Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Happy Birthday to Us...

So I let it go by without much fanfare but a few weeks ago BSBC turned 1 year old.  Yep, it was just over a year ago that we made our first sales and did our first few events at MOTR and Arthur's.  It seems like it was only yesterday and yet it seems like it was 10 years ago.  It's taken me a few weeks to get around to it but I finally got some time today to stop for a minute and reflect on "the year that was" as well as what may or may not be next for us in the coming year.

First let me say thanks to everyone who has supported us this year (and even before that).  The response to this little operation and our not so straight forward brewing philosophy has been great and without you we would not have survived to see this day.  Seeing and talking to you at events is what gives me the energy and drive I need to survive the long hot days in the brewhouse.

So here's a little of the "year in review" both positive and negative....

Our first year goal was to produce 350 BBL's of finished beer.  Well we finished a little shy of that at 290 BBL's.  Still not too bad considering I made it all by myself (and sold it myself for 4 months).  I am firmly convinced we missed this goal entirely due to the overestimation of my abilities to produce beer at a rate that would yield 350 BBL's by myself.  Turns out that I only have two hands, and that's apparently not enough!  The recent addition of Colin to the "family" should get us up to that pace (and beyond) pretty quickly though.

Demand has been steadily growing since my decision to give up self-distribution.  I never planned to do it forever, and in retrospect probably should have given it up sooner.  Stagnaro has been doing a great job of building up the business without overselling our capacity.  Unfortunately because we only made a few hundred barrels last year we couldn't just go out and start selling anywhere and everywhere or else there would be major supply issues and many unhappy wholesale customers.  I am trying to be cautious about bringing new accounts on-line if it means potentially running out of beer at other accounts.  Other than a few short term instances here and there (which were entirely my fault due to some unexpected time off that I had to take) I hope we have been successful in that effort.  Unfortunately it means that sometimes it can be hard to find us around town as we just aren't on tap everywhere.

The business was breaking even after about 8 months which was right on schedule.  Of course breaking even simply means we are covering all of the bills.  It doesn't mean there is anything leftover for frivolous things like paying me a salary....yet.

I discussed it in detail previously but the decision to start bottling and then to not start bottling was a big oops on my part.  For that I am sorry to anyone who got their hopes up.  It's a decision that I am still regretting as it has set us back a little bit in our growth plans and as of now I am not even thinking about when we may take another stab at it.

Yes, we still don't have a taproom.  I guess we have the dubious distinction of being the only brewery in town without one.  Without rehashing that story I will simply say that we will have one...someday...

I am very proud that we did 3 collaboration beers here in our first year.  Determination with Triple Digit Brewing, Savage Blank with Quaff Bro's and The Awakening with Beer and Sweat winner Brian Jackson.  Don't look for that to change this year as collaborations with Triple Digit and Quaff are already in the planning stages as well as possibly a few others including the Beer and Sweat winner again this year.

We just started barrel aging our first sour.  It took some time to get around to doing it, but we now have souring bacteria at work in the brewery.

So in summary, we are surviving.  And growing.  Slowly.  All of which has been (pretty much) according to plan.  It is every bit as hard as I thought it would be and sometimes even more so.  It is also just as rewarding as I thought it would be and sometimes even more so.

But what's next?

Well if you read between the lines above you may see that the common theme is that we just can't make enough beer.  If we could make more beer we could sell more beer.  So that's what we are going to do.  Within the next few months we will be increasing our fermentation capacity by almost 85%.  This will nearly double our output capability for the coming year.  Hopefully it will mean the ability to turn on some new accounts and push farther into the outer parts of the city (and Dayton) as well as give us the excess capacity that we will need to support a taproom sometime in the next 12 months.  Yes I said it.  Unless something goes sideways I plan to have the taproom operational within the next 12 months (actually less than that but I decided to build a lot of fluff into the timeline).

So you'll have to forgive me for not throwing a big birthday bash.  It's been a little busy around here.  Maybe we'll do it next year....


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What to do when your eyes get bigger than your stomach?

A couple weeks back I posted briefly that BSBC was postponing the start of bottling operations indefinitely.  I realized a few days ago that I didn't give a whole lot of detail which is not in keeping with what this blog is all about.  So with that in mind I wanted to circle back and give everyone a little more info on what happened and what we plan to do next.

