Boston Entrepreneurs Turn Passion Into Profit

It began as a hobby in 2006, but now two Boston-based entrepreneurs have gradually turned their thirst for craft beer into a profitable business.

Jeff Wharton and Devon Regan launched the blog six years ago after playing together in a band and trying new beers during every jam session. Although the band eventually split up, the two continued to sample new beers on a weekly basis.

“I think we started writing about beer on a MySpace page that was originally entitled Hophead Haven,” said Wharton.

The two men quickly realized that they needed a better place to call ‘home’ and purchased the domain in June 2006. The goal of the site was to connect New England brewers to consumers through short written interviews, beer reviews and local tasting events.

Wharton and Regan began marketing and hosting numerous beer tastings that would could draw as many as 200 to 300 guests, enabling Drink Craft Beer to quickly gain a following among local members of the beer industry.

“The idea was to build relationships and work with local brewers,” Wharton said. “We were losing money on the tastings, but we didn’t care. It was a hobby, and we enjoyed educating consumers.”

Around the same time Wharton and Regan began hosting tastings, the now widely popular microblogging site Twitter was starting to gain momentum. Twitter had launched just a few months before, and Wharton said he instantly recognized the value in being an early adopter of the new social networking platform.

Fast-forward to 2009 when Twitter added @DrinkCraftBeer to its recommended ‘Food & Drink list,’ helping the company capture a wider audience of craft enthusiasts. The account now boasts nearly 200,000 followers and is something Wharton believes it will play a significant role in the future success of various business endeavors.

The initial focus for new business ventures will be in the burgeoning world of beer festivals. Drink Craft Beer held its first festival on earlier this year in July, and Wharton and Regan will host their second event – the “Fall to Winter” fest — on Friday, November 30 and December 1 at The Revere Hotel in Boston. The festival features 25 New England brewers, 85 beers and ciders, a number of artisanal food vendors, and is expected to draw 2,000 attendees. The company’s first festival was attended by 1,200 people and generated $50,000 in revenue.

But the beer festival business model certainly isn’t a new concept, and even Wharton will tell you that the space is becoming saturated, particularly in Boston.

“There are only so many times that a consumer will throw down $45 or $55 for a ticket,” he said. “We’ve had to figure out how to stay competitive and draw people to our fest over others.”

To boost ticket sales and gain an edge among competing beer festivals, Drink Craft Beer added incentives to help encourage brewery support. Wharton said the company gives 10 percent of its profits back to the brewers in an effort to help offset ancillary costs like staffing and transportation. Wharton also said that as opposed to relying on donations for the fest, he and Regan purchase all of the beer that is served at their events – something some of his competitors don’t do.

“We wanted the brewers to see our fests as something that was worth their while,” said Wharton. “We don’t want them to think that we are just jamming a festival full of attendees in an attempt to maximize profits.”

Wharton said each festival has a theme and brewers must provide a certain beer style in order to exhibit.

And while his festivals contend with much larger and more established events like Beer Advocate’s American Craft Beer Festival and Extreme Beer Fest, Wharton doesn’t view those festivals as direct competition.

“I like to think our attendee is different,” he said. “We’ve built up a great audience of people who are into more than just tasting beer. A lot of them are foodies who are interested in having an experience and aren’t there just to seek out rare beers.”

A new audience is something that has helped attract attention and Wharton hopes to continue growing the festival business locally and potentially throughout other parts of New England.

And although it’s still just a part-time gig, Wharton envisions Drink Craft Beer becoming a full-time operation.

“I think events will always be a piece of the business, it’s just a matter of how we grow it,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to travel around the country putting on beer fests? We could take that route eventually, but no matter what, we always be looking for ways to add value to the craft brewing community.”

Editor’s Note: Tickets to the ‘Fall to Winter’ fest are $45 and can be purchased here.

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