12 Nov Building a Brewery, Part III: It’s Been a Long Time Getting Here
This installment is the third part of a longer series narrating the development of Wasser Brewing Company from concept to production.
- Part One (from May, 2014) details the long terms plans Wasser’s owner and founder, Chris Weeks envisioned in the early days when the brewery was beginning to transition from an idea to a reality.
- Part Two (from October, 2014) highlights a critical turning-point in Wasser’s development: its successful Kickstarter campaign and the anticipation of additional funding.
- _Part Three (this installment) comes 13 months later, and attempts to answer the obvious question: What’s taking so long?
Chris Weeks doesn’t approximate. He doesn’t wallow in generalities or ambiguous questions. When he’s faced with one, he’ll take as long as he needs to find an exact answer. Take for example my first question to him when we sat down in the empty building which once served as Greencastle’s long-forgotten Packard Auto dealership: “When we first met 18-months ago, Wasser Beer Company (as it was called then) existed only as an abstraction, right?” Actually, if we’re going to be honest, I didn’t phrase that as a question. But since it qualified as an “incorrect” statement, it might as well have been a question, anyway. For the next six minutes and forty-two seconds, Weeks paced along the “bar” (the battered remnants of the sales counter from the NAPA Auto Parts operation which last used the place) piecing together the chronology. There had been the investors meetings, and the real-estate meetings, and the work creating the portable samples for the proposals. On the spot, he wasn’t able to come up with the exact timeline, so rather than guess he let it go…for the moment. That’s the thing about Chris Weeks: he dislikes guessing even more than he does not knowing.
What he could tell me was the feeling of relief he held being able to finally stand on his own floors, and look at the walls which will bear his company name in the near future: “I recently told someone that this feels as if I’ve already hit the lottery.” As we talked, Weeks walked me through the open chamber, showing me where he was going to put the brewpub’s stage, the bar locations, the brewery, the dining seating, the lounge seating, and the multiple toilets as well.
“You can’t buy more beer if you can’t piss it out,” he said grinning over the top of the half-rims framing his eyewear. When finished, Wasser promises to be a marvel of old world architecture—Weeks is intent on returning as much of the building to its Packard Auto glory as possible—with new world frugality (folding the stage up to form high-top seating when the band is not in town).
“I think that myself and many Americans are in love with the idea of potential,” Weeks said. “Obviously we haven’t opened yet, but the potential remains everywhere when you look at this place. Since I’ve started this, I haven’t taken a sick day…not one. But when I was a teacher, I routinely used every sick day I had, and I’m not talking about this from an ‘abuse of the system’ sort of matter: what I mean is—since starting this—I haven’t gotten sick. True, I face challenges which are hugely stressful, and many days I’m juggling tasks to the point that it’s easier to say when I don’t work than when I do work, because it’s perpetual. Despite all of that, this is an experience which gives me more control over my life than what I had when I was a teacher. Hence…lottery.”
“When you look at this from the long view,” Weeks answered, “the Great Recession had a significant effect on the banking industry. The environment we’re in now is a direct result of everything falling apart financially almost seven years ago. Then you have to consider that you’re starting a capital intensive business… I’ve got $100,000 worth of steel sitting in the back of this building (and a six-month wait time for new equipment would have lengthened everything further). Finally, some investors were hesitant to fund me due to the fact that I’m a former teacher with a lack of business experience.” After surviving a critical turning-point in the form his successful Kickstarter campaign raising cash for an additional tank, Wasser’s brewmaster still had to continue securing additional money while moving on to the next hurdle: finding a spot in town.
“I had been looking for buildings for some amount of time,” Weeks explained. “I had a few other almost-go’s but each time something went wrong—either the site wasn’t going to be big enough, or we couldn’t make the deal with the building owners work out. To negotiate a deal for a location, a lot things have to come together. One investor we pitched to in particular owns a location where we really wanted to be. But as that fell apart, I knew this building had a lot of potential. The location here is ideal, it had the garage door access, and these solid floors can easily handle the weight of the brewing equipment.”
As Weeks sat through the rubber-stamping phase of the mortgage process, he next had to move one of his “mid-burner” matters to the front of the stove: “If you’re looking at opening a brewpub, the size of the system you have [your brewing equipment] determines the amount of beer you make per each batch. You’re looking at full day brewing, followed by 17 days of fermentation to produce one batch of beer. You have to account for consumption as well, timing the batch you make with the rate it will be used up.”
We all know that brewing beer isn’t as simple as make some, drink it, make some more…even though by about 1:30 on a Saturday morning it may seem that way. But as Weeks notes, the smallest details must be accounted for in a brewing schedule, starting with something as basic as the yeast.