The original plan for the brewery was to be draft only for at least a year, if not longer.  Bottling beer is a whole different operation than kegging beer.  The demands of shelf-life under less than optimal conditions are an ever present issue with packaged beer, much more than keg beer which lives its whole life cold.  The equipment to fill a keg is a couple hundred bucks.  The equipment to fill bottles is several thousand.  Given everything that was involved in just getting this brewery operational bottling was only a distant glimmer in my eye on day 1.  That being said, somewhere along the way I found a "deal" on three used single head counter pressure fillers.  It was a deal that (at the time) I felt was too good to pass up.  So I didn't.  Now these machines were never meant to be a long term solution, just a way to get some bottles out here and there.  In fact we used them to bottle the Determination collaboration with Triple Digit.

Now fast forward to the end of last year.  As I sat looking through all the sales figures vs. capacity and all that fun stuff I started to see that it looked like there was some unused capacity starting in early 2013.  That coupled with the constant barrage of "when are you going to start bottling" questions led me to decide that the time to start bottling was coming sooner than expected.  A bit of a deviation from plan, but a good one I convinced myself.  So the long process of setting up packaging began.  Lead times on printed boxes and labels can be pretty long so it took from December through March to get everything in place.  Not to mention the capital outlay for the design work, artwork proofs and printing everything.  There's labels and six-pack carriers and case boxes to source and purchase, not to mention bottles and caps.  All of which must be paid for in advance and bought several thousand at a time.  It was a daunting task that took just about every bit of available capital that I had at the time.  All the while I was working on the machines to improve their speed and performance.  Even though they were used to bottle Determination we had to do a lot of "fiddling" to get them to work well enough to package that small amount of beer.  When the time came to start bottling for myself the machines were working better but still not great and at excruciatingly slow speeds.  It took 6 people 6 hours to bottle around 30 cases of beer.  (An even modestly automated machine will do 60 cases an hour).  The process was very labor intensive and at times even dangerous (my brother-in-law cut his thumb pretty bad when a bottle broke in the capper).  The implications were that I would need to have 6 people here all day every weekend just to have a chance of making the amount of bottled product that I had committed to.  Because the machines were still a little finicky to work with I could not guarantee that every bottle would be consistent using volunteer labor (plus that's just too much work to ask of volunteers).  The odds of running out of product in the market on a week to week basis were just too high so I decided to scrap the whole thing.  It seems my eyes had definitely gotten bigger than my stomach and I had taken on more than I could handle.

In the end it has probably been a blessing in disguise.  Over these same months that I thought we would be growing some excess capacity in reality it has been the opposite.  Draft sales have picked up as we have come out of the slow season (if you can believe there is such a thing, but apparently there is) and now I can't make enough kegs to properly supply demand.  I am regretful that I had to back out of several commitments at the last minute as that doesn't generally reflect well on any business.  In the end though I think it is better to pull the plug at the start rather than put out an inconsistent supply of product and I hope everyone understands that.

So now what? 

Well the moral to this convoluted story is STICK TO YOUR PLAN!  I spent a lot of time working out the business plan for this venture and so far it hasn't led me astray.  So it's back to plan A.  We will continue to make only draft beer until such time as our capacity dictates that we must begin bottling.  At that time we will source the equipment needed to do it properly and (hopefully) never look back from there.  When will that be?  Who knows.  Maybe six months, maybe a year, maybe never.

So this premature foray into bottling has been a bit of a learning lesson for me.  In the brewing business (as in any business) it is all about managing risks and balancing growth in a way that works for you.  For some people the motto is "damn the torpedos, full speed ahead".  Not me.  When I see a torpedo I take the long way around.  In this case I guess I stared at the torpedo a little too long and it stung me a little, but staring at the 20,000 6-pack carriers will stand as a constant reminder to never get too far ahead of myself again.

At least until the next time....

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

You can't always do it alone...

