Armada Brewing emerged victorious in Startup Brewery Challenge 8, a business pitch competition sponsored by Craft Brew Alliance, which was held during Thursday’s Brewbound Session conference in New York City.
John Kraszewski, the founder of Armada Brewing, competed against representatives from four other emerging breweries: M.I.A. Beer Company, Good City Brewing, Black Star Line Brewing Company, and Torch & Crown Brewing.
“Right now I have mixed emotions. I’m excited, emotional and stoked,” Kraszewski told Brewbound after being announced as the winner. “It means that what we’ve been doing is working and we are going to continue on that path.”
Armada Brewing, a Connecticut-based craft brewery, began producing beer out of East Haven’s Overshores Brewing earlier this year. The brewery’s beers are available in 750 mL bottles at over 100 retail accounts across the state.
“This is just the first chapter,” Kraszewski said during his pitch. “As our fleet is growing, so does the story.”
During the challenge, entrepreneurs had four minutes to convince a panel of five judges — Karmen Olson, director of emerging business partnerships at Craft Brew Alliance (CBA); Tom Bleigh, innovation brewmaster for CBA; Adam Lambert, COO at Storied Craft Breweries; Jonny Stringer, manager of beer operations at CraftWorks Restaurants; and Darren Rovell, a sports business reporter at ESPN — that their brands have what it takes to compete in a competitive craft landscape at a time when sales are slowing.
Kraszewski impressed the judging panel with the quality of his beer, his story and brand cohesiveness. Nevertheless, judges also said the presentation felt a bit “contrived” and questioned the scalability and long-term viability of the company’s large format bottle business.
In describing why Armada was named the winner, Olson said the judges, as part of a deliberation process, had praised the brand for the beer’s complex taste and Kraszewski’s willingness to accept feedback.
“We ultimately went with Armada because the beers are really solid, and we thought John would gain some expert coaching from Tom (Bleigh),” Olson said. “The other thing that we really liked was that he was very coachable. It’s funny because we came back to discuss it and all of us liked everything he had presented probably the most, but we were very critical of him on stage. So it was interesting to experience that he was open to feedback.”
Kraszewski noted that he cherished the critiques, and said he was looking forward to learning from CBA as he works to grow his business.
“As an entrepreneur, if you don’t take advice from other people, you’re destined for failure. You cannot make every decision yourself; you need to work as a team and have the mentors, and you need to be a good leader,” Kraszewski said. “You really need to take advice from people, take what you can from that advice, and choose to better your brand or company.”
Overall, Olson said the five presentations were more polished than ever before.
“I feel like the presentations have gone from the spectrum of being unrefined to polished, and the beers have flipped that and reversed,” Olson said. “I was actually much less impressed with beers this time. It’s maybe a little illustrious about what’s happening in the industry and I wonder if we are getting so business savvy that we are forgetting about the beer, or competition is getting so fierce that we are getting desperate.”
Olson added that she felt most moved by Black Star Line Brewing Company’s mission and the passion of its founder, L.A, McCrae.
“Black Star has an incredible story,” Olson said. “I feel moved by what they are doing and I want to part of it. [But] beer is the ticket to the game, and the beer wasn’t there. In some ways, I would love to work them to get the beer better to help be a megaphone for them and share their story because that’s awesome.”
Armada won a $5,000 grand prize, which Kraszewski said will be used to help gradually boost production of the company’s. Armada also won an all-expenses paid trip to Portland, Ore., where they will brew a special collaboration beer with Widmer Brothers, and spend two days learning from executives at CBA.
Armada is the eighth company to win the Startup Brewery Challenge, joining Border X Brewing, Hopewell Brewing, Wynwood Brewing Company, Braxton Brewing Company, CODA Brewing, Appalachian Mountain Brewery and 5 Stones Brewing.