Don’t Open a Brewery

Exclusive interview with Kelly Meyer founder of New Braunfels Brewing Company and author of “How NOT to start a F@ck!ng Brewery: Ten Lessons From The Front Lines of The Craft Beer Industry

The Emotion Behind the Book

David: Why would a brewery owner write a book telling other people not to open a brewery?
Kelly: The short answer to that question is, I assume you can sense the anger that was in the book. A lot of what my motivation stemmed from was the idea that I tried every idea that I was told would work. We talked to other breweries to see what was working and emulated those things. And literally couldn’t make the brewery sustain a profit for more than 30 or 60 days. Quite frankly after 8 years I was pissed off. I sat down with my wife and wrote down the things I thought we did wrong. As I made the list I said you know what? Other people could benefit from this. I started fleshing it out and the emotion of where I was sitting at the time came through in the book.
David: To be honest I wasn’t picking up anger. I was reading it first as entertainment because you pull people in quickly with it, everybody likes a story. There’s a lot of business fundamentals (in the book) that could be transferred to a lot of other industries.
Kelly: During the final months of writing, I tried to edit out some of the anger. I wanted this book to teach people. If the book had been there for me….One of my brewery friends was joking that if we had read this book back in 2011 we never would have….opened a brewery. You see people open a brewery, its exciting, it’s passion and it’s cool. But if those fundamentals are not in place…. I thought there’s a lot that could benefit from the book in the brewing industry as well as others.

What you see on the outside isn’t always accurate. We buy pretty things to look rich even if we are not. A brewery can look popular and not be a bit profitable.

The industry is in free fall a little bit right now. We are going to get a massive correction here in 2020. It’s sad, good beer is going to go away and mediocre beers are going to go away.

Beer Evolution and Profit

David: I read your concept that you can work to make the beer 15% better and nobody cares. You still stand by that?
Kelly: The market proves it. You might get someone to write an article about it or a consumer to talk about how great it is. But that same consumer is gonna have a 6 or 12 pack of something in their fridge that doesn’t reflect that same love as far as the beer goes. The short answer is yes, I do think it makes a difference and people notice it but I don’t think you can tie that back to profitability at all. The best beers in our market here in Texas prove that.
David: I’ve discovered driving through Indiana that are 100 beers better than “Heady Topper”. When I realized that, it crushed me because the Holy Grail was always Heady.
Kelly: Some of that is the industry changing. If you create a brand you have to stick your flag in the sand. How much could they change it? Could The Alchemist come back and say you know what? Galaxy (hops) are better we should throw Galaxy in. No, they have to make a new beer. I’m sure they made a Galaxy IPA somewhere else but it’s that core beer problem. If you get stuck on that and how do you get attention for your other products. You can’t control what the market wants.
David: You can be the victim of your own success, you get locked in maybe.
Kelly: You can get pigeon holed, known for one thing but it can be to your advantage. There are tons of brewery examples out there. I use Martin House in the book, once they got pigeon holed into making cool beer people will buy everything they make even if it’s terrible.
David: Your pickle beer PKL FKR you kept revising and updating that right?
Kelly: We first kettle soured it. You start off doing a thing and as your palate grows you should improve the process. We knew early on that we could make the beer better and we set out learning how to do that. We learned from guys like Green Bench that have some stuff out there where they talked about how they improved their kettle game. You should take your today version and try to make it better tomorrow.

