Yet another small brewery has closed its doors.
Southern California-based Valiant Brewing Company announced Sunday that, after four years in business, it will cease operations on March 31.
Valiant, which produced about 1,200 barrels of beer last year, is one of a handful of small breweries to make headlines for shutting down or struggling financially in recent months.
At least six small breweries have closed or announced plans to close since last December, and at least two other companies have temporarily staved off marketplace exits during that time.
When extrapolated, the brewery closure rate over the last three months would be consistent with 2015 figures reported by industry trade group the Brewers Association, which counted 32 microbrewery and 35 brewpub closures in 2015. The previous year, 73 total breweries shut their doors, according to the BA (Editor’s note: Official 2016 brewery closure figures have not yet been published).
Valiant brewery founder Brian Schroepfer told Brewbound that there were multiple periods — sometimes spanning six months — when he didn’t draw a paycheck. Instead, he focused on paying suppliers and brewery employees.
Schroepfer, who is the sole provider for his wife and four daughters, struggled to stay afloat financially and would frequently sell personal property to make ends meet. Ultimately, he decided he needed to be more invested in his family and penned a letter on the his brewery’s website announcing that Valiant would close.
The company’s brewing equipment has been sold to a yet-to-be-named entity, Schroepfer said, adding that the timing of the sale coincided with the expiration of a lease agreement on the building where Valiant operated. Committing to another five-year lease wasn’t a gamble he was willing to take, he said.
“Is it worth it losing my house and everything over this?” he asked. “Financially, I’ll be able to pay off all of our debt and at least walk away unscathed as opposed to a bankruptcy situation. It could have been way way worse.”
Schroepfer, who worked as a mechanical engineer and was an avid homebrewer before launching Valiant, admittedly started with “zero experience in the industry.” However, in the four years before opening his brick-and-mortar brewery, he immersed himself into the industry and received a degree from the American Brewers Guild.
“My life was beer,” he said.
Many small food and beverage companies struggle early on due to a lack of business acumen, Jack O’Connor, a bankruptcy attorney who works with several business in the craft beverage space, told Brewbound. And those businesses need someone who can maximize profits because “margins can be razor thin,” he said.
“I think that’s admirable for people who want to make a run at it,” O’Connor said. “But it’s hard to fail upward and figure things out as you go.”
For brewery owners who may not be business savvy, O’Connor recommended hiring an outside consultant, attorney or CPA to help with the business reporting.
In Schroepfer’s case, his passion for the brewing industry couldn’t solve Valiant’s early struggles with cash flow. In his letter, Schroepfer noted that opening with a 20-barrel system in February 2013 left the company with “little to no extra cash to advance with.”
Schroepfer told Brewbound that he found himself constantly pivoting while handling everything from brewery maintenance to marketing and sales. Initially, he planned for 60 percent outside sales through Straub Distributing and 40 percent via the company’s taproom. About three years in, however, those numbers flipped as demand in the tasting room increased while outside distribution of Valiant product decreased.
“The tasting room was our survival,” Schroepfer said. “It helped pull us through and pay our bills and keep moving. The tasting room really picked up, and we saw 24 percent growth every year.”
However, Valiant’s taproom was only open three days a week, a decision Schroepfer and his wife made to maintain some family time and give the brewery’s six employees time off.
“That was a source of income that we weren’t tapping into that we could have,” Schroepfer said, “but that was a decision that we made.”
Another decision that limited Valiant’s ability to grow was the Schroepfers’ refusal to take on outside investors or a loan to keep the brewery afloat. Schroepfer said he and his wife wanted to maintain complete control of the company’s vision and operate independently.
“I wanted this to be a free-running business,” Schroepfer said.
Meanwhile, Valiant also struggled to keep up with a customer base constantly craving new and different beers. Schroepfer said Valiant made about 60 different beers last year, finding success with its Candy Sour Series of beers, but that wasn’t always enough.
“If I didn’t have a new beer coming out every week, we wouldn’t see the attraction,” Schroepfer said. “That’s just tough [to keep up].”
Valiant isn’t the only small brewery that pointed to constantly changing consumer interests as a persistent hurdle.
