Maiden Voyage

When you put a huge amount of time and energy into accomplishing a major goal, it’s sometimes easy to blow right past that goal without thinking. Hell, it took a couple weeks after I graduated college that I finally realized that it had happened. So although I don’t think it’s been firmly imprinted upon my conscious quite yet, The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. is now officially making beer.

Brandon has worked some crazy hours this week in order to get all of our tanks filled with beer, brewing nine batches of five different varieties in five days. For a more in-depth look into this very intense week, you can read his account below. Here’s the current lineup: 

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  • Day 1: Hello World (Special Release) – A one-off British-style Special Bitter, brewed to calibrate our system
  • Day 2: White Sky (Flagship) – Our signature chai-spiced wheat beer
  • Day 3: Non-Timber Forest Product (Special Release) – Our collaboration maple beer with Sprague Farm & Brew Works for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2014
  • Day 4: Business Casual (Flagship) – Our session red ale
  • Day 5: Random science experiment! (not pictured) – An open-fermented hybrid beer, utilizing our idle whirlpool kettle as a fermenter to test the ambient microbiology of Braddock.

It’s been a long and tumultuous road to get to this point. Setback after setback pushed back our ability to make beer until months after we had planned to do so, and we still have much to accomplish before we’re finally able to open the brewery. We’ll be spending the next month finishing up the renovation of our taproom while we tweak recipes and build inventory, followed by a series of soft openings before we officially open for normal hours.

Soon, we shall have beer. And what a long, strange trip it’s been.

First Steps

Last week, we officially made the transition from brewery under construction to full production facility. It was a major milestone for the company, and one of the first that I have been able to take part in.

I’ll start with a quick recap: On Sunday, the brewhouse still looked like a tornado had just ripped through it. I found it hard to believe that we would actually be making beer over the next few days. We spent the entire night cleaning, washing, and reorganizing the space. Come Monday, we improvised our way through the day and encountered numerous equipment issues, but were still able to pull off our first beer, Hello World (a seventeen hour brew day on one hour of sleep).

We had more of an idea what to expect Tuesday when brewing White Sky, and began to rapidly improve. Wednesday was the first of many collaborations, this time with Luke Steadman of Sprague Farm and Brew Works. Together, we brewed Non-Timer Forest Product, a spring ale brewed with maple and ingredients from the farm. On Thursday I brewed Business Casual, working predominately solo, but felt confident and inspired by the tasks at hand. Friday I brewed a bit of an artistic experiment and, with the stress level down substantially, finally sat back and enjoyed the aroma of an open-fermenting beer.

The week brought with it many challenges but it all adds up to a story we’ll never forget. We worked hard, barely slept, and went from feeling unprepared, exhausted and overwhelmed to confident, relaxed and inspired. I learned a lot from this week, but these are the highlights:

1.    Be able to quickly adapt on the fly. Our first day was entirely improvised; we encountered numerous problems and did our best to develop solutions. The following days had some rhythm, but still brought with them new obstacles and challenges. We encountered problems with our equipment, ingredients, and physical wellness – but we made the best of all of it. Quick and resourceful thinking allowed us to keep the day moving.

2.    Allow yourself to make mistakes, and learn from them. Because we’re dealing with beer (which turns over relatively quickly), it’s still pretty early to tell if any major mistakes occurred. But as a good friend and mentor once told me, “you learn the most when things don’t go as planned”. It will always be difficult to handle with if something doesn’t come out right, but mistakes are inevitable and its how you react to them that matters most.

3.    Take care of (and enjoy) yourself. While getting the job done is important, you have to recognize when you need a break. I overheard Asa say “Well Matt’s asleep and Brandon looks like a zombie” before I realized how exhausted I was and did something about it. When things are that crazy its easy to neglect the body. But, “At the end of the day, we’re still making beer”. It’s easy to reduce each day to a number of hours worked and a checklist of things accomplished, but I love what I do and I take a lot of joy in doing it. Finding the balance and creating outlets is key to loving what you do.

