Tony Karlowicz, co-founder of Back East Brewing Company in Bloomfield, CT, always had an entrepreneurial streak. Innovation Destination: Hartford recently toured the brewery and found out how Karlowicz and co-founder Edward Fabrycki, Jr. turned their passion for craft beers into a successful, growing brewery.
IDH: How did the brewery get started and what’s the story behind the “Back East” name?
KARLOWICZ: Back East Brewing Company was started by myself and my cousin Edward. The name actually came from Edward, who is an engineer by trade. After he graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1992 with a degree in Electrical Engineering, he moved out to San Diego and lived there for about 10 years. Edward really got into the brewing scene out in San Diego and started home brewing. He moved “back east” to Connecticut, so that’s where we picked up the Back East name.
Edward and I had been out of touch for a long time. In 2005 we got together for dinner and didn’t have a whole lot to talk about, until we started talking about beer and, as it turns out, we had a similar interest and dream to open a brewery.
As for me, I went to Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, graduated in 2000 with a degree in Business and Accounting and moved back to Connecticut. I worked at KPMG, an accounting firm, until 2006. After I left there, I worked at an insurance company. Around that time, Edward and I started getting together and to homebrew in his garage in Southington and we began putting together plans to open Back East. When Back East got off the ground, I knew I had to jump in with both feet, so I left the insurance company in early 2012.
IDH: Did you always have a business mindset?
KARLOWICZ: Yes, I always had that entrepreneurial streak. When I was growing up I started a landscaping business and mowed lawns for neighbors and that sort of thing.
When I was seven or eight my parents bought a Munson’s candy store in Bloomfield named Sweet Occasions and they owned and ran it until after I graduated college. I grew up working there, especially around holidays, and this really gave me a sense of what went into running a business. I like the retail aspect of the brewery at Back East as we have a tasting room where people can come in, sample beer and buy beer to go.
IDH: Would you say Edward always had an entrepreneurial streak as well?
KARLOWICZ: I was kind of the drive. He liked brewing, he liked the science of it and he liked the engineering and the chemistry behind it, but as far getting the push to open the business, it was me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him, and certainly vice versa.
It’s good to have a partner who’s different from you. We have different, but complimentary backgrounds. I’m Mr. Outside, Edward is Mr. Inside. He’s an introvert and I’m an extrovert, he’s responsible for production and I’m responsible for the business end of it. It’s a good partnership. We took time to get to know each other during our planning phase.
IDH: Tell us about what was involved in the planning phase.
KARLOWICZ: We signed the lease on January 1, 2012, so it took close to six years of planning from the time we first got together to start homebrewing. Obviously we were both anxious to get into it, but looking back, we’re glad we spent all that time preparing and getting ready and getting to know each other and figuring out exactly how we wanted to do it. There are so many different models when you’re opening a business, whether it’s a brewery or any other kind of business.
During our planning phase, financial markets had a meltdown and the price of hops skyrocketed because there were shortages. If we had opened three years earlier we may not have made it. Taking the time to figure out what we were doing really helped us out in the long run.
We spent time putting together a business plan and figuring out exactly how what we wanted to do it. This involved determining how we’re going to finance the business, which we ended up doing mostly through family and friends. We also spent time learning about the science of brewing, the business of brewing, the different styles of beer and the ingredients.
IDH: After the planning phase, how long did it take to actually start brewing beer?
KARLOWICZ: We started building out the brewery in January 2012 after we signed our lease, and we brewed our first batch of beer by mid-June. That was a little less than six months, and we were very happy with that. It sounds like a long time, but I’d say we got it done more quickly than most. You can see on a tour how much work goes into setting up something like this.
When we opened in 2012, I think we were the seventh or eighth brewery in Connecticut; now there are more than 30. As odd as it sounds, being just three years old makes us a kind of veteran in the area.
IDH: As industry veterans, can you share any learning experiences?
KARLOWICZ: Another thing that was important to our success was that we hired an experienced head brewer when we opened up. Our first head brewer had 10-plus years of commercial brewing experience, which was very helpful looking back.
I think a lot of people now are brewing beer in their garage and saying: Well, my friends like it, maybe I can sell it. So they go through this whole process and lo and behold, it’s not really as good as their friends told them. Their friends may have told them their beer is great because it’s free. Brewing in a garage is a lot different than brewing in a commercial brewery, where customers will decide the success of your business with their wallets and pocketbooks.
