Like many amateur beermakers, Sten Sellier of Sterling seeks to turn a hobby into a vocation by opening his own brewery.
What’s unique about his business plan, however, is that he has no intention of marketing his own beer brands. No Sten’s Stout, no Loudoun County Lager. Sellier’s Beltway Brewing Co. will be strictly a brewery for hire. If you’re a restaurateur who wants a unique house label, or a microbrewery that’s maxed out on tank space or a would-be beer baron who wants to test the market, Sellier will happily rent out his brew kettle and fermenters so you can mix your barley and hops.
Many breweries fill up unused tanks by making other people’s beers, and at least one microbrewery, Custom Brewcrafters in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., was specifically founded to custom-brew beer for local restaurants. But all of them — even Custom Brewcrafters — brew their own beers as well.
“We want to convince our customers that we’re here to help them, not just fill capacity until our own brand takes off,” explains Sellier.
The idea, Sellier says, was born of his own experience. An engineer by trade (“my last job was selling conveyor systems for warehouses”), he’s been an enthusiastic homebrewer for 10 years. “I said to myself, ‘I ought to find a way to make a living off of this.’ So I called a number of breweries and asked, ‘Can you make my recipe for me?’ They either said no or they set so many stipulations that it wasn’t worth it.”
A recurring problem was that brewery systems produced far more beer — 50, 100, 200 barrels at a time — than a beginner could realistically warehouse or sell. The smallest minimum batch was 20 barrels, cited by DC Brau. That’s still a lot of liquid — more than 7,000 12-ounce glasses worth.
Sellier plans to start small, with a 3- to 5-barrel system. “Then, as I reel in financing, I’ll add a 20-barrel system and larger tanks.”
He doesn’t intend his business to be a brew-on-premise for amateurs like the defunct Sheandoah Brewing Co. was, but if some homebrewers want to make a few barrels for a wedding or other special occasions, he won’t turn them down.
Sellier says he’s swapped e-mails with a few well-known “gypsy” brewers who are looking for host breweries closer to their main markets. Beltway Brewing, however, is still in its gestation stage. Its Web site is currently under construction. Sellier hasn’t even secured a location yet, and he’s just starting to raise the $2 million he estimates that the project will cost. Realistically, he says, he’s looking at a late 2012 startup.
But he did get one encouraging piece of news recently. He submitted his business plan to the Loudoun County Small Business Development Center, which holds an annual contest for prospective entrepreneurs. “Lo and behold, I won first place for a local business model.”
Sellier’s plan highlights some of the more vexing problems facing the craft brewing industry — where to find the capacity to meet burgeoning demand, and how to get beer to market most efficiently.
Plans to Expand
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which was supposed to announce a site for an East Coast branch brewery back in August, still appears stuck at the starting gate. The Virginia location that Sierra Nevada was eyeing, in an industrial park in Christiansburg, not far from Roanoke, has reportedly been taken over by Backcountry.com, an online dealer in outdoor clothing and goods. Sierra Nevada’s communications coordinator Bill Manley declined to comment on Virginia but did say that a proposed site in Blount County, Tenn., once thought to be the top prospect, is definitely out of the running.
“The tax laws there were a little tough for us,” commented Manley, “and the humidity was also a factor.” He added: “We have a handful of sites we’re looking at. They keep coming in and dropping off.”
Meanwhile, Schlafly Brewing Co., whose St. Louis plant is expected to reach full capacity next year, has entered into a partnership with two brewpub owners who are setting up off-site breweries to supply the off-premise market. Blackstone Brewery in Nashville is up and running; Backpocket Brewing Co. in Iowa City, Iowa, is set to go online in third quarter 2012.
“In both cases, our partners have made the investment and own the sites. We have provided technical expertise in design, construction, startup and ongoing production,” said Schlafly co-founder Dan Kopman. In return, both breweries will split production between their own beers and Schlafly brands.
Can you say time-share brewery?