The Latest Trend in Indiana Craft Beer? Getting Out of Craft Beer Altogether

The Latest Trend in Indiana Craft Beer? Getting Out of Craft Beer Altogether

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The signs that Indiana is maturing as a craft beer state are everywhere. More breweries are opening, so that Indiana now ranks 14th in the country for operating craft breweries (Brewers Association). The medals won by Indiana breweries keep piling up, indicating that not only do we make alot of beer, but it’s good beer as well.

Other indications of maturity could be things like the number of breweries packaging beer for distribution and for off site consumption sales in an attempt to increase market share while still maintaining margin levels. Also, the number of national or regional breweries that now distribute to Indiana is a sign that Indiana craft beer fans drink enough beer to be an enticing destination for other companies.

There has been an increase in brewery mergers – the business side is part of craft beer too. Many breweries means more competition, so it isn’t surprising that some breweries will see opportunities to get on more solid footing, to diversify, or to expand by merging with another brewery. Finally, a mature brewing community is one in which brewers occasionally switch teams. Some brewers choose to leave for greener pastures, some brewers are asked to leave because the brewery knows that they can find an upgrade, awhile others breweries/brewers just need a change. The fact that there are well trained brewers available and good opportunities to be had means that the craft beer scene in Indiana is vibrant and changing.

this picture in reverse is more like what’s happening in Indiana now. More brewers are putting on ties and leaving to work corporate jobs. image credit: Medium

However, I have noticed a different trend as well in Indiana brewing, and I don’t know if it is a sign of a mature brewing community or not. In just the first six months of 2019 alone I have noted 15 brewers/owners that have gotten out of the brewing game completely. They weren’t fired and just couldn’t find another gig, they left brewing of their own accord and took a position outside the industry.

In one sense, a local brewing industry that is mature will have comings and goings. With a large number of breweries there is bound to be someone ready to retire or perhaps has lost their love of brewing. But to have fifteen people look to get out within six months, perhaps it means something more. Is it a sign that breweries aren’t paying off now like they used to, or that the business isn’t as glamorous as they once thought? Perhaps the competition is too much to overcome, or the pay and benefits don’t work for a changing lifestyle.

A 2017 article kind of sums of the feeling that might be finding a foothold here and could be partly responsible for the exodus we’ve seen so far this year. In his piece entitled Is Craft Beer Still Fun?, author Pete Cherpack described his reaction to a breakout session at the 2017 CBC where an owner/brewer listed the good and the bad of opening a start up brewery. There was alot of bad – like being on Medicaid for two years and having expenses wildly outstrip his predictions. Equipment costs for a top of the line brew house ended up being wasted because a cheaper version would have done fine, and he could have had it quicker and been making money. Paul Gatza of Brewers Association talked about how much more competition there was in the industry and how growth was slowing – that was a 2017 talk using 2016 number and both trends have continued to those trajectories since then.

Craft beer growth is no longer a double digit phenom. Is that why some people are getting out of beer? image credit: Brewers Association

Gatza was quoted as saying, “Breweries are understanding that it’s time to reign in the capacity, double digit growth isn’t happening anymore…Just making great beer isn’t enough in 2017, you need the right branding, social media, distribution, capacity planning… to be successful.” It used to be that a brewery could hang out a sign that they had beer and people would come pay for it – that just isn’t true anymore. There may be a subset of brewers/owners that relish that challenge, but for others, I would think that this makes beer a less attractive option than it once was. It could be that some people get into brewing and wish they didn’t, and some people who have been brewing have lost their enthusiasm. This is just a few possibilities, there are many other reasons that people are getting out of brewing, it’s just an outlier to see so many in a short span of time.

It’s true that brewers often get into the game when they are young, and their personal lives change drastically during the time they are brewing – marriages, kids, homes, etc. It’s just as likely that a choice to leave brewing is more about the individual than the industry, but there is that chance that a large number of them in a short period of time could be telling us that Indiana brewing has entered a new phase in craft beer, whether that be a downturn, a maturity, or a bubble.

Some of the people who have left Indiana brewing this year will be familiar names to everyone. Others are lesser know, but no less important to the growth and history of Indiana craft beverages. Their reasons for getting out of the brewing game are as diverse as the people involved. Perhaps priorities just change, or perhaps it means something bigger in the evolution of craft in this state. Look at the list below and make up your own mind.

