Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price visited Firefly Hollow Brewing in Bristol, CT and spoke with one of the founders, Bill Collins about the history of the brewery and how startup breweries throughout Greater Hartford are working to make Connecticut a destination state for beer lovers.
NAN PRICE: There is a story behind the launching of Firefly Hollow Brewing. Can you give us some background?
BILL COLLINS: One important thing to note about this story is: An entrepreneur cannot succeed alone. Period. This is a story about building a team and going for a long-term mission.
My part of story starts with me getting a homebrew kit from my brother back in 2002. Around that time was the first wave where we really had the renaissance of beer.
I used to get supplies from Brew & Wine Hobby, a homebrew shop in East Hartford, CT. I had been going to the shop for about five years when suddenly the shop’s inventory level started getting really low.
Over time I got to know the front room manager, Richard Loomis. When I first met Rich, we talked about different philosophies of brewing and eventually we discussed what was going wrong at the homebrew shop. It turned out that someone had bought it to basically provide them with income. The owner had some inclination about homebrewing, but it wasn’t a long-term vision of where the hobby shop should go.
NAN: What do you mean?
BILL: I play the long game. I’m the master of the short game—I can get stuff done really quickly, but I plan things long-term.
The owner didn’t see that, as a retail shop, the chief competition wasn’t the guy down the road. The chief competition was Amazon or Midwest Supplies—big places that always have things in stock.
I took a loan against my 401(k) and Rich and I bootstrapped and bought Brew & Wine Hobby. This was around 2010/2011. I had a long-term vision. I knew that, as a homebrew store, we needed to always have the basic stock plus some specialties and we needed to switch the shop’s orientation from being just a retailer to also being a community where customers could come into the shop for advice. They would swap bottles and really learn about beer.
Around this time, some of the fledgling breweries in Connecticut were starting out as homebrewers. Some of the homebrewers who have launched breweries with supplies from our homebrew shop include Back East Brewing Company in Bloomfield, Broad Brook Brewing Company in East Windsor, Powder Hollow Brewery in Enfield, and Top Shelf Brewing Company in Manchester.
Chances are if they’re in the Hartford County or just on the edges of Hartford County, they got their ingredients from Brew & Wine Hobby when they were homebrewers. We watched a lot of people going through the process of launching startup breweries, so we had a lot of people we could talk to. That was one of my goals with the homebrew shop—I wanted to be involved with other people watching them launch breweries.
NAN: What did you gain from their experiences launching startup breweries?
BILL: We figured out a couple things. We saw some people launch as production breweries—which was a valuable model at the time. During this time period, brewing laws in Connecticut heavily favored the distributor and institutions that didn’t foster small startup brewers. Back then you could be a brewpub or a brewery, you couldn’t be both.
Production breweries are fine, but they are more about the volume and less about fostering a local community around the craft. Some of the breweries have been able to switch gears from strictly production to onsite communities when the law change.
With a production brewery, you’re trying to become a known brand so you can become well known in every package store. Once you’ve established that, you can switch and acquire a brewery/brewpub license, like Firefly Hollow Brewing has, and you can do more limited-run releases of specialty beers.
NAN: Let’s talk about the transition from owning the homebrew shop to deciding to launch a startup brewery.
BILL: While we were running the homebrew shop, Rich and I hired on our first employee, Dana Bourque, who later became the head of brewery operations at Firefly Hollow. So there we were: two owners, one employee—I was (and still am) working full-time elsewhere and we were trying to get more people into homebrewing. This was still back in 2010/2011.
At the time, we’d attend to beer shows, such as the Rising Pint Brewfest, which is one of the top beer festivals in Connecticut. We’d go and serve our beer because our goal was to show the people that they could homebrew and legitimately make their own really great beer. We’d end up with lines that were two or three times longer than some other breweries. And we kept getting asked: Where can I buy your beer? If we told people we could show them how to make it, the response was that they just wanted the product.
NAN: That must have been validating.
BILL: It was. That was when we decided we really wanted to go down the path of launching our own brewery. But, needed to figure out how to do it.
NAN: Tell us about that process.
BILL: At the time, Dana asked us if it was okay to attend the American Brewers Guild, a well-respected brewer training distance learning program based out of Vermont. We said absolutely. He managed to get the one scholarship for it and he really did very well with it. He then did his internship at Willimantic Brewing Company.
This was in the summer of 2012. The Connecticut brewing law had just changed. And the law that changed is the one that’s most important to all the breweries in Connecticut right now: the Sunday beer law.
Buried in this law, which allows you to buy beer on Sundays, was the provision that you could open as a brewery/brewpub model that can serve pints directly to people without having to make food. This is referred to as a tap room model. This provision allows a small brewery to start up and be able to sustain itself locally until it can refine its product to the point where it can go to statewide, regional, or national.
The new law passed due to passionate arguments from one specific brewery: Two Roads Brewing Company in Stratford, CT. Two Roads has the first license for this model and became the first taproom brewery in Connecticut. One of our homebrew shop customers, Broad Brook Brewing, applied and got their license two months ahead of us. So they are license number two. Firefly Hollow has the third license in the state for the taproom model.
NAN: So you had the licensing. At what point did you decide to launch the brewery?
