Great Storm Brewing's successful first year, thoughts on expansion, philosophy of the nano brewer

It's been a while since we fully caught up with Colorado Springs' smallest brewery, Great Storm Brewing, and now they've been in operation for just over a full year. Great Storm is a nano-brewery, making about 1 barrel of beer each time they brew, which is about two full kegs of beer. In the beer world, that's not very much, consider that Trinity has a twelve barrel brew house, Bristol's is about fifteen, and both of these breweries are relatively small as well.

Over their initial year we've heard more and more people talking about Great Storm and we've noticed a bit of a cult following. So, we decided we better catch up with brewer Jeff Jacobs.

We also thought this would be good timing because this week on the New School Beer Blog an article was posted that took issue with the amount of nano-breweries opening in Oregon. The author is certainly writing in a tongue-in-cheek manner but when we posted this to our Facebook page many of our reader's didn't appreciate some of the things written in the article. I'd like to direct your attention to that article for a moment but I'll also mention a couple things here. In part the author questions the business savvy of nano-brewery owners and suggests that from a beer geek standpoint it isn't always worth the time and effort of seeking all the newest breweries if they aren't offering something wholly unique. In the author's scene the beers can be hit or miss, but show up so infrequently that if he happens to see them on tap at two different times, and both are bad, he will probably be unwilling to give the brewery another shot if and when he sees it on tap again.

While I might agree about the impossibility of keeping up with all the new breweries (I'm also totally happy with this impossibility), there were a number of questions I had about this article, while also keeping in mind the author's tone where we know he's not being fully serious. Considering that Great Storm has developed a large reputation in town, and the couple beers I've had from them recently were really tasty, I decided to ask Jeff his thoughts on the topic. While I was at it, I also sent him a few additional questions to see if he's growing and has new plans. He does! Check it out:

You've only been open a year and you have a strong following here in Colorado Springs, did you expect this sort of success?

We no doubt expected success, or we would not have ventured into this. But, no, we thought we would have had a much more modest success our first year. We thought things would calm down after a few months when everyone who was interested had a chance to come check us out, but it’s never really let up. We ended our first year beating our most optimistic financial projections by about 50%, and that took us all by surprise.

We have been running right at our capacity since the day we opened. My wife, Lynn – who’s also my business partner – and I thought we’d be running things by ourselves for some time, but we’ve already needed to hire two folks to help. We hired our first person, Devyn, after only about five months, and she’s been invaluable. We were working so hard we didn’t have time to think about growing the business, and Devyn being here has allowed us to do that. We also hired Bevan to help with brewing operations when we realized demand wasn’t slowing down at all, and he’s also been indispensable, because with my day job, there simply were not enough hours in the week for me to keep up with production needs.

What have been some of favorite and least favorite experiences owning and operating a nano brewery?

Favorites: our customers are some of the most amazing folks! They proudly wear our shirts and put our stickers on their cars, and take our stuff overseas and send us back photos. When you’re home brewing and people tell you your beer is good, you sort of take that with a grain of salt because they’re your friends and family, what else are they going to say? But when complete strangers tell you things like, “you have the best beers in town!” that’s such great validation of what we’re trying to do. We hope to never let folks like that down.

Least favorite: I suppose that’s our inability to do more. We’ve had to turn away people who want to do parties on days we’re closed, or want to buy kegs for an event, and we just don’t have the hours available or beer available to serve these great folks, and that bothers me. We’re trying to take some steps to increase our availability, but it’s slow going. We’re going to get there, though, and I hope people will have some patience with us while we do.

What kind of advice would you give someone looking to start up a brewery that is smaller than 3bbls?

First of all, I’d say go for it! I’d love to see more small places opened by people who have a real passion for beer and want to bring great beer to the area. But beyond that, I’d say think twice about the size you want to start with and how much time you can put into the brewery. If you can start bigger, I’d recommend doing so. We almost started with a 1/3 barrel system, and I had a friend talk me into going up to 1 barrel, and thank the beer gods we did, because I cannot imagine the chaos there would be around here if I had only a third of the beer to sell. But also, if I knew then what I know now, I would have gone even bigger. We certainly would have started with a two or three barrel if we had foreseen the love that would be coming our way!

When we talked at the bar you said that Great Storm would need to be 5x bigger in order for you to be able to quit your job. Is this your goal?

By five times bigger, I mean five times bigger in sales, and since we can’t really do that kind of volume in our taproom, that probably means wholesale keg sales outside the brewery at reduced profits. So in reality, I think we need a ten barrel brew house to get to the level of sales I’d need to make this my sole source of income and support our growing staff. I think they said that in the article as well, most people consider a ten barrel as the sort of minimum level needed for independence.

What are some of your plans?

We recently signed a lease on two more spaces next to us, and what we’re planning at the moment is to start by building a much larger cold storage space than we currently have and engaging with some of the larger breweries in the area for ten barrel contract brews. We’ve also already put in a large order for a lot more kegs. That should allow us to have more beer to sell, to begin addressing wholesale sales, and will also allow us to have our taproom open more days and hours to better serve our taproom customers. Hopefully, all of these things together will allow us to accelerate our purchase of a ten barrel system.

What is your response to the article about nano breweries, and how have you done things similarly or differently from breweries mentioned in this article?

The author makes a number of points, some I agree with and some I disagree with. For instance, he says the recent brewery boom differs from the 90s boom because people are in it more now for the beer than the profit – which I wholeheartedly agree with – but assumes that just because we love beer, we’re somehow missing the necessary business acumen to make a start-up nanobrewery a long term success. I couldn’t disagree with that more. The folks who love beer and who aren’t interested in the business aspect of it are numerous; they’re called home brewers, and many of them make great beer but will never have the desire to do it for a living, which is perfectly OK. Turning a love into a business can easily take the love out of it. On the other hand, most of the folks I know doing what I’m doing are beer lovers and home brewers who come from corporate jobs, long careers, but are looking for a change, looking for something a little more meaningful than being a cog in a corporate machine. They see a brewery as a way of having some independence and doing something they’re passionate about, providing a great product that will make other people happy. But that doesn’t mean we’re lacking in business savvy or experience. We picked up plenty of both in our business careers.

The author also says, “…rare is the nanobrewed beer that is wholly unique.” I wholly disagree with this as well. One of the beauties of a nano is that we’re small enough to try edgy or just plain crazy stuff that the bigger breweries might not take a chance on. When you’re brewing