4.    Trust in your ability. I will always be looking to learn new things and find ways to improve. In weeks like these, confidence is a key component to good work. There were times this week where I felt completely overwhelmed, but I leaned on my prior knowledge and experience to get the job done. Now there are five fermenters full of beer.

This week is a small chapter in a story that I can’t wait to see unfold. It’s great to be part of a team that loves what they do and never stops learning and improving. Soon, we’ll have finished beer in kegs and we can’t wait to share it will all of you.

The Loan Saga: 5 Things We Learned

This Friday marks one of the biggest milestones to date for our company. We will sign the loan documents and receive the final chunk of money that we set out to raise. Our funding came from a private equity offering, as well as loans through both the Enterprise Zone Corporation of Braddock and Allegheny County Economic Development.

We’ve spoken about our fundraising efforts a bit before, but I wanted to dive more deeply into what it really takes to get a loan. While in school doing theoretical business plans and pitches, it was easy to chalk up a gap in funding to “oh don’t worry, there are loans for businesses like us”. But guess what: you’re a new and totally unproven idea. Loan officers don’t want to talk to you. They sure didn’t want to talk to us. Sometimes we were told no before we even asked. That’s when we had to take a step back and really analyze our entire approach. Here are a few things we learned throughout the process.

  1. Get a warm introduction - Use your network. Seriously, VC firms in places like Silicon Valley will straight up laugh at you if you walk in without an introduction. When we originally met with the EZCB, they had already heard about our project from a number of people, including Mayor Fetterman. This early on in the process, all we requested was a chance to set up a meeting and talk.
  2. Be prepared - Once we got our original meeting, it was up to us to sell them on why we were a worthy investment. I wholeheartedly believe luck is where preparation meets opportunity, so we prepared like hell. We cleaned the brewery for a full day before we had representatives from both EZCB and ACED visit. We put together a tailored pitch and financial packet, along with supporting legal documents for them. We outlined exactly what we would be doing with the money. Most importantly, we got them believing in our brand and in us. We could answer almost every question they threw at us. And when we couldn’t, we followed up as quickly as possible after figuring it out.
  3. Be patient - Getting a loan takes a long time. We originally met the EZCB folks back in February. ACED got involved around August. There will be unexpected delays. You will need to resubmit paperwork or prepare another document. There are a lot of moving parts. Holidays, sick days, injuries to lawyers… speedbumps are inevitable.
  4. …But be persistent - At the end of the day, it’s up to you to show how badly you want it. When the speedbumps start to appear, you have to prove that you will fight for your business. Secretaries eventually came to recognize my voice from how many times I called their offices. No one is going to do the work for you – pick up the phone, and ask how you can help. Do not be afraid to nudge things along. Whenever anyone asked for something, I got it done instantly. My goal throughout this whole adventure was to show those loaning us the money that they were making the right choice.
  5. Stay positive - This might sound silly, but you have to approach the process with the right mindset. They loan officers are not there to intentionally make it hard on you. Complaining to them or being rude does not earn you any favors. I had one bad day where I completely lost it. Afterwards, I felt terrible. I called the guy right back and apologized. Luckily, he understood my frustration, and we put it behind us. He was on our side and wanted things to move forward just as much as I did.

A lot of times, things that are hard to bear are sweet to remember. Oh, how sweet this Friday shall be. Reflecting on this past year, we’ve realized just how many people put their time, effort, and money into making this loan happen. For that, we are eternally grateful.

Shout out to Dennis Davin, Paul Costa, Chuck Starrett, Bill Pfoff, John Fetterman, Lance Chimka, Dan Tobin, Pete Kurzweg (our terrific lawyer), and the fine folks at HRS Services for believing in us and allowing us to pursue our dream.

Now it’s time to start paying this thing off!

How We Stumbled Across A Head Brewer: 3 steps to hiring key personnel

Back in December, I was searching the brewing forums for hop contracts when I accidentally came across a post from a brewer looking to join an early-stage startup brewery. Curiosity got the best of me, so I shot him a quick email introducing myself and the company. You can read the full account of how that all transpired here, but long story short, we spent the next six weeks figuring out how to properly bring a new employee on to the company.

