Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nanobrewery Interviews: Wolf Hills Brewing Company (Part 2)

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

In the second part of our interview with Wolf Hills Brewing Company, we continue our conversation with Chris Burcher.  Chris founded the nanobrewery in 2009 and has enjoyed enough success to be building out an expansion.  Wolf Hills beer can be found in Abingdon, Virginia at the The Martha Washington Hotel and Spa and at the brewery.

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Lug Wrench (LW): With regards to selling your beer, what has been the biggest challenge you have faced in getting draft accounts or shelf space?

Chris Burcher (CB): We don't bottle so shelf space is not an issue yet.  Getting draft accounts has been difficult mostly because of price.  We are the first 'boutique' or real craft beer our Virginia distributor has seen.  People, in general, do not understand that we are not Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada.  To most people, we are a microbrewery and we are all in the same category when, in truth, we are as different from those guys as they are from InBev.

Education is our biggest obstacle.  We basically have had to bite the bullet and come very close to the price of those large micros in order to compete.  Of course, this is largely a new challenge as we have been selling most of our beer at the retail level in growlers at competitive prices.  Here, a six-pack of a domestic craft is about $8.50 and a growler fill (about a six-pack, 2L) is $10.  So, being first has been a challenge with respect to educating our consumers.

LW: Looking forward, what are the biggest hurdles you see your brewery facing?

CB: Shelf life and packaging.  The biggest lesson I have learned, having no professional brewery training, is that homebrew is far less stable than most homebrewers (myself included) would ever know.  Without crash cooling and even filtering, homebrew has a lot of yeast in it.  When you send these kegs, via a distributor, out to accounts they run the risk of stirring up and/or getting warm.  Both of these things are bad for the beer.  Filtering will help but it will also change the flavor.  So, we will continue to produce unfiltered beers for our retail sales, but we will filter beers going out to accounts.

LW: If you were speaking to an individual who is considering the prospect of opening their own nanobrewery, what advice would you give them?

CB: Do it.  But understand our success is due to: 1) My wife has a job. Although I pay myself about half what we earn, the first few years would not support a family or maybe even an individual.  This MUST be a part of the business plan.  You must plan for the ability to pay yourself.  2) Find someone or some people who compliment your abilities.  I am a brewer and I beer lover.  I have some business sense.  I would not have been able to get through the hurdles of local government or the loan process easily.  Without my partners, I would not have arrived where I am now.  No one person can do it all.  Or, maybe they could, but it would be a lot harder and I am not sure it would be sustainable.

LW: What's the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started the brewery?

CB: That's tough.  The whole experience has been so wonderful.  On the down side, worrying about each and every keg has led to some restless nights.  Quality control is much more difficult at larger scales than at the homebrew level.  It is easy to make one keg of awesome beer, but it is much harder to replicate.  On the good end there is so much.  Realizing how much I like the 'other' aspects of running a brewery.  The equipment, the market, the industry, learning about other breweries are all at least as interesting to me as the process of brewing.  I honestly can see spending the rest of my career doing this and never really learning enough.  Also, the support and interest of our customers has been great.  As a brewer, my ideal customer embraces our brand and, rather than looking for a particular beer style or brand, trusts our company and will try anything we make.  We have that on a small scale now and I hope we can keep it.  

Another interesting factor was our growlers.  When we were deciding to buy our first growlers, the minimum order was 10, but we had to buy 100 if we wanted them screened with our logo.  I was convinced we would never sell 100 growlers and so should just get 10 plain ones.  My partners convinced me otherwise and we sold 65 of the 100 in about two hours.  Currently there are over 500 of our growlers out there.

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Part 1 of our interview with Chris Burcher and Wolf Hills Brewing Company can be found here.  The conclusion (Part 3) of our interview can be found here.   

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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