After eight years, Seattle-based Big Al Brewing shut its doors on January 14 and is in the process of entering chapter 7 bankruptcy. Brewery founder Alejandro Brown told Brewbound that the growth in the tap handle “rotator” market, combined with dwindling consumer loyalty, contributed to the demise of his brewery.
“We watched the opportunity for growth dry up like a river,” Brown said.
Oftentimes, Big Al couldn’t get get its beer into rotation at local bars and restaurants for about four months, as increased competition collided with consumers’ desire for local, new and fresh.
“You need solid volume distribution or solid retail, and we had neither,” Brown said.
Brown, who joined Odin Brewing Company as a sales and product development manager this week, said Big Al had hovered around the 2,000 barrel mark annually, which wasn’t enough volume for him to break even.
And even though the tasting room model had worked for other breweries, Big Al couldn’t withstand the increased competition throughout a beer-soaked Seattle marketplace.
“We watched our sales decline by $40,000 in 2016 in our tasting room alone,” Brown said. “So that hurt.”
Meanwhile, Carlsbad, California’s On The Tracks Brewery closed permanently in December after six years. Brewery manager John Davison declined to discuss the reasons why his 7-barrel microbrewery shuttered, however, the San Diego Reader last month reported that On The Tracks’ state liquor license had been suspended for 30 days for not properly licensing and labeling a beer that it contract brewed on behalf of a North County restaurant.
On The Tracks didn’t reopen after the suspension, and the brewery allowed its brewing and retail license to expire on January 31. Davison told the Reader that his brewery was already planning not to renew that license, however.
“Suspension was only one of a number of issues,” he told the Reader in a text message that also noted that the brewery’s equipment is for sale.
Two Chicago breweries also shuttered in December after losing a building lease. Ale Syndicate, which held the lease to 2601 West Diversey Avenue, where it shared brewing time and equipment with Arcade Brewery, failed to pay its rent and lost its lease. That forced both breweries to close.
“It’s disappointing because a lot of it was out of our control,” Arcade founder Chris Tourre told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “This happening was a possibility, and it happened.”
And in Cincinnati, the owner of Ei8ht Ball Brewing decided to focus on his distilling business instead of investing in his brewery.
Brewery owner Ken Lewis told the Cincinnati Business Courier that brewing at 1,200 barrels of capacity was just “breaking even” even after the company “doubled” its sales every year. Ei8ht Ball will officially close on April 1.
Nevertheless, several breweries have managed to dodge extinction events. South Florida’s Fat Point Brewing avoided closing with the help of Big Storm Brewing Co., which announced on February 17 that it was working with its parent company, Seaboard Craft Beer Holdings, to help keep the Punta Gorda-based brewery stay afloat.
“Big Storm strongly believes in supporting local brewers and is truly excited about joining with Fat Point in continuing to produce some of the finest hand crafted beers in the country,” Big Storm announced on its Facebook page.
Fat Point co-owner and brewmaster William Frazer had told his employees that the brewery would close down after its second-anniversary party on February 18. After announcing the closure, Frazer and business partner Duncan Scarry struck a deal with Big Storm and its parent company.
“It’s kind of like always chasing after your big brother,” Frazer told the Fort Myers News-Press. “As you grow and get bigger, your brother, the market in this case, grows and gets bigger too. You’re always chasing something that’s bigger and stronger than you. But one day you will catch up. One day the two of you will even out, but getting to that day costs money.”
Fat Point began distribution in August 2014 with more than 150 bars and restaurants in southwest Florida serving its beer, the outlet reported. However, it was a latecomer to the tasting room game, only opening its 1,500 sq. ft. retail taproom in February 2015.
“We are excited to work with a partner whose strategy and direction directly coincides with our vision,” Frazer wrote. “We are extremely excited about this new development.”
Poway, California’s Lighting Brewery is seeking similar help. After five years, owner Jim Crute will shut down the brewery if he’s unable to sell it. (Editor’s note: Crute did not return Brewbound’s call as of press time.)
Crute told the San Diego Union Tribune last month that Lightning’s struggles began after Stone Distributing ended its agreement to distribute his German-style beers. He also blamed a lack of foot traffic.
“You can be a small brewery nowadays,” Crute told the paper, “but you have to be really focused on sales that go directly to the public.”