Tia Agnew and Brett Canaday of New Day Craft – Wife and husband owners of New Day Craft, Tia Agnew and Brett Canaday, just merged with Fountain Square Brew Co. down in the Fountain Square district of Indianapolis. Tia and Brett are adventurers looking for their next challenge, so they are going to look for the next thing to tackle after a few months of rigorous instruction for the Fountain Square brewers in the art of making mead. We previously wrote about this merger in more depth (here).

The ability to spend more time with family was the reason I heard for leaving brewing more than any other. image credit: Night Helper

Caleb Staton, lately of Mad Paddle Brewing in Madison – Caleb was instrumental in starting the sour program at Upland Brewing in Bloomington, but for the last year has was the consulting brewer for Jerry Wade and Mad Paddle Brewery in Madison. Jerry and Caleb both knew this was a temporary arrangement while Jerry found brewer(s) and a brewing system, so now Caleb is off on his on, tackling a new venture. He has started a family farm in Indiana, and last I talked to him, he was thinking about using home grown botanicals to start an artisan vinegar business. You just can’t get Caleb away from fermentation.

Andy Meyer, head brewer and co-owner of TwoDEEP Brewing in Indianapolis – Andy and his team transitioned ownership of the brewpub to a small investment group portion of the team that owns O’Reilly’s Irish Pubs. Andy, over the period of a couple months, stepped back from all duties at the brewery.

For Andy, the reasons to step back from the craft beer were equally split between the drain on funds by the brewery and the lack of family time and quality of life with this particular type of small business. As he said, “The business is a cash hungry beast and unless every single sellable drop is moving in the direction it needs to, you are going to be facing some serious obstacles.” He added, “What people don’t necessarily see is the continuous amounts of money that is injected into various breweries (locally & throughout the country) which fuels expansion, ability to get product on store shelves, etc.

As to the life portion of the equation, Andy stated, “Quality of life was declining at an accelerated rate as trying to maintain a marriage, family and a sense of physical and mental stability became harder and harder to do. You not only rely heavily on the help of a small staff but you yourself are in the trenches with them working the taproom, making the beer, etc. Trying to manage the financial up’s and down’s, handling employee issues all while trying to create and manage a brand presence in and outside of the four walls you work in every single day does take a toll.“

The cost of running a brewery and small profit margin was another reason for getting out. image credit: Brewbound

As for the purchasing group, Andy said, “I was happy to see an entity come forward that had many tools and positive attributes associated with it to help carry the TwoDEEP brand forward. Not only did they have deep experience in the alcohol service industry (bar & restaurant), they had the infrastructure setup in order to operate the brewery as it needed to be in order to achieve many of the elements above (volume growth, lowering of the cost making the beers, etc).”

Dan Gayle, head brewer at Black Circle Brewing in Indianapolis – Dan resigned his position in early 2019 to return to his healthcare job. He told me, “It was a personal decision on my part. I needed to go back to work to support my family. My wife had her own private practice and we are wanting to have another child. Financially it wouldn’t have worked for her and I. With a young family and going back to work full time I just didn’t have time to devote to the brewery.”

Chuck Bowlds and Brad Sutter of Orthocity Brewery & Smokehouse in Warsaw –  The two owners decided that they just had very different visions of the restaurant and brewery and that it would be best to sell the business lock, stock, and barrel. At first it was just Brad that was going to leave, with the other partners carrying on and Chuck still making beer, but the next time we heard about the situation, the entire enterprise was up for sale. I am not aware of Chuck’s plans, but Brad has returned to a career in healthcare equipment business in Warsaw and is very busy with his new job.

David Porter, head brewer at Terre Haute Brewing Company – Dave didn’t realize what a drain on his family time being a head brewer was going to be. He stuck it out as long as he could, but in the end, he decided that time watching his children grow was more important than brewing, although he did enjoy making beer. David his now working with the University of Illinois in Champaign and is very happy with what he is doing.

Looking to be entrepreneurial in another field was also a reason to leave brewing. image credit: LinkedIn

Nick Burch, assistant brewer most recently of Maiden’s Brewery & Pub in Evansville – Nick told me that he was happy being a brewer; he really liked the lifestyle of brewing. It was just the , “All of that adulting got in the way.” He started out at Carson’s Brewery and was doing more of the mechanical side of brewing (canning, bottling, dealing with the equipment). He took over more of the actual brewing at Maiden’s, but by this time he had kids and a wife, so more time at the brewery and weird hours was no longer a lifestyle but an interruption of his desired lifestyle.