IDH: So when did you have that “a-ha” moment when you realized your beer was marketable?
KARLOWICZ: I clearly remember that “a-ha” moment. We were trying a batch of beer, which eventually became our Back East Ale, and we tasted it and said: Holy cow! We can actually sell this. People would actually pay money for this.
That was kind of early on in the process. Again it was slowly putting together a plan, like I said there are many ways to do it. When we opened, a license did not exist in the state of Connecticut for a kind of “tap room” where you actually sell pints.
Right now the state has a newer permit that allows people to go to a brewery, buy a pint and sit down and drink it. We currently don’t have that permit, but it is something we are thinking about for the future. When people come in they get a free round of samples and hopefully find something they like and take a six pack or a growler to go.
IDH: Let’s talk beer competitions. You’ve won several of them. How do you get involved in those?
KARLOWICZ: The Great International Beer Festival happens in Rhode Island every year in October. Our Back East Ale, our first beer, has actually won three years in a row. Every once in a while we’ll send our beer out to beer competitions. Usually it’s your peers judging the beers based on taste, quality, appearance, aroma, mouth feel and how well that fits in with the style of beer. It is definitely exciting when we win awards for our beers as that is validation that we are producing a quality product.
IDH: That’s got to be great for marketing. What other ways are you marketing?
KARLOWICZ: Yes, certainly. With the number of breweries opening up now it’s not what it was five years ago, where you would win an award and it would establish you as a brewer of really great beer as judged by professionals in a competition.
Now it’s viral. It’s all social media. What are people seeing on social media? What are people hearing from their friends? What do people see on Twitter and Facebook? I think social media gets a lot of people to listen to each other rather than the companies doing all the advertising.
IDH: Do you find that being in Connecticut helped to shape your business?
KARLOWICZ: We both grew up in Connecticut. Edward grew up in Hartford and I grew up in Southington.
We ended up early on getting a matching grant through the state, which we used for some equipment. That certainly helped. Those types of grant programs are helpful for a small establishment like us.
IDH: Do you distribute your beer beyond Connecticut?
KARLOWICZ: Right now we are only distributed in Connecticut and we can barely keep up with demand here in Connecticut, which is definitely a great thing.
A lot of breweries are adding more and more capacity, but then you get into the situation where there’s more supply than demand. Then, to relieve that supply, you decide to distribute to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. Before you know it, you kind of have this footprint and, maybe you don’t have the name there, or maybe you just can’t service that area because you need to have feet on the ground. You need to have people representing your brand out there.
You can just ship a truckload of beer to Massachusetts or Kansas or Texas and they will sell it and it will get put into stores, but if you don’t have a name out there, you’re taking a chance. When it comes to beer, people are creatures of habit, they tend to grab something they know or recognize. We’ve become that here in Connecticut, which is awesome.
IDH: Where do you see your company in the next two to three years?
KARLOWICZ: Back East Brewing Company did a major expansion, which we finished in January 2015. We doubled our capacity, so we have occupy two units in our building with room to expand even further.
We’re hoping to expand again within the next couple of years. We hope to have it up in the next 18 months. Right now we’re running pretty close to our capacity, which is where we’d like to be.
IDH: It sounds like your biggest words of advice for entrepreneurs are “take your time.”
KARLOWICZ: Right. Take your time. Know what you’re doing. Also, you have to do something you’re passionate about.
When Edward and I originally made a list of pros and cons for opening the brewery, obviously the cons for both of us were leaving well-paid careers. And not only leaving well-paid careers, but leaving well-paid careers with families, mortgages, car payments, all of that stuff. Unless you’re fabulously wealthy, you don’t have the luxury of having a lot of money to throw around.
On the list of reasons to do it, for us, it was we love craft beer and we wanted to do something on our own. Making money was on that list, but it was much further down the list. Sometimes if you get into things just for the money, you lose sight of your mission and don’t enjoy what you’re doing.
We’re passionate about what we do. Three-plus years after opening, we’re still getting here early. We’re filling kegs and busting our tails to try and keep up. Don’t expect to start a business and sit in an ivory tower and order people around—unless you have the money to do it. Make sure you’re passionate about starting your business and make sure you take your time.