As some of you know, I work for a central Illinois newspaper in real life, and in the course of that job, I make an attempt to post on the newspaper’s entertainment blog about local, beer-related goings-on. Today, I had a piece there detailing the upcoming opening of a new brewery in Champaign, the college town of my alma mater, The University of Illinois.
The brewery, Triptych Brewing, has successfully been fundraising using Kickstarter, a method that we have covered on a few other occasions. As it closes in on its goal with about a week to go, founder/brewmaster Anthony Benjamin confided in me that he is quite sure it will reach the $20,000 plateau (I think he’s got a “just in case” failsafe to make sure it gets there, if there’s any doubt). Of course, this is only a small fraction of the business’ overall fundraising to open a new production brewery, but I still think it’s a fairly impressive figure, considering that the majority of these donors are all coming from a fairly small, central Illinois city. Contrast this Kickstarter project with say, Lucky Town Brewing, which is having a much harder go raising their own $20,000, despite the fact that they would be only the second craft brewery PERIOD in the state of Mississippi.
What follows is a conversation I had with Benjamin, as he describes the genesis of Triptych, it’s session beer-forward portfolio, and the interesting three-phase expansion process the brewery intends to follow. Consider this just a basic look into the concerns and process of starting any new small production brewery.
Kid Carboy Jr.: Can you just tell me about your background, first? You went to Mizzou, correct?
Anthony Benjamin: Yes, I studied computer science. I’ve now been working in programming and higher education for the last eight or nine years. I’m team lead for a group of web people in the college of engineering at U of I.
Carboy: I assume you were a regular at Flatbranch? (Columbia, Missouri’s first brewpub)
Benjamin: Flatbranch is where it kind of all began for me. Their oatmeal stout was one of the first beers that made me see beer differently. They also had lots of really awesome seasonal beers. It’s like they mark the seasons with a kolsch or a fruit beer or a barleywine; it instilled the idea in me of beer as a seasonal beverage.
Carboy: When did you start homebrewing? How were the first beers you produced? And when did you decide to go pro?
Benjamin: I started homebrewing about seven years ago. I doubt the initial beers would have won any competition ribbons, but they were beer. A couple of years after I had been brewing finally hooked up with the local homebrew club, BUZZ. I had entered a lot of competitions and won a lot of ribbons by that point. There I met Joshi Fullop, who said he was thinking of opening a brewery, and I was as well. Another 8-10 months after that we met up with Jason Bartell, who is attorney here in town, and he also came aboard.
Carboy: How do those responsibilities break down?
Benjamin: The duties are basically divided into the areas we have most expertise in. Joshi is doing capital acquisition and long-term planning. Jason is also a CPA, taking on the accounting, books, shepherding the brand, also handling social media. And I’m the beer guy, the face you’ll see when you walk into the brewery. As several of the bigger and more successful craft breweries have shown, having an enigmatic personality in front of the brand really helps.
Carboy: What was your concept for the identity of the brewery, and of the beers?
Benjamin: I’ve always really felt that we can do a better job of informing the consumer about this product. The more I got into beer, the more questions I wanted to ask, but a lot of the places you go, there’s no one to ask or they don’t want to answer questions. We want to have a focus on one-on-one interaction and education, and that starts with a no-nonsense easy entry point at our brewery.
This applies to the beers too. Customers aren’t going to walk in if they’re new to better beer and start drinking imperial IPA. Session beers were the first things I started brewing with regularity. I had always liked the idea that you could sit down at a place and talk to friends and drink session beer for hours and not be trashed.
At the same time, however, Champaign-Urbana is a great beer town and we need to have things that are exciting for beer geeks as well. We’ll have those imperial IPAs and cherry bourbon barrel aged stouts. They just won’t be the driving force behind our lineup.
Carboy: What would you hope that someone who visited for the first time would say to their friend when they described the place?
Benjamin: I hope he’d say “There’s this really great guy down there who loves to talk about the beer and he made me understand what I was drinking.” I will be on hand at the brewery pretty much all of the time. For the most part, the prime person standing there pouring beer, brewing beer and cleaning things up will be me. I think it’s very important, especially in the beginning, to shepherd and evangelize this brand myself, and I’m not willing to give that role up yet.
Carboy: Unlike some projects I’ve seen, your Kickstarter fundraiser seems to have a relatively small number of donors but a larger dollar total overall, meaning that each person gave more. One person even gave $5,000. Do you know all these people personally?
Benjamin: Some of them are acquaintances and friends; I probably personally know half or so of them. We’ve seen bumps in the total from some of the other online coverage of the project. The one $5,000 person is not someone that’s related to me, just a friend.
Carboy: How important is it that you make this Kickstarter goal? Does it need to succeed? Obviously, this is only a small chunk of the overall cost of opening a production brewery. What will the Kickstarter money be put toward?
Benjamin: If we don’t reach the goal, I think it will make us think a little bit more closely about what kind of critical mass of support we have. However, I have no doubt in my mind that it will go over the $20,000 goal. I really wanted it to be a community thing, and this is about getting a show of support. The plan is to have the names of all the Kickstarter supporters who helped make it happen on the wall of the brewery, so this funding project will become part of the identity of the brewery.
The funds will most likely go into equipment, our cold room, remodeling the building, etc. There will be no debt involved in the opening. We anticipate staying under $200,000 in the first phase.
Carboy: “Phase one” will consist of a small, 1.5 barrel nanobrewery, with beer sales on-site and limited draft accounts off-site, yes? Isn’t that essentially a brewpub?
Benjamin: Not quite. Where we are different from a place like Destihl or Blind Pig Brewery is that we will be the only people in town with a manufacturer’s permit to run a production brewery, and will also be the only place allowed to self-distribute. We are modeling it after a lot of West Coast breweries that operate similarly. We imagine that people will roll into the tasting room on a Friday night and find it to be a good gathering place. There’s no food served, but you can order outside food.
People are certainly asking for the beer now. We want to get tap handles in Champaign-Urbana. We’ve got restaurants calling daily, asking when they can get the beer.
Carboy: Will you be bottling at all in phase one?
Benjamin: We will be hand-bottling specialty, small-run beers in phase one that will be available at the tasting room. They’ll most likely be large-format 750 ml or 22 oz bottles. As far as draft distribution, we’ll probably pick like one place in Champaign and one place in Urbana, at first. I anticipate and genuinely hope, though, that the nanobrewery part of this is a well-defined and relatively brief phase.
Carboy: How long will it take to move to phase two, then, and how much beer will you be making when you get there?
Benjamin: I’d like to be well underway in preparations for phase two by January of next year. I’d like the capital acquisition to be done and things to be underway at that point. We’d probably be moving up to around a 15 barrel brewhouse.
Carboy: Why not just go straight to that level?
Benjamin: You just never really know what demand and interest will be until you’re actually open. People always say they’re excited about you opening a brewery, but until they show up on a Thursday and fill up their growlers, you never really know. We’re trying to follow New Glarus model in a lot of ways, starting really local and getting the beer in as many places as we possibly can in champaign. Then it will spread to other places in central Illinois and downstate. We’re all surprised that it has taken this long to have an actual production brewery downstate.*
*The area really should have gotten a production brewery like this before now. Better late than never!
That’s it. More information can be found through the Triptych Brewing Facebook page. I look forward to their opening as another local brewer that I will actually have access to, unlike so many others that we write about here on Aleheads.
Until next time…