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How to Start Your Own Brewery

Studying the operations of Fort Point Beer Co., which opened last year and is making waves in one of the most competitive beer markets in the US.

It’s a slow afternoon on the line, with three of four 40-barrel fermenters sitting silent, the liquid wort inside being quietly consumed by yeast. The fourth tank sits near-empty, surrounded by a few puddles of water, two kegs, three white BRUTE trash cans and a mix of tentacle hoses connected at intentional points. Bryce Tyranski, Cellarman, rinses a bucket with water, dumps it down the drain.

A white pickup truck, riddled with dents and dusty on the fenders, pulls up outside, reverses halfway into the warehouse and stops. Mike Schnebeck, Head Brewer, opens the driver’s side door, slides on gloves and gets to work moving manzanita wood from bed to pallet. In the office to the side, Alex Blunk, Sales, talks numbers. Justin Catalana, Cofounder, skips out the door and drives off to Mill Valley to the brewpub he and his brother Tyler started six years before (“I had worked in a Bioinformatics lab that used yeast as a model organism”, Justin says, “you could say we became friends”).

If you want excitement, a late Tuesday at a brewery isn’t the place to be. There’s the hum of the industrial cold storage, a trickle of water down a pipe, the sound of ingredients being stacked. Things are surgically clean, aligned in rows and tucked in place. It’s quiet.

Building a Brewery


Homebrewing: The beginning. You love the smell of malted barley. You crave the perfect porter. You geek out on every home brewing forum on the web. You spend time apprenticing at a local craft brewery. You tend bar, you listen to customers. You make your own recipes. You find your flavors. You want more, and so do those that drink your beer.
Contract Brewing: Mass fermentation. You work with a head brewer and perfect your formula, and you make the investment in a few kegs of your own stuff. You start to build a connection with the community. You make a small splash with friends. You serve your own stuff at the bar you work at — and people like it. You create more recipes and expand your line.
Brewhouse: Beer for the people. Now you’re making a significant investment in your own progress. You brew a few beers, you try a bunch of others. You’re building a brand at a grassroots level — one beer at a time. You make a name for yourself in the community. You perfect your recipes, you find your niche, and your niche works.
Brewery: Big-league brew. You invest in equipment. You’ve hired on a few full-time staff. You establish a solid brand, figure out logistics and hire a distributor (or self-distribute). You make good beer, sell good beer, and let the people drink good beer. Now comes the best part: relax, sit down, and pour yourself a pint. Here’s to you making a name for yourself in the beer industry.

Fort Point Beer Co. has been around for little over a year. In December 2013, they converted an old WWII motor shed into a brewery. In January 2014, they kegged their first beer. In the 12 months since then, they’ve locked over two hundred accounts in the Bay Area, and in February 2015 they added three new 80 barrel fermentors — doubling their production capabilities. “We’re doing 3,000 barrels right now”, Matt Colling, Head of Sales says, “that’s 6,000 with the additional tanks.” In a couple years, they want to reach 10,000. The goals are charted, measured, analyzed. Everything is accounted for.

1 The first rule of starting a brewery is that you’re not starting a brewery — you’re starting a business. Justin Catalana remembers from the early days, “I can’t say that it was making beer itself that was the drive, it was the process of building a brewery that kept us going.” And to build a business, you need a plan and you need a niche. For Fort Point, the plan is to be the first full-service craft brewery in the region. Everything — brewing, kegging, selling, distributing — operating under one roof. To do that, they’ve invented processes, created workflows and maintained a high level of professionalism from start to finish. “You only get one shot at building a brand”, Colling says, a transplant from the wine industry, where clientele demand crisp customer experience. He expects to offer white glove service. He wants to come out and clean bar’s beer lines. He’s happy to make same-day emergency deliveries. He views his accounts as valued partners in the business, and treats them as such.

“We’re not trying to make crazy-ass beer.”