Through this process we learned a lot about ourselves and what it takes to make a major hiring decision. While there are many other parts at play here, these three steps guided us along the way.

1. Understand what a great hire would look like for your company.

When bringing on our first big hire, we knew what type of person we were looking for. There are a few key traits Asa and I value and want to perpetuate within the company, and we wanted to make sure that a potential hire would have all three: emotional intelligence, work ethic, and curiosity.

• Emotional intelligence - Technical skill can be taught, but you can’t teach emotional intelligence. As anyone who’s ever started or worked for a small business knows, you can’t possibly predict what the company will look like in the next three to six months. It’s exhilarating, it’s draining, and it takes a lot to hold up to the emotional whiplash. Emotionally intelligent people can, and will, adapt when necessary.

• Work ethic - I grew up working up on my dads farm. He’d always say “If you don’t have anything to do, pick up trash”. That mindset holds more true than ever with a startup – there is always something to be done. Early hires will wear all hats and you want to find someone who’s willing to work far above and beyond their own job description.

• Curiosity - Walt Disney put it best when he said that “we keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”. Our old motto was “curiosity, without compromise” (we had to start somewhere). For us, any candidate we would consider had to display their own sense of curiosity. It is how we got to where we are now and will continue to guide us as we move forward. Never stop learning.

2. Make the hiring process a challenge, but worthwhile.

“The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.” – Randy Pausch

Even though we are a still a startup, we wanted the hiring process to be rigorous. Our application consisted of eight in-depth essay questions, multiple interviews, and a liquid resume, so to speak. Seeing a potential hire put effort toward the application shows they are willing to break through brick walls. When other walls appear, they’ve already proven that they’re up to the challenge in front of them.

Now this doesn’t mean wasting people’s time for the sake of dragging out the process. These things can be done quickly. It’s even better when the candidate is also quick to accomplish their portion.

3. Sell the mission.

Hiring is a two-way street. It is your job to sell the company to a prospective hire. Realize they may be looking at other offers – offers that come with more money, benefits, and security. What you can offer are the values and road map to build something meaningful that they want to associate with.

We believe in great beer service, Braddock, and educating our customers and community. Showing this, rather than telling, really helped drive our point home. Through our actions on social media and in person, we strive to share these beliefs with those who are listening.

Every company will reach the point where they need to bring on a new team member. Take pride in hiring. It is one of the most important decisions you will make, and a mistake can set you back (or worse, shut you down). And for us, at such an early stage, it’s more important than ever.

The New Gentleman

We’ve got some pretty excellent news to announce, family: We’re officially bringing on a head brewer. His name is Brandon, and he rocks.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s how this all came about.

We had been thinking about bringing on a brewer for a while. And whenever we talked about it, we agreed that the best time to do so was a few months after we opened the brewery – after all, we wanted to get our own hands dirty before we brought on additional personnel. But we began perusing the ‘for hire’ section of the industry forums anyhow, just for kicks. And this is what we found: almost all people looking for brewing jobs are guys between the ages of 35 and 55, have families to support, and either a.) have no commercial brewing experience, or b.) have experience, and therefore sure as hell wouldn’t want to work at a ground-level startup.

So it came as quite the surprise when, in December, Matt accidentally stumbled upon a post by a 22-year-old with commercial brewing experience that was specifically looking for a ground-level startup. Six weeks, several interviews, a lengthy application, a trip to Pittsburgh, and more than a few shared beers later, we had made our decision.

An introduction is now in order.

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This is Brandon Capps. He grew up north of Atlanta, Georgia. He spent the majority of his childhood building things and teaching himself new skills, and was therefore right at home while attending Georgia Tech for electrical engineering.

It was in his sophomore year that Brandon, much like ourselves, became a voluntary lifelong slave to the wonders of beer. After accepting a job as an automation and systems design engineer at Anheuser-Busch, he quickly became enamored with the scientific and creative world of brewing. He began homebrewing furiously on the side (winning some medals in the process), and after three semesters of work at AB, became the assistant brewer at 5 Seasons brewpub in Atlanta. And after graduating from Georgia Tech this past December, he’s made the decision to move up to Pittsburgh and become part of The Brew Gentlemen team.

