Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Outer Light Brewing Company Co-Founder Matt Ferrucci about how the brewery got started, challenges the startup has faced, and plans for future growth.
NAN PRICE: Give us the basics of how the business got started and when it opened.
MATT FERRUCCI: My partner Tom Drejer and I met through a mutual friend in the 1990s. We both started homebrewing in college and independently became passionate—almost borderline fanatical—about making beer and sharing it with our friends.
In the back of our minds, we both knew we wanted to start our own business. We just weren’t sure what that would be.
In 2012, Connecticut changed the regulatory framework for breweries, allowing breweries to sell pints of their own beer in an on-site taproom. It changed the underlying business plan pretty dramatically—that’s why you’re seeing a lot of these startup breweries all over Connecticut, it helps you pay the bills when you’re getting started.
Tom and I saw an opportunity to parlay our passion for beer into a new business, so we went for it and put together a plan in 2013. It took us almost two years from writing our plan to opening our doors in April 2015, which is when our beer went on tap.
NP: Is that two-year time period because you were being really thorough with the business plan or is it because you were getting the money together?
MF: It was a little of everything. We were almost too thorough. We were trying to put together a plan and explore locations. Once we found our location and got the funding together, we spent a good chunk of time waiting for the federal government and the state authorities to sign off on the project and our waiting for our brewer’s license to come through.
As we were waiting, we spent nights and weekends building out the brewery. That’s why it took close to two years. We never thought it would take quite that long, but that’s how long it took.
NP: You opened in 2015. How has the brewery evolved since then?
MF: We opened in April 2015 with just one beer on tap. Since then, we’ve added enough tanks to double our capacity. And now we usually have 10 to 12 beer styles available in our tasting room.
We started out by self-distributing our product to bars and restaurants locally, but decided to hand over distribution rights county by county throughout the state of Connecticut.
NP: Is your beer only available in Connecticut?
MF: That’s right, we’re only in Connecticut right now. Basically it’s just bars and restaurants right now, and in liquor stores only in our hometown in and around Groton. We are investing in a canning line, so by this summer, four of our year-round beers will be available in liquor stores across Connecticut.
NP: Do you plan to expand distribution to other states beyond Connecticut?
MF: Yes. We are definitely talking about it. A lot of people who work in the New London area and live in Rhode Island know about Outer Light Brewing. So Rhode Island is probably our next natural step. But our focus for the immediate term is to ensure that we have enough product to meet the demand in Connecticut.
NP: You mentioned there are many breweries cropping up throughout Connecticut. What makes yours unique?
MF: It kind of goes back to how we got started. Every business model is different, but a lot of breweries try to bootstrap. So they start small, they invest, they grow, and they keep swapping out equipment. We decided we wanted to come in with a little more capacity to be able to service the state of Connecticut.
We also decided early on that—even though we were experienced homebrewers—we felt strongly that we needed to complement our team with someone with commercial brewing experience.
Making great craft beer is way more than just having a recipe. We were fortunate enough to find our head brewer, Tyler Cox, who is originally from North Carolina. He helped us get up to speed on commercial brewing. His style is also from North Carolina, which is a little different than the types of beers are made around here. So our beers have a style and a different type of quality you may not always see in the Connecticut beer scene.
Also, Tom and I have a passion to get outside—camp, hike, surf, etc.—and we’re trying to build a brand that connects people to those experiences they enjoy outside. If that includes craft beer, great. We want them to think of us. So we’re trying to build a lifestyle brand, which not a lot of breweries do. And that’s a constant evolution.
NP: How are you marketing?
MF: We’re obsessed with making a product that satisfies the public palette and making a quality product. We feel strongly that that attention to detail helps spread our brand and our brewery’s name across Connecticut.
We don’t do a lot of traditional marketing right now. We’re not doing any paid advertising. It’s more word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing. That may change as our product gets into liquor stores—we may have to change that strategy.
We have a “boots on the ground approach” to marketing our product to the right types of accounts. So once or twice a week, Tom and I will go out to places where we think Outer Light beers might do well and form relationships with different types of people there.
We also participate in events and interact with the public when it makes sense for our brand. So we attend beer festivals and participate in beer dinners, educational classes, beer and cheese pairings, and other events.
NP: Do you rely heavily on social media?
MF: We do. A bulk of our marketing is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We are posting at least once or twice a day on all of those accounts and we’ve built a pretty good following. Each social media tool has its plusses and minuses, but overall it’s a great way to continue the conversation with your customers and potential customers.
NP: A lot of breweries start using a social media presence to build a following even before they open.
MF: That was definitely the case for us. As Tom and I were building the brewery, we were posting pictures and teasing it out. Before we even opened we had 1,000 people following us. We had a mug club that sold out the first day we opened—before people even tried the beer.
NP: That seems fairly common, I’ve heard the beer snobs in the area really have their ears to the ground and they’re looking for new things to try.
MF: Right. People enjoy the variety. Outer Light Brewing has license #14 for breweries in Connecticut. The number of startup breweries keeps growing.
NP: It’s astronomically growing.
MF: Yes. I think it’s a great time for people to enjoy craft beer and the variety. There’s so much out there you never have to drink the same thing twice if you don’t want to.
NP: Let’s talk about you as an entrepreneur and the brewery as a startup. What would you say is the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a startup?
MF: Trying to match the availability of our product with demand is a huge challenge. It’s trying to shoot an arrow at moving target while you’re riding a horse in the middle of the night—and you’re blindfolded. It’s hard to figure out demand when demand is ebbing and flowing.
There are constantly new breweries entering the state of Connecticut from out of the state and there is always new product out there. So we want to make sure the people who want to get our beer are able to. And that’s not always the case right now.
Another big challenge is trying to get everything done with finite resources. We started with just Tom, Tyler, and me. Now there are five full-time people on our payroll and two part-time people. We’re trying to make sure that everything that needs to get done gets done. There’s only so many people and so much time and so much money. That’s probably an answer you get from many entrepreneurs. It’s a very real struggle.
NP: What’s it really like to be an entrepreneur?
MF: It’s cliché, but it’s definitely a roller coaster. The ups and downs are way more extreme than I could’ve imagined. It’s starting to get a little less crazy, but it’s definitely one hell of a fun roller coaster ride to be on. I wish I had done it sooner. It’s fun.
NP: Where do you see the future in the next couple of years?
MF: I think we need to make a decision once we’re on the liquor store shelves. Are we able to meet the demand in Connecticut? And if we are, then we need to explore expanding to Rhode Island and our neighboring states. But only after we’re able to meet the demand in Connecticut.
We are interested in growing. When we built out the brewery, we created in infrastructure that allows us to increase capacity pretty easily. Basically, we can purchase additional fermentation tanks, plug them in, and brew more beer. So we’re able to get bigger if that’s what we want to do. We probably won’t really come to that fork in the road until later in 2017.