Going Their Own Way: Top Brewers Seek New Opportunities

Feature by | Sep 2017 | Issue #128
Tod Mott, left, and Chuck Silva. | Illustrations by Brett Affrunti

Chuck Silva believes that at the heart of things, most brewers want to start and run their own breweries. The potential creative freedom involved in such a venture inspires many to start brewing in the first place. In 2015, after nearly two decades of making beer in Southern California, Silva cashed out his ownership stake at Green Flash Brewing Company and moved north with his wife MJ to Paso Robles. There they hoped to become the premier brewery in wine country, instead of “just another brewery in San Diego.”

“It might seem crazy to leave such a great company,” Chuck says, “but after 11 years helping to build that brand, it was an opportunity to have a new lease on life.”

MJ, who for the time being continues to work as a business analyst at Kashi Company, adds that her husband’s overall mood has improved since the move. “He’s happier now, makes his own decisions. We’ve still got stress, but I still am smiling because I love it.”

Chuck, who helped Green Flash collect 11 medals at the Great American Beer Festival, shares his wife’s enthusiasm. “I love that we made the leap of faith, and we’re enjoying our freedom. Here [at Silva Brewing], I wanted the ownership and marketing in my voice, and the love of beer is what drives the project.”

In the last few years, several well-known brewers with seniority have publicly left the breweries that their hard work helped make successful. Todd Haug transitioning from Surly Brewing Company to Three Floyds Brewing Company and Mitch Steele deciding to hang his own shingle in Atlanta after 10 years as the brewmaster at Stone Brewing Company are just two prominent examples. For many, these resignations were a surprise. And when, in the case of people like Silva, Haug, and Steele, the brewer’s name is so closely associated with the brewery itself, some have wondered why they would want to leave in the first place—and why now?

These recent shake-ups have revealed a fundamental truth about how a number of breweries operate around the country. In an environment not unlike a professional kitchen, a “sous brewer,” much like a sous chef, performs a great deal of work while others (restaurant owners, executive chefs, and in our case, brewery owners) focus on other aspects of the business and reap the benefits of that labor. In short, these sous brewers lack a vested interest in the companies they’re helping to succeed. In the dining world, talented and respected chefs climb the ranks and sometimes find the backing to open their own restaurants. Are sous brewers who have become synonymous with the brand they work for also driven to leave and pursue other options because of this beer industry business model?

A Professional Evolution
When Tod Mott decided to leave New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Brewing after eight and a half years, owner Peter Egelston wasn’t surprised.

“I always knew that Tod’s ultimate goal was to own his own place,” Egelston says. “I think it was the right move for him. The timing was good. He had a great opportunity and he put a lot of work into it. I’m really happy for him. We’ve done just fine, too. I think it was a pretty fortuitous situation.”

Making that shift to building his own business was exactly what Mott wanted, as Egelston suspected. A career spanning more than 20 years had taken Mott to half a dozen breweries in New England, where the former art student learned the craft of brewing and created a sensation with a beer known as Boston Strangler Stout at the now-defunct Back Bay Brewing Company, and later, at Portsmouth, as Kate the Great. Mott and his wife Galen founded Tributary Brewing in Kittery, Maine, in 2014.

“This is my retirement plan,” he says. “And the cool thing about it is there is no pressure. Galen and I own this business. There are no investors that are telling us what to do, when to do it. It is totally up to us how we run our business. It’s been organic and we have just the most amazing community here. This is the trend I’m seeing, the small community-based brewers are what are going to carry [the industry forward]—the small guys.”

For his part, Mott does fondly remember his time working with Egelston at Portsmouth (except for the tiny, dark, cramped space on Market Street that contained the brewhouse). It wasn’t the lack of ownership that inspired his own transition, but he believes that offering a stake in the business is crucial to build and maintain productive, long-term relationships with brewers and other key staff.

“I think [ownership is] the most important part of what a brewery is, whether you’re the figurehead, whether you’re the genius of it, or whatever,” Mott insists. I just really think that if you have ownership, then it’s your product and you’re totally behind it.”

Clockwise, from left, Jeremy Warren, Eric Harper, Mitch Steele, Peter Bouckaert, and Dan Justesen.

A Sustainable Corporate Culture
As a board member of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild alongside Surly owner Omar Ansari, Dan Justesen has an intimate perspective on the issues that led to the abrupt departure of Todd Haug, Surly’s former head of brewing operations. When Justesen, the co-founder and president of Utepils Brewing, discovered that Haug didn’t have any ownership in the brewery he had helped build into one of the state’s largest, Justesen was surprised. Ansari, who had been running his family’s abrasives factory, launched the brewery with Haug in 2005.

The organizational structure Justesen has created at Utepils has gone in another direction. Careful to note that he’s not judging anyone else’s business decisions, Justesen says that for him, employees who start from scratch together as a team require a different approach to corporate culture.

“All of the people that came in as the core group here at the beginning are partners whether they had money to invest or not,” he explains. “Not only because I just think it’s right that they share in it, but also, on a very practical matter, I wanted to make it both attractive to be here, and stay here, and find success. I wanted them not to be in an employee mindset, but to be in an owner mindset.”