Needless to say, Brandon is looking forward to rocking the black and gold (and, in the brewery’s case, the grey and orange). He’s excited to become a part of Pittsburgh’s unbelievable food and drink scene, and we’re excited to bring another awesome, hard-working young person to the city.

So cheers, Brandon. We’re glad to have you on board.

Here’s to 2014.

Rewind to this time last year.

We just had moved from our old location to our current building. The renovation had begun, we were brewing some good R&D batches, but we were still living in Shadyside and had yet to raise any money. Most of our time was spent formulating an investment plan – our Hail Mary pass, our half-court buzzer shot to actually starting the company we’d been working on for what seemed like forever.

Over the following year – to massively oversimplify the emotional whiplash of launching our first funding round – we pulled it off. In six long months, we raised the necessary funding through the sale of twenty shares of the company and the help of an economic development loan. And throughout the process of raising capital, we learned a lot about the level of service we wanted to provide. It forced us to hone in on what really mattered to us, and we budgeted accordingly. By honing in on what we valued most and working to accommodate those things from the start, we avoided what is arguably the biggest cause of stress and erosion of relationships in a small business setting: having to fight tooth and nail for every line item in the budget.

Meanwhile, over on the renovation side of things, we were cruising. Due to equal parts resourcefulness and utter insanity, we made the decision to do almost all of our construction ourselves. Everything that didn’t require a professional certification was fair game. Both of us had some solid construction experience and would consider ourselves generally handy, but this was one hell of an undertaking. So with the wise guidance of our landlord, and an endless trove of YouTube tutorials, we taught ourselves carpentry, drywall, masonry, tiling, concrete work, interior design – the whole shebang. Somehow, things look great and we’re both still breathing, so I’d say that things have gone fairly well so far.

So, it’s now the beginning of 2014. We’re on track to begin brewing within the next few months, and open the taproom shortly thereafter. Everything is finally coming together, which is rather relieving given the ridiculous spattering of speed bumps we encountered along the way. Our tanks are now in place, after having arrived without their feet. The brewing system is now ready to be hooked up and plumbed in, after arriving with a crucial part not having been welded onto it. And the kegs are now all present and accounted for, after a gigantic shipping snafu that scattered three different breweries’ kegs randomly across the country. But we’ve learned that these goofy hiccups, however frustrating, are all part of the process. As Calvin’s father would say, it builds character.

From our perspective, this whole open-a-brewery thing has taken forever. Forr-evv-err. But we’ve learned not to get too wrapped up in that, because we now know what it is that we value most: creating something memorable for our customers and community. Or, as a friend and mentor taught us, our family. And we’re not in the business of cutting corners, family. We assure you that it will be worth the wait.

2014 is going to be a really incredible year for us, and we’re so fortunate for all of the support that’s gotten us here. We have no idea where we’ll be this time next year, but one thing is for damn sure: we’re enthusiastically awaiting the day we’re able to finally pour you a pint, fill your growler, and show you the brewery.

So cheers, family. Here’s to 2014.

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That time we took the Cicerone Exam

The past two weeks have been a blur.

This past Monday, we took the Certified Cicerone Exam in Washington, DC. An immense amount of research-and-study drinking up to that point (followed by a good helping of dear-lord-it’s-finally-over drinking thereafter) certainly contributed to the aforementioned blur, but most of it was due to our total immersion study strategy. The exam’s difficulty is not due to its depth, but rather its breadth – the sheer volume of topics covered makes it significantly more difficult than having to learn one topic in great detail.

You need to know what separates a Czech Pilsener from the younger German variety. You need to know how to disassemble, clean, and rebuild a draft system. You need to know what parts of Europe have hard water, and how it influenced the region’s brewing methods. You need to know what beers would pair well with a number of specific dishes, and be able to thoroughly explain why. You need to know what common off-flavors taste like, and what causes them. The list goes on.

