A white pickup truck, riddled with dents and dusty on the fenders, pulls up outside, reverses halfway into the warehouse and stops. Mike Schnebeck, Head Brewer, opens the driver’s side door, slides on gloves and gets to work moving manzanita wood from bed to pallet. In the office to the side, Alex Blunk, Sales, talks numbers. Justin Catalana, Cofounder, skips out the door and drives off to Mill Valley to the brewpub he and his brother Tyler started six years before (“I had worked in a Bioinformatics lab that used yeast as a model organism”, Justin says, “you could say we became friends”).
If you want excitement, a late Tuesday at a brewery isn’t the place to be. There’s the hum of the industrial cold storage, a trickle of water down a pipe, the sound of ingredients being stacked. Things are surgically clean, aligned in rows and tucked in place. It’s quiet.
Homebrewing: The beginning. You love the smell of malted barley. You crave the perfect porter. You geek out on every home brewing forum on the web. You spend time apprenticing at a local craft brewery. You tend bar, you listen to customers. You make your own recipes. You find your flavors. You want more, and so do those that drink your beer.
Contract Brewing: Mass fermentation. You work with a head brewer and perfect your formula, and you make the investment in a few kegs of your own stuff. You start to build a connection with the community. You make a small splash with friends. You serve your own stuff at the bar you work at — and people like it. You create more recipes and expand your line.
Brewhouse: Beer for the people. Now you’re making a significant investment in your own progress. You brew a few beers, you try a bunch of others. You’re building a brand at a grassroots level — one beer at a time. You make a name for yourself in the community. You perfect your recipes, you find your niche, and your niche works.
Brewery: Big-league brew. You invest in equipment. You’ve hired on a few full-time staff. You establish a solid brand, figure out logistics and hire a distributor (or self-distribute). You make good beer, sell good beer, and let the people drink good beer. Now comes the best part: relax, sit down, and pour yourself a pint. Here’s to you making a name for yourself in the beer industry.
Fort Point Beer Co. has been around for little over a year. In December 2013, they converted an old WWII motor shed into a brewery. In January 2014, they kegged their first beer. In the 12 months since then, they’ve locked over two hundred accounts in the Bay Area, and in February 2015 they added three new 80 barrel fermentors — doubling their production capabilities. “We’re doing 3,000 barrels right now”, Matt Colling, Head of Sales says, “that’s 6,000 with the additional tanks.” In a couple years, they want to reach 10,000. The goals are charted, measured, analyzed. Everything is accounted for.
“We’re not trying to make crazy-ass beer.”
As for niche, that’s where Fort Point’s product comes in: the beer. In the Bay Area, a land of high-profile hops like Lagunitas’ IPAs and Russian Rivers’ Pliny the Elder — Fort Point decided to do something different and, conveniently, marketable. The guys like drinkable beers, brews where they could sit and enjoy a few pints. And so they made their beer lighter (most hover around 5% ABV), and easy to pair with food. As Head Brewer Mike Schnebeck says: “We’re not trying to make crazy-ass beer.” That approach has differentiated them from the local big names who brew strong-bodied beers that win awards. Colling says: “We don’t want our beer to be the center of attention. We just want it to be a part of the conversation.” High-end restaurants embraced that attitude, wanting to serve good beer that compliments rather than distracts from the food (the true center of attention, for them). A few big-name restaurant accounts quickly added credibility, and Fort Point started down their own particular path in the local beer landscape.
But moving into a profitable operation off your own beer sales isn’t an instantaneous occurrence. Fort Point lets their brewing equipment work double time by accepting contract opportunities. Alongside their own beer, they brew for local outfits that don’t have the bigger-scale resources, then they charge them per-keg rates and turn a quick profit off the exchange. And the additional square footage of the shed, they’re currently leasing out. Every inch, every penny is being accounted for. “You need more money than you think you need”, Schnebeck says.
Back at the brewery it’s now nearing six o’clock. Tyranski grabs a pallet jack and wheels it toward the stack of kegs he’d filled earlier that afternoon. For all the talk about business building, customer service, cash flow and calendar goals, this is still about beer. What’s inside the stainless steel barrels is the lifeblood of the operation, and it’s treated as such. Tyranski gives the handle a deft pump, then carefully wheels the beer toward the Fort Point Sprinter. He locks the cart, unloads the beer into the back of the truck. Repeats the process. Ten minutes pass until the bed is full of beer, and he closes the truck’s rear doors. The truck rumbles to a start — precious cargo stocked — then backs out of the loading zone and pulls into the evening light.