Author’s Note: My original vision of Craft Beer New Kids, No More was to be a five-part series focusing on new breweries, open six months or less, and the challenges they faced after their grand opening. I have decided it will be a continous series highlighting breweries up to two years old.
After years of struggling with supplies, regulations, licenses, and the constant outflow of money, you finally open your brewery. Congratulations! You’re the new kid in town! If you’ve done your marketing homework correctly, local media are knocking on your door to publish your story. You’ve received constant calls and emails from beer distributors, bars, and restaurants wanting to get your beer on tap. Twitter and Instagram are abuzz with pictures and good reviews. But it’s now six months, a year, two years later and the newness has faded. Now what?
We ask local New York breweries what happens when the spotlight has dimmed, the fanfare has quieted, and the not-so-newsworthy hard work of running a business continues. This time, we talk to Destination Unknown Beer Company co-owners and brewers, Brad Finn and Chris Candiano.
How are your relationships with those first restaurants, bars, and distributors when you first opened compared to now? Do they continue to support you?
(Chris): We were so small when we opened. We didn’t start distribution right away, just tasting room only. We still struggle with that because we are [six months later] still small. I wouldn’t say we had “fifteen minutes of fame” when we opened, we had about seven-and-a-half. A lot of people still don’t know about us.
(Brad): We get people in the tasting room all the time [asking], “When did you open last week?”
We get an email every single day from a different beer distributor or a different bar. As far as relationships, we did some small distribution and we got amazing feedback from them, and we continue to use them. As we continue to grow and expand, we try to take care of the people that took care of us in the beginning. We have to say “no” to a lot of people. It hurts and we don’t want to do it but we have a hard time keeping beer in [our tasting room].
(Chris): I feel there are two sides of beer fandom: Beer fans that seek the newest, coolest beers and then move on; and, then you get the locals and your core audience. We have established a core audience and they are what keep us in business day to day.
We do release a new beer almost every week, because we are small enough to do that. We like to play around, and that gets people into the door. That is not us just trying to rope people in. It is seeing what our little home-brew recipes can do and how they translate to the public—some of them are great, some of them are not so great. This is where we are finding our core beers. So you get people that come in, and they say they want to see what’s new, and that’s awesome.
How important is continuing social media to a small brewer and being engaged with your customer? Is it possible to become too engaged?
(Brad): We definitely use social media to our advantage. I try to at least post something every day to all our social media outlets. It lets people know what we are doing, and other times just to keep Destination Unknown in the back of people’s minds. It is an incredible source of marketing. I don’t think we would be doing as well as we are if we couldn’t use social media. It’s very, very important to us as a small, local business to continue to use social media on a regular basis.
(Chris): We believe in interacting with the public to see what they are looking forward to. This isn’t our full-time gig (yet), and, trying to do our day jobs and this, is very hectic. We can’t always be on top of everything. It’s hard enough with scheduling brewing days, cleaning days, and the tasting room hours.
It takes the choice of beers out of our own heads. What would you like? We know what we like, but you can also get your own little world what you like making and not what people are looking for. Social media definitely helps us with that.
Events are a huge part of getting your brand recognized. Do you continue to pour at them? Does the cost factor and return-on-investment start to creep in more and more now that you are moderately established?
(Brad): There is definitely a cost factor. We opened in the summer, so we had festival after festival to choose from. I think when it comes down to us attending an event, we look at the return of investment as far as the market we are going to reach. For example, an event far away from the tasting room, a small majority might visit. We did Bats & Brews Benefit, and it was only 75 to 100 people there, but they were right around the corner from us. Fifty of those people have come to the tasting room. In comparison, when I go to a large event I see two or three of the thousand people that were there.
We don’t look at it at a financial end. We take the loss, and we know it’s advertisement. Being that it’s advertisement, we more look at the return-on-investment on the type of crowd that are going to be there. Are they beer drinkers that are they going to seek us out? When they taste [our beer], are they in the locale and are they are going to come to the tasting room. We will make the money back when they come to enjoy the beer here.
(Chris): At this stage in our brewery, we have have no business sometimes going to a really large event, where is 5,000 to 10,000 people. At some of those events, people just hang out and drink a ton of beers, not necessarily taste a bunch of beers. So, at this stage, we are picky and choosy not for monetary reasons. Who is our target audience? It’s easy to get lost in the static.
(Brad): It’s all about meeting that one person who has a hundred friends. You treat everybody you meet, whether at a big or small event, with respect and just represent yourself well.
How do you balance your brewing needs now, and what your needs are going to be in the future?
(Brad): It runs our day.
(Chris): That is our main topic of conversation between us now—it’s every day. We had this conversation last night. What are we doing? We are grinding it out.
(Brad): It wasn’t like people said you are going to grind it out on a one-barrel system and we said “you are fucking crazy” and “we are going to be different.” We just didn’t know how fast we were ready for expansion.
(Chris): We are trying to keep up. We did not expect to be where we are now, and that’s great, and that’s a good problem to have, but it’s our main problem right now. After our grand opening, we were forced to hit the ground running. We sold out at our grand opening and had to close [the tasting room] for a month.
(Brad): We didn’t expect that. We have been playing catch up ever since that day. Our business plan was 50 to 60 barrels in our first year, and here we are at six months and we are at 70 barrels, so we knew we were have to grind it out, but we thought the grind would be trying to bring people in and pay the mortgage. We didn’t know the grind would be making beer every single day just to keep up with demand.
(Chris): That was one problem we never thought in a thousand years that we would have. We can’t make beer fast enough; we can’t make enough of it.
(Brad): And that’s just for here in the tasting room. People are like “brew more,” and we don’t have enough time—we don’t have enough days to brew more. It’s hard to get investors and loans when you only have six months sales experience. When you only have six months of history, you can’t blame people.
(Chris): When we decided to jump into this, we did this on a shoe-string budget. We do luckily have six months of really good sales and numbers to show. Banks and traditional outlets are a little hesitant. Is it going to be a private investor? Do we give equity away? This is our baby—why do we want to give equity away? What are we going to get out of this? What are the investors going to get out of it?
(Brad): I don’t think we knew how fast we would be looking at expansion and how difficult it would be. I think we thought, if we reached capacity at one barrel and we can’t keep up, it’s going to be a no-brainer for someone to see how good we are doing and invest in us.
(Chris): But that was supposed to be two years down the line, not six months.
What is the most important thing to your business right now?**
(Chris): Our flagship beer, Dominick White IPA. The public made that our flagship beer. That’s what people went nuts over. We had a pale ale that was great and thought people were going to love. We don’t even make that any more. But, to make [Dominick White IPA] consistently, it is actually pretty hard. There are hop shortages we have to contend with. The main hop is Amarillo which is the most popular hop right now. It’s hard to get, so we have to be creative some time.
How do we be creative but keep it consistent? It’s the big, constant struggle.
(Brad): To establish a brand, there has to be a level of consistency and a level that people expect. I can make 100 beers, and I can make that my primary focus, but if I make 100 beers that are shitty…. It’s important for us to establish a consistent reputation of making good, traditional-style beers. It’s a lot harder than people imagine.
(Chris): The most important thing for us right now is just making good beer. That is what public expects, and that’s why we are here. That’s the most important thing—consistency.