BILL: This was back in 2012. Dana, Rich, and I made the decision that we were going to launch a brewery. How were we going to do this? All of my money was tied up in the homebrew shop.
The homebrew shop had built have a large following of people who trusted us to help them with their beer and who appreciated our beer. We have a large network of friends and family, so we decided to use Kickstarter to show the viability of our business. We ended up raising almost $46,000 in 60 days.
At the same time, we were starting on the production and trying to find a location.
NAN: How did you end up in Bristol, CT?
BILL: We chose 10 towns and narrowed it down to two finals, Bristol and Rocky Hill, which is where I live. We selected Bristol because of the city’s commitment to renovating its downtown and because of the building—we wanted a building with character.
We had some big advantages. We knew people who had successfully launched startup breweries and were more than willing to talk to us. Also, we have a supply of different brewing ingredients at the homebrew store—if we were in a pinch one company can buy from the second company. The other real benefit we had was that because of the homebrew shop, tons of people already knew about us.
NAN: You had a built-in following.
BILL: Right, we already had a following. And that community was bigger than we thought. Nobody had a sense of how well it was going to work. Our opening night we had 200 people come through in a period of about four hours.
NAN: Can we talk about some of the startup challenges?
BILL: Supply and demand has been a problem. We opened with the ability to make approximately 55 barrels of beer a month. From the day we opened, we sold pretty much everything we could make. A couple limitations were dealing with labor—we didn’t have enough people on board since we were trying to bootstrap.
Another problem was we opened too small. We avoided being “really too small” and still opened too small. Right now we have basically expanded and doubled our brewery footprint by twice. We’re trying not to flood the market before there’s a demand for our beer—we’re trying to grow to catch up to the demand that’s already there.
By the way, when you’re starting out, you’re going to make a budget you’re going to make a plan and then it’s going to be wrong and your plan is going to miss tons of steps. That’s the way it works. Part of it is adapting, figuring out what supporting your business and what’s not.
NAN: Your beer is featured in more than a dozen establishments throughout Connecticut. How are you getting in front of these restaurants and bars?
BILL: Beer geeks. Basically people ask. And frankly all of the bar managers are need to research the local beer scene. They really need to know what’s out there, what’s new, and what will sell. We don’t actively market to them. We don’t usually even cold call anybody. We wait for them to approach us.
Is there a conscious thing we’re doing? No. what we’re trying to do is turn out a quality product in places that want it. And then making sure we manage the account properly.
NAN: How are you handling distribution?
BILL: Our initial stance was to do self distribution. About a year into it, we realized that with some of the places that wanted us and where we wanted to be in Fairfield and New Haven counties, with our limited staff, all you need is one traffic snarl and the day is dead. So we decided to use an outside distributor, G&G Beverage Distributors, for specific areas where we would like to be present but we don’t want to/cannot deliver effectively too at our size. Right now we’re self-distributed everywhere in Connecticut outside of those two counties.
NAN: Do you plan to keep distribution local to Connecticut or will you expand to other states?
BILL: Our goal is small and beautiful. We know what we are. We don’t want to try to ship to California. Frankly, we’re not sure we want to ship outside of Connecticut. Each state’s laws are a new challenge. Each distributorship is a new challenge. Is that to say will never be available in Boston and New York? We probably will, but it may not be for another three or four years.
NAN: What else do you foresee in the next few years?
BILL: We want to grow to the point where we can sustainably supply as much of Connecticut as we want to supply. And right now we are at least two more iterations away. We’re currently up to 160 barrels of beer. Next year we’re going to get up to about 400 barrels. That’s the goal at least.
Have we hit our stride? Last year we started to hit our stride, so we went from three guys and a dream to having four full-time employees, about seven part-time employees, and a very sustainable business on a growth trend.
I foresee in the next two years that we’ll probably increase by another third for part-time employees and probably add two or three more full-time employees.
Are we going to be the next Sam Adams? The answer is no. We don’t want to be. Maybe Russian River Brewing, but frankly we wouldn’t be them—we want to be us. It’s one of those things, we don’t aspire or try to force something, if there’s such a demand for us to be that scale, we’ll be that scale.
You can always push more product onto the market, but we don’t want to be “push the beer” people. We’d rather have people ask for the beer. And if production gets slow and there’s not a demand for all of our stuff that will allow us to make beer that take a little longer.
For example, making a lager takes three times as long as an ale and ties up a tank. We want to get to the point where were doing it because we want to do it and we’re fine. This isn’t us trying to go for the money. We want to get it to the point where the three of us are able to easily support our families. We have investors to back us, many of whom are our friends and families. We want to turn out a decent profit for them so they get rewarded. And we want to be part of a community. Right now we raise about $10,000 each year or different charities.
PRICE: That’s impressive. You’ve mentioned community a couple of times. In what ways is Firefly Hollow contributing to the community?
BILL: More than half of our customers are not from Bristol. We bring in a lot of people to the downtown area.
NAN: So you’re creating economic growth.
BILL: Right. We bring people downtown and from the brewery because we don’t provide food, so people are finding places in this town to eat.
NAN: Through the homebrew store, you’ve mentored many other startup breweries.
BILL: I’ve helped and given advice to five other breweries that have launched. Why? Because people gave me the time of day when I had my questions. If you can demonstrate to me that you’re serious, then I’ll give you the time of day. It’s paying it forward.