The number of U.S. breweries has exploded, rising from 1,574 in 2008 to 2,822 in 2013. More and more craft brewers, such as Curt Keck of Allentown, Pennsylvania, are trying to make the transition from brewing in their garages to building full-time businesses. In a recent interview, we asked the founder of HiJinx Brewing Co. for advice on how to start a microbrewery.
eHow: What education and training are necessary to start a microbrewery?
Keck: At the bare minimum, you should take some college level biology and chemistry. If nothing else, high school biology is advisable. The process is a mix of physics, biology and chemistry. You're dealing with water chemistry, microorganisms, enzymes, etc. You should also seek an apprenticeship at the bare minimum, if not professional brewing courses. I wouldn't recommend somebody do it without some formal brewing experience. I worked for two other microbreweries, the Old Lehigh Brewing Co. (of Allentown) for about a year and a half and the Weyerbacher Brewing Co. (of Easton, Pennsylvania) for two years. That experience has been invaluable.
eHow: What big mistake did you make when you started and how could you have avoided it?
Keck: I started the business as a sole proprietorship. If you plan on expanding I wouldn’t recommend that. We’re an LLC now. The license transfer was a nightmare. It took about nine months to get everything pretty much taken care of. There was lots and lots of paperwork, lots and lots of waiting, and a lot of miscommunication between agencies. There’s still residual fallout from everything, including paperwork sent to the wrong location. We were told our taxes weren’t paid when they actually were. Lots of fun stuff.
eHow: What investment and equipment are essential for a start-up microbrewer?
Keck: I wouldn’t recommend anything less than a five-barrel system. (That’s the equivalent of 157.5 gallons.) A mash tun brew kettle, fermenters, that’s the bare minimum you need. Microbreweries are capital intensive, so it takes a lot of money to start one. That’s something we learned along the way. You prepare for $250,000 and next thing you know you‘re at $400,000 for the building, license fees, attorneys. My advice would be to make sure you have way more money than you think you need and way more time to do it. Leave room for expansion, but don’t go overboard on the production size because you have to be able to sell all the beer you make.
eHow: How do you balance the demands of starting a business with your personal life?
Keck: Personal life. That’s funny. I’m still the IT director for the National Tattoo Association. I do that for eight hours a day and work for the brewery eight hours a day. Of course, weekends are for beer festivals. My wife doesn’t like it so much. But I love both my jobs. I have two kids, 12 and 16. They’re old enough to understand what’s going on. They understand why their dad’s not there every night. You do have to do some balancing. I try to make it to every baseball game, every soccer game, but I’m never at practice, unfortunately.
eHow: How do you distribute your product?
Keck: For the first two years we were self-distributed, which is an OK option if you are making a small amount for a local market. Finding a distributor and building a relationship is really difficult. It's harder to break up with your distributor than getting a divorce. Franchise laws make it difficult to get out of it, so make sure you're happy with the distributor you choose. We're draft-only at the moment, but we're working on getting a bottling machine. That's a $15,000 to $20,000 investment for a used beater or $50,000 for a new one, which is a lot for a small brewery. We're hand-bottling just for samples, but that's not a way to get out on the market in bottles.
eHow: How many employees work at HiJinx? How many should a start-up have?
Keck: I have two partners. One handles the day-to-day operations. We have two other guys who work with us. They’re assistant brewers. One is the accountant who handles our day-to-day bookwork. You can’t really call them employees. They’re not getting paid now. They’re just looking to get involved with this project. They know they’re coming on for salary sooner or later. Nobody’s really getting paid right now. Nobody is full-time.
eHow: How important is marketing, particularly through social media?
Keck: Social media is a huge part of it. Big time. But people want to meet the people behind the beer. Talking face to face with consumers and tavern owners is paramount to surviving. We get out there as much as possible. We try to get out with our sales reps, chat with them, go to beer festivals, chat with the consumers. We just spent several hours at Bacon Fest (in Easton, Pennsylvania). Two to three times a week I put up a new update (on social media). If we get a new bar, I'll tweet that.
About Curt Keck
Curt Keck founded HiJinx Brewing Co. in 2011. In late 2014, the company moved to a new 10-barrel-a-batch location at a former Mack Trucks facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 2014, HiJinx offered Pitch Penny Ale, Kung Fu Gnome, Barista's Choice Coffee Porter and Steal Your Face Stout at bars from Scranton to Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Keck worked for microbrewers, took an information technology job and founded HiJinx after 12 years away from the beer industry. “It was my passion," he said. "It’s always been."