and clean it thoroughly and then sanitize it and put it back together and sanitize it again – every time you use your equipment.
Being a perfectionist doesn’t hurt. Being thorough, consistent, and organized is essential. You have to keep detailed records so you can learn from your mistakes and re-create your successes. If you’re not a good cook, walk away now. Brewing is like advanced cooking. If you can’t cook a great meal, your beer is going to suck.
It helps to have an adventurous spirit. Being held back by fear or some misguided loyalty to convention won’t get you anywhere. You have to be able to experiment and enjoy it. People who tinker keep improving what they do and learning from their experiences. You have to be analytical, in a scientific or engineering kind of way, because there will be many problems to solve along the way. You have to be willing to continuously learn more about brewing and all that is involved. If you’re not, you will be left behind in the dust. You need to be able to handle the physical demands of the work. Heavy lifting, holding uncomfortable poses for long periods, and if you don’t have heat like me, be able to work in the bitter cold for long, long hours – and often forgetting to pack lunch and dinner. You have to be true to yourself and not be afraid to put your all into your brewing. And put your principles in to practice. People who succeed are ones who don’t give up, keep at it no matter what, and can imprint their personality on their products.
If you had to recommend one book or tool related to brewing, what would it be?
Software brewing tools are all pretty much the same, I find. It’s good to learn how to do your calculations by hand, though. One day they will come in handy when you are forced to improvise.
Sam Calagione’s Brewing up a Business was instrumental in helping me formulate my vision for Sacre Brew and the only one I’ve read that specifically addresses becoming a commercial brewer.
And lastly, are there any role models or people who inspire you in the brewing industry?
Sam Calagione, of course! When I first came across Dogfish Head beers I was utterly awestricken. Here was a commercial beer that was as wild and wonderful as my homebrews. I loved the beer, the labels, the experimental abandon of all brewing convention, and the obvious enthusiasm for the brews. I became a homebrewer in 1993 and never considered being a commercial brewer till I found myself with nothing to do in Wolverhampton in 2013. Dogfish Head was always an inspiration to me, as a customer and as a brewer.
Further reads, links and other awesome shit:
Check out Sacre Brew here.
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