Old Hangtown Beer Works

(Interview originally conducted in April of 2011)

Inspired by some of the interviews I read on homebrewtalk.com with folks who have made the transition from homebrewing to probrewing, I decided I’d reach out and conduct an interview of my own. After having enjoyed (thoroughly) a BrewingNetwork.com podcast on nano-brewries where he was a guest, I decided to reach out to the owner-operator of Old Hangtown Beer Works.

Old Hangtown Beer Works is located inPlacerville, Ca. (“Old Hangtown”) and was established in 2010. It is a true nano-brewery with an estimated annual production of 50-100 barrels. They produce award winning hand crafted ales and lagers.

The owner and head brewer, Michael Frenn, is a really great guy and was more than happy to let me steal some of his time to conduct an interview. So without further delay, I present to you Michael Frenn of Old Hangtown Beer Works:

———-

I’m assuming you started out brewing beer for your personal enjoyment. How long were you a homebrewer before you decided it was time to “go pro”?

About ten years. I started brewing around 2000

What got you started brewing originally? What was the turning point when you decided you wanted to brew professionally?

For homebrewing, I was at a Little League game when I saw an old friend who years earlier had offered me some homebrew. Thought it was the nastiest thing I’d ever tasted. In retrospect, as I was a Coors Light drinker, it was probably an excellent pale or IPA! In any event, my birthday was coming up and I asked my wife for a homebrew kit to brew (you guessed it!) Coors Light. The rest is history. As the saying goes, “If you give a man a beer he’ll waste an afternoon. Teach him to brew, he’ll waste a lifetime!”

As for pro-brewing, I had been contemplating a second career for awhile, but not for another 10 years, or so. An unintended job change gave me some free time (always dangerous with me!) and I found a few resources about starting a brewery. It was when I came across an article about “nano-breweries” that things got serious.

How big is your current operation? What is your current brewing system? What equipment are you using to achieve your target/expected volume? What made you choose that particular volume/capacity?

Depends on how you define it. My “business model” is to max out my homebrewing equipment and not buy new equipment (with the exception of kegs and fermenters, which were my biggest expenses). I still use the same hot liquor tank and mash tun. I “upgraded” from my 9 gallon kettle to a 13 gallon, but it was something I had bought years ago and was just lying around in the backyard. I subsequently bought another 13.5 (re-purposed keg), but only because the price was super cheap. So I have four kettles I can boil with simultaneously.

My mash tun is limiting. At 82% efficiency (I run between 80 and 86% consistently), I can extract about 23 gallons of my lowest gravity beer, and about 13 of my regular higher gravity beer. I ferment in 6 gal Better Bottles® of which my ferment chamber can hold 16 at time. Corneys serve as my “bright” tanks and I have room for 12 5s and 4 3s (72 gal total) at a time. We’ve sold 8 barrels since Jan 1.

How are you marketing your beer, and to what segment (e.g. only local bars and restaurants, to private parties, to anyone-anywhere who will buy)?

I only do kegs and offer them to tap houses, restaurants, bars, etc. Generally, I put together a sampling and go do a tasting.

Do you tailor the types of beer you produce to current market demands, or do you produce only the beers you enjoy and sell only to those interested?

Both. My highest volume beer approximates Fosters lager. It’s also the most difficult beer to do consistently (but the profit margin is awesome!). I have one account that I call “keg of the month” where I get to make whatever I want for them. This is a distinct advantage of being small; I’m very nimble. Incidentally, the beers have done so well it’s now the “2 kegs of the month” account!

Interestingly, as a homebrewer I never did spice beers, except for a pumpkin ale. Now I have a gingered lager and a pepper beer, both of which were requested by one of my accounts. I also have a peppermint beer. The pepper beer (Chili Bar) is now my second best seller, tied with the Mineshaft Stout (my flagship).

Did you feel you needed 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 market myself as “local” and that in itself is huge. People also find the “small” aspect attractive (never thought I’d ever say that!). Thirdly, I’m the real deal and take good care of my accounts. Once I get a “handle”, I keep it.

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?

The government side was easy. The private sector side (getting the bond, working with the graphic artist, etc.) was the most challenging. The most important first step is determining if your “planned activity”, e.g., home business, brewing, etc., is allowable by the jurisdiction you’re in (city, county, parish, etc.).

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?

I developed a business plan for a pub (which is ultimately where I want to go). I did not develop a plan, per se, for the nano operation. However, we are expanding (I just ordered 81 ½ barrel kegs and will likely begin brewing at a local brewery within a few weeks) and I have sketched out a general road map.

Are you currently working outside of your brewery? Full-time or part-time?. How much of your “non-work” time is devoted to the brewery? Any plans to make the brewery your sole job?

I have a full time job and a family. The brewery is “jealous mistress” and balancing is tough, I spend every spare minute doing something associated with the business. But, it is far easier today than it was just a few months ago. We produced more beer in the first three months of this year than the first 7 months of operations. The efficiencies continue to increase.

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?

Ahhhh, the “cobbler has no shoes” as it were. I’ve purchased more beer to drink in the past eight months than in the past eight years! Every drop is spoken for. Technically, I can keep up to 200 gallons I produce for personal consumption but haven’t done so. I usually go to one of my accounts to drink my beer! When I started the brewery, I had to drop a lot of other things: I haven’t done any gardening for a year, the motor I was building is on hold and my 6 tap kegerator is in disrepair. Then came winter and the rains. Now that its spring, I plan to have the kegerator back up in about two weeks and then life will be good again!

But a word on homebrewing. Technically, the feds do not care about what you make until it reaches the bright tank; that’s where taxing starts. So, I could brew and ferment in the brewery and then pull beer out and call it homebrew. My read on the homebrewing community is that they would view that as “cheating”, especially for competition or club events, etc. So my personal rule is yeast pitch and ferment location determine whether its homebrew or probrew. If I pitch in the brewery and ferment there, it’s probrew. Anywhere else, it’s homebrew.

I love brewing even more now and get excited about the possibilities. The only thing I’m short on is brewing time.

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?

Yeast management, production schedules, documentation and clarifying/carbonation process (on a production scale) were the biggest challenges. It would have been good to have had a little experience on a large scale. There definitely was a learning curve.

Any advice for homebrewers out there who may be dreaming about going pro someday?

If you have a vision, follow it. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Believe in yourself. Seek out friends and leave the rest behind. Take care of your accounts. Know when the results are not what you wanted, figure out why, and make adjustments as needed.

Most importantly of all: have fun! There’s plenty of room for good beer, but it’s gotta be fun or it’s not worth doing.

———-

A huge thank you to Michael for letting take some of his very valuable time to conduct the interview. He really is a super nice guy and seems quite willing/happy to share his wealth of nano-brewery information. My only regret is that I don’t live closer to his fine establishment… I’d love to enjoy some of his beers!!

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