This is part two in my ongoing series about my experience, so far, owning a brewery. Part one defined my brewery, the format and style of brewery it is and delved shallowly into the fundamental basics of being a contract brewer. There will be a lot of posts in this series, but this post is one I want to get out of the way early, so now.
I was surprised, pleasantly, by the response to the first post in this series. Within a few hours of it posting, there were almost 5000 views of that particular post. That’s pretty good for this blog, probably not as good as your blog, but decent for this blog. Over the next week, it became one of the most read articles on my blog altogether, pellicle is still beating it out. I don’t know if all of these posts will be that popular and I imagine that this one will not.
This post is going to be, I imagine, the most personal post of this series. I debated whether or not to write about how brewing has affected my personal life or not, and a thread of comments and emails I received as a result of the last post made me realize I had to write about how deciding to go this route has affected my life.
I entitled this post “The Cost of Making Beer” but if you want a cent by cent breakdown of costs, you’ll have to wait for a future post, this post is about my social cost to making beer. And this weekend is a great illustration of those less tangible costs.
If you are going to produce anything, be it art, yogurt, a blog, or beer, you have to develop a thick skin. Beer is a beverage where everyone HAS an opinion and will give it to you unprompted. The vast majority of the feedback I receive about Handsome’s beer is positive. Most people love it, most people are at least telling me that they love it. But, I’ve had people LITERALLY spit my beer out in front of me at events and ask “Who the hell would drink that?” Answer: thousands of people. You…you are the wrong one. I’ve had people write untappd or beeradvocate reviews making horrible assumptions about how the beer was made or reviewing the beer under the wrong name and saying it wasn’t brewed to style. I read (but don’t respond) to EVERY review of Handsome beer available online. I don’t know why I do, but I do. I have grown a callus over that part of my mind and heart, such that nothing can get through. Honestly, I’m my biggest critic. I know EVERYTHING that was sub-optimal about every batch. I’ve been there on the brew day for every beer, on the packaging day for almost every beer (I missed one), I’ve sampled every batch mid-fermentation out of the tank. I’ve started buying sixtels of every batch so I can put it on tap in my house, so I can see how it holds up over the course of a month or two. I’m obsessed with my own beer. That’s probably approximately how it should be.
I also receive feedback about this blog, specifically the last post. Again, mostly positive. “Looking forward to the rest.” “This is great information, nice to see behind the scenes for once.” But I also received this, “Contract brewing isn’t really brewing.” or “Maybe people don’t respect contract brewing because you aren’t actually brewing.”
I touched on this attitude in the first post and a few people commented positively on it, others not so much. I want to clear things up a little and put this in a greater context as a result of this negativity though.
First thing is first, I’ve been to a lot of contract brewing facilities. The likelihood that a brewery from Florida will have a representative in Maryland or Virginia at the contract facility present on a brew day is highly unlikely. The idea that they would have someone swing by the brewery to sample mid-fermentation, to measure gravity, to keep their own records of the progression of the fermentation, to brew on the pilot system, to inventory their own ingredients, to package their own beer….even less likely. They pay the facility to do that and beer is basically a recipe on a page. To people who say that “contract brewers” are really doing the work, do you honestly think that the head brewer of ANY brewery is in there shoveling grain or pouring sacks into hoppers? Do you think the head brewer of any moderately sized brewery does ANY of the brewing work? Check again. Sorry to ruin the illusion of brewing, those guys are doing paperwork.
Even though I like and try to do as much as possible and to be there as much as possible, I have to rely on the host brewery and their staff. You use good breweries to make your beer because they demonstrate their competency through the production of their own beers. Whenever I go to a new account, I order the simplest beer on the menu…usually the kolsch or pilsner. Those beers don’t hide flaws. And while I try to be there as much as I can doing as much as I can, I can’t be there everyday all day. So I rely on their expertise and competence to execute the product based on the specifications I designed and shared with them. This is how nearly ALL breweries work.
