When did the light bulb go off for you?
In ‘83, I remember seeing a story in Inc. Magazine about Fritz Maytag. I was clerking at a law firm in Seattle when Miller was suing Olympia over the use of the word “light.” Because I knew about brewing, I worked on that case. And when I was a management consultant, we had Coors as a client, so I still had some connection to beer.
These little microbreweries were starting up and that really got my interest. I actually worked in Bill Newman’s brewery in Albany. He was the first guy who started a microbrewery east of Boulder. I came away thinking, OK, the idea is right. I knew that it was possible to make world-class beer here in the United States. The only people who were trying were microbrewers and the failure rate was probably 60%, with as many closing as opening.
After I saw Bill’s brewery, I knew why. It was pretty simple: the product wasn’t very good. The beer was inconsistent and often infected. It went bad pretty quickly. Consumers were getting a lot of bad beer, and they did what consumers do: they refused to drink it.
I knew there was an opportunity, but I didn’t have a lot of money to build a proper brewery. I wasn’t going to do what everybody else was doing, in my mind, which was to try to succeed on marketing, meaning “Well, the beer’s not very good, but I make it in small batches by hand right here. So forgive me for giving you a glass full of bacteria, but I did make it myself!”
My dad used to say, no matter how good the marketing is, somebody’s got to drink it. I believed that if I could give people a great glass of beer I didn’t need great marketing stories.
If I make great beer and give it to people fresh, some fraction of the beer drinking population will drink it. If I could get a fraction of one percent of the beer drinkers in eastern Massachusetts to drink it, I could survive. I focused on how to deliver great beer all the way into the consumer’s glass. Because anything less than that will result in failure. No matter how good the story is, the beer has to deliver.
I went to a few breweries in the northeast. I had this old recipe [from his grandfather] with a few intricacies in it—krausening, decoction mash—so you needed a certain brewery configuration. Not every brewery could make it, but there were a few who could. I settled on Pittsburgh Brewing.
I needed the best brewing mind that I could get, which was Joe Owades. My dad knew who he was. You ask around and there was no one else in the business like him. He was the first microbiologist/scientist to get into brewing. When I met him he’d been involved in brewing for 35 years. And he was a genius. Not only did he know his stuff but everybody respected him.
At Pittsburgh Brewing, it was very valuable to go with Joe. Four or five years earlier, he’d basically saved that brewery by developing IC Light. They thought he was a god. So if I would ask them to do something, they would question it. Then Joe would say “He’s right,” and they’d do it.
I couldn’t afford him. So I paid him what I could afford and I offered him a piece of the company. He called around and realized that I knew what I was doing and I was serious about it, so he signed on.