Zwybie’s Custom Works: A (Craft Beer) Tap Handle Story
Anthony Noel is a proud Indiana native; he loves living here, he loves working here, and he loves the progress the state and city have made over the last decade. This includes the burgeoning indie craft beer industry – it’s a big deal for a state that was not one of the craft beer pioneers.
Anthony grew up on the north side of Indy, but has called downtown home for the past seven years, about three blocks from Centerpoint Brewing. He has seen the renaissance in the Chatham Arch, Windsor Park, and Cottage Home neighborhoods, but he has also followed the growth in craft beer.
Small batches and one-off beers from local breweries are the brews that Noel has coveted most in his many years of drinking craft beers. It’s the innovation and uniqueness of the one-off beers that he enjoys, “It could be the only batch exactly like it ever created. I might not taste this exact beer again, so I savor it while I can.” The creativity and exactness in brewing is uppermost in his mind, and now he has found a way to merge his own creative flair with his engineering skills and his love of indie craft beer.
Noel-Smyser Engineering is the family business for which Anthony toils on a daily basis. Started by his grandfather in 1956, the company is a small parts manufacturer for the aerospace industry. Anthony studied engineering at Purdue, worked for Adidas for six years to gather experience and ideas, and then entered the family business to spearhead an update of the equipment. The laser cutters, abrasive water jets and 3-D design systems – these all had to be purchased, installed, broken in, and mastered, and Anthony was given free rein to do this for the company.
He quickly discovered that the total firepower of these machines was more than the Noel-Smyser needed, so there was the possibility of expanding the repertoire of their manufacturing. And here is where indie craft beer entered the picture, sort of. It was actually an old friendship that counted most, a friendship with Eddie Sahm. Anthony and Eddie had grown up together, gone to separate high schools but maintained contact since Anthony worked for one of the Sahm’s restaurants, and then were at Purdue at the same time.
Fortuitously, just when Anthony was mulling over ideas of what his equipment might be capable of, Eddie had recently opened Big Lug Canteen. Anthony did a small art piece using the logo of the brewery to give to Eddie as a gift. Not too long after being presented with the artwork, Eddie asked Anthony if he might want to try his hand at doing some tap handles.
Tap handles aren’t a trivial matter – they are crucial item for breweries, both in house and in distribution. In many cases, they are what a potential customer first sees of a brewery (when they send beer out the door), and they are large part of the taproom ambience of a brewery and a crucial element to marketing the beer you distribute to bars and restaurants. You’d think that the beer would be the face of the brewery, but no, we are visual animals. Much of a beer selection decision is made before any tastes are taken or tasting notes from the server are given.
The blog All About Beer had a nice story in October of 2015 talking about the importance of tap handles. Each handle tells a story of the beer and the brewery, and is a visual reminder of your previous experiences with that brewery’s beers. Breweries, the smart ones at least, realize that a tap handle is a palpable opportunity to sell you a beer.
A study from the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England in 2015 reinforced this idea that the tap handle is an important marketing tool. Using pupil tracking goggles and 3-D software, the researchers showed that when a patron enters a bar, their eyes fixate on the tap handle line before any other piece of marketing in the bar. What’s more, when presented with a draft line of unfamiliar handles, patrons selected a beer with a brightly colored, interesting, or unique tap handle 95% of the time, selecting these beers even over a pub’s best selling beer – which the patron already knew he/she liked!
It makes sense, the tap handles are at eye level and represent beer, and you’re there for a beer. It’s no wonder you focus in on them. Handles are most effective when they are quickly recognizable as either a specific beer or a specific brewery, but overly detailed or ornate handles sometimes backfire on a brewery because they are hard to recognize. The most important factor is that the craft and ingenuity of the handle are a good reflection of the innovation and the craft of the beer itself. Your handle is speaking for your brewery, often in cases where you can’t. Almost unknowingly, Anthony has “tapped” into this marketing vein of gold.
