Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price and MetroHartford Alliance Director of Economic Development John Shemo enjoyed meeting the team and touring Broad Brook Brewing Company in East Windsor, CT.
Co-Founders Tom Rossing and Eric Mance shared some of the challenges it takes to get a brewery up and running and Sales/Promotion Coordinator Jackie Lanagan discussed some of the ways Broad Brook Brewing is giving back to the community.
NAN PRICE: Whose idea was it to open a brewery?
TOM ROSSING: The whole thing started at my house in Broad Brook, CT, which is how we came up with the name. I was brewing and Joe Dealba (who is now a Partner/Brewer) started helping out a little bit. Eric joined in and he and I started experimenting with more recipes.
Eventually, we started entering competitions because we wanted to see how good our beer was. We started winning ribbons all over the country. At that point, we realized our beer was good enough for the market, Eric started putting together a business plan, and here we are.
NAN: What was your mission at the outset?
TOM: From the beginning, our basic goal was to put out good-quality, drinkable beer. We wanted to make beer styles people would like and something for everybody.
NAN: Eric, Tom, do either of you have any business background?
TOM: I worked construction. I had my own roofing company. I worked for myself for a lot of years and so did Eric. So it wasn’t like we didn’t know what it takes to run a business.
ERIC MANCE: Right. I grew up in a small business environment. My family owns a printing business in Massachusetts. I started my own network consulting business in 2000, which I still operate.
JACKIE LANAGAN: I love that about them—they were homebrewers with backgrounds in construction, printing, and computers. They had never dealt with the bars, restaurants, package stores. And they’re doing awesome.
NAN: Let’s talk about the timeline. According to your website, in July 2011 you set a goal to open a brewery. When did you actually open?
TOM: We opened in October 2013. But, it was actually July 4, 2011 when we really got going. We stopped competitions at that time because we already knew the beer was good. Then we started getting involved with the CT Beer Trail and doing tastings. By doing the tastings, people were able to meet us and try the beer. It was also great marketing.
NAN: But at this point, you weren’t actually a full-fledged brewery, correct?
TOM: Correct. We spent two years marketing ourselves by making beer, going out and presenting it to people at all these different tastings. We marketed ourselves as homebrewers—we couldn’t sell a drop.
ERIC: We were trying to build a brand and a name before we could even legally sell anything. So we would brew beer on the weekends and then we would find places we could serve it to the public as homebrewers. We kept getting better and better reactions from people, which helped solidify the business concept.
TOM: But we also hit the ground running.
ERIC: The day we opened we had a following. People were waiting for us to open because they already knew about the beer.
NAN: Let’s talk about the business growth and reach. Are you only distributing in Connecticut?
TOM: We’re distributing in the entire state of Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
NAN: And what are your future plans? Do you plan to distribute further?
TOM: Yes, we plan on going further east into Massachusetts and probably north into Vermont.
ERIC: We probably have to grow into another facility because we’re running out of space.
TOM: We’re maxing out at this facility. We’ve been swapping 15-barrel for 30-barrel tanks. You have to meet your demand. Going out of stock is never a good thing. If your product keeps going out of stock you’ll lose your tap lines. The stores don’t like it and neither do the customers.
We’re meeting our goals, as far as our growth, which went faster than we anticipated. We’re keeping up and we want to continue to keep up so we don’t run out of stock.
NAN: When you talk about your goals, clearly you sat down and had a business plan with milestones you wanted to reach.
ERIC: Yes. And we are exceeding those—far exceeding those.
JACKIE: And like Eric said, right now we’re looking at southern Vermont and eastern Massachusetts. We’ll choose a couple of events, see how we do there, and test the market that way.
NAN: Speaking of marketing, you’re obviously still going to events. Are you still doing tastings?
JACKIE: Absolutely. We’re at package stores, festivals, events, beer dinners. We also rely on social media.
NAN: You also get the word out through a lot of charity events.
ERIC: A lot of the events we do are nonprofit. I would say 70% of the events that we do outside of the building are charity-related. We give to the MS Society, Boys and Girls Club, Wounded Warriors, and Five Corner Cupboard, to name a few.
We’re also involved with the Thread City Hop Fest, which is organized by Willimantic Brewery. The annual event features more than 40 local brewers and proceeds benefit local charities.
NAN: We talked a little bit about supply and demand as being a challenge. What other challenges have you encountered as a startup and do you have any advice for those who are starting out?
ERIC: Good luck!
TOM: It seems nowadays everybody thinks that it’s the goose that laid the golden egg. They’ll do the social media but really they need to get out and meet people too. It’s not as easy as it all seems.
And you should probably test market your product so you know what you need to do or what you need to improve on before you actually open your brewery.
JOHN SHEMO: Any challenges around distribution?
ERIC: We have five different distributors, so with each area there are different challenges. Every area has different styles of beer they are looking for and there are different types of people, so you have to adjust according to the area you’re distributing to.
JOHN: Who distributes for you in Western Massachusetts?
JACKIE: It’s commercial distribution.
JOHN: Is distributing out of state an additional challenge?
JACKIE: It’s different. There are different laws.
ERIC: There’s more paperwork and additional licensing.
TOM: The biggest thing isn’t if you have a good product or you have a good taproom or you have good bottling, that’s not it, but the distribution is. It’s a whole different beast.
JACKIE: We’re lucky, they chose great distributors for each area. They’re all working pretty well for us.
JOHN: How about availability of hops? How does that work for you?
TOM: You’ve got to guess and you’ve got to plan ahead. As a new brewery, that’s a difficult thing. If you’re homebrewing you have availability to all the different hops. Once you start getting to this level, you need contracts and then there’s spot buying. You’ve got to plan years ahead and figure out what you might need. Then if the supplies you want aren’t available, you have to change your recipe and figure out how you’re going to cross-reference things to make things work based on what you can actually get.
JOHN: So this is a big deal?
TOM: Oh, it is a big deal.
ERIC: There’s a lot of variation year-to-year with the yield and the quality of the hops themselves. So there are those challenges as well.
TOM: So basically if you’re going to do it, do your homework.
ERIC: Yes, just prepare as much as possible.
TOM: What’s that expression? Double your timeframe and triple your budget. It’s a whole big adventure.
ERIC: But once you’re there and everything is going well, it’s worth it.
NAN: Do you feel like that messy part is kind of behind you now, two years in?
TOM: Absolutely. We’re stable. We know what’s going on. We know the process now too if we have to get something approved.
When you’re starting out, you really have to be ready. You have to be very proactive, on top of everything, and willing to sacrifice a lot of time and effort. Just like any other startup.
And reinvest your capital. If you see money coming and you just keep taking it, you’re never going to grow. That’s a mistake a lot of people make in the beginning. Capital improvement is huge, especially in the very beginning.
This business is recession-proof. When times are good people drink; when times are bad they drink some more. Craft beer is growing and increasing its growth percentages every year. It’s a good thing, people like it, and I think it’s here to stay.
NAN: There’s definitely a demand for it.
JACKIE: In the meantime, they’re helping local businesses around them too. A lot of the work they’ve done in the tasting room is from local people.
ERIC: It’s a small business mentality: I’ll help you, you help me, and we all help each other. We’ll help the community too, as we go down that road.