An Evansville native, Nick has now taken a position as a machine designer in a machine shop in the same town. They’ve got a whole mess of work right now, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Nick as it relates to craft beer. He has proposed to those people that run the machine that they design and construct high home brew equipment and small professional brew houses (he already has an order). I suspect I’ll be writing about that venture in the next year or so.

Dustin Brown, head brewer at Danny Boy Beer Works in Carmel – I talked to Dustin recently and he hasn’t completely ruled out the brewing game, but he does like what he is doing now. He explained that when he got into brewing, it was just him – long hours, a long commute, lack of benefits… even income just didn’t matter that much. It’s different now. He has kids, a wife – you know – responsibilities. Pursuing a brewer gig after leaving Danny Boy would likely have meant a long commute and long hours and he just can’t afford that time away from his family now.

Dustin has been in brewing for a very long time and he knows what it takes to start and maintain a brewhouse. It just isn’t that easy to dive back into that now. Even more, he’s seen enough to know when a gig isn’t meeting his expectations. His landscaping job has let him use his brewery contacts to build that business and he likes being outside. He has brought alot of new business to Hoosier Landscape Group, but is home in time to take care of the important things.

Burnout wasn’t often mentioned explicitly, but it was there in the background for some people. image credit: Mass Brew Bros

Jeff Smith, owner and brewer at Haynie’s Corner Brewing – Jeff has a big time banking job in Evansville from which he is preparing to retire. I think that he and his wife will be moving north after that, so selling the Evansville Brewhouse to Joshua Pietrowski was probably the first move in that whole sequence. Josh explained to me that he had never really wanted to get out of brewing when he had the opportunity to take on Doc’s Sports Bar in Evansville, and relished the idea of taking over the Evansville Brewhouse (now called Haynie’s Corner Brewing) so he is an example of of an Indiana brewer that was out of brewing and is now back in. I wish I could think of more examples of this kind of thing…. Aaron Koerner (Pretty Nice Guys Brewing), Colt Carpenter (Ellison Brewing) do come to mind.

Dan Gohr, head brewer at Redemption Alewerks in Indianapolis – Dan told me, “The brewing business burns people out.” I know that Dan had some very good times brewing, but he is much more relaxed right now and has even dropped a few pounds. Dan is now working with a family-owned construction/remodeling company in Noblesville. Dan works both in the field and doing estimates, this allows him to utilize both his analytic and creative skills, much like brewing.

Dan is not averse to brewing again at some point, but he is happy with what he is doing right now. In this respect, Dan’s situation echoes that of Dustin Brown – they liked brewing but they are happy out of brewing as well. Neither is ruling out a return, but as Dan says, it would have to be the right situation and and be close to home.

Doug Memering, owner of Powerhouse Brewing in Columbus – Doug and Jon Myers started Powerhouse Brewing in 2005 and had a good run, but Jon sold out in 2018 and Doug sold the brew house and building in early 2019. The Columbus Bar (purchased by the duo in 2006, Jon sold his part in 2018) is still open in downtown Columbus, and Doug is still the owner of that, but neither Jon or Doug are involved in brewing any longer.

Robyn Pokropinski co-owner of Pokro Brewing in Griffith, and Mike Miller, co-owner and head brewer at Noble Order in Richmond – I haven’t been able to contact them directly, but I am aware that Noble Order closed its doors this year in both Richmond and Zionsville, and that Joe and Robyn Pokropinski were divorced recently. Joe is brewing with Zorn Brew Works in Michigan City, but I believe Robyn is out of the industry completely.

Conclusion. I think that there are many reasons for leaving craft beer as there are people who leave. I also believe that very rarely is there a single issue that leads to the decision. My conclusion is that this spike in departures does not represent a massive shift in the industry, but is more a representation of a new, more mature phase in Indiana beer – more breweries, more decisions to leave. The industry is still strong, as witnessed by the replacement of brewers, the opening of more breweries, and the ability to find purchasers for breweries when they go up for sale. But, if you want to pin down a single idea that may be responsible I think it would be this – sometimes life just gets in the way of brewing beer.



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