We’re not renegades. We’re not rebelling against anything. We think that the revolution is over; the war has been won. “Big Beer” is dead – they just don’t know it yet. And by dead, we mean irrelevant for millions of beer loving Americans.
We don’t have to battle to get people to try something other than the fizzy yellow stuff. That gives us the freedom to experiment and innovate. The road that lies ahead is a more exciting stretch than we’ve glimpsed to-date. So let’s keep going. Let’s see what’s Around the Bend.
Why am I doing this? Why does anybody start a brewery these days? There’s like, over 5,000 of ‘em now; plenty of good beer being made, right? So why do it? There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are breweries. Because it’s a personal thing to start a new business of any type, but it’s especially true of starting a brewery in America today.
So, again, why do it? The obvious answer is, “To make money,” right? But no, that’s just a function of being in business. If you don’t make money, you can’t pay the people driving the business forward, you can’t pay the vendors supplying you with materials needed and the business can’t function. But that’s not “the why.” The why is much deeper – more personal.
Over the course of these next several posts, I’ll answer that question. Or at least I’ll explore it. Hopefully it will shed some light on the type of brewery we intend be – the type of community we hope to cultivate. Like I said, it’s a personal story, in large part, and it might get a little deep at times. But I figure this is cheaper than therapy so, here goes.
I’ve always had a deep-seeded need to explore. As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be out there looking at new things. Whether it was the swamp at the end of our block or the far reaches of the woods in our back yard, I just loved roaming around to see what I could see. As I grew, this drive to explore manifested itself in a couple different ways. Travel was one of them. I’ve hiked the Inca Trail and climbed the Great Wall. I’ve been to the Brandenburg Gate and tucked-in at the pubs of London. I’ve strolled La Rambla and Via Veneto. I’ve stared at the breathtaking heights of die Zugspitze and sunned myself in Provence. I’ve munched cicchetti with a glass of Prosecco alongside the canals of Venice and taken down steamer baskets full of soup dumplings in Xian. To my mind, there is nothing like stepping off a train in an unfamiliar town and having to figure it out. How do I get around? Where am I gonna sleep tonight? Where do the locals hang out? What do they eat? And more importantly, what do they drink?! It’s exhilarating to me; the freedom of exploration.
Similarly, music holds that same promise for me. I listen to a lot of…ahem…improvisational-rock-and-roll. Ok, jambands. I listen to jambands. My name is Dan and I listen to jambands. I know the genre gets a bad rap in some quarters, but really it’s about another kind of freedom for me. I’ve met some of the most down-to-earth, nicest people out on tour. People who aren’t there to judge or be judged. People who are, for the most part, all there for that same sense of adventure and exploration.
And that’s what drives me with Around the Bend. I want to explore what’s possible with craft beer. Like with Silk Road – it started with reading a description of galangal in the Penzey’s Spice catalog. I knew instantly that I wanted to make a pale ale with that spice. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out the proper way to employ the spice itself and to determine which hops would pair perfectly with it. But the result of that experimentation was a truly unique set of flavors for a beer. I’ve certainly never tasted anything quite like it. So in a lot of ways, that beer is emblematic of what we want to do at ATB – push the boundaries and see what’s possible.
Next time I’ll talk a little bit about how I got into brewing and why it’s a passion for me.
Beer has, seemingly, always been a part of my life. During family vacations it was what my father shared with my uncles. It was what he drank on a warm summer afternoon when he finished working in the yard. In fact, when I was six years old, I had my first taste.
My dad and I were on a lake in northern Minnesota. We anchored our small fishing boat near some lily pads and dropped our lines hoping for a nibble from the schools of Sunfish and Perch that we knew liked to congregate there. It was a particularly hot August afternoon and my dad soon cracked open the small cooler he had placed between the portable orange gas tank and the 10hp Johnson outboard. Out came the familiar can; red and white with the image of bottle crown and horizontal diamond over that, with the words, “Grain Belt” emblazoned there. It was all I ever saw in our refrigerator. He popped the top and took the first sip. Then he extended his arm, passing the can to me asking, “Would you like a sip?” I could hardly believe it. Of course I wanted to try this. It was more than a beverage, even at this point in my young life. It was a symbol representing the camaraderie of my adult role models. I raised the can to my lips and took a swig. Then I passed it back to my dad. I’m not sure, because I never asked him, but I half suspect he was expecting me to grimace and say, “Yuck, that’s gross,” or something like that. But I didn’t. The slightly-sweet nature of the Cream Ale and the completely foreign edge of the bitter hops was a revelation to me. I liked beer! From the very first sip.