I can’t be there all day, every day for the same reason I can’t keep up with posts in this blog. I have a full time job and am the father of two kids. Those come before being a brewer. They always will, they have to. The father thing for sure. That being said, I definitely spend way less time with my sons than I did before I started this brewery. The brewery has so many time-sensitive demands. Things that have to get done at a certain time, on a certain day. My company has only two employees, and our production, distribution and accounts cover the entire state of Maryland and our brewery is currently in Virginia (about an hour outside of Washington D.C.). I spent 5 hours in the car today (Sunday) doing brewery related activities. That’s after spending all day Saturday at a beer festival in National’s Stadium in Washington D.C. and spending 4 hours driving around on Friday for brewery related things after I left my full time job on the 9 to 5 schedule.
Not to get existential on everyone, but I frequently ask myself “who am I?” I used to draw nearly all of my identity from my work. I did cancer research for years, it was easy for me to draw against the assumed altruism and technical difficulty of that position and posit that as the primary drive of my existence. I am what I do. But I’m not that anymore. Part of me becoming a brewery owner was giving up on my career that I worked decades building. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demands of a laboratory position, the demands of being a father / husband, and the demands of being a brewery owner. That’s not possible. I still have a full time job but it’s not as a scientist any longer. Walking away from that career is a huge sacrifice that I’m still not sure about. I love my full-time job, but it hasn’t filled the hole in my identity left by my last job. Maybe one day it will. Right now, that doesn’t seem likely.
My identity now is a father, first and foremost. And I want to spend as much time with my kids as possible. But being responsible for nearly 100% of my family’s income (full time job) and chasing this dream to own a successful brewery (a dream shared by my wife and I) cuts into time with my sons and wife. That time is lost, it is constantly slipping through my fingers. It kills me when I have to go to a beer fest for 11 hours and serve people as they get progressively less coherent, across two sessions, repeating the answers to the same few questions until I’m hoarse on a Saturday. I wake up, make breakfast for my kids, go set up for the beer fest, pour beer all day, get home after they’ve gone to bed. My wife does a good job sending me little videos of the baby saying “Pizza” for the first time, or the boys going down a slide together, or them saying “good night dada”. It’s not all bad, at times beer festivals are fun, I do meet great people at those things, but while I’m doing it, I imagine pushing my kids on the swings, or reading stories, or playing Star Wars. I like to think that I make it up to them by going on bike rides, trying to get home early from work by going in early, making waffles on the weekends, including them in “tool projects” while we work on parts of the house. But who knows if they feel neglected or will feel neglected later.
I don’t always know the right thing to do, or even how to deal with all of my responsibilities. At times, I’m overwhelmed by the work, by the volume of things in the time frame it has to be done. But most of time, I’m at peace with all of this. My family really is my center. My wife can make my day 100% better just by putting her hand on my back. My kids can make me happy just by bringing me some Star Wars toys or a book to read.
On thing I like to do to help make emotional ends meet is to let my kids participate or hang out with me. My family loves hanging out at the brewery or helping me brew test batches at home on the little homebrew system I have. I love it too. I don’t ever let them do anything potentially harmful or dangerous, so let me stop you right there. But sometimes they like playing bean bags or putting caps on the kegs or just sitting there with a coloring book while I check the gravity in the middle of a fermentation. It is something I can share with them.
In the end, I’d rather be the busy but hopefully thoughtful father who can demonstrate to his kids that there’s more to life than the cookie cutter middle class existence.
But please remember, all small businesses are family businesses. So if you hate someone’s product, try to be polite. That was made with time that was taken from another portion of their life. Time that might have been spent fighting a 5 year old with an inflatable light saber or reading a 1 year old “Go Dogs Go” for the 500th time. My wife and kids are my entire family. My time away from them is not trivial. It is me giving up the most precious thing to me, to go sweat in a room for a day watching water boil.