03 Oct Building a Brewery, Part 2: Wasser Beer Company Gets a Vote of Confidence and Moves Forward
Almost two weeks ago, it seemed that time was running out. The “clock” which many of us were watching closely had started nearly a month before, when Chris Weeks, founder and owner of Greencastle’s Wasser Beer Company, had launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise the $12,400 cost he’d need for a single fermenting tank. When Weeks and I sat down in my basement to discuss his progress toward making Wasser Beer an actual brick-and-mortar reality, the 800 pound Kickstarter-gorilla sat on the bar between us and was—for a while at least—the only topic we could talk about. Only four days were left at the time, and Weeks’ fundraiser was barely one-third funded. Any prognosticator would have held off on any further bets and told his bookie to look for some different action.
Weeks, however, opted for a more measured, if surprisingly sanguine, approach.
“All of this depends on how you ‘own’ success,” Weeks said that evening. Personally, I’ll admit that despite the imminent setback, his energy and determination impressed me. It wasn’t an easy conversation at first, but as he poured me a pint of his aptly named newest concoction, “Hoptimism” (a delicious double IPA, by the way…spec-tac-u-lar), Weeks metaphorically wrapped himself in his Jedi robes and demonstrated yet again what I have decided is his single greatest attribute: his nearly automatic ability to find perspective and turn that into strength.
“If [Kickstarter] doesn’t go,” he continued, “did it get the word out? Yes, it did. There’s a lot I’ve learned from this. In retrospect, given our population (compared to the more heavily populated areas I used as a baseline), I might have set the amount at a different level. There’s certainly a lot I would do differently, but there’s also a lot I’ve learned from this.” As far as setbacks go, a fundraiser for one extra fermenting tank was never going to be a deal-breaker; furthermore, roadblocks such as these have become an accepted element of the business-launching process.
Like most business owners, Weeks is hesitant to go into the details of the deals which almost were because while missed opportunities hurt, burned bridges kill. Nonetheless, Weeks did hint to his one “big one” which proverbially got away. Involving a nearly-perfect location sandwiched between downtown Greencastle and the DePauw University campus, it offered location, room to start, and room to grow. And even though that cracked door closed too quickly, Weeks bears no ill will to his unnamed almost-partner.
“We just saw the plan going different directions,” he said, “and we both mutually agreed to go our own ways.”
“I’ve gone through multiple proposed partnerships,” he added leaning back in his barstool, kneading his pint glass, and looking distantly through the wall behind me. “It’s a huge weeding-out process, really. Lots of people decide they’re going to start a brewery, but…” here Weeks pauses. He knows the phrase he’s going to use, but it’s evident he’s also calculating whether this is the time to say it. Apparently, it is: “It’s a marathon just to get to the starting line.”
“I have looked at the demographic information for years,” he explained, “for a long, long time.” He went on and hit me with a staggering number: $2.7 million…the amount of money Putnam County residents spend on full-service dining outside of the county.
“The numbers are there,” he reiterated. “The community can support a brewery.”
And so Greencastle, and the large swath of Western Indiana devoid of any craft beer action, patiently waits a little longer. While the two of us open Week’s second “bullet,” an unnamed brown ale which I mistakenly thought he dubbed “Conjecture” (it turns out he was saying the name was still a matter of conjecture…I still think “Conjecture” is a pretty bitching name, regardless), the conversation turned to the next step. Once he begins setting up the physical location and starts full-on production, Weeks acknowledges that his life will have turned a completely new corner.
“There’s no way to do this part time,” he says. “You’re running with the bulls. To meet demand, to produce enough beer…you can’t do this part time.” And ultimately, the beer is what all of this is about, as it was years ago when an idealistic special education teacher with a casual interest in the beverage was given a Mr. Beer kit as a Christmas gift. From that humble start, Weeks has transformed into a man who can expound at length about the time it really takes to make a good Belgian lager (thus the reason so many craft breweries are hesitant to actually produce them) while just as matter-of-factly admitting that he will dump five gallons of experimental pineapple recipe which did not end well.
“It’s hard to get rid of beer when God and everyone is asking you for beer,” Weeks explains, “but it’s what you do to produce a quality product.” And, as Weeks continues his musings, he reiterates that the love of the craft, that very passion which pushed him to this point in his life, will take on a new life in his brewery where he will be his own man: “When you know, what you’re doing well enough when you don’t pull from other sources—when you know exactly what type of yeast you want…it’s satisfying.”
That evening he referred to his journey as a Sisyphian task, always rolling the boulder and almost getting to the top. Four days later, the boulder finally appeared to come to rest high up the mountain, if not on the summit then at least on a stable ridge. With fewer than two days, Wasser’s Kickstarter surged, and suddenly Weeks found himself only $1,500 shy of his goal.
And with less than a quarter-day to go, Wasser cleared that limit, and suddenly the talk of putting a new name on the state craft beer map transformed into something more than the hesitantly hopeful wondering it had been for nearly half a year. Whatever the impetus was, be it the human tendency to procrastinate and feel out where everyone else stood first (as Weeks theorizes) or the divine will of the cosmic tumblers, Kickstarter dramatically handed Wasser Beer almost 13,000 votes of confidence.
“It’s now or never,” Weeks eventually said, and indeed, that it is.