But let me rewind a bit and give a brief explanation of the Cicerone Certification Program. To oversimplify, a Cicerone is a sommelier for beer. It is a voluntary certification, assessing one’s knowledge of everything from the brewing process to beer styles, from food pairing to proper service and draft maintenance. There are three levels of Cicerone certification, each with it’s own exam: the Certified Beer Server, a fairly straightforward online test; the Certified Cicerone (what most people are talking about to when referring to “Cicerones”, and the level we’ve been shooting for), an incredibly intense four-hour exam with a written portion, a tasting portion, and a demonstration portion; and the Master Cicerone, a title only held by a select few people with an encyclopedic knowledge of beer.

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So if it’s not only voluntary but ridiculously difficult, and is predominantly helpful in a job-acquisition scenario (which we’re kind of alright on at the moment), why would we want to become Certified Cicerones?

  1. We’re really young. We can’t rely on years of experience to prove that we know what we’re talking about, so we have to be as professional as possible to make up for that. Becoming Certified Cicerones means that according to an well-established standard, we really know our shit.
  2. It forces us to brush up on everything we already know, and learn a good deal of new things. Before preparing for the exam, we were pretty rusty on a few different beer styles, mostly German and British – now we’re much more confident in those areas. This is especially good for us at the present date, now that we’re right on the verge of opening the brewery after nearly three years of laying the groundwork.
  3. It sets a precedent for the future of our company. We’d like to have 100% staff here at The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. be certified, be they Certified Beer Servers or Certified Cicerones depending on their job descriptions. Having a knowledgeable staff is extremely important to us.
  4. There are currently only four Certified Cicerones in Pittsburgh, and only one of those four works for a local brewery (Chase Saraiva of East End Brewing Co.). We’d like to think that more Certified Cicerones means an increase, however small, in the overall credibility of Pittsburgh’s beer scene.

So all in all, it made a lot of sense for us to nut up and go for it. And, as expected, it was a beast of an exam, and the tasting portion was extremely subtle. But overall, we have a good feeling about it. For everyone that helped an encouraged us, we couldn’t have done it without you.

And now come the long few weeks until we receive our results.

And Thus Begins The Goat Rodeo.

Things are absolutely marvelous here at 512 Braddock Avenue. Even though the normally gradual onset of joy-crushing grayness has decided to thrust itself upon Pittsburgh without warning this October, The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. is thoroughly unfazed. And that, dear readers, is because we can finally say something we’ve been waiting since July to say: we now have brewing equipment.

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If our whole start-a-brewery project were a movie, this would be the beginning of a very inspirational yet seriously abbreviated montage set to some form of 80s power ballad. In reality, however, we’ve just acquired a big pile of irregularly-shaped Tetris pieces that we must somehow guide into place as they careen downwards towards their eventual home at the bottom of the screen. And it’s most certainly not a plug-and-play type of deal; there are a huge number of parts that must line up perfectly in order for us to open,  and the arrival of our equipment is merely the tip of the logistical iceberg. But it’s the lynchpin of the whole operation, and after four months of giddy anticipation, its arrival is certainly a milestone.

Standing between us and the maiden voyage of our newly acquired instruments is a formidable mountain of renovation work. And since we’re doing the majority of our buildout ourselves, we’ve had to learn a lot of requisite construction skills on the fly. Needless to say, we’ve done an obscene amount of Googling with the intent of becoming overnight experts (or at least overnight passable craftsmen) in a variety of fields that some people spend their entire professional careers perfecting. Somehow it’s all worked out exceptionally well so far, even though our building is old enough that our additions are sporadically rejected by their host. Bob Vila would be proud.

We’re doing our best to get everything together within a reasonable timeframe, but there are a variety of factors outside of our control (bureaucracy, permits, postseason Pirates baseball, you know the drill) that have pushed our opening back ever so slightly. In all likelihood, we’ll be brewing by the end of the year with the intention of opening sometime in the beginning of 2014. It’s a bummer to have to wait a bit longer than expected to get everything up and running, but we’d rather spend the time making sure everything is totally watertight vs. blitz through it with the intent of getting beer out the door as soon as possible. We’re playing for keeps.