As most everyone knows, I am the only employee here.  When I tell people that I run a brewery completely by myself, most people say "how in the hell do you pull that off"?  Well quite frankly I have no idea.  It was never the plan to "go it alone" for very long.  Truth be told if I was able to I would have hired someone 3 months ago, but it just wasn't in the cards as they say.  Well I think the time has come where it is now unavoidable.  There have been many folks who have emailed me in the past regarding job opportunities, but to respond to each of them individually at this point would be an insurmountable task.  If you are one of those people, please don't be mad. Just take a look at this and respond again if you want.  So without further ado, here is the first ever Blank Slate Brewing Company job posting!  It doesn't read like a "normal" help wanted ad, but then I don't usually do things the "normal" way.  Regardless, thanks for taking a look....




So you say you want a job in a brewery?  Well you’re in luck.  I’m looking to hire a part-time assistant brewer.

Awesome you say.  Where do I send my resume?  Well hang on a minute.  Hear me out first.  What I am offering is probably not at all what you are expecting so let me give you the details before you run and quit your current career for the “glamorous life” of a brewer's assistant.

First, the basics.  Starting out 20-24 hours per week, but will most likely lead to full time employment down the road for the right individual (no promises or guarantees).  2-3 days per week during the day/early evening.  Exact hours and days are somewhat negotiable, but would need to be weekdays.  I am looking to have this person start sometime in May if all goes well.  The pay, well it’s not much, too low to even mention at this point.  We’ll discuss that if you come in for an interview.

So far, so good you say?  What does the job entail?
I’m not going to sugar coat it.  This will be one of the crappiest jobs you’ve probably ever had.  You will be assisting me in all aspects of brewing operations, including cleaning kegs, dumping spent grain, filtering, cleaning tanks, moving inventory (grain and beer) cleaning floors, labeling boxes, maybe even cleaning the toilet.  Did I mention cleaning?  That’s 90% of what you will do.

Still with me?  Well you will be doing this work in extremes of temperature (it’s 110° in here in the summer and 36° in the walk-in cooler) while working with scalding hot water and chemicals that could potentially eat a hole through you if you aren’t careful.  You must be able to lift 55 pound bags of grain chest high and be able to work off of a ladder as well as in tight spaces.  You must be able to maneuver full kegs on and off of pallets.  You will get dirty and you will sweat…

OK you say?  Sounds like any able bodied grunt could handle this job.  Are there any other qualifications?

Yes.

Aside from the usual stuff such as must be 21 years of age or older, and legally allowed to work in the United States, there is more.  The right person must also have the following qualifications:

Must have a working knowledge of all-grain brewing.  Doesn’t have to be commercial experience (although that would be nice), but homebrewing experience is a must.  A simple understanding of basic chemistry is highly desirable as well.
Must have a basic understanding of beer styles and off-flavors. 
Must be meticulous in their attention to detail and able to follow procedures and instructions to the letter as well as fill out data logs completely.
Must be able to multi-task. 
Should be able to communicate well with others and comfortable speaking to groups.
Must have a good mixture of analytical common sense as well as a desire to think outside the lines when needed.

If that seems like some terribly specific requirements for a grunt job that’s 90% cleaning, well it is.  Why you ask?

Here’s the deal.  I’m not trying to be flippant.  While this is a menial job that doesn’t pay well and is only part time, I am looking for more than just a grunt to clean my toilet.  I am looking for someone who can grow into a bigger role at BSBC and help me take this business to the next level (whatever that may be).  While nothing is guaranteed, I am looking for someone who can eventually (sooner than later if all goes well) become a full time employee and maybe even run the day to day operations someday.  I am trying to be perfectly honest though in saying that I don’t know when that will be if ever.  I wish I was able to offer a full time, well paid position with lots of benefits.  The company just isn't there yet.  This is an entry level position, no doubt about it.  I will teach you as much as you are willing to learn and in return I hope that you can give me a hand in the short term and become a valuable part of what BSBC is all about in the long term.

With all that in mind, if you are still not deterred, please send an updated resume detailing your specific skills and experience that you feel makes you right for this position to scott@blankslatebeer.com  (I’m not terribly interested in knowing that you spent 3 years at Kings Island checking kids’ height for the roller coaster so you can leave stuff like that out).  Please type “yes I am still interested” in the subject line that way I know you read this posting completely and fully understand what you are getting yourself into.  Depending on response, I will conduct interviews in the next few weeks.   

Thanks for reading!

