Chapter 3 - The Journey Begins

“Is there a Tinder for brewmasters?”

I was thirty minutes into a flight from Cincinnati to Philadelphia, brainstorming how I was going to find someone to make beer for a brewery that didn’t exist. Fresh off a short visit to Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist Brewery, owned by my college friend Bob Bonder, I had the inspiration to start one of my own, but would need to find a brewer in order to make it a reality.

Unfortunately, there was no employment app matching brewmasters with startups; I could not simply swipe right and enjoy riveting conversation about business plans drinking an IPA with a bearded industry veteran. What I did have, however, was a network of connections made over eight years as an entrepreneur, people who could point me in the right direction and in some cases, even facilitate introductions to folks in the craft beer industry. When that flight touched down in Philadelphia, I hit the ground running, shooting off emails and making phone calls to line up meetings.

Almost instantly, these efforts began to bear fruit. The first person I heard from was one of my Philly Phaithful designers, Bart Kaminski. I had met Bart years ago, while hustling the parking lot in the early days of my company. He had purchased a shirt and handed me his business card, letting me know that if I were ever looking for help with artwork, he was a graphic designer and would love to get involved. What started with a routine sale turned into an enduring business partnership; Bart began as a freelancer and later, as the owner of his own graphic design company in Harrisburg, would become one of my go-to artists. 

Bart also had a passion for craft beer and his firm worked with numerous microbreweries in the region, designing labels as well as creating logos and websites. It was through these connections that Bart knew of a few brewers who would be interested in an opportunity with an area startup. Within a matter of days, I had multiple interviews scheduled. Progress, I thought. This is going to be easy.

But as I began the first conversation with a prospective brewmaster, that illusion quickly faded. Sitting across the table from me was someone speaking a language in which I was not fluent. Grain bill? Mash tun? Brettanomyces? Occasionally, I’d hear a word I recognized, like keg or lager, but mostly, it was lost in translation. Communication issues went both ways. When posed questions in return about the vision for our brewery, I realized that I was sorely lacking in conceptual direction. I had a few high-level ideas for what type of company I would create, but little refinement of production or operational strategy, specifically as it pertained to the nuances of a brewmaster.

So at each subsequent meeting, I took the opportunity to view the sit-down as less of an interview and more of educational initiative, asking fewer questions about the nature of their work and instead turning my focus to their thoughts on the industry.

“What are the greatest problems you face at your brewery?”

“In your opinion, where do most breweries miss the mark?”

“What will the next trend in craft beer look like? How about the landscape five years from now?”

What emerged from this line of questioning was a series of commonalities that painted a much more clearly defined picture in my head. The basis for a blueprint was beginning to form, a concept was starting to take root. Now, I was getting somewhere.

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A few months into my interview schedule with various brewmasters, I felt confident. Almost without exception, brewers were describing a consistent demand for their liquid. Tasting rooms were full and local beers were showing up on area tap lists with increasing frequency. Even in a developed craft beer market like Philadelphia, new breweries could join the party, find their footing and learn on the fly.

But for all the success, there was one consistent problem, a sentiment echoed in nearly every conversation: brewing was an expensive business and startups were having a tough time handling the rapid growth. Whether it was access to capital or square footage, there was either an artificial or physical ceiling preventing the organization from taking full advantage of the consumer interest in its product. The greater challenge was not in starting the business, but in designing the roadmap for subsequent phases of the business.

In that challenge lay the key to our fledgling company: if we could accommodate for future growth right out of the gate, we would be in a better position to create a sustainable business in a competitive marketplace, providing a higher-upside for hypothetical investors and a better product and experience for our future customers.

Shortly after embracing this central idea for the project, I found myself in the tasting room at Manatawny Still Works, a craft distillery in Pottstown for whom Philly Phaithful printed apparel. I was talking with their distiller Max Pfeffer, who I knew could likely offer some topical wisdom. Before joining the distillery, Max had spent time both at Victory and Sly Fox as a brewer, after previously earning his degree from the renowned Master Brewers program at UC Davis.

As it turned out, Max’s roommate in that program was the former head brewer at Devils Backbone’s Outpost location--a Virginia-based production brewery with a terrific reputation—and much like Max, he too had first cut his teeth working locally at Victory. In fact, he also had met his future wife while she tended bar at Victory’s Downingtown location, and they were both eagerly looking to return to the area. Moreover, he had apparently helped build the Outpost brewery from the ground up, working on the installation of the brewhouse and overseeing massive production growth for a company which had won multiple awards at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival, including Mid-Sized Brewery of the Year in 2014. On paper, this was our guy.

Industry experience, a strong, local connection and a track record of brewing award-winning beer at commercial scale? Perhaps there isn’t a dating app connecting fledgling breweries with job-seeking brewers, but something about this surface-level profile felt right. It was time for a face-to-face.

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I don’t come to bow, I come to conquer.” – Bob Marley

Using that quote with sincerity during a job interview takes balls and quickly upon meeting Nate Olewine, it was clear that our initial instincts were right. Confident, yet surprisingly humble despite both his brewing accolades and choice of quotes, Nate was polished in the art of conversation.

Falling back on my tried and true methodology of “speak less, listen more” when it came to brewmaster interviews, I was instantly impressed with his ability to clearly convey very technical information, distilling it—pun intended—for the layman without dumbing it down. To know your product inside-and-out, while also being able to articulate its nuances, is in my experience a foundational element of selling anything. My ideal business partner on the manufacturing side would be able to serve as both a brewer and an educator, with a broad appeal to both experienced craft beer drinkers and newbies alike.

Most importantly, Nate used the word “quality” so many times that if I attempted to type a transcript of our conversation, I would need to call in a second keyboard from the bullpen when the Q key eventually gave way. His emphasis on the integrity of his beer was unwavering: it would be brewed properly, packaged properly, stored properly and poured properly. If missteps in any one phase were to render the liquid as anything less than intended, it would be dumped before it appeared in front of any customer.

"You're going to hate me once we start drinking beer together," Nate opined, "because I'll educate your palate to the point where you’ll be able to pick out any off-flavors in the beer you’re drinking.” The college student in me questioned the fun in this line of thinking but the more pragmatic, lamer (“college Dan’s” words, not mine) version of me understood that his commitment to quality was the bedrock of a successful brewery. Quality begets consistency and if a new brand in any industry can deliver upon those two elements, the business stands a good chance of succeeding.

Conversation pivoted from strategy and operations to company values, giving us the opportunity to understand more about the man behind the brewer. Questionable sports allegiances aside—he’s a Redskins and Blackhawks fan, something about “growing up in rural Virginia”, if you buy that nonsense—it became clear that Nate the person was even more compatible with us than Nate the brewer. We’ve come to learn that nobody is more dedicated, loyal and hard-working than Nate, whose moral compass is strong and genuine respect for people is admirable. As an added side benefit, like me, Nate married up and now we get to have his wife Christine--a die-hard Eagles fan--in our lives.

There were a few subsequent meetings with Nate after our initial conversation, but they only served to reinforce the idea that we wanted him to join our team. The feeling was mutual. Nate would be hired to run the production operation and scoring him felt like a coup for our nascent company. With a brewer in the fold, it was time to set our plans in motion.

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Coming up next on From The Horse’s Mouth:

  • R&D in the world of Craft Beer, where work is fun.
  • Differentiation, what does it really mean and how can you achieve it? (Unlike last week, we mean it this time)
  • Why does everyone keep talking about saturation and should we be scared?

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Dan HershbergComment