David: I don’t always see that. Zombie Dust is the same as it was 3 years ago.
Kelly: We were talking about Heady Topper, at some point you’ve got to say “this is the beer”. But if you can taste it and notice a process issue that you can improve – you should improve that over night.
My palate grew that way where I was making beer particularly the sour beer which I didn’t have a lot of experience with. At the time I didn’t realize there were different types of organic acids not really. Like take something that is lactic sour vs. acetic sour. I just knew they were both really really sour. When I figured out the difference and tasted how different lactic acid is on your palate we did everything we could in that brewery including throwing barrels away to make sure acetic acid was no longer present because it just wasn’t as good.
We made a beer called Black Fury, it’s basically black acid and our fans loved it. Note: Last batch will be released in March 2020
So then there was a question for me. Do I keep making a beer that I know
isn’t great because it has fans or does the brewery evolve? I made the choice that we had to evolve and we went with the products that were good and were made well.
David: It took a lot of courage to dive into a beer category that you didn’t know much about in terms of sour beers and today almost everything you guys have is sour.
Kelly: We brewed the last batch of our Hefeweizen in December 2017. We’ve never brewed a beer since with laboratory yeast. Instead  all the sugars in our beer are consumed by naturally-occurring wild yeast and bacteria that live in the air inside our brewery.
When I decided to start a brewery the idea was fluid. It was either going to be a distillery, brewery or winery. In 2011 Texas wine just was not where it is today and it still has some growth to do. I wouldn’t have been proud of what we were making. I enjoy Scotch and you can’t make that outside of Scotland. The beer afforded me a creative outlet to incorporate all of them. If you look there’s a lot of wine inspiration and even wine products in our beer. At the end of the day, I would have been just as happy to do a winery had I known how to do it.

I appreciated annual variations. I liked the fact that when I picked out a bottle (of wine) from this year it was going to be different from the same Cab as last year. Beer people don’t.
I learned quickly that we gotta hit gravity every time we gotta do everything exactly the same way. Ultimately what made me passionate about it were the annual variations in the sour products. That was a “light bulb moment” when I realized this is who I am and this is what I should have been doing back then.
David: Your book is going to get a lot of attention because you own a brewery and your telling others not to start one.
Kelly: I think there’s some lessons for guys that are currently open too. That’s a harder message to get out there. They aren’t going to want to listen. I have some friends I tested and asked them to read it and all of them unanimously said I’m embarrassed at how many things in that book I didn’t know. Obviously I’m writing because I didn’t do these things either. I’m not the guy on the podium say look listen to me. I’m just saying me and my buddies learned this stuff.
David: A lot of what I’m hearing today and what I’ve read is a lot of humility. You’ve put your ego on the shelf to write this.
Kelly: I don’t think the story would have worked otherwise. I’ve always been critical of myself. I’ll admit I wasn’t proud of a lot of the stuff that we did. Particularly with those brewers in the beginning that I had to let go. I’d come in and be like this isn’t the beer we want to sell. Clearly not the guy to make it. It was a frustrating few years to have high expectations and not be able to have them met. Either with my hands or my employees hands.

It’s been my life, my kids have helped to bottle and my daughter designed labels it wasn’t just a job. It’s probably why I’m as emotional about it as I am.


Kelly: So much of marketing particularly in the beer industry and really consumer goods overall is designed to create a brand regardless of the underlying product. Michelob just did a Super Bowl commercial about the organic nature of what’s in Ultra and they use Corn Syrup! There’s organic grains in there sure but that’s not even the majority of what’s in there. That’s misleading.

The Future

David: What do you see for future trends for the brewery
Kelly: 12oz 4-packs are literally the wave of the future for us. So we are investing more heavily in that. I brought in a bottling line. There’s so many unused bottling lines in the country right now that I was able to borrow one. See if I can make it work before I have to buy it.
I really don’t want to do cans. Our beer just fits better in a bottle. Not long necks the little stubby ones are the ones we use.
David: What about the industry?
Kelly: From a product perspective, I don’t know. I never would have predicted the Brut IPA or these other ridiculous products like brownie batter stout. There’s another product out there that they are going to have to come up with. Something new as the market gets tired of those products. I don’t know what that product is but I bet I’m not going to like it.
David: I’m hearing that the innovation’s not going to stop and we’re going to need something else.
Kelly: There’s a limit. Brut IPA is an example of that. Let’s create something totally unique and different – well it wasn’t and it wasn’t better. How much more amazing can you make something and still make it beer. Well, that’s the seltzer market. Now the consumer is tired of drinking beer, they want something totally different. I would love to tell you it’s going to be a resurgence of traditional styles from Germany but I doubt that will happen. But that would be fantastic.
David: It’s great talking with you Kelly!
Kelly: I appreciate you reaching out.

DG Barrett
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