How to begin Craft Brewery

There are now more than 4,000 small breweries and brewpubs scattered across the U.S. But like any business, surviving long term can be a real challenge, particularly because the market has become so crowded over the past 20 years.

To compete, you’ll need to carefully evaluate your market and create a clear vision of what you have to offer that other direct competitors do not provide. There is still room in the market for businesses that offer niche products and in less-saturated local markets. You’ll have a better chance for success if you can create a solid vision of what you want to offer, not just with beer recipes, but also with branding.

This article covers these topics related to starting a craft-brewing business:

Do you have what it takes?

So you think you want to go into the beer industry. There are many questions you should ask yourself before pursuing this challenging and costly business adventure.

  • Do you love beer?
  • Can you clean all day long?
  • Are you able to work more than 40 hours per week?
  • Do you have sales and marketing skills?
  • Are you a good record-keeper?
  • Can you afford to work years without seeing a profit?
  • Do you have something to offer that no one else can?
  • Do you have good equipment-repair skills?
  • Are you comfortable asking for funding?

There is a lot more to the business than just brewing and drinking beer. Unless you are heavily funded and can hire a full crew right away, you may find yourself spending a large portion of every day cleaning, and then spending the rest of the day managing your books, sales, vendors and customers. And brewing beer never sleeps, so you may also be working nights and weekends. In fact, many small-brew business owners keep their day jobs and brew nights and weekends until they can afford to pay themselves a salary. However, despite the challenges most brewery owners say the effort is worth it.

Training and education

There is a lot to learn to become a successful brewer. Experts recommend that even seasoned home brewers spend some time working in a brewery before starting their own business. Entry-level work usually involves a lot of cleaning, sterilizing and other tedious tasks, but you’ll learn the daily routines of a busy brewery. After you put some time in, you can move up and learn additional job skills that pay more, but it’s worth your time to learn all the job positions in a productive brewery.

If you have the time and resources, formal training programs are also available, including university degrees. Certificates and four-year degrees are offered in states such as Michigan, California, Colorado, Oregon and Missouri. International schools are also available in places such as Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. Alternatively, you can find online courses and even free programs. Portland State University offers a certificate program specifically focused on the business portion of running a brewery, while CraftBeer.com offers free and low-cost educational opportunities.

Startup costs to consider

Your first plan of action will be to create a solid business plan. And then, according to many brewers, to prepare to pay out twice the amount you think it will cost to launch your business. A lot of unexpected expenses can pop up, such as additional contractor expenses for altering your building, or delays in acquiring permits that push out your production date. Depending on the size of your operation, the number of barrels and whether you plan on operating a brewpub or a stand-alone brewery, your costs can vary greatly. Most industry experts report a general range of $500,000 to $1 million to start a small brewery.

Some costs to consider include:

  1. Equipment: Kettles, boilers, kegs, cooling systems, storage tanks, fermentation tanks, filters, tubing, pipes, cleaning equipment, waste management systems, canning or bottling equipment.
  2. Building: Often includes the costs of reinforcing the floor and remodeling to accommodate equipment and pickup and deliveries, lease or rental fees, inspections, water system alterations, consider room for future expansion.
  3. Supplies: Hops, malt, yeast, bottles, labels, packaging.
  4. Utilities: Energy, water, internet, telephone.
  5. Insurance: Business, liability, unemployment, workers’ compensation, property and others as required.
  6. Licensing & Permits: Varies by area.
  7. Professional Services: Brewing industry consultant or mentor, accountant, marketing, legal services.
  8. Furniture: Varies, if restaurant or brewpub expenses will be more.
  9. Payroll & Ongoing Expenses: Hourly and salary payroll expenses, payroll taxes, sales tax, legal services.
  10. Electronical Equipment: Computers, phones, POS system, automated monitoring systems, mobile devices, security cameras, printers.
  11. Software & Services: Network security, alarm monitoring, inventory control system, accounting software, credit card processing, website URL and hosting.

Creating a business plan

Having a realistic and thorough business plan is absolutely necessary to your brewery’s long-term success. Investors want to see not just a general plan, but as many as three years of projected financials.  Even if you have capital saved, you’ll still benefit from a bulletproof financial plan. We recommend that you consult with a professional who can help you create your business plan plus provide financial advising, legal assistance and help with obtaining funding. These services are not free (often around $5,000) but worth the investment.

Before you meet with your consultant put together as much as you can, including your startup costs, expected ongoing costs and revenue projections, business vision and anything else you think of to help you and your consultant put together the best business plan possible.

If you are looking to build a new brewery, with all new equipment, and ask for large sums of investment or loan money, you’ll need to quantify your passion and present it in a way that your potential investors will understand.

Funding your microbrewery

Unless you already have a generous funding set aside, you’ll need to raise capital and plan for extra expenses. You’ll likely need to obtain funds from multiple sources. Consult with a professional about how best to obtain funding. Good credit, experience and collateral will help, but you may also want to obtain “letters of intent” from distributors who have agreed to purchase your product.

Here are a few ways to help with funding your brewery:

  1. SBA 7(a) Loans: These are government-backed business loans and the best place to start. Terms and rates are usually competitive and larger loans are available. The paperwork to apply for these loans is extensive, but worth your time since the loans offer good terms. You can learn more about these loans here.
  2. Local Banks: Sometimes your local bank may be interested in funding homegrown projects that benefit the community they operate in. Many have found more success with a local bank over a national bank that does not have direct ties to the community.
  3. Crowdfunding: This is basically receiving funds in advance from a lot of investors or donors. Some are all-or-nothing endeavors, so you set an amount and if you do not reach that goal you give the money back. Others allow you to accept the funds even if you do not reach your goal. Platforms include Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Fundable.
  4. Peer-to-Peer: This is a type of lending that may involve a large group of investors or individual investors. Your credit history and scores often factor into these kinds of loans. Usually these loans are not large enough to fund your entire project, but are worth investigating. Popular options include Lending Club, Prosper and Street Shares. Learn more about Peer-to-Peer lending here.
  5. Community Supported Brewing (CSB): Community Supported Brewing is a newer concept and involves taking funds from community members in advance in exchange for beer or merchandise later. For this to work, you’ll need excellent marketing, social and sales skills.
  6. Co-Op Breweries: These are democratic worker- or community-“owned” breweries. Often, there is a board that helps manage the business and members can contribute their ideas as well. They are often heavily integrated into the local community and seek environmental sustainability. These types of brewers usually involve multiple brewers who share the brewing equipment.
  7. Brewery Incubators: This model allows experienced and new brewers to share expenses. Often supported by someone already in the industry, a restaurant or an established brewer, they will assist new brewers in their first large-scale projects. Sometimes they may even offer contests in which the new brewer may earn a paid internship or other training opportunities. They may also charge the new brewers to use the facilities and for training. Every incubator is different, but they may provide inexperienced brewers a low-cost opportunity to brew their first large batches of beer.

It helps to get creative when you’re looking to start a brewery. Many entrepreneurs in the industry are fortunate enough to take over an existing brewery after the previous owners have moved along. Some have been able to partner with restaurants looking to add a brewpub. You may also be able to lower costs by purchasing used equipment or by leasing equipment. Eventually you should be able to afford your own equipment if you plan to increase your volume. Plus, it is easier to get funding once you can show what you are capable of doing, even if it is on leased equipment.