His metal designs (he can do wood or plastic as well) are sleek, strong, and importantly for the user, balanced and light. They resist the low pH of the beer that can degrade tap handles rapidly. It’s nice to know that our airplane parts will hold up if you ever crash land into a beer.
But back to the story. Anthony made some tap handle prototypes and presented them to Eddie and he bought them – that’s when the spark of an idea turned to a flame. Anthony thought, “This is cool – I get to work with engineering, beer, and get to be creative too!” One problem though, Anthony really hadn’t mastered the techniques of marketing, business, and selling. So he looked for business the only way he knew how – he made stuff and took it to breweries. But what would he call this new business?
In its infancy, Anthony’s new enterprise was completely separate from Noel-Smyser’s work, so Anthony had to come up with a different name for his career within a career. He chose Zwybie’s Custom Works (pronounced Z-WHY-Bees) over the objections of many people with whom he discussed the name. According to his auntie, Anthony was quite the fan of Zwieback toasts when young, although he had a habit of grinding them to dust and ending up with crumbs all over his face, his clothes, his toys, and everything else. The ever present cracker mush led to the nickname, Zwybie, and later to the name of a company – it’s weird how things play out in life.
Centerpoint Brewing was the first job that Anthony went out and found as Zwybie’s Custom Works, mostly since he frequented the brewery and they had some rather generic tap handles. The folks there were mildly interested in seeing what Anthony might be able to do, so he worked up a prototype and walked it over. This involved a piece of metal covered in acrylic layers of different colors. When he laser etched the logo, it burned off the top layer and exposed the color below. This was a quick way to make some snappy tap handles, and after a couple of tweaks, Centerpoint put in an order.
What’s more, this first real order then turned into more things for Centerpoint. Now he cuts their flight boards (in the shape of a hurling stick – Centerpoint sponsors one of the hurling teams in the Indianapolis Gaelic Athletic Association), as well as their logo bottle openers. Amanda, Jon, and Pete put their faith in him, and the results have been expanding ever since.
The prototype idea had worked well, so he kept it up – nothing ventured, nothing gained. He made an intricate tap handle for Mark Swartz at Cannon Ball Brewing, and now has orders from Josh and Brandon at Redemption Alewerks, Roger at Koontz Lake Brewing, and Broad Ripple Brew Pub for tap handles. The success of the business has required him to use more equipment and labor from Noel-Smyser, so now he runs the business as Noel-Smyser on the account books, but Zwybie’s for marketing, job searches, and for smaller, less labor-intensive orders. It’s been a quick rise to prominence.
I believe, and Anthony sort of agrees, that his training as a manufacturing engineer helps him translate the wishes of brewers/owners into solid form. Making beer is a meticulous, yet creative pursuit, is it any wonder that so many brewers started out as chemists, engineers, or pilots (Mark Swartz). This makes Anthony and his clients like-minded on two levels: innovation and attention to detail. As a trained molecular parasitologist, I get this, the details of a creative endeavor are so intriguing. One sees the thousands of variables, and wonders what would happen if one tweaked each individually. It’s a puzzle, and there is nothing that engineers and scientists love more than a puzzle.
I am happy to report that Anthony’s work is being received well; even if a brewery doesn’t order something immediately, they are extremely complimentary of his prototypes and are always willing to point him toward other potential clients. It’s just another example of how indie craft beer is a tight community and how everyone helps to create opportunities and jobs outside the brewery. Is it any wonder that we appreciate this industry so much? It provides so many of us with a vocation as well as an avocation. Heck, I’m the best example – if it weren’t craft beer and you geeks reading what I write, I’d actually have to finish that book my publisher contracted for.
This is the second of what I hope is many stories of people whose livelihoods are being positively affected by indie craft beer. I wrote about Sean Webster and his innovative Monon Beverage Brokers, and then there’s me, writing about craft beer for a living (or a portion of one). It’s becoming apparent that Indiana craft beer spawns many peripheral jobs. In the near future I will be bringing you stories of a couple of brewers that now have a business installing and maintaining draft systems and a couple of breweries opening a diner, but if you have information on other people working on the edges of craft beer, I would love to tell their stories.