Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price took a tour of Relic Brewing in Plainville, CT and talked to Founder Mark Sigman about marketing to a niche audience, choosing a distributor, and getting a startup brewery off the ground.
NAN PRICE: Did you always want to start a brewery?
MARK SIGMAN: I always wanted to own my own business. When I reached a point in my life where it was realistic, I researched a lot of different business opportunities. In the end the one I thought was most viable was opening a brewery.
NAN: So you didn’t necessarily know you were going to be brewing beer?
MARK: I used to live in Colorado and Wyoming. Out there the beer scene is more mature and I became very used to living in close proximity to breweries. When I moved back to Connecticut, where I had originally grown up, I missed the fact that there were no breweries nearby. Even the beer selection in the stores was more limited than I was used to and I thought something could be done about that.
NAN: So that was part of your reason to start the business?
MARK: Yes, that was part of the reason. There was clear opportunity and there was also a clear model to follow that I’d learned from living out west.
NAN: How did the brewery get started? Is it just you or do you have a business partner?
MARK: It’s just me. I funded everything myself with my 401(k). I spent about a third to half of it initially to get a really small thing going.
At the time when I started the brewery, I went through a lot of licensing—it takes about a year of licensing and waiting. I planned to start small because I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to leave my full-time computer programming job and, at the time, I wasn’t sure if Connecticut would even welcome a small brewery.
NAN: And this was what year?
MARK: This was in 2011. The licensing kept getting delayed, so we didn’t actually open until February 2012. But I was building this place out in 2011. I started with a very small brewing system without all the tanks I have now. It was an experiment. And I didn’t quit my job. I kept my job full-time for a while, then I went part-time.
NAN: Tell us about the opening.
MARK: I didn’t do any advertising. I just listed the brewery on the CT Beer Trail website. I didn’t even do any social media in the beginning. And we were just mobbed. I got calls from all over Connecticut. Everyone wanted to carry our beer. It was unbelievable—the demand and the reception.
NAN: Wow! Why do you think that was?
MARK: I think mostly just because we were new. No one had opened a new brewery for long, so when someone did, it just blew people out of the water. And the thing was, I didn’t forecast any of that. I didn’t open with enough product. We would run out every weekend.
NAN: That was in 2012. How has the brewery evolved since then? Do you have any employees now?
MARK: In early July 2012 I quit my part-time job. By that summer, I realized I had to get bigger, so I set my sights on taking over the additional space in this building.
The space is much bigger now. I have one employee, Stephanie. She works at the brewery a couple of days a week. The rest of the time she’s on the road doing sales.
As we grew, we started making a lot more beer and we started selling a lot more around the state. Most other breweries have sales people. People who are the beer buyers—especially at higher-volume bars, restaurants, and liquor stores—get approached by a lot of different breweries that want them to carry their beer. Buyers make decisions based on quality and other things. It’s become more of a traditional business, which means building relationships, networking, knowing the right people, and even cold calling. Where in the beginning, it didn’t even matter because the product was so rare. It was so new, there was no competition. Everyone just wanted our beer.
NAN: You said the product was “so rare.” What is so unique about your beer?
MARK: Traditionally, when someone opens a brewery, they have three or four varieties available, most of which are pretty traditional. When we opened, we went more along the model of what they’re doing in Colorado and Wyoming. We didn’t really have a flagship, we just brewed different kinds of beers and we changed them all the time. We wanted to be more creative and we wanted the styles we brewed to be untraditional.
NAN: To wit, a Thrillist article, “The Most Underrated Brewery in Every State,” notes that, Relic Brewing will “have a new stout available in two versions: with and without coffee. Because why not. That’s the beauty of Relic: beers show up for a weekend and are never seen again.”
MARK: Right. The English ale we opened with, Antiquity, is an old ale. It’s a specific style that most people have never even heard of it. In the beginning, we were really targeting a niche audience of beer geeks. We didn’t try to focus on more of a mass market audience because we knew we couldn’t man it. We were able to reach our niche market really quickly through the very specific media they follow.
So we had hundreds and hundreds of beer geeks from all over visit our tasting room. They definitely spread the word and we immediately got so much recognition in the beer scene around New England.
We are becoming a little more well-known. In fact, Food and Wine magazine recently named us the best nanobrewery in Connecticut.
NAN: Where do you see the future of the brewery?
MARK: After I upgraded the system and got the space working really well we increased the number of people who came to visit us and really got our tasting room rolling. I reached a point where there weren’t enough hours in the day. I couldn’t do more bottles or kegs and circulate them and brew and do everything. I knew at that point I needed to start planning for another type of expansion.
t’s really expensive to upgrade. But there was also the option of brewing off site. I was approached by Thomas Hooker Brewery, which is a much bigger brewery out in Bloomfield, CT. They do some of their own brews, but they brew beer for other people too.
