Innovation Destination: Hartford visited Olde Burnside Brewing Company and spoke with General Manager Jason McClellan about the history behind the well-established brewery.
IDH: How did the Burnside Ice Company become the Olde Burnside Brewing Company?
McCLELLAN: The Burnside Ice Company was started in 1911 by my great-grandfathers. So my family already had an established business. As the ice business changed and kind of stagnated we were looking for another avenue to expand our business.
We already had relationships with a lot of bars, restaurants and liquor stores. So, we knew we could use those relationships as we built the brewery to taste test and have some pre-sales before we even started and get people looking forward to our product.
IDH: Did you always have an interest in brewing?
McCLELLAN: I was a homebrewer. The first brewer we hired was an award-winning homebrewer. Olde Burnside has its own water source here on the property, which lends itself to making very good beer. It’s very similar to water in Britain and the United Kingdom. We use the water to brew our beer and it adds its own unique flavor and characteristics to our product.
IDH: When did Olde Burnside become established?
McCLELLAN: Olde Burnside brewed our first batch of beer November 22, 2000.
IDH: It’s been 15 years. How has the business grown?
McCLELLAN: Olde Burnside Brewing grew like wildfire when it first opened. We were opening up to new and different markets. As the local craft beer scene took off, we pulled our distribution back into a nice, tight area in just Connecticut to make sure that we were well-established and maintaining our draught presence. Then we expanded back out to out-of-state markets.
IDH: Olde Burnside Brewing Company is obviously here in Connecticut because the ice company was here, the water source was here and you had an established company.
McCLELLAN: Right. My father actually grew up in East Hartford so he tries to maintain being here in East Hartford and it’s helped.
Olde Burnside Brewing has a relationship with Rentschler Field where UConn plays, which is nice. Our beer has a draught presence there—a lot of local breweries can’t claim they have 15,000 to 20,000 people showing up at an event and being able to sample their beer.
IDH: Did you rely on any Connecticut resources as you were starting out?
McCLELLAN: When Olde Burnside Brewing originally opened we did a lot of the financing ourselves. We’ve always tried to keep it all within the family. Back in 2000, Kickstarter and crowdsourcing didn’t even exist, so those areas of opportunity weren’t open to us, like some of the newer breweries have.
We recently used funding from the Department of Economic and Community Development Small Business Express Program to hire a new person.
IDH: How many employees do you have?
McCLELLAN: Six. Three full-time, three part-time.
IDH: There are more than 30 new breweries starting throughout Connecticut. How do you remain competitive?
McCLELLAN: Olde Burnside Brewing is established enough and we have permanent draught presence, which is really nice. Some new breweries get in the rotations—if you notice in bars, none of the taps are ever the same. A lot of these new breweries are learning that it’s not as easy as they thought.
If you had a draught line at a bar one week and the next week it’s replaced by a different brewery, you have to figure out where your next draught line is going. Draught lines are especially important because that’s where the majority of your profit margins are. Packaging chews up a lot of your cost. But people like beer to go, canning is hot and people like growlers—Olde Burnside does a lot of growler filling.
There are about 4,000 breweries in the U.S. now. Connecticut is a very small state and the competition is fierce for draught lines, and it’s not even from just the local craft breweries. You’re competing with larger out-of-state established breweries—Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors—and they’re fighting for draught space too.
As you’re setting up your business plan you need to realize that if you don’t have draught presence or a strategy to get a draught presence you’re going to have a struggle to move forward.
Talk to a local bar or restaurant. Ask them to feature you as a local beer. We’ve done that a lot, especially here on the east side of the Connecticut River. We have a very nice local presence in the area including Manchester, East Hartford, Glastonbury and heading out toward Tolland. It helped us a lot. We’ve got permanent lines that never move. It’s nice to know that some of these places are always going to serve our beer.
IDH: It sounds like it’s not easy to be established.
McCLELLAN: No, it’s not. Olde Burnside is the “old tried-and-true.” We do innovate. We always have new beers going on tap. You’ve got to innovate but then again, how many beers are too many beers? Do you lose your core?
IDH: So it’s striking that balance.
McCLELLAN: Definitely, it’s a balance. You need to say: This is 70% of my sales, this is the core beer that will pay for everything. But you also need to maintain that 70%. You can’t have that turn into 50%, because then all the sudden your cash flows get all messed up.
IDH: You definitely place a lot of importance on establishing a draught presence. You also emphasize networking with local places that will serve your beer. Any other tips?
McCLELLAN: Make sure your business model fits. It’s work.