As for niche, that’s where Fort Point’s product comes in: the beer. In the Bay Area, a land of high-profile hops like Lagunitas’ IPAs and Russian Rivers’ Pliny the Elder — Fort Point decided to do something different and, conveniently, marketable. The guys like drinkable beers, brews where they could sit and enjoy a few pints. And so they made their beer lighter (most hover around 5% ABV), and easy to pair with food. As Head Brewer Mike Schnebeck says: “We’re not trying to make crazy-ass beer.” That approach has differentiated them from the local big names who brew strong-bodied beers that win awards. Colling says: “We don’t want our beer to be the center of attention. We just want it to be a part of the conversation.” High-end restaurants embraced that attitude, wanting to serve good beer that compliments rather than distracts from the food (the true center of attention, for them). A few big-name restaurant accounts quickly added credibility, and Fort Point started down their own particular path in the local beer landscape.

2The second rule of building a brewery is have lots of green. Equipment’s not cheap, kegs aren’t cheap, supplies aren’t cheap, and building a brand isn’t cheap. So, before plunking into the deep end of a significant investment, it helps to start small. Six years before Fort Point sold their first beer, brothers Justin and Tyler Catalana started Mill Valley Beerworks as a sort of “beer and pretzel” place. They had a four-barrel fermenter in the brew pub, and they made small batches of beer. It was affordable, allowed for mistakes, and gave them — from pouring their beer direct to their customers — immediate feedback. In the first six years, they, along with Schnebeck, had 350 brew days. They made 70 to 80 beers. It was a small lab of experimentation, situated in a corner by the bar. They spent time sourcing premium ingredients like Weyermann wheat malt from Germany and local NorCal hops, and they brewed, tested, drank and shared. Out of that, they arrived at the four core Fort Point beers: the Kölsch Style Ale, Village IPA, Park Hoppy Wheat and Westfalia Rotbier. They had a product to sell, and they had a history of selling it on a small scale, and so it was time to brew bigger.

But moving into a profitable operation off your own beer sales isn’t an instantaneous occurrence. Fort Point lets their brewing equipment work double time by accepting contract opportunities. Alongside their own beer, they brew for local outfits that don’t have the bigger-scale resources, then they charge them per-keg rates and turn a quick profit off the exchange. And the additional square footage of the shed, they’re currently leasing out. Every inch, every penny is being accounted for. “You need more money than you think you need”, Schnebeck says.

3 The third rule is give it time. Brewing is a waiting game. Alcohol’s a highly regulated industry, and between government agencies and daily, weekly, monthly reporting, there’s plenty of filing to fill the hours (and days). It took Fort Point nearly a year to secure their current lease, an agreement they signed with the federally run Presidio Trust — not a simple lease to secure, but one that allows them to brew a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point’s namesake fortification. And even supplies came hard at first. When they first wanted to use Citra hops, they were shown the waiting list. Hops are a prized commodity, and breweries lock down long-term contracts. Eventually they were given a small allotment of the crop, but it only came with time. Fort Point looks at progress on a yearlong timetable. Year one of production (2014), they expanded local outlets from a handful to over 200. Year two (2015), they’re looking to package beer for retail and continue to grow distribution. Year three, it’ll be time to explore markets beyond their home roots.

Back at the brewery it’s now nearing six o’clock. Tyranski grabs a pallet jack and wheels it toward the stack of kegs he’d filled earlier that afternoon. For all the talk about business building, customer service, cash flow and calendar goals, this is still about beer. What’s inside the stainless steel barrels is the lifeblood of the operation, and it’s treated as such. Tyranski gives the handle a deft pump, then carefully wheels the beer toward the Fort Point Sprinter. He locks the cart, unloads the beer into the back of the truck. Repeats the process. Ten minutes pass until the bed is full of beer, and he closes the truck’s rear doors. The truck rumbles to a start — precious cargo stocked — then backs out of the loading zone and pulls into the evening light.

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