Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nanobrewery Interviews: Wolf Hills Brewing Company (Part 1)

While most of us have toyed with the thought of starting up a nanbrewery, others have taken the plunge.  To find out more about who these people are and what makes them do what they do, Jeff and I embarked on a series of interviews with regional nanobreweries to get their stories.

Wolf Hills Brewing Company
Abingdon, VA

For the fourth brewery in our Nanobrewery Interviews, we had the opportunity to speak with Chris Burcher, the "Captain of Concoctions" and founder of Wolf Hills Brewing Company, located in Abingdon, Virginia.  Wolf Hills was founded in late August 2009 and operates a 1 bbl. brewhouse that distributes draft beer to a local hotel (The Martha Washington Hotel and Spa) and through growler sales at the brewery.

Chris began homebrewing in 2002 with a Mr. Beer kit that his wife gave him.  He was brewing all-grain by 2006 and ramped up quickly after that when the brewing bug put him on a path to open his own nanobrewery.  Wolf Hills has been successful in their market and is currently building a larger brewery expansion (more on that later).

Below is the first part of our three-part interview with Chris.

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Lug Wrench (LW): What inspired you to start-up a nanobrewery?

Chris Burcher (CB): I retired from my job as a college professor/scientist to stay at home with my three little girls.  We simplified our lives (my wife is a pharmacist) and moved closer to family and so one of us could be with the kids.  I channeled my scientific and other energies into learning more about making beer.  Like many homebrewers, I toyed with the idea of trying to make a go of it.  I came up with a business plan to start very very small and pitched it to anyone who would listen.  As my kids get older (they are 4, 6, and 8) it is getting a little easier and I have a bit more time to do something for myself.

When we first moved to Abingdon, we rented a house on Stonewall Heights where my 3 current partners lived.  They welcomed us with open arms into the community and encouraged my brewing.  When I pitched them the nanobrewery 'experiment' they bought in hook, line and sinker.  And you have to understand, I was giving everyone the real hard sell: it won't make any money, it will be a ton of work, we won't be able to drink free beer, it probably will fail and we will all have to accept the loss of a bunch of money.  They still wanted to do it.  They also had the abilities and connections to convince the town it was a good idea.  So, in short, my wife and her willingness to accept my 'hobby' and 'experiment' and my partners equivalent enthusiasm for just wanting to do it inspired me.

LW: How did you gather the required capital to start the nanobrewery?

CB: We started all of this for less than $25,000, which got us through the first six months of operations (plus revenues generated during that time).  That was the whole plan.  Start as cheaply as humanly possible and see if the demand was there, and if we could do it.  Then, by necessity, we would have to expand if we did find we had the market.

What we were doing was not really sustainable without some further investment.  I can't stress that enough.  There was so much sweat equity, and still will be for a time, that I simply could not keep producing beer of consistent quality using that system.  The plastic fermenters alone are hard to clean, scratch easily, and probably have a limited number of ferments.  Anyway, we got a small business loan from our local bank - who, like the rest of the community, have been very encouraging and happy for us to try this here.

LW: How have you involved the community in your brewery?  Do you interact with local homebrew clubs?

CB: Funny, I didn't mean to lead into this question but our community has literally embraced us with open arms.  From the town council and the planning commission who had to approve microbrewery as a legitimate use for commercially zoned properties (the critical first step for any brewery), to our new landlord who simply wanted us in his building and helped us out with rent.  Our fans/customers who don't mind a slightly undercarbonated growler fill (even though we replace/refund when something happens) due to us carbonating in kegs and being unable to sample each one.  It is just unbelievable.  I am starting to interact with local homebrewers.  The nearest organized club is over an hour away so there is talk of starting one closer to home.

This is a good spot for my spin/take on all this.  First, we are a very rural community.  Washington county has about 40,000 people and Abingdon has about 8,000.  The closest 'big' city is over two hours away and is still small by the nation's standards.  The closest other brewery is over an hour away.  We are in a below-average sophistication level area with respect to craft beer awareness.  I see this as just being a function of the rural 'delay', where trends take longer to arrive.  I often refer to our area as being in the early 90s stage of craft beer awareness.  We, of course, see this as an opportunity.  But, going back to the sophistication level, I am not saying our population is not sophisticated; in fact, we've found much greater interest than we ever imagined.

The problem is with distribution.  We are in a 3-tier state and, in my mind, it simply isn't as worth it for distributors and breweries to send their beer here.  We have largely been underestimated by the industry as to what beers we'll buy.  I, personally, am offended that the perceived lack of potential sales limits the availability of beers we can purchase.  It isn't fair.  We deserve choices and so Wolf Hills, in some part, was established to provide this choice.

An example is the double IPA.  It was on my radar as a homebrewer and the legendary status of these big California beers like Pliny the Elder.  I simply could not easily purchase one locally.  It was unavailable to me and my craft beer loving friends. So, like any good homebrewer, I made one.  It was outstanding and fresh. Other people deserved access to this beer style in the condition it was meant to be consumed.

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Part 2 and Part 3 of our interview with Chris Burcher and Wolf Hills Brewing Company have also been posted.

If you want to find out more about Chris or Wolf Hills Brewing Company check out their website or better yet, if you are in southwestern Virginia, stop by the brewery.



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