(Interview originally conducted in October of 2011)
This is my second interview with an owner/operator of a nano-brewery and I have to say, the people running these businesses are really an inspiration to all of us who, on our long commute home every day from our corporate indenturement, daydream about going pro.
Blackrocks Brewery is located inMarquette,MIand was founded by David Manson and Andy Langlois.
They have a somewhat unique business model for a nano, and one that is of particular interest to me. Realizing the advantages of serving their own beer rather than selling kegs to other establishments, David and Andy decided to open a tap house. They sell no food out of their facility… just beer. And they are finding success in doing so.
I reached out to David Manson and found him to be very welcoming and interested in sharing his and Andy’s story. I hope you will check out their website and enjoy the following Q&A:
You both obviously started out brewing beer for your personal enjoyment. How long were you homebrewers before you decided to go pro?
Andy and I were actively brewing for 4+ years in my basement. We started with 5 gallons and quickly found that we needed to upgrade to 10 gallons as our supply (like now) was never enough. For the last few years we were brewing every weekend.
Like many pro-brewers out there right now, it sounds like the economic downsizing of the past few years was the impetus for you opening your brewery. Do you think you’d be were you are now if it hadn’t been for the current corporate downsizing climate? Do you still have to work outside of the brewery to pay the bills, or have you been able to make this your full-time job?
I think everyone dreams of opening a “real” brewery when they sit around and are home brewing. It was definitely in our long term plans but had it not been for the corporate downsizing we may have never stretched ourselves to actually go about and do it. Not only was it an opportunity to try our dream but it was a goal to keep Andy and his family in a community where they wanted to be. As it turned out I kept my day job and Andy does the brewing operations. I have found less time to brew and now do more of the administrative duties.
Your brewery is particularly interesting. It’s in a converted house? How big is your current facility (brew space and service space)?
Our current brewery operations are small. We have a 10×12 brewhouse and about 800 sq ft tasting room. Obviously we see this as a unique setting that allows customers feel involved in the brewing. They really enjoy the comfort of the small tasting room.
From the pictures and video I’ve seen, it appears as though your actual brewing capacity is fairly small, but that you have 5 or more 1 barrel fermenters. What is your current brew system and fermentation capacity? What type/brand of equipment are you using?
We currently use the Blichmann three vessel 1bbl brew system but will be upgrading to a Premiere stainless 3bbl system. We have 10 1bbl fermentors, so we brew a ton. This was by design as we didn’t know what the actual market demand was going to be. It was also insurance against potential batches lost due to infection or bad recipes. This [small system] would minimize our losses. It would have been tough to dump a bbl of beer but better than 7bbls.
While you serve plenty of beer at your brewery, you don’t serve any food. Instead you have worked with other local businesses to have food delivered to those who want it. How did you reach out to the local restaurants in your area, and how receptive were they to your ideas/requests? How receptive have your customers been to this setup?
The food issue is tough. Although we would like to offer food, we have neither the space nor the time and know how. Local establishments adopted the concept pretty quick, and some even offered free delivery if it was coming to Blackrocks. Our customers are understanding and seem to find it charming. Many even enjoy bringing in home cooked meals to share with other patrons/friends.
Are you selling your beer at the brewery only, or do you sell kegs to other bars/restaurants in your area? What about bottled product in local stores?
We are currently only selling on-site.Michiganis a three-tier distribution system so you need to be really ramped up for production to meet the needs. With the addition of our new brew system we hope to be able to sell to patrons for home consumption.
Do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you both enjoy and just hope/assume your customers will be interested?
We normally brew the types of beers we enjoy, and people have also enjoyed them as well. As a small brewery that is brewing often, we are afforded the flexibility to respond to customers request for previous beers they enjoyed or types of beers they would like to see us produce. In most cases we have been able to meet their needs. We also follow a loose seasonal brew schedule. More heavy dark beers in the winter coupled with the regular beers people enjoy and look forward to.
Do you feel you need to have some type of “hook” to distinguish yourself from the rest of the market? If so, what, and how helpful do you feel it’s been?
I am not sure I would call it a hook but I think our community involvement and the sense that people have been here with us from the beginning goes a long way. The craft beer movement as a whole has certainly helped and it is my opinion that people are looking to drink and support locally produced goods over the foreign owned entities that produce sub-quality products. As much as I don’t have a taste for the big two’s products, I am happy they are owned by foreign entities. It only help to reinforce our emphasis that local dollars spent in our community stay in our community.
Aside from standard licensing and permit requirements, was there any unexpected governmental red tape that you had to deal with? How painful/painless was your licensing/permitting process?
When you say standard lic and permits, it is perhaps the most daunting aspect of opening any business. The Feds want their paperwork and pound of flesh, and the state agencies and local city and county agencies are no different. You feel as though you are skin and bones by the end. Some of the local permits and variances are frustrating and at times difficult to understand, but if you have solid justification and beat the streets and talk to your neighbors it can usually be resolved.
Do you have a business plan? Is it a traditional business plan or a more informal outline? Where do you see your business going in the coming years?
We have had 2 business plans in our short time of being open and foresee several modification in the time to come. A fellowMichiganbrewery CEO said their business plan changes every 6 months. You need to stay nimble and flexible to respond to market conditions. Do we have a broad large focused plan? Yes. It is dynamic and at times dreamy but if you don’t have a goal, you become stagnant. We keep trying to figure out what we can do to achieve that long term goal by re-investing in our current operations.
Having now gone through the process of starting a brewery, is there anything you would have done differently had you to do it all over again?
This question is asked a ton. Currently I would say we are too new in the game to answer honestly. Bigger? Perhaps but that would have left us with a cash flow situation. Different location? Maybe, but our current space is part of the charm of our business. So right now I would say no, we started how we wanted, the way we wanted. Things have worked okay for us to date.
Do you still homebrew for yourself, friends, and family? Do you enjoy the beer brewing process as much now as you did when you were only homebrewing? How has brewing changed for you now that you’ve gone pro?
We don’t homebrew anymore. But our current operation is like homebrewing, and there is a lot of brewing going on. Now our friends and family need to join us at Blackrocks for a pint. They just need to pay for it now!
Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?
Homebrewers dreaming of going pro need to have a commitment and a desire to bust their ass to make their dream a reality. It doesn’t come without some price. Time away from family, loss of “steady” income for an unknown, not to mention the weird pressure of putting yourself in the form of beer out there for people to judge and be critical of. Make sure you have at least 6 great recipes that you know will be well received and don’t be afraid to experiment. One of our refrains from all the fed and state paperwork as well as local was to come away from a meeting or call with a punch list to knock off. Lists of things to do are better than not knowing what to do or how to do it. Follow your dream, it might work and it might not, but you will never kick yourself later for not trying.
A huge thanks to David Manson for taking the time to answer my questions. He and Andy and their Blackrocks Brewery are inspirational for any of us that dream of one day going pro.
I wish them the best of luck and huge success.