ADDENDUM 5-9-13:  As of today I have completed all the interviews for the position and am no longer taking applications.  Thank you to all those that applied.  I can't respond individually to everyone but I just wanted to let everyone know it was tough filtering through so many good applicants.  I've never been on "this side of the desk" for the interview process before and I don't know which is tougher, being potential employer or potential employee.....

Thursday, March 28, 2013

False start...

This one will be brief...

I've alluded to it in the past and if you've seen me around in the last few months you've probably heard me talking about it.  The impending launch of bottled product.  When asked the question "when are they coming" I have been answering "April".  Well I really hate to go back on a promise but it looks like I am going to have to do it.  Due to issues with the bottling equipment I have decided that we must postpone bottling for a while.  After rebuilding and refurbishing the used machines that I purchased I still cannot get them to perform in a manner that produces the quality of fill that is needed to meet my standards...and if it doesn't meet my standards, it doesn't go out the door.

I want to apologize to everyone for the delay.  As most everyone knows BSBC is a very small and self-funded operation so setbacks like this tend to hurt a bit but I will do everything I can to get the situation resolved in as timely a manner as possible.  I do not have a timeframe right now for when that may be though.  Could be a few months, could be never.  In the meantime, please continue to enjoy all of BSBC's beers on draft around town!

Thanks.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Beer Week, Beerfest and the TTB

The second annual Cincinnati Beer Week is almost upon us.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it is a week long celebration of all things beer.  Several establishments around town will be hosting special beer events, tappings, dinners and what-not from February 7th through the 14th.  The week culminates in the 6th Annual Cincy Winter Beerfest on the 15th and 16th at the Duke Energy Center.  I wanted to take a moment to let everyone know where BSBC will be during the week in case anyone wants to come out and say hello (hopefully you will!).  So, here's the list of where I'll be and when:

Friday Feb 8 - Valley Wine and Spirits in Ft. Wright from 4:30-7:30.  Several BSBC beers on the growler station.

Friday Feb 8 - Arthurs in Hyde Park from ~8:30 until ???.  Arthur's is donating part of each sale to different local charities of the Breweries' choice.  BSBC is donating to the Freestore Foodbank.  Whichever brewery sells the most, Arthur's will match the donation.

Saturday Feb 9 - Jungle Jim's bottle signing of the collaboration Embree's Baltic Porter.  From 12-1 in Fairfield and from 2-3 in Eastgate.

Sunday Feb 10 - Lagerhouse downtown meet and greet with other collaboration brewers from 12-3.

Monday Feb 11 - Firehouse Grill in Blue Ash.  Sandwich specials and Q and A session with me.  Q and A starts at 7:00.

Tuesday Feb 12 - Cock and Bull Mainstrasse.  Meet and Greet.  I should be there around 7.
Wednesday Feb 13 - Buckhead Mountain Grill in Newport.  Meet and Greet with other collaboration brewers from 6-8.

Thursday Feb 14 - Olive's in Clifton.  Pseudo tap takeover with Triple Digit/Listermann.  I should be there around 6 or 7.

Friday and Saturday the 15th and 16th look for us at Beerfest!  Also, I will be taking part in a panel discussion on Saturday as part of the 5B bloggers conference.

So you ask, will we be putting out anything new/rare/interesting at any of these events?  Well, maybe.  I actually have a few different things that I WANTED to debut during beer week, but alas the TTB is being very slow in approving formulas right now.  I have the Beer and Sweat winning Saison ready to go.  I have our new beer called Shroominous ready to go.  The Quaff Brothers Sauvignon BLANK will be ready to go in a few days.  Unfortunately due to national budgetary issues the TTB has downsized the formulation review department down to 1 person.  Yes.  One.  For the whole country.  Until that gets taken care of the beer must sit here in the brewery.  At this point it is pretty much too late to hope that any of this will get approved in time for Beer Week.  I am cautiously optimistic that we may get a few of them ready in time for BeerFest.  If this sounds familiar, that's because it is.  I've complained about it before in another post.  So who knows.  Maybe we'll have some surprises during BeerFest, maybe not...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What's the plan for 2013?

This time of year there are lots of year end wrap-up stories and best/worst lists that come out.  Since I generally don't pay much attention to such things the idea of putting one together for BSBC wasn't too appealing.  So instead of doing that I thought I would take a few moments to preview our plans for 2013. 

