Chapter 2 - Origin Story
As is often the case in business, the origin story for Workhorse Brewing Company begins with beer.
But not just any beer. Consumed-before-noon beer. Copious amounts of beer.
Bachelor party beer.
Historically, this category of beer has been the source of more than its fair share of questionable decisions and yet in our case, its presence is what planted the seed for Workhorse.
It didn’t hurt that this beer also happened to be exceptionally delicious beer. Or that it was amply supplied by a college friend named Bob Bonder. While at Cornell, Bob lived with my cousin Paul, whose bachelor party we were in Austin to celebrate. I knew Bob was a sharp, entrepreneurial guy but I didn’t know too much about what he was up to at that time; only that he had brought good beer in cool-looking cans and I was drinking lots of it.
Turns out, that beer was his. As in, he was the co-founder of Rhinegeist, the Cincinnati-based brewery responsible for its production. Only a few years old at that point, Bob’s brewery had seen explosive growth and when he spoke about the day-to-day experience of owning one, it was hard not to be excited for him. He spoke of a challenging, yet lively work environment and an industry full of high-quality people.
“We should start a family brewery,” chimed in my uncle Peter, a fellow entrepreneur and party-goer who was clearly intrigued by what he was hearing. “Sure thing,” I said, a healthy dose of cynicism evident in my tone. Lots of “great ideas” get tossed around during bachelor parties but I wasn’t in Austin to entertain any of them.
Then a funny thing happened.
Initial excitement for Bob turned into legit fascination as Peter and I found ourselves gravitating towards him throughout the weekend, soaking in his stories about life at Rhinegeist. The more we heard, the more we became intrigued. Perhaps tipped off by the fact that we wouldn’t leave him alone—as well as a realization that spending a bachelor party drinking beers with your college buddies is more enjoyable than teaching a two-day seminar on the business of brewing—Bob invited us to Cincinnati for a more in-depth conversation at Rhinegeist. If we wanted to get a basic understanding of the industry, why not just come out and experience it first-hand?
What did we have to lose? Three days of sobriety, I thought, but not much more. Little did I know what was waiting for us in Cincinnati.
When you step into Rhinegeist for the first time, it’s hard not to be impressed. From the outside, what appears to be a nondescript, older brick building is on the interior revealed to be a bright, spacious facility dripping with character. Large columns frame the tasting room space which eventually gives way to a shiny brewhouse seated a foot or two above the floor, as if mounted on a pedestal. Later, I’d learn this is to accommodate a slope for the drains, but upon first glance, I’m blissfully unaware.
Large, wooden, communal tables are empty upon our arrival in the morning but will soon be filled as people stream in for post-work beers and casual conversation. As I’ve spent the last nine years working from home, the consistent hum of a brewery initially catches me off guard. I’m not used to the noise produced by the hustle and bustle of people moving with purpose, but as it floats into the rafters above the giant tasting room, it creates a vibrant atmosphere that makes the space feel alive.
It was at this moment that I first felt equal parts invigorated and terrified. Am I really considering opening a brewery?
Over three days, Bob and Rhinegeist are gracious hosts, facilitating introductions to people in various aspects of the organization. Peter, whose belief in this vague idea is already surprisingly strong, has a blast. It’s clear he’s very excited, but in what exactly? Within 72 hours, I’ve learned that successful breweries need to compete across an intimidating spectrum of disciplines, including production, manufacturing, operations, sales, branding, packaging, marketing, hospitality and food service.
Even if you are somehow able to master each of those elements, you’ve still only painted part of the picture. How’s your knowledge of the local competition, which is increasing at historically rapid rates? How about shelf space? Do you have a price modeling strategy? Or access to raw materials, resources limited by factors beyond your direct control? With more questions than answers, the scale of the task felt immense. Where do you even begin?
For better or worse, conviction is currency to an entrepreneur. You’re continually placing a bet on yourself, doubling down frequently, often times without the safety net of a literal or figurative ATM. Believing that your passion, your purpose and your will are sufficient to see you through? That can be enough to weather any storm, to tackle any challenge. But is it enough to start a brewery?
“You always see new burger joints opening up,” opined Peter, “And it doesn’t matter that you can get McDonald’s and Burger King everywhere. People keep opening ‘em.” He was already on board and was now attempting to sell me the idea.
“Yeah, but do they all stay open? Or become successful?” I knew the answer, but I wanted to push back a bit. “Do you know how to make burgers?”
Which lead to another thing. Slightly important.
While we can both make a mean burger (season good meat liberally, don’t overcook), neither of us know how to brew beer.
This of course, was never part of the plan. But spending three days at Rhinegeist hammered home a critical point: the liquid needs to be outstanding. Every time. That would merely be the ante to play the game. Without quality, there cannot to be growth.
An idea was taking root.
Now we just needed to help it grow.
Coming up next on From The Horse’s Mouth:
- Introducing Nate Olewine, our Virginia-born brewmaster with a local connection.
- Differentiation, what does it really mean and how can you achieve it?
- Finding and developing a voice. What and who are we?
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