From Homebrew to Going Pro

From the Producer David Page: The unique joys and struggles of going from home brewer to owning a successful microbrewery.

If you give it more than lip service, Thanksgiving is a time to truly reflect on what we have to be thankful for. And, as someone who once jumped off the cliff from getting a paycheck to starting a business, I find that I feel a tremendous amount of satisfaction from having taken that risk and having at least some level of success. But more than anything, I am thankful that I can do creative work I love. I make television, they make beer, but the craft brewers I’ve met feel exactly the same way.

They began with a passion, took major financial risks to turn it into a business, and now get to come to work every day to do something they love. Which doesn't mean it’s headache free. Far from it. Running a brewery is hard, hard work. And unlike the owners of many other businesses, craft brewers tend to make choices that are not venerated in the Wall Street Journal– quality over profits, obsession with perfection, true concern for the customer, and a lack of desire to crush other companies who produce the same product. And frankly, I think opening a brewery is getting even more risky financially because so many people now know the difference between good beer and bad. The learning curve for a new brewery can be financially catastrophic. Yet they’re opening at the rate of 500 a year and most are staying open, so somebody keeps doing something right.

The brewer at the heart of this week’s episode is a perfect example of what it takes. Bootlegger’s Brewery owner Aaron Barkenhagen began, as almost all professional brewers do, as a home brewer. He started making beer in his garage at age nineteen and brewed every weekend for the next year and a half. He says, “It was way more beer than I could drink. I kind of became the neighborhood supplier of beer. So that's kind of where the Bootlegger’s name came from. I had a lot of people over to my house, a lot of people were trying my beer. And I think the thing that stuck with me was everybody was saying I would definitely buy this beer if it was available for sale.”

So he decided to go pro. When he finally took the plunge Aaron, along with just a few others, did the actual construction work to turn the space he found into a brewery. He worked the

jackhammer, poured the fresh concrete, started brewing, and then hoped for the best.

But the job didn’t get any easier. “In the beginning, it was just all about making something work,” he says. “The first year that we started, I basically did everything. I did sales, delivery, all the brewing, and I think that helped me appreciate all the hard work that goes into it.”

And all that hard work has paid off. In his first year, Aaron produced 176 barrels of beer. Five years later, in a new and larger brewery, it was 4,200 barrels - with a full staff as thrilled with what’s going on as he is. “I think everybody that works here is actually pretty excited to come to work every day and excited to be part of the growth,” he says.

And beyond the long hours he works - not just brewing but also running a growing business - Eric keeps doing what he loved to do when he was brewing for his friends at home, creating new and different beers. You might think he was lucky enough to pursue his passion. But actually he made his luck. He had the guts and fortitude to take a risk and succeed. And for that, his customers are extremely thankful.

Watch the full episode of Bootlegger's Brewery on Beer Geeks now 

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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