Bringing head brewer Eric Harper on board, formerly of Summit Brewing in Minnesota and New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, was a process that took a number of conversations over a period of more than a year. Only then was Harper ready to leave his former employer to work in an environment where he could exert a greater deal of control over a company’s choices.

“It’s kind of crazy in a way, but sometimes somebody will joke about, ‘What does your boss think?’” Harper says, referring to Justesen. “Well, he’s not really my boss. He’s just my partner in this business [where] I’m in charge of making these beers that we’ve created. He might try and guide me down the path a little bit. But, in the end, I picked the floor tile. I picked the brewhouse that sits on top of it. I picked the ingredients that we’re fixing to brew with.”

Justesen explains that Harper has a piece of ownership that will grow over time. “And that was a fundamental building block of the brewery. [It] was [one of] the things that I never wanted to change, that I wanted right from the beginning.”

The decision to share a stake in the business is also a matter of trying to ensure a smooth succession down the line. For Justesen, more owners translates into a better future for Utepils. “Because one day I need to leave, and I want them all thinking and always fighting to make the business a successful business in a good way.”

A Fresh Start
Jeremy Warren founded Nevada’s Revision Brewing Company in 2015 after being sidelined with a minority ownership stake in Knee Deep Brewery, a California company he started five years earlier. Once he found himself outside of the decision-making process, he knew it was time to move on. Knee Deep wasn’t his anymore, and his aspirations to broaden the brewery’s offerings conflicted with the demands of a rapidly growing business intent on supplying more of its hop-forward IPAs to a broad distribution network.

According to Warren, brewery founders that aren’t themselves brewers are especially exposed to ownership issues such as his. “They start these breweries and you ask them who’s your brewer going to be and they don’t know.”

In his opinion, once the brewer is hired and creates the product that the brewery will be defined by, the owners don’t give the brewers or production managers the credit that’s due. Suddenly a valued collaborator becomes another member of the staff. “I see it all the time,” he says.

Warren hopes to foster a very different corporate culture at Revision, ensuring that all employees are well taken care of, from salary to benefits, and are involved in the decision-making processes.

“We talk about it all the time,” Warren says with regards to ownership and equity. “It’s still so early for us to really pinpoint a plan. But if our employees ever came together and said they want this to be an employee-owned company, I would never oppose that at all. [But] at the end of the day, I’m the one responsible. I feel that my No. 1 job duty is to maintain [a] positive company culture. That comes with a lot of challenges and that’s the biggest change.”

A Love of Learning
Sometimes a brewer’s decision to move on isn’t about ownership or freedom. It’s about education, and becoming a better member of the profession. Such is the case with Peter Bouckaert, who has been with New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo., since 1996, serving as its head brewer, steering its Belgian lineup, and launching its acclaimed sour program.

“From the get-go at New Belgium,” Bouckaert says, “I wanted to learn.”

After 21 years, though, it seems that he’s learned all he’s going to at the country’s eighth largest brewery. This spring, he and his wife Frezi partnered with Laura and Zach Wilson to create Purpose Brewing and Cellars in Fort Collins, and he will be leaving New Belgium as soon as he finishes his current projects.

“Brewing is passion and the passion [was] really reflected when I gave my resignation,” Bouckaert says. “We were crying and we were laughing. It was one of my most beautiful moments at New Belgium. It should be like that because we’ve been working so long together. You don’t go lightly over leaving. We created here. We made it this family [that] it is.”

In the meantime, Bouckaert is sourcing barrels, cleaning kegs, and writing new recipes. He’s also enjoying learning the aspects of running a brewery that have nothing to do with brewing: finalizing a logo, creating cash flow statements, designing the glassware. Eventually he and the Wilsons hope to roast their own coffee, and move to a nearby farm where they can grow many of their own brewing ingredients.

“It’s like a whole different dimension that we have people here in New Belgium that specialized so you’re only on the fringes of it,” Bouckaert says, reflecting on his career. “Suddenly you get even more appreciation for what those people are doing.”

A Future Model
The reasons why brewers and breweries might sever ties are complicated and diverse. And although it’s a generalization to assume that every brewer wants his or her own brewery, as Chuck Silva believes, it isn’t unreasonable to grant an appropriate amount of respect for the men and women who work long shifts to make the liquid that builds a beer brand.

While it’s not feasible to pin the successes and failures of a business on a single individual or even a small team, it appears that the trend toward profit sharing and employee ownership is continuing. As evidence, look no further than the growing number of experienced brewermasters starting their own brewer-focused businesses. In what is perhaps the highest profile example, Mitch Steele has partnered with Carey Falcone and Bob Powers, both of American Beerworks, to launch New Realm Brewing Company on the Atlanta Beltline in late 2017.

It’s a shift that may well become the norm one day. And it might prove to be a sustainable approach to business. But will breweries that can evolve to embrace this approach be better positioned to weather a market that’s only becoming more competitive? Time will tell.