Website Curator Nan Price Innovation Destination Hartford spoke to Boondoggle Beers Founder Micah Kerr about the process of launching a startup brewery in Connecticut and his plans to create a presence in Hartford.
NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
MICAH KERR: That’s a fascinating question for me to answer I’ve always felt that I was entrepreneurial, but I’ve also always been frozen by fear of failure. So, I haven’t really done anything in an entrepreneurial sense—until now.
I’ve worked in the corporate world for many years and I learned that it really wasn’t right for me, even though I did obtain certain level of success. It was probably the worst thing for me, because I should’ve just embraced my entrepreneurial side and done something years ago! But alas, here I am. I felt it was time to do something; time to be happier. I was 39 when I made the choice to really go for this.
NP: Why did you decide to open a craft brewery?
MK: I’ve been a fan of craft beer since the mid-90s. Those were the beers I was first buying, and my friends and I brewed beer in our dorm. As the industry grew and became more visible, I flirted with the idea of opening a craft brewery. I thought about it more seriously about eight years ago. And then I realized: If I don’t do this now, I’ll regret it forever.
NP: When exactly did you launch?
MK: Officially, I got my state permit August 29 this year. That allows me to sell product.
NP: How was that process of obtaining the permit?
MK: It was daunting. There is so much regulation, and with alcohol even more so. The entire process took three years. Granted, a lot of that was on me for trying to maintain a full-time job during that time.
I think if you have some financial resources, it’s probably not too bad. But for a layperson like me, I didn’t have the ability, the bandwidth, and maybe even the education to pore through the documents required and fill everything out promptly and accurately, so it took a while.
NP: Would you say that’s been the biggest startup challenge?
MK: Yes, because any other major challenge I’ve had has been more on the personal side. Also, the challenge of not having enough capital is something I think every startup deals with.
NP: A lot of entrepreneurs—especially first-time entrepreneurs—experience some sort of pivot. What about you?
MK: My whole business plan changed eight times. As a first-time entrepreneur, I had no expectations. I just rolled with it. Naïveté is amazing, right?
I take the mentality of: Attack what’s in front of you. I’m still doing that now that I’m open. I’m doing that more than ever. Some things I’m not 100% certain what I need to do, so I’ll figure them out later. There may be repercussions, and if there are, I’ll deal with them then.
Obviously this is a practice that needs to change for my long-term success, and I am working on it, but I think in these earliest of days it’s necessary to be more reactionary than calculated.
NP: Many craft brewery stories start with a homebrewing experience, like yours. At what point did you realize that what you were brewing was marketable?
MK: I don’t know if I ever had the “a-ha moment.” I hate to sound terribly confident, but I knew what I was making was good. More importantly, with something like beer, it’s also knowing you’ve differentiated yourself from the market in some degree.
NP: And how have you differentiated? What makes your product unique or innovative?
MK: In homebrewing eight years ago, I was making some beers that are appreciated now. For example, my double honey IPA. I’ve been making the same recipe for years as a homebrewer and now people are drinking it and they like it.
As far as being innovative, I guess it’s just a matter of trying to keep up with some of the newer trends. And, obviously, it’s not about hobby, it’s about a business. So, you have to earn revenue at some point.
NP: Let’s talk about location. You don’t have a physical presence yet?
MK: Correct. The way the whole craft beer industry works is, typically people have a tasting room where they’re brewing beer, because by state law you’re allowed to do X, Y, and Z. But, you’ve got all these town restrictions as well.
As I was figuring out how I wanted to move forward, I had to accept that in Wethersfield, which is where I live and I was going to be operating, it wasn’t going to work for me to have a tasting room. And that’s fine. For me, the tasting room has a very good chance of becoming a distraction to a brewery.
NP: How so?
MK: A tasting room may provide good margins that enable you to earn revenue in the early months as you’re getting going; however, it can also keep you from getting your brand out—as in distributing.
Many breweries that have been around for a few years are just now starting to move beer off premise. For what I want to do, it’s more important that I get off premise, establish myself as a brand in the region, establish sales, and then use that stronger position to open a tasting room right where I want it.
NP: And you’re thinking of Hartford, correct?
MK: Yes, I’d like to be right in Hartford. It’s expensive. A lot of breweries end up opening in an industrial site because it’s zoned correctly and more afforable. But I want something that I think is long term. I really feel like beer is experience-based.
I want to bring my customers to Hartford. I love the city and I believe in its success. I want to be part of that. I want to bring a concept that doesn’t exist right now, and I want to do it on my terms.
NP: So, you would basically have two locations – one where you’re brewing and one where you’re serving.
MK: Right. It’s actually more traditional to do it that way.
NP: How have you getting the word out about the brewery.
MK: At this stage in the game, I found the social media platforms are obviously the most economical.
NP: Some breweries build up a social media presence before they even open.
MK: I didn’t do that. I have a very strict policy in my life: It’s fail privately. I’ve had so many setbacks and so many issues leading up to the opening of this business, there’s no way I was going to be that guy all over social media and at every event bragging: Hey, try my amazing beer!
Every three months I had to say we had a setback. It meant that when I did open, I realized: Oh my gosh! I’m opening! And then there was a bit of a scramble.
Honestly, my brand presence is very small at this moment. I’ve done a small amount of advertising on Facebook to see how that works.
I’ve also been at a couple beer fests. When you go to a beer fest, you’re donating the beer. You’re also giving up a lot of time and then several hundred dollars of product when you have scant revenue. But it helps to get your name out there. For example, Small State Great Beer had 3,000 people.
And then I’ve gone door-to-door to what feels like every bar and restaurant in the state to see if they want to try any new beer. That’s what spreads the brand—it’s social media connected with access.
Also, beer drinkers can use apps like Untapped to see that see my beer is now on draught at The Social Bar in New London or Engine Room in Mystic. They can see the rating of, which is what other beer drinkers think of it. So, they may try it, or they may not. And then they can add their feedback. That kind of stuff becomes really valuable.
NP: Let’s talk about distribution.
MK: I did my first can release at the end of October. It was very exciting. Boondoggle is in four package stores, which is intentional. My goal is to be in about a dozen and make them essentially known locations I work with, so people can come to those 12 package stores to get my beer rather than having to go to one tasting room.
NP: Do you plan to keep the distribution local or will you eventually expand to other states?
MK: I do plan to expand. I’m from New York, originally. I have friends who own restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Eastern Long Island. My intention is to be able to sell beer in about six months or so on Eastern Long Island. But honestly, I’m more focused on getting my feet under me. If my feet get under me, then it’s about contacting distributors and making it happen.
NP: As far as having those friends in the industry, was that helpful to you as you were launching?
MK: Absolutely. And it still is helpful to me every day. The craft beer industry in that regard is amazing. I like the general friendliness and helpfulness of people in the industry. We help each other out as people, but there is competition. As more and more craft breweries pop up, all the sudden I’m competing for tap lines with someone who’s been in business for five years.
Competition is inevitable. It’s a business, when it’s all said and done. As the industry is growing at a slower rate than the number of competitors, it is likely to get a bit tighter for craft brewers. There will be fallout. I hope that the generally open and pleasant attitude of fellow brewers doesn’t change.
NP: As you said competition is inevitable, but it must be helpful to know you’re not going it alone.
MK: Yes, if you’ve got a question there’s someone who will answer it for you. The trick is probably knowing who and when to ask, because I think most people are willing to share the information. I know I am, I just don’t know how much information I have to share yet!