In 2015 I did 10 batches at Thomas Hooker Brewery. They do all the bottling for me, but it’s definitely a very hands-on experience. This year I think we’ll do 16 or 17 batches. It’s significant growth. The batches there are 40 barrels and the ones we do at Relic Brewing are three barrels.
NAN: That really puts it into context.
MARK: It makes it so that we can really have a presence. We are probably in at least 400 liquor stores and, at any given time, about 100 different bars in Connecticut and Boston.
NAN: Can we talk about some of the challenges to get Relic Brewery up and running?
MARK: In the beginning I was determined to self-distribute. Once I started to do offsite batches, I knew I couldn’t distribute it myself, or it would be extreme effort to do such a thing.
It’s a tough choice for breweries. Some decide they’re going to be in the business of distribution and in the business of brewing beer—this means you have to buy trucks and invoicing software to track accounts. It almost becomes two separate businesses. And I didn’t want to do that.
I decided to focus on beer brewing and let the distribution people do the distributing. I chose a small, boutique distributor in Connecticut. It was a decision that was mostly based on personal preference because I didn’t want to go with someone who was handling the larger companies.
I immediately realized the choice hurt us, because the distributor didn’t have that many accounts, they didn’t have the wide reach. Now they’ve been open for a few years, they have a much deeper penetration, and our sales are better. So I made a risky move. Choosing them definitely hurt our growth in the beginning, but it’s okay now.
NAN: Any other challenges?
MARK: The most critical thing is being properly capitalized to actually do something. We’ve been constantly undercapitalized.
One example is when we went to do the bigger batches. Most breweries wouldn’t have done it the way we did it. Not only would they have most likely chosen the biggest, most powerful distributors that have the gigantic reach and marketing capabilities, they would have also opened with at least three beers to maintain a shelf presence.
NAN: And you opened with?
Other breweries open with a tremendous amount of draft beer and sort a flood the entire market. They also open with a decent marketing budget. So there is a whole strategy to a launch.
NAN: And you hadn’t done that.
MARK: No. I didn’t do anything like that.
NAN: But you’re still successful, in ways.
MARK: Well, it takes a long time. It’s completely different. That’s how you do it right. We did everything wrong. It’s all because of undercapitalization.
NAN: Let’s go back to the topic of marketing. How are you getting your name out there?
MARK: We’ve been open for four years in February, so we are one of the oldest, and we don’t have great name recognition.
We’ve done a really good job targeting the really hardcore beer enthusiasts. Around the entire state they know who we are and have probably tried our product. But that’s a tiny subset of the actual beer drinkers.
Connecticut has one of the highest per capita craft beer drinkers now. In New Haven county, about 30% of the market is craft beer. Nationwide it’s more like 18%. So it’s really high. Hartford is about 27%. So there are a lot of craft beer drinkers in Connecticut and the vast majority of them have no idea who we are.
NAN: How do you change that?
MARK: That’s been our challenge. In the beginning I didn’t care because I had people who wanted our niche beer. Once we grew, I thought I could do the bigger batches and still have the success I wanted, but doesn’t quite work like that. You have to think about it a lot more. Once you’re brewing that much beer, you have to think about the wider market and reaching a more mainstream beer consumer. And that wasn’t something I’d even thought about.
That’s one of the reasons I hired Stephanie, because we needed help with sales. We needed someone on the road. If most of the mainstream consumers have no idea who Relic Brewing is, then a lot of the liquor stores, bars, and restaurants also have no idea who we are.
The craft beer market now is so giant you really have to reach your average person. The vast majority of people who live in Plainville have no idea we are here, even though we’ve been on tap at J. Timothy’s since the day we opened. Is been like that for years. A lot of people have drank our beer and they may not even know that we are from Plainville.
The name recognition thing is challenging, but that’s what leads to liquor store sales. Our bar sales are through the roof. Our liquor store sales are improving, but not as good as they could be.
The newer breweries have done a much better job with name recognition. What we have had on our side is our beer. We make really unique, good-quality beer. It’s always gotten good ratings and respect from different people. We do well with that. We get lots of demand for events. People still want it. We will send 30 kegs to the distributor and they are gone in a day.
NAN: Going back to name recognition—how do you improve that?
MARK: I talked to some of the other breweries and they told me: You’ve got to have tastings at liquor stores. Most people won’t even buy anything without tasting it first. Now we have Stephanie doing tastings every Friday.
If you’re not doing tastings no one’s buying your stuff. Of course some people still take a chance. But, that’s what the liquor stores want. They know that their customers like it and it leads to more sales for them. That whole cycle has really taken hold at the liquor stores. So hiring Stephanie has been really helpful with that.
NAN: I have heard that from other breweries. They say get your product out there and let them taste it and then realize they like it.
MARK: Doing tastings has made a significant difference in moving the cases of product for the most part. So that’s been helpful and really choosing the right beers that move the fastest.
NAN: So you’re really learning as you go.
MARK: Right. To be successful you have to change, you have to keep pace with the industry.