By Guest contributor Michael Wright, founder of The Commons Brewery
Welcome to 2014
“…we’ve been bought out by AB-Inbev…” Those words slipped out with a muddled dose of hesitation and urgency from our Morgan Distributing representative. I’ve been told that I’m even-keeled. Maybe that’s true, because I calmly accepted this hand grenade of information, hucked it into the Willamette and moved on to planning our exit strategy.
That episode was similar to dropping one of our 750ml bottles. There is a short-lived silence from the moment the bottle releases from your hand until it hits the concrete floor with a rather dramatic clang and shatters. The result is a nasty mess at your feet. You pause for a second, then grab the dust pan, sweep it up and move on. And, so we did. We swept our partnership with Morgan into the dustpan, bought a new truck, hired a couple more great people and moved on with self-distribution. Welcome to 2014.
Commons brewer Sean Burke (left) and Mike Wright
How about a fly-by of 2014 in roughly 1200 words? It seems 2014 was the year we grew up as a company. Maybe I did personally, and I’m projecting, but it feels like we put our big boy pants on this year. This personal project has morphed from a garage hobby to a full fledged business where we rely on each other to do our part (that’s an intangible, but critical piece to daily operations). As I eluded to in the opening paragraph, there was a deep dive into Oregon franchise law to start out the year.
This is seemingly a prerequisite to owning a brewery in Oregon, but people don’t reach for the Oregon Revised Statutes when they are following a passion. – It’s so clear now, that following a passion is much like chasing a wild animal, and bears little resemblance to executing a well defined business plan. There’s excitement, and one obstacle after another that you attempt to navigate as you are running to catch up. – There had been a fair amount of franchise law learning leading into our partnership, but the the crash course came as we worked to dismantle the legal side of the partnership. Oregon franchise law (like so many franchise states) is lopsided in favor of the distributors and codified in the sturdy structure that is the Oregon Revised Statutes. Here we were, at the foot of Goliath with our franchise-hands tied behind our back. It felt like the garage days were long gone. It was a bit unnerving. In the end, a solid contract (wholly informed by a talented lawyer) and reasonable people from Morgan allowed us to move forward with little disruption. With that deal squared away, I could resume the search for a new home.
The garage was ridiculously small, but appropriate for a hobby brewery. Next came Stephens St. (our current home). At 1500 sq. ft. and seemed enormous when I was signing the lease. – Seriously, what the fuck was I doing leasing this commercial space and attempting to start a brewery? I asked myself that question a lot, but I ignored myself. – It didn’t take long before the Stephens space was too small. That’s not because we grew so fast. 1500 sq. ft. is simply not enough space for a small production brewery and tasting room (particularly when you self distribute). I guess you could argue poor planning, but then I wasn’t doing much planning, just chasing after my tailypo …We added another 1500 sq. ft. in December of 2012 and filled that up 10 minutes later. Back to 2014. By the time I was signing my name to purchase agreement for a 10,000 sq. ft. building in the Central Eastside, it was late Spring and I had toured just about every building in close-in Southeast Portland. Yeah, I just leapt forward and left out a lot of growed-up stuff like dealing with a landlord who had tired of a brewery in his space, and literally singing my life away in the process of securing financing to buy a building (to name two). I’ll elaborate on those topics and more in my book. Keep running…
It’s July and we’ve taken possession of our building, and – There’s that what-the-hell-am-I-doing feeling again – I’m walking the space with our architect making decisions that are supposed to add value, and be in line with our branding. All the while, the boys are making and selling beer. I’m thinking about lucky I am to have such a great team that makes up The Commons, and how I want to make good decisions for all of us as we move forward. This is another grown up moment. The decisions, even seemingly small ones, are more weighty. Owning this business, is about ensuring we have a sustainable future, and clearing the path of as many obstacles as possible so my employees can make and sell amazing beer. I think a lot about who we are, and who we are not. Hold the tiny violins, I’m not looking for sympathy. I love this shit! I know one thing for certain, we don’t make and sell vacuum cleaners, we make beer.
So-you-want-to-start-a-brewery sidebar: I receive and endless stream of emails offering free help in exchange for learning everything about brewing. So many are rooted in naivete. It’s not their fault, they have romantic aspirations and lack experience. Hmmmm, sounds familiar. Going in naive is fine, but you really have to want it because the shiny romance will dull when you learn that making beer is really a manufacturing business. If you can make it through that realization, and are able to find romance in that reality, you might be a good fit for this industry. In other words, it’s not all mashing in and hosting beer dinners.
Somehow it’s late December and we are well into construction of our new home. A new 15bbl brewhouse is on order. As a team, we are getting better at making weighty decisions. We must, because there are dozens each week. All of this is happening while we continue to run our existing operation in, what feels like, the living room of a disapproving housemate. Scoot over dude. This move is not about growth, though we will technically grow and it’s easily summarized as such. This move, and this year in retrospect, is about trying to secure our position as a small niche brewery in a beer mecca. That’s some grown up shit. Here comes 2015.
Crystal Balls and Buzzwords
Obligatory Is-there-a-bubble speculation? I’m not convinced we have anything resembling a bubble, but that does not mean we won’t see closures going forward. With so many options, new businesses will need bring high quality beer to market immediately (not an option to figure out quality), and locate in underserved neighborhoods, or differentiate themselves in some other way. How was that for a corporate buzzword summary? I could replace the buzzwords with colorful expletives, but the result would be the same. Let me shift to a sports theme to make my point. New breweries need to bring it. Gen’ 1 breweries need to bring it. We need to bring it.
This town, and this State take beer seriously.
I’m back on the run.
Mike Wright – Founder of The Commons Brewery