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Interview with a brewer: Black Raven Brewery in Seattle, WA

These interviews with professional brewers have been incredibly insightful for us. I realize the posts are long, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there. This third installment in the Interview with a Brewer series is compliments of Beaux Bowman, one of the two founders of the Black Raven Brewery, which will be opening next year in Seattle. Visit their website and sign up for their mailing list to find out more of their dirty doings. First, a little background. From their website:

The Black Raven will be a production brewery [in Seattle] with a retail taproom. We will be the Eastside?s home to world-class, small-batch brewed ales & lagers. We also will feature a continually changing hand-picked selection of other notable Washington State beers. And most importantly, home to local beer lovers who want to be a part of a community that enjoys great beer and great friends.

One thing that has drawn us to Black Raven is their laser-focus on a particular neighborhood. Much like what Brooklyn Brewery did for Brooklyn and what we are hoping to do for Atlanta’s westside, Black Raven wants to become an integral part of the Eastside community. But I’m rambling…

1) What were the steps that led you up to the decision to start a brewery?

As many brewers out there, my decision to pursue a brewery came before actually working in the industry. I had just completed a business degree and knew that I had no interest in the whole suit and tie thing. Home brewing was a recent hobby of mine at the time and my thirst of knowledge (and better beer) grew. For the previous eight years I had been working for Kodak wholesale processing labs as a quality control technician. I realized quickly that many of the tasks performed and skills developed (pun intended) over the years were strikingly similar to professional brewing. It didn?t take long to figure out that beer taste a lot better than C41 developer when it got splashed in your face. So really the decision to open a brewery started there, it was always the goal from day one. I just lacked one thing, the experience and the knowledge necessary to become a professional brewer. So upon graduation, I packed it up and moved to Seattle to break into the business. Seven years later, I am lucky enough to be able to make that step into ownership.

2) What is your favorite thing about what you do?

I would say the best part of being a brewer is doing what you love. I know that is kind of the easy answer here but it is true. If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be doing the same thing. OK, well maybe part time because I really enjoy underwater photography and scuba diving as well. If I could only figure out a way to combine those things! As far as brewing is concerned, I really enjoy the dynamic nature of the work. It seems like there is always something new to learn and new challenges to tackle. This is one of the primary reasons for pursuing the ownership direction. The attraction of creating not only new beers but a whole new company from the ground up is powerful. That my friends is exciting, scary, challenging, and fun all in one wild ride. I think this is where my business degree will start to pay off as intended.

3) Why are you guys so focused on a particular area of Seattle? I ask because we feel the same way about the Westside of Atlanta.

We are actually pretty stubborn about our location here on the eastside of Seattle. There are many reasons but the main driver is based on market demand vs. supply. There are no brewpubs or production breweries with taprooms here in Redmond. We have a large population of craft beer savvy customers begging for something like this to return. Microsoft world headquarters is right here and those folks love craft beer. There have been a few small brewpubs here in the past several years, I actually brewed at one of them for about a year and a half. Both previous businesses failed not from lack of demand but from internal ownership strife. We also live here in Redmond and believe in the idea of working in your own community when at all possible. Commuting is no fun and we both have grown tired of it. Working and living here also has given us insight into the local market and we feel good about our understanding of what the consumers here want.

4) What have you done to “get the word out” prior to opening your doors? Are you happy with the returns that these efforts have delivered?

I am fortunate that my seven years of professional brewing has been in this area. Over those years I have been active in the brewing community and developed many friendships with industry peers and local craft beer lovers. We have a very strong brewer?s guild in Washington and many loyal Washington beer fans. At this point, I still do not have a physical location but I am close to signing a lease. That being said, it is difficult to promote for something that you can?t nail down a timeline to. People get tired of hearing ?any day now, soon?. I worry about the ?boy that cried wolf? syndrome if we promote too much right now. I have created a website (my backup career if the brewing thing bombs) to get some information out and to populate our email newsletter roster. I also have given some tidbits of information to the local beer centric media outlets to let people know we are coming, get some name recognition started. Many local craft beer fans know who I am and what I am working on from my previous brewing gigs. Word of mouth goes a long way in this business.

5) What is one thing about the brewing industry that you wish you had anticipated going in?

I think I am lucky on this front because I can?t think of anything. I had researched this career path extensively before embarking on it. There really were not many surprises, and if there were, they were positive ones. Now the one thing on this new project that I did not anticipate correctly was the difficulty in finding a location to lease. The Redmond market is tough right now. Commercial vacancy rates are very low and demand is high. Breweries are a hard use of space because of their infrastructure demands. Landlords are hesitant to have you cut up their buildings when they know next week there will be someone else wanting the space with little to no changes. We have been actively searching with a leasing agent, ready to sign a lease, since January 2007! Many prospective sites have fallen through for various reasons outside our control.

6) Given the emphasis on small batches, what are your aspirations when it comes to distribution?

Small batches are a blessing and a curse. The brewer side of me loves them because you get to rotate the beer quickly and have lots of flexibility in regards to product range. The business side of me says it would be better to brew large batches due to economy of scale. Distribution is tricky, another blessing and curse. For obvious reason, the focus will be on selling as much beer as possible retail at the brewery taproom. My thoughts on distribution gravitate towards a focus on bottles more than kegs. I am not really excited about fighting for tap handles in the Seattle market, very competitive. I think the bottled beer market is more interesting and holds promise. We would start out packaging 22oz bombers and work our way into six packs later. Most likely the focus will be on specialty beers for this market. There is lots of growth and demand in that area of craft brewing. The margins on wholesale production are slim and profitability comes with volume. I think a good mix of wholesale and retail will better our chances of survival.

7) When constructing a brewery, what decisions have been the most important?

This I am in the process of finding out. At this point, I think it is critical to design for the future with success in mind. The brewery is laid out to easily grow from phase I into phase II with minimal infrastructure changes. We are really designing for 5 -10 years and then working backwards to facilitate a practical boot strap growth. The brewery is being designed for a 20 BBL system but the initial hot side will be 10 BBL. The infrastructure will be set for the 20 but short term adapted to the 10. We figure once we outgrow a 20 BBL system, the brewery will most likely have outgrown the space anyway.

This is a scary time to be entering into this industry. Even with seven or so years of professional experience, I still hold some reservations. The hop and malt crisis we are in does not seem to be going away anytime soon. Energy costs are going nowhere but up and a brewery is an energy hog, even with all attempts to reduce this. Green energy is a great solution but expensive to implement, it can use up most of your brewery budget before you even buy your brewery equipment. Stainless steel and other metals are becoming more expensive. Breweries are also taxed on barrels produced by the federal government and state government. On the state level, many states have raised these taxes substantially and our own state has tried to many times over the years (thank goodness for a strong brewer?s guild letting our lawmakers know we are here). The bottom line is the costs of running a brewery have increased dramatically and I don?t see that changing much over time. The reality is there are easier ways to make more money, but in my case, it is really where my heart is. Like they say, listen to your heart, and hope it is right!

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