First off let me say that in a lot of ways its been an amazing six months.  The sense of accomplishment from actually get this thing off the ground has been very satisfying.  Everyone has been very supportive and so far the market response has been great.  We've still got a long way to go before we are "in the black" as they say but every day we get a little closer thanks to the great beer drinkers in this town.  For that I thank you all.

So what's "on tap" for 2013 (bad pun's aside)?  Well I guess we can start with what's actually on tap.  In order to keep everybody up to speed on what's coming and when and in order to keep inventories under control (especially now that we have a distributor) I've put together a release calender for the year.  I've needed to do it for a while (even when I was self-distributing) but just finally got it together.  The regular rotation of beers and availability is shown below:

 

I've settled on having 4 core "series" available at once.  Staying true to the idea of rotating availability I have basically created 4 sets of beers that contain two alternating styles.  The rotation is set up so that two beers change out every 3 months or so.  The Round and Round series is a rotating session beer.  Travelling IPA is just what it says, a changing IPA.  Gastronome is the series of beers created to incorporate food influences and encourage pairing.  Carte Blanche is just the catch-all for everything else.  In addition to the 4 "cores" we will also do the occasional draft only special release as well as some big bottle releases of other fun stuff (think barrels and brett) starting late in 2013.  Of course I still reserve the right to alter this plan based on ingredient availability, market conditions or pure whim.

Speaking of bottles.  Look for them to start hitting shelves in April.  6 packs and 4 packs.  I'm currently working on version 3 or 4 of my bottling plan but that's probably a whole other post in itself.  I'll have to expound on that another day. 

That just leaves the tasting room.  Well the timeline on that seems to be more in flux every day.  I have touched on it before but I really do have a good reason for being the only brewery in town without one.  When I was looking for space to house the brewery way back in early 2011 the taproom law hadn't passed yet.  Being the pessimistic sort I didn't want to sign a lease on a bigger space since that would have probably ensured that the law wouldn't have passed.  Instead I settled on a space that had room to grow when I was ready.  The adjacent space in my building that I would need to expand into is not yet available and I'm not exactly sure now when it will be open.  Unfortunately that has put the tasting room in a little bit of limbo for the time being.  I don't really have the funds to build it right now anyway so we'll just have to leave it at "sometime in the future...maybe by the end of the year...maybe not."

So I guess that's about it for now.  Hopefully all will go according to plan in 2013.  If 2012 is any indication though it will probably only go about 60% to plan.  The trick will be having fun with the other 40%!


Monday, October 22, 2012

The Distribution Dilema...

Picking a distributor is probably the hardest decision that a brewery has to make short of actually deciding to start the brewery in the first place.  I am fairly certain that I have a growing ulcer that if dissected would bleed the logos of all the local beer distributors.  Not an hour of the day goes by that I don't think about it.  I have made more than a few lists with pro and con columns listing all the finer points of how each distributor operates.  Did I mention it's a big deal?

But why?  As I have discussed before there's a lot of reasons why choosing a distributor is a big deal.  In Ohio a brewery can self-distribute but in Kentucky you cannnot.  So to sell beer in Kentucky you MUST have a distributor.  What most people don't realize is that in Ohio (and most everywhere) distributor agreements operate under franchise law which means that when you sign with a distributor it is essentially a perpetual agreement.  That means you don't sign a one year or three year agreement and then "decide" whether or not to continue the relationship.  Nope.  It means that distributor agreements are in effect until such time as they are "mutually severed".  If things aren't going well then the distributor can either let you go or they can tell you "tough shit".  At that point you can sue for negligence to try to get out of the agreement, but that generally doesn't turn out well for anyone but the lawyers.  This is not to say that a distributor would stoop to that level, and every agreement is generally done in good faith.  Still, it's something you have to be aware of when considering the "worst case scenario".

So if its that big of a deal then why do it?  Why not just keep self-distributing?  Well, as I mentioned you can't self-distribute in Kentucky so I am missing out on a big hunk of the local market.  But, there's more to it than that.  Self-distribution was never my long term plan.  I wanted to do it starting out so that I could learn that side of the business since it is where I was the least experienced going into this endeavor.  Boy have I learned a lot in the past 4 months.  Some good stuff, some bad stuff, and some stuff that makes me wonder what the hell kind of business I have gotten myself into.  I definitely haven't learned it all in this short amount of time but I have learned enough to know that I don't want to do it much longer.

