It’s midday, the giant umbrellas are opened above the wrought iron tables and chairs, and a steady stream of customers are already clamoring to sample the beers brewed straight from the imagination of Steve Jones.
Jones is one of the latest people who have carved out a niche for themselves in the competitive world of beer brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. Pateros Creek Brewing is Jones’ brainchild, and Jones aims to be around in the future. But how do small, independent breweries keep the public interested? What does Jones think is going to be the big thing this summer in Fort Collins?
“For some reason, in this town people are still craving the hoppy stuff. But, what I think is something like a dry-hopped cider might come around, a dry-hopped mead, dry-hopping different things might be the way it’s going to go”
Not five minutes walk away at Equinox Brewing, owner Shannon Westcott already had a couple of things in mind.
“Our seasonal beers are popular, Vernal Hefeweizen in the spring and Midsummer Pale Ale released in mid-June. But, if anything we try to stay away from trends in brewing. If we do what everyone else is doing, then we aren’t setting ourselves apart.”
Jones had similar things to say when it came to following the desires of a fickle public.
“I try to hold my ground as much as possible, and I’ll tell you I’m actually a sore thumb in the town. You’ll notice that not all of my beers have hops in them. They are session style, not a lot of alcohol, not a lot of hops, I’m really just going for the malt flavors. I guess English styles are just really my thing”
The hard-headedness needed to march to the beat of your own drum is particularly well appreciated in a city like Fort Collins. But, not every unique business path leads to success, more so with the most recent downturn in the economy. So why is craft brewing still making great financial strides in small towns and cities across the U.S.?
“As craft beer grows, more people learn about it and introduce their friends to it. It seems that people are beginning to pay more attention to what they drink,” said Westcott. “New Belgium and Odell Brewing have been operating here for over 20 years. New Belgium especially has brought a lot of attention to Fort Collins as a place for craft beer, and that allowed a lot of smaller breweries, like ourselves, to open up.”
Starting a new brewery can be a costly enterprise as Jones explained, “We spent about $200,000 in total with the build-out, but about $150,000 without.”
Jones had also managed to keep the cost down by doing a lot of the actual build-out labor himself. Also, Jones had frugally invested in used equipment instead of going for brand new gear.
Then of course it is just a matter of making the brews, and even though both breweries try to stay clear of obvious beer trends, there was one extremely important thing to bear in mind.
“You still have a customer, and your customer has a good opinion of what they like to drink. So, you’re sort of following what they want to do. I’ll have my specialty beers, but the standard taps, that’s because of the customers,” laughed Jones.
Westcott was much more succinct on the subject of customer feedback, “If a beer sells quickly, we try to keep it around, or make a similar beer.”
However, even though some people have the vision, desire and credentials to make it as a quality craft brewer, there can often be a financial impediment to getting the whole venture off the ground. Jones and Westcott had arrived at their present destinations in very different financial fashion.
“We got all the way to the end of one funding application, and the guy said ‘we’re going to cut your checks next week,’ and then he called back a within that week and said, ‘you know I just got a call from corporate and they said they’re not doing any more small business loans,’” said Jones.
“It was really frustrating for us, because we had all of this stuff kind of lined up. We had no money to pay for anything, what are we supposed to do? Claim bankruptcy?”
Faced with what seemed like an almost impossible situation, Jones turned to the people he trusted most, his friends and family.
“We just sort of scrambled around, we talked to friends, friends of friends, and we found investors. We offered them a piece of the thing, we actually have investors that don’t own any stock, they actually own the equipment and we lease it from them. We got creative.”
The upshot of so many people who want Jones’ venture to succeed is having many hands to help pitch in with the more mundane daily activities.
“Our investors are so into it they’ll come in and clean kegs and help brew batches of beer.”
Westcott over at Equinox didn’t quite have the same issue as Jones, but did see possible financial issues on the horizon if the trend in start-up breweries in Fort Collins continued at its present pace.
“We had our successful business, Hops & Berries, to back us up. We also had a solid, well thought out business plan, and years of experience both in brewing and running a business. We were able to secure Small Business Administration funding for everything we needed, along with our own money of course.”
“I wonder if it will get harder to get financing as more breweries come in. The banks may think there is a limit to how many breweries Fort Collins can support.”
Both Pateros Creek and Equinox were optimistic about their futures, but they differed slightly on where they wanted to be in five years.
“I want this little tap room to still be here,” said Jones, “we actually own the portion of the building that we’re in, and that’s our little downtown tap.”
“I want to be building a bigger facility off site, somewhere else, to brew larger batches to can, and to get that beer out into the liquor stores. That’s kind of my dream.”
Westcott had a dream of her own too, “Our goal is to keep Equinox small, doing what we do now. We may grow and expand our space, offering more music and the like, but we aren’t interested in becoming a distribution brewery.”
The final word rested with Westcott who seemed to sum up everything that Jones had talked about as well.
“We have a lot more fun being connected to our customers.”
Whatever the future holds for Pateros Creek Brewing and Equinox Brewing, it seems that both have already cemented their reputations in an ultra-competitive market, within a community that really knows and appreciates its beer.
© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley