Joe Ploof is an entrepreneur at heart—and a beer lover by nature. In 2009, encouraged by a close friend, Ploof decided to pursue his dream of opening a brewery and working for himself.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price toured Hanging Hills Brewing Company and talked with Ploof about how the brewery idea began and some of the challenges to launching a startup.
PRICE: Why launch a startup brewery?
PLOOF: I love craft beer and I love this industry. But also, I wanted to start a business. I didn’t want to work for anyone else.
And that adage: Only the self-employed individual will work 18 hours for himself so he doesn’t have to work 8 hours for somebody else makes way more sense when you actually do it.
PRICE: So the brewery was basically your idea. At what point did you bring in the other founders Brian Cox and Scott Stauffer?
PLOOF: Yes. I wanted to launch the startup independent of knowing Brian and Scott. But as time wore on, it was pretty apparent I’d need some help.
Brian and I went to beer school together at the American Brewers Guild back in 2009. When we met, we immediately clicked and realized our personalities would jive well enough to open our own business.
A mutual connection of Scott and mine introduced the three of us in April 2014. Scott brought to the table a business acumen that I lacked as a former teacher. Brian had been a process metallurgist at a steel producing facility. Both of us knew how to make beer. Brian knows tools and I have an idea about marketing, but neither of us had the wherewithal to be organized in a business sense. Scott, having worked at Aetna as a small project manager as well as Vice President Operations over at C.M. Smith, brought that level of expertise we just didn’t have.
Scott looked at the business plan Brian and I had been working on and made it more viable. He liked the numbers, he liked the bones of it, but he knew how to pitch it to people with money.
PRICE: Let’s talk about funding. You have a Kickstarter campaign, right?
PLOOF: Yes, we did Kickstarter we were fully funded. We used that money to put some really nice features into our tasting room, like the bar top and the lighting. Otherwise it was going to be much more generic. But we had enough to install the brew house.
We did two types of investments. We used private equity, which was about two thirds of our total raise. And then we did $100,000 loan from the Hartford Economic Development Corporation (HEDCO), which also gave us $100,000 line of credit.
PRICE: Let’s talk location. Why Hartford?
PLOOF: We started thinking about location back in 2012. We did some research and, at that time, the Connecticut beer scene was vastly underserved. In 2012 there may have been 15 breweries in the state, and six are seven of them were small nanobreweries.
We saw that Connecticut was underserved and I really like Hartford. Having lived in Portland, OR and Brooklyn, NY—two epicenters of cool—it was neat to come somewhere that didn’t have it all in one place.
In Hartford, you have to go searching for it. You sort of lift under rocks and you find the Hartford Denim Company or you knock on doors and you end up at Hartford Prints! or discover Colt Park is a really nice place to walk. We just bought a house in the West End, which is gorgeous.
So, it seemed like Hartford needed a brewery space—and this was before I knew Ben Braddock was going to open up Hog River Brewing Company, which is over in Parkville.
City Steam is here in Hartford I know they package their beer, but they are better known as a brewpub. And we wanted to be Hartford’s production facility. That’s kind of what we had in mind.
We also wanted to be a part of a slow-growing, cool movement. We hope that we can bring some level of expertise about craft beer to Connecticut.
PRICE: Hanging Hills Brewery opened in July, so it’s still relatively new. How are you getting the word out?
PLOOF: It’s funny, every weekend someone comes in here says: I didn’t even know you guys were here. But then, on the flipside, we had about 2,000 people combined show up between our two soft openings and our opening day.
There was a buzz. People knew we were opening. We had done a couple of events at Hartford Prints! We did a tasting at their Valentine’s Day event and we also launched our Kickstarter there. So people knew about us.
In most places, beer scene people have their fingers on the pulse and know when new breweries are opening.
PRICE: I’ve heard that before—people who want to know are in-the-know.
PLOOF: Right. And with Brian’s experience as the head brewer at Bluegrass Brewing and my experience as the assistant brewer at Back East Brewing Company and head brewer at the Cambridge House Brew Pub, people knew us from the scene. That helped a lot. And they knew we could produce quality beers, so that helped too.
Since opening, we have been heavy on the social media, because most of it is free. And we’ve run a couple of ads here and there. Scott has invested in ad space at Goodwin Park and we might run an ad in CTNOW.
We also created a video to tell our story:
Really we’re trying to just make awesome beer. It’s been a very organic growth. It hasn’t been Tree House Brewing Company explosive, but the response has been really good so far.
PRICE: I’m going to quote from your website, “We are stewards of this community and will strive to support community organizations and agencies that share our ideals.” In what ways are you doing that?
PLOOF: I’m glad you asked that. Being a former teacher and a former Gay-Straight Alliance counselor, I wanted to partner up with a local LGBTQ mentoring group.
We released our Pride Pils pilsner and we’re donating a percentage of the proceeds to True Colors, which is a Hartford-based mentoring group for LGBTQ teenagers.
So that’s a start. We’ve also had Hartford Hot Several here and we’re featuring local band The Island of Doubt the night before Thanksgiving and later in December. We want to kind of be a music venue as well as civically minded company.
We also recognize our responsibility to the environment. To that end, we try to use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible. We brewed a beer with hops from Morris, CT, and barley grown in the Pioneer Valley. Using locally sourced ingredients reduces our carbon footprint and helps us support the local business community.
PLOOF: We work with G & G Beverage Distributors to distribute in Fairfield and New Haven counties—we wanted to give the local accounts our attention. We recently signed with Craft Connecticut, so our beer is now available statewide. We opted to self-distribute in Hartford.
PRICE: What are the future goals?
PLOOF: We want to buy a canning line. We need to buy more stainless steel for the back and get another fermenter or two. A delivery van would be awesome. That’s the business side of things.
Ultimately we would like to be a New England regional brewery. We’d like to have a footprint up to Maine and then possibly as far south as Northern Jersey. And then sort of cap our growth at a certain level so we don’t have to take on more debt.
We have big ideas, but we also want to be normal people. We don’t want to have it too explosive.
PRICE: On that note, what have been the biggest challenges as a startup?
PLOOF: First and foremost, I would say opening up minds of the bar owners here in Hartford is a tougher nut to crack than more receptive markets. And the distributors in Hartford County have a lockdown on taps. Not having a distributor presents a challenge too, because people will only deal with distributors. A lot of people don’t want to deal with self-distribution.
Figuring out who we are as a company and controlling that narrative is another challenge, because my brain fires on a lot of different ideas. Brian is the same way. He’s always thinking and we’re always trying to figure out: Does it fit with what we’re trying to do?
So controlling that so that people know what to expect from us is really important to us. Trying to create a self-aware image.
Other than that, I think just getting people to know that we’re here has been a challenge.
PRICE: Any advice for people who are launching breweries?
PLOOF: It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to have a lot of stress every single day and the results don’t immediately show themselves.
Don’t compare yourself to successful brewing companies, like Tree House Brewing. Initially we fell under the spell of comparing ourselves to Tree House’s model of opening your doors and selling every drop of beer in the house.
It’s not a fair comparison. Those guys caught lightning in a bottle. They had a great story and great beer and word-of-mouth flew, and that was awesome for them. But if you compare yourself to them, you’re not going to be happy with the results.
The big thing is just make the best beer you know how to and the rest will come.
Learn more about Hanging Hills Brewery