Now some readers might find this inappropriate; giving a child alcohol. But remember, it was the ‘70’s and we weren’t that uptight then. And it was just a sip. Plus, alcohol was always something my parents conditioned us to respect rather than fear – a much more European attitude owing to our German heritage. By not demonizing it, we didn’t covet it in the same way some young people do. And don’t get me wrong, the sip on the boat was a special treat. Not an everyday occurance. But, from time-to-time at special occasions, I could ask for and receive a sip of beer. I treasured those moments. I wouldn’t understand the reason why it impacted me so until years later, but I think it made me feel connected to my dad because he was sharing something special with me.
Fast forward to my college years and my love of beer really started to take hold. Now, I won’t pretend to tell you I stuck with just a sip here or there until I was in college. I didn’t. But my friends and I never drank good beer in those days. It wasn’t until I was a senior at the University of Minnesota that I made a miraculous discovery; I found out it was possible to make your own beer at home! At first, it was just a novelty – something to tell my buddies, “Yeah, I made that.” The first batch I did, an Amber Ale, was passable, but just barely. What I hadn’t expected about the experience was how enjoyable it would be for me to make. By this point I’d already developed an affinity for cooking. It gave me a great deal of pleasure to create a meal for family or friends and see their faces light up when they tasted my creations. Well, that feeling was just amplified when I started homebrewing. “You made this?!” And remember, that first batch wasn’t even what I would consider to be that good. But that reaction had me hooked. At my core, I’m a people pleaser. It’s what gets me off; throwing a great dinner party, helping a coworker achieve a goal, making a beer that people crave.
And so for the next 20 years I kept at my new hobby, learning along the way all those things each homebrewer needs to learn to progress from barely passable batches to crafting quality ales and lagers to be proud of. Until the day came when it occurred to me that, perhaps, this should be more than a hobby. More on that next time.
Before launching ATB I spent 20 years in the advertising and marketing industry. During those years ensconced in corporate America I learned an awful lot, but ultimately the thing I learned most clearly was that I didn’t belong. Not really. You see, most corporate cultures are built on foundations of following certain rules. Explicit or implicit rules. Even in the ad-agency-world, which is often considered pretty free-wheeling, the political “rules” and gamesmanship can be arduous. At the end, I knew it was a game I could not continue to play for another 10-20 years. Not if I wanted to live an authentic life.
In the 9th grade I had a subscription to Entrepreneur Magazine. Yeah, I’m that kind of nerd. But also that kind of dreamer. When I was that age, I was so certain that one day I’d start my own business; be my own boss. At the time, I was taking a business class (yeah, in high school) that had a club component to it, which held local, regional and national competitions. I told you I was a nerd. The category I chose to compete in was Entrepreneurship. A family friend of ours owned his own flower-merchandising supplies business. He let me shadow him and ask all kinds of naïve questions. It was my first window into the idea that someone could actually work for themselves rather than drawing a paycheck from an established company. The notion that one could start with nothing and, out of thin air, breathe life into a business of their own seemed beyond magical to me; more akin to alchemy. And so I spent my high school years believing that was my path. What sort of business? Who knew? But someday… Well, then college happened. And the realities of student loans and less-than-no starting capital conspired to snuff my dream. Funny, it receded into the background without much of a fight. I just sort of accepted the notion of that path not being available to me and I moved on into advertising. But every once in a while I would think, “What if…” I told myself, someday, after you retire, you can start a brewery. It will be your second career. And then one day, someone very instrumental in shaping my career to that point, changed everything with a simple and striking question, “What the fuck are you waiting for?”
About the same time I received the challenge, “What are you waiting for?” it became clear to me that I needed to have more purpose in what I was doing. I was having trouble just selling another plate of biscuits & gravy, or the next version of the Samsung Galaxy. Somewhere along the line, it became clear to me that I was no longer able to get excited about growing profits for huge corporations. I wanted to make my working hours mean something. That old entrepreneurial itch came back. I wanted to build something. I wanted to craft the product myself. I wanted to bring joy to others. I wanted to care again. The difference was, now I had the skills, connections and resources to do something about it. This restlessness was important. If we have everything we desire, we want for nothing. And if we don’t want anything, we will never be driven to achieve or grow or create or even to love. This realization is what motivated me to make a drastic change in my life; to leave a comfortable job and to work my ass off to build something from nothing.
