Draught Horse Brewery – A Lesson in how to build a successful brewery

Draught Horse Brewery – DHB, New Hudson, MI
Let’s be honest, our beloved craft beer industry has matured since it exploded just a decade or so ago.  As with all maturing markets, participants need to continuously adapt and “up their game” to survive.  It’s a demanding market as the novelty of craft beer is gone and breweries have to focus on more than just good beer.

That’s why I was so excited to review one of my local breweries because they “get it”.  Draught Horse Brewing (DHB) located in New Hudson, MI is a brewery that understands fully what it takes to survive and thrive in the increasingly competitive craft beer market.

 What I learned from the team at Draught Horse are essential elements for every brewery.
To illustrate this, allow me to describe my first visit to this brewery about a year ago. It was “date night” for my wife and I. We stepped in past the front door and almost turned right around because it was so crowded. 
  • A staff team member reached out immediately to greet us at the front door and asked if we wanted a beer as we were waiting for a table (answer=YES)
  • Soon we walked to a table and were greeted by wait staff – She welcomed us and provided us with beer/food menus
  • We both ordered customized Mac & Cheese, food arrived in less than 10 minutes
  • Various members from the DHB team chatted with us during our visit.
I hope it is obvious what these guys are doing. The focus is on the customer experience. It’s not just good beer. You’ve got to have the right environment and that starts with the right team culture.  Draught Horse employees work in a team based organizational culture.  They are so team based, that visitors often have no idea exactly who owns or runs the place.

In the word’s of their founder Brad Tiernan, he wouldn’t ask an employee to do anything he wouldn’t do (or isn’t already doing). That kind of attitude serves as the foundation for their culture and that’s just part of their  “Secret Sauce”.

4 Essential Elements for any Successful Brewery
1. Culture – Team Based, customer focused
2. Environment – Everything should make your guests comfortable
3. Service – Fast, efficient and friendly 
4. Product – Good beer (and food when applicable)
Good beer is dead last because it’s expected. Just like the automotive world after it matured in the 90’s. Customers expect good quality in a car, it’s just expected, it’s not a “wow”. Walk into a local brewery and the beer has to be good.
The following are excerpts from the interview I had with the Draught Horse Brewery.

The Kitchen:
DHB took on the challenge of opening a brewery that serves both beer and food. Imagine how stressful opening just a restaurant is and then compound that with the complexities of a new brewery. It was a risk that has paid off however. I “toured” the kitchen and it took me 3 steps –  I think – to fully walk through it. They have the smallest kitchen I have ever seen in my life. Yet, what happens in that small space is amazing. Their primary cook, John, somehow gets all orders out in 10 minutes or less.

The Menu:
I love bar food I really do but it doesn’t make a place memorable. So what to do? Ben Zelinski, the General Mgr, had previous experience managing a cafeteria at a nearby automotive supplier. It was during this experience that he observed how much people enjoyed putting together their own meals at his breakfast bar. Patrons like to customize. His idea was to provide custom Mac&Cheese to customers at the brewery. When I visit I pick a protein, two cheeses, two vegetables and toppings. It’s fun, fast, tasty and a perfect companion to my IPA. I’m hungry thinking about this.

The Team
It starts with the interview process. Brad emphasizes the culture. “We don’t ask anyone to do something we wouldn’t be willing to do ourselves”. Unlike some bosses who take a “snapshot” of the process and then vanish, the managers at this brewery work right along with everybody else.

 Water and Process
Brad emphasized the importance of good water – “water is king”. This brewery understands that water is the most important ingredient and they take great care to condition and filter all of their water. Despite the fact we live in the “Great Lakes” region here in Michigan, water quality varies and it has to be respected to produce quality beer.  It’s so important that he believes his same brewer recipes cannot be replicated if brewed somewhere else in the world. I believe him.

Factoid: High quality water is prized so much by these guys that they bought a "good water" insurance policy.

There so many factors involved in the brewing process; time, temperature, brewer methods and ….water. It’s a real challenge especially for the small batch brewing favored by this brewery.

Why are Craft Beer Customers different?
The DHB team believes their customers want to learn about beer and brewing.
They hold periodic beer camps and training sessions for their customers to learn and explore.  In short, it’s more than just getting drunk.

Ben mentioned that he often hears the words from customers “I just feel comfortable here”.  Here again, customers value more than just good beer, they want a nice comfortable place to relax.

Customers also marvel that the place feels like a new brewery every time they visit. So many new beers! All thanks to their small batch methodology.

Small Batch Methodology
They brew their core beers in large 10 barrel systems so they always have them on hand. I’m confronted with different beers thanks to their changing rotation of beers produced from their smaller barrel system. They have so many small batch beers that they have a digital display at their bar. Even for regulars, the display is required because of the great number of new beer introductions.

Beer Factoid: My local brewers share ingredients when one of them is short an important item. The collaboration extends to feedback on each other's beer and friendly competition. They support each other to help their collective market grow.
The Future
They are thinking about local distribution and a new location that will start distilling. Yes! This really got my attention. Craft distillers are the next wave of craft beverages in my opinion. For decades we have had large corporations produce pretty basic spirits in this country. Cracking this market with the same American innovation and artistry that rocked ordinary beer into craft beer, only makes sense. The additional advantage for a brewer to venture into distilling? Brad mentioned one advantage is the fact you will never have to toss a batch of beer. If a batch goes in the wrong direction it can be distilled down into spirits. There are also synergies with barreling. The spirits age in barrels that will be used by beer and beer can age in barrels used previously by spriits.  Brad believes people will get into craft spirits like they have with beer and I couldn’t agree more.

Closing Thoughts
It was blast to learn from these guys and see how much fun they had working together. When you hear things like “you can talk to the rest of the team about these same subjects and you’ll probably have the same conversation” you know they’ve got something going on right with culture and attitude.

When interviewing the DHB team I spoke at length with Brad, Ben and Eric who are the primary brewers. My daughter Emma, observed and took pictures from afar.  After we took notes and toured the brewery, Emma and I got back into the truck. I mentioned to Emma just how much work it would be to manage a brewery team. My daughter has lightening fast insight and she immediately shot back with her thoughts from that afternoon “It was so obvious those guys liked what they were doing and enjoyed working together” she said confidently. “People like that, know what has to be done and they do it”. My sweet Emma is right. The right organizational culture puts everything into place.


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