Field Trip: DC

As we’ve noted in the past, field trips are crucial. Observing those who excel within your niche (and searching for the patterns between them) is always a valuable case study, and observing those who excel in different niches provides indispensable perspective. Now that we’re only a few months away from opening, we’re working to finalize all of our plans for the brewery and taproom; thus, we decided to take a field trip to Washington, DC in search of some new ideas and inspiration. After visiting a number of really exceptional establishments – both beer-centric and otherwise – we’ve compiled our thoughts on what we believe exceptional beer service consists of. Note: this isn’t intended to be prescriptive. It’s merely a list of things that we saw being done well and wish to emulate.

In our opinion, exceptional beer service can be split into two distinct parts: objective, tangible elements and subjective, intangible elements. I’ll break these suckers down and provide a few examples from our trip.

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Respecting the beer: the objective tangibles

The objective tangibles are the empirical components of optimal beer service. Things that can be done to ensure the highest level of quality from a purely scientific standpoint.

  • The draft system is the middleman between what the brewer intends and what the drinker receives. Clean draft lines should be a default expectation. As noted by The Brewers Association’s 5 Cardinal Sins of Craft Beer Service, “skirting draught line maintenance is comparable to a restaurant only sometimes washing the dishes”. Meridian Pint (an excellent example of folks with a respect for beer, minus any pretensiousness) advertises their weekly line cleanings with a drink special entitled Beermergency – reduced priced drafts of the beer left in the lines prior to flushing them. This takes the mundane and unglamorous act of scheduled maintenance and turns it into something everyone can benefit from.
  • Although our sample size of bars and restaurants wasn’t enormous, one thing definitely stood out at those that we visited: clean, proper glassware. Nearly every location we popped into had both a variety of glassware and a countertop glass rinser. And it wasn’t just the upscale places: from the high-intensity beer curator to the quirky dive to the boutique pizza joint, a wide range of folks were serving beer in its respective glassware. When we asked the staff’s opinions on the difficulty of keeping and utilizing a large inventory of specialized glasses, we got the same response each time: once you develop a routine, it’s just as easy as any alternative. Welp, we’re sold.

Respecting the drinker: the subjective intangibles

In our opinion, having the science taken care of is really only half the battle. The subjective intangibles are the above-and-beyonds that make the experience special.

  • As the variety of available beer grows and style boundaries are blurred by experimental offerings, the ability to educate the drinker matters more than ever. Regardless of whether you’re a nerd or a newbie, craft beer is a terrain best navigated with the assistance of a knowledgeable staff and informative literature. Quite a few of the locations we visited had some degree of descriptions on their beer menus – usually no more than a few choice adjectives, but an incredibly helpful addition in an age where terms like “IPA” can mean any number of things. And combined with a staff that’s able to field questions and make solid recommendations, the drinker is capable of making more informed decisions. And the more the drinker knows, the more they’ll care.
  • The quantitative benefits of proper glassware aside, beer obviously looks better in a vessel that’s been specifically designed to accentuate its beauty. A pink-hued hibiscus sour absolutely sings in a tulip glass, much as weissbier vase showcases its hazy glow. There are those who would argue that the beer should speak for itself, but if so much time and energy has been put into the contents, then an equal amount of attention should be paid to the aesthetics of its presentation.
  • On the topic of aesthetics, interior design was something we paid specific attention to while on this trip. We visited a variety of spaces, each with its own personality, but the ones that stood out to us were the ones that clearly put a lot of thought into designing their physical spaces. One of the spots we visited that nailed this was B Too (pictured above), a strikingly gorgeous Belgian restaurant with a modern-yet-approachably-casual atmosphere and some mean moules-frites.

So aside from being a much-needed break from the brewery renovation and an overall jolly good time, DC confirmed the feasibility of a lot of the things we’ve been thinking about for our own space. Now it’s time for us to put that knowledge into making our taproom the best it can be. This is gonna be fun.

Thanks for coming along for the ride, family.

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