Initially I thought I would be building a brewery that was wholly about respecting tradition. You know, the Reinheitsgebot and all that lot. Just doing traditional styles really well. But the more I explored what was happening with beer today, the more I became a convert and ultimately an evangelist for the notion that the frontier is the most exciting place in the world of beer. I discovered that is where I belong. Ten years ago could you imagine being able to find a blueberry Gose on the shelf? Hell, a straight-up Gose wasn’t exactly in the cards either. We have so much choice today and that’s a result of beer drinkers being willing to try new things. Which is great news for us at ATB because that’s exactly what drives us. What else can we do with water, barley, hops and yeast? How do we take a traditional style of beer and make it into something brand new by changing things around slightly? We are exploring. We are seeking. We are trying to find out what’s around the bend.
In the next post I’ll continue to talk more about what motivated me to leave corporate life and become an entrepreneur.
So far, I’ve written a lot about my previous career as a motivating factor in starting the brewery. But there were other, more personal reasons as well. I knew from the start of this project that I wanted to write about this, but I have also been dreading it. I wouldn’t be telling the whole story though if I didn’t include it. At the same time, I don’t want it to seem…opportunistic. I’m not trying to play on anyone’s emotions. It’s just what is true and real.
A big factor in deciding to start the brewery had to do with my boys. They are six and four years old respectively as I’m writing this. They were two and “on-the-way” when I first started exploring the possibility of opening the business. I’d be lying if I said that legacy wasn’t a part of what I was thinking. It would be great if one or both of them wanted to take over the business someday. But it would be okay too if they didn’t. Certainly, I also want them to be proud of their father. Not in a vain way. I want to model a certain set of behaviors for them so they have the skills and drive to achieve in their lives whatever it is they choose to attempt. I didn’t feel like I was doing that before. But mostly the motivation to take this leap lay with my youngest.
You see, Harrison was born with a partial chromosomal deletion. He’s missing just a fraction of the genetic code at the tip of his tenth chromosome. We found out there was an abnormality during a routine ultrasound. When first detected, the doctors thought it might be Downs Syndrome. They couldn’t be sure. More tests were ordered. The full genomic panel reveled the partial deletion. “What does this mean?” we asked. The doctors couldn’t tell us. This condition is so rare that there are only something like 60 documented cases of this particular deletion in the entire world. All they could tell us is what might happen. The range from best-case scenario to worst was huge, running from mild developmental delays to the possibility of near total incapacitation, both physically and mentally. They simply could not predict for us how the symptoms would manifest themselves. We were devastated, especially when the question of whether to terminate the pregnancy was put to us. The angst, the dread the apprehension cannot be described. At least, I don’t have the words.
It was during this time, just before Harrison was born, that I received my professional challenge, “What are you waiting for?” I was not digging my current job, but more than that, I was thinking about how I would provide for Harrison long-term. We had no idea what sort of care he might require or for how long – perhaps his entire lifetime. A year earlier I had been fired from a position as Senior Director of a fairly large company that shall remain nameless. A new CEO had taken over and fairly well cleaned house in the marketing department. I never saw it coming. That was an eye-opener. Now, it’s no sure bet starting a company, but it feels a damn sight better to be in control of my family’s destiny rather than be subject to the impulse and vagary of others. I could no longer afford to be an expendable cog in their machine. I needed to invent my own machine to ensure I could protect and care for my baby boy as he grows; no matter what he needs from us in the future.
Harrison is four years old now. He still receives physical and occupational therapies. In the past several months he’s begun walking on his own. He doesn’t speak, yet, but he’s very expressive. He knows what he wants (usually music!) and isn’t afraid to grab your hand and drag you where he wants you to go. He’s a happy little boy with a million dollar smile and an infectious laugh. He is a constant source of joy for my wife and me. He’s taught us what’s really important in this world. I can’t imagine life without him.
I strive professionally, in part, to provide for him.