“Let’s say I bought a 20 barrel system,” he reasoned. “If the beer that I make doesn’t get used for a month that means that yeast has to sit for that long until I re-pitch it. One-month-old yeast isn’t as viable as yeast which is a week old. So you have to look at the math when you do this. How quickly are you going to use your beer? What can you afford to buy in terms of equipment? Once you have those numbers, then you have to correlate the rate you will use beer with the number of servings which you hope to sell in order to preserve your yeast, maximize your time, and produce a quality product.”
Is this something he’s going to work out by way of trial-and-error? I asked him. Leaning over the old NAPA counter—one of the few times he stopped pacing around the room as he spoke to me—he held an even gaze for a very long moment before replying: “When you’re spending $100,000 on brewing equipment, you work out the math.”
Although Weeks only made two physical trips for his steel, he spent months researching and communicating with shippers and dealers from his home discussing possible deals with over two dozen possible sellers. Due to both cost, and the aforementioned additional wait time for brand new equipment, his best bet—used machinery—brought its own set of headaches. “Finding a complete set up when shopping for used equipment is a challenge,” he noted. “Finding matching sizes, which are in good quality is difficult.”
Even the best steel in the business isn’t going to produce an iota of suds, however, if the final major roadblock—federal, state, and local government permission—stands in the way. And in a state with almost 200 breweries in some stage of existence, the permitting now appears to move at a pace which roughly matches the time it takes layers of earth to press coal into diamonds.
“For the federal permit,” Weeks told me, “you have to have a location. You can’t even talk to someone about federal permitting until you can prove that you have a site for the equipment, and that must be either on site or on order.” While one other brewer I spoke to offered a less certain take on the federal law regarding the steel on site, he wholeheartedly agreed that property ownership is a must. And given that those permits—which Weeks describes as “multiple pages in length”—must then languish in bureaucratic purgatory for upwards of four to five months after submission, suddenly Weeks’ temptation to hang a “Hold Your Horses” sign on the front door makes sense.
“As part of the permitting process,” Weeks explained to me, “you have to know how you’re measuring the beer which is going to be taxed. You have to know where in the brewing process you’re going to measure it…how you’re going to measure it…and you have to provide documentation detailing how that’s going to happen. You have to provide your building plans, and then you have to demonstrate how you’re going to secure your beer so that people don’t have access to untaxed beer.”
But as frustrating as the geological wait time on the federal “all-clear” has been, it’s been the state process which has proven agonizing. While the other brewer I spoke to indicated that he was able to simultaneously apply for both permits, Indiana officials told Weeks that he had to wait until the national paperwork cleared before he could begin at the state levels. “I called again later and tried again,” Weeks said, “and they still told me, ‘No…’” As his thoughts lingered on a long pause he turned to me and added, “And I’m going to call and try again.” Despite his impatience, when I asked him why it takes so long to check off paperwork, Weeks turned surprisingly considerate and philosophical.
“I have to assume the people who process the paperwork are overwhelmed with applications and lack the manpower to speed up the process,” he said. “Nobody has wrapped their head around the fact that the funding stream for this department is such that they cannot get permits out quickly, which means that they’re slowing down the amount of tax dollars they could be getting. Whenever they connect those two dots, then maybe they’ll do something to speed up the process. I would be happily paying taxes on beer right now.”
“The local officials here have been very helpful,” he said. “The current mayor, Sue Murray has been supportive and helpful, and everyone in the water department has worked collaboratively with me. We’ve had to work on getting the water lines changed, and then we had to make sure that the water coming in met standards as well as the wastewater going out.”
“Even the federal specialist has been a really nice woman,” he added, albeit a tad wistfully. “Given their staffing limitations, she and all of the people at the federal offices, are doing the job as well as they can.”
“I think bureaucracies are very underrated in our society,” he further stated when we discussed the larger significance of an experience such as his. “All of the government officials I’ve worked with have been doing the best they can to provide a service. I’ve gotten to the point where (especially with this election campaign and the people running for president) I find myself thinking: I want someone very boring who doesn’t have any grand ideological plans. I just want to elect someone who wants to provide services…someone who get permits out there in a timely fashion…just do your job, get things done, make the government work efficiently.”
Despite the slow grind, the fact remains that Wasser Brewing Company does indeed physically exist, and the months of wondering, speculation, and anticipation now has an address and a front door. And while “word of new breweries popping up all over the state” may continue to be the way that locals frame the conversation when they discuss the state’s craft beer Renaissance, the reality, as Weeks can attest to, is that they rarely, if ever, “pop up.” They germinate for aeons and grow slowly over a long season. No doubt the fruits they produce are going to be amazing, but like any quality crop, sitting and wishing won’t make it come any sooner.