Craft Brewers Discuss Innovation Plans, Culture Tips and More at Brewbound Live 2018

Eric Ottaway

Count Brooklyn Brewery among the growing number of beer companies that has its eyes on the health and wellness space.

During last week’s Brewbound Live business conference, Brooklyn Brewery CEO Eric Ottaway said the company was on the verge of releasing a non-alcoholic beer in Sweden as the company looks to tap into increasing consumer demand for more alcohol-free brews. Brooklyn is also exploring ways to expand beyond beer in the United States next year, including through the introduction of more functional beverages, he added.

“We’re opening our minds as to what we can be going forward,” he told an audience of nearly 200 beer industry professionals.

Brooklyn joins an expanding group of major beer companies to enter the non-alcoholic beer space with newly available non-alcoholic offerings, including Heineken and Pabst Brewing Company. Ottaway said the company would also look to test market a non-alcoholic product in the U.S., where alcohol-free beer has not been as widely accepted as it is in Europe.

Ottaway sees a lot of opportunity in the market for non-alc beer, which he believes could eventually capture about 10 percent of the U.S. beer market. But first, there’s a lot of work to do to destigmatize NA beer in the U.S., which he believes will quickly change in the coming years.

The timing for non-alcoholic offerings may be right. Craft Brew Alliance CEO Andy Thomas shared that 84 percent of global consumers are actively trying to reduce or moderate their alcohol intake. That figure should “hit us smack in the face as an industry,” he said.

Bryant Goulding

On day two of the conference, the discussion turned from functional offerings to healthy workplaces during an address by Rhinegeist co-founder Bryant Goulding.

Goulding — who has helped build Rhinegeist Brewing into a 100,000 barrel brewery in just five years, admitted that “growth can be really hazardous to culture.” He said the company actively works to maintain the culture and do-it-yourself spirit of the organization by attempting to strike a healthy work-life balance for its 300 employees, most of whom are in their early thirties.

In service of that goal, Goulding said Rhinegeist hires people who are passionate about beer and share the company’s values. Nevertheless, the company also values differing perspectives because “other perspectives sharpen your own.” The company also invests in its workforce and promotes from within, when possible, because upward mobility helps retain quality workers.

From left: Carey Falcone, Jake Rouse and Sean Lawson

Building and maintaining company culture was among the topics addressed by three fast-growing beer companies — Kentucky’s Braxton Brewing, Vermont’s Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Georgia’s New Realm Brewing — during a panel discussion on the factors that have led to their early success.

Lawson’s Finest Liquors founder Sean Lawson said his company went from three full-time employees to 40 when it opened its a new production facility, taproom and retail store about a month ago. Lawson believes the brewery has essentially entered a new “startup phase,” and it is now focused “meeting demand” without “going overboard.” In order to maintain that balance, Lawson’s waits until its wholesalers are fully depleted before making another round of product shipments, he said.

Meanwhile, Braxton Brewing co-founder Jake Rouse said even though his company is now one of the largest craft breweries in the Cincinnati area, the competition in the region has intensified to the point that he wonders when the “local” phenomenon will shift from a metro area to a specific city.

“Our brand is playing less well across the river than it was three-and-a-half years ago,” he said.

The need for additional capacity to keep up with demand led Atlanta’s New Realm to acquire the former Green Flash brewery in Virginia, Beach, Virginia. New Realm co-founder Carey Falcone said the company was able to acquire the brewery for “pennies on the dollar,” and likened the purchase to eating celery — “negative calories” with not a lot of risk.

“Many people spend more on their packaging lines than we spent on that facility,” he said.

From left: Brandon Börgel, Jeremy Tofte and Lynne Weaver

Meanwhile, Melvin Brewing co-founder Jeremy Tofte shared the challenges of gaining chain placements during a panel discussion with Three Weavers co-founder Lynne Weaver and Fort Point Beer Co. sales and consumer experience director Brandon Börgel.

Tofte credited Anheuser-Busch’s outgoing president of craft Felipe Szpigel with “doing a great job filling the shelves out there.”

But those same retail shelves are crucial for brewers such as Tofte, who often struggle to earn and keep placements at chain retail accounts. While he initially viewed chain placements as selling out, his view evolved when he realized the brewery “needed to break even” and “that’s exactly where we want to be.”

“People who know beer, know us, and now we’re trying to communicate with the person who goes to the grocery store,” he said.

However, Tofte admitted that Melvin has struggled to offer an IPA at a $9.99 price point as other companies have lowered prices.

“We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we’ve tried and we just can’t,” he said.

Weaver retorted that strategic partnerships, such as her company’s sale to the Canarchy Craft Brewery Collective, has benefits, and “you can make a $9.99 IPA because you have economies of scale.”

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