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Owner/Brewer Floyd Barela  removes grains from his first commercial brew.

The Transition From Homebrewer to Pro Brewer

It remains the dream of many homebrewers to leave their jobs of many years and just make the plunge: go out there and just open a brewery. As a homebrewer of more than 16 years, I have also dabbled in the idea of walking away from my job and just doing it!

In the course of writing this article, I was able to talk to several professional brewers who have roots in homebrewing. This was an educational experience, and one thing I learned: The thought of opening your own brewery is not something you should take lightly.

Most breweries find it necessary to add (for several reasons) food service. That adds other sometimes-unanticipated issues to the process. Suddenly you are a business manager, head brewer, sales manager, restaurant manager, cook, dishwasher, purchasing agent, and even a janitor.

Floyd and Molly Barela opened Golden Block Brewery in Silverton, Colorado. Floyd had been a homebrewer for 20 years. “We had joined two different [homebrew] clubs, the Animas Alers and Wort Dreams in order to be around like minded people,” Molly told me.  “We wanted to see if they liked Floyd's beer and give us pointers and help.” Molly continued, “After about six months in the clubs, I saw that I could change his passion for brewing into a viable business.”

There is a common thread that runs throughout professional brewers, and that is cooperation! “Name for me another industry where your competitor can be your best advisor,” David Brendgard, Director of Brewing Operations at Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Bigfork, Montana told me.

A good example of this cooperation could be seen as Floyd Barela of Golden Block tried to adjust to much larger equipment and batch size.  “One of the hardest parts for Floyd was taking a ten gallon batch and converting it into seven barrel batch,” Molly tells me. “He called all of the resources that we had and everybody gave a slightly different answer. We enlisted Brewers from far away as Florida and New York, and as close as Ridgeway [Colorado Boy Brewery].” Golden Block Brewery has been in production for about 10 months now.

Greg Mills from Sleeping Lady Brewery in Anchorage, Alaska when asked told me, “Like no other industry, members of the craft brewing community are so generous to share their advice on how to be a success. Talk to everyone you can and be ready to take notes!”

All this cooperation paid off for Floyd and Molly as they toured existing breweries to find out how they wanted to set up their own. “Floyd and I bought the map of Colorado Breweries and started on a brewery tour to check out small craft Brewers in our state,” Molly told me. She continued, “We looked at their business model, critique what we liked about them and what we disliked about them.”

Another aspect to consider, as a homebrewer turned pro, you are coming from a world with a great deal of artistic license to a world where sometimes artistic license takes a bit of a back seat. 

 “Some homebrewers just walk in saying that it’s a piece of cake and just open a brewery at a whim. They have no idea what they are getting into half the time,” David Brendgard said to me as we were talking about new breweries coming online, “There is so much more involved, including bringing your beer to the next level.”

That is one of the largest challenges: Taking your brewing to the next level. “Homebrewers have creative license,” Randy Schnose of Riff Raff Brewing tells me. “The creative part has to remain but you become more like a factory worker. You HAVE to produce your flagship beers with consistency. I used to say homebrewing is fun, but when we started Riff Raff, it became “crap, now I have to quit screwing around.””

Randy’s first advice to start-up professional brewers is to perfect your recipes, procedures and learn to make a consistent product before you start brewing professionally.

I got to watch as a big brewery (who shall for this article remain nameless) threw out a 500-barrel batch of beer as tears practically fell from his eyes of the head brewer (not literally but you know what I mean). I asked Jason Cox about what I saw. “If you throw out 10 gallons of beer [as a homebrewer], its no big deal. 200 gallons (or more) thrown out as a pro is scary and expensive,” Jason Cox, Business partner at Riff Raff Brewing tells me.

Of course, there is the legal part to contend with. “We hired an attorney to do the TTB portion (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, otherwise known as “the feds”) for us in order to facilitate the application. Even our attorney said this was the most frustrating part,” Molly Barela of Golden Block Brewery told me. “We were constantly uploading our documents to the server just to be notified days later that they had to be uploading again. The entire process is daunting, frustrating and time-consuming with the TTB.  Filing for the state was just as frustrating.”

“Licensing is also a huge part of the business,” Seth Gross from Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham, North Carolina told me, “One of the unfortunate realities with our beautiful industry is that it is highly regulated which can cause multiple road blocks through the process.”

Another common thread I see in the professional brewing arena is innovation involved in trying to make your brewery a success. Riff Raff Brewing has gone as far as opening a “training room” for employees and customers alike. “If a customer gets a beer they do not like, our staff’s experience AND the customers experience can suffer,” Jason Cox explained. “The solution? Take the customer to the back room, ask them what they normally drink and show them some options. Everyone benefits from this approach.”

With all the hops, all the challenges, the legalities, etcetera, is it worth it? In Molly's eyes, it sounded a lot like a YES! “The whole experience has been amazing, frustrating, overwhelming and successful!”

In conclusion, Erich Allen, founder of Studio Brew in Bristol, Virginia said it best: “I honestly wouldn’t have changed a thing. I think being a brewer that has thrown caution to the wind; we’ve done many things that we did successfully because we didn’t know any better. The only things we knew going in was the existence of an amazing community brewers, killer beers, and support from our local communities. I believe that was all that we needed to get going and keep us going.”

 This article appeared in the ROCKY MOUNTAIN BREWING NEWS (written by me) under the title TAKING THE LEAP in the Oct/Nov edition.

​With Floyd and Molly's assistance, workers slide in a new tank.

With all the construction and mayhem all around, the new taps at Golden Block Brewery are looking good!