As a self-financed "one man army" it is simply not practical to self-distribute long term.  I don't have the time to make the beer, sell the beer, deliver the beer and do the myriad of other things that go along with running a business.  To do it would require a lot of capital that I simply don't have.  To meet the sales targets that I have I would need at least one if not two full time sales reps/delivery drivers.  I need to get a bigger delivery truck (the Ranger has really taken a beating the last few months).  I have to pay these people (bear in mind I haven't even gotten a paycheck yet), insure the truck, and so on.  Essentially I am creating another "business" unto itself.  This distribution arm now has to struggle with being new to the local market and try to convince customers that they should write an extra check and schedule an extra delivery every week from a new supplier.  Some accounts are fine with that but others don't like the extra hassle (so I have found).  In the end you still only have one or two people out "hitting the streets" trying to sell your products through primarily "cold-calls" whereas the other distributors have many more people who already have relationships with accounts.  Certainly over time you can build these same relationships but it takes a while to build this kind of business and in the meantime I can't sell as much beer as I need to stay in business.  Granted, if we had a big bankroll maybe I could pull it off, but I simply don't have it.  In my mind I would rather spend any "extra" capital we may get on additional equipment to grow the business.  That in a nutshell is why we are getting a distributor.

So before I get into the particulars I want to put out a HUGE disclaimer.  All of the local distributors that I have talked to have been extremely nice to me.  I have had multiple meetings with several of them and they have been very helpful with information about their company and the distribution world in general.  My decision to go with one versus another was purely a business decision and not because of any personal reasons or "issues" with any of them.  I consider all of them to be my new friends in the business.  Also, my reasons for my choice were what I thought was best for me and my business and do not in any way constitute an "endorsement" of one distributor over another.  Everyone's "path" is different and what seems best for me may not be best for someone else.

Granted every market is different and one of the first things a brewery needs to consider is how it wants to fit into that market.  The market here in Cincinnati is fractured between Ohio and Kentucky due to different state laws that don't have much overlap.  So whatever you decide to do in Ohio doesn't necessarily translate into anything in Kentucky.  Indiana is different yet, but to be honest I haven't even looked into how things work over there.  In this area you can break the distributors down into a few "groups".  There are distributors that distribute the "big brands" along with some craft and there are others who deal only in craft.  Some of these distributors have territories that cover the whole state and others only operate in certain counties.  Some are strictly in one state or the other and some have branches on both sides of the river.  There are also differences in how sales forces are structured, chain account access (think Kroger's) and things like that.

So there is no one way to "skin the cat" as you can see.  It depends on what you want for your business.  Going with one of the "big guys" means being able to tag onto a large logistics network that can make moving product around fairly easy.  The smaller craft only distributors are generally less "corporate" than some of the "big boys" which can make them a little more nimble which is nice.  Which is better?  Well, both and neither, depending on how you want to be positioned in the market.

Choosing a distributor that covers the full state means that when you're ready to grow all you have to do is "turn on the switch" to expand into other counties without having to sign a new agreement with another distributor.  Signing with a more local distributor means you can choose different partners in different markets that may suit your needs better in that particular region.Once again, which is better?  It depends.

This may be a rather simplistic way to look at it and trust me, there are a lot more in's and out's that I won't go into.  To me, this pretty well illustrates the primary "paths" that I had to choose from.  For me there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these paths which has made this whole process mind-numbingly difficult.  You have to consider what is best for you now AND what will be best for you 10 years from now.  To be honest I have spent so much time and effort just getting this brewery off the ground that I can barely picture what may or may not be happening in 10 years.  This is where the ulcer part comes in.

So after weighing all the options, wavering back and forth for weeks and pulling out some of the little hair I have left, I have finally made a decision.  As of Monday November 5th our products will be distributed in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area by Stagnaro Distributing.  I'm excited to have finally gotten this decision out of the way and hope I have made the right choice.  Only time will tell but in the meantime I am looking forward to concentrating more on production.  This is not to say that I will never make a sales call again.  I still plan to be out in the market visiting customers once a week.  I just won't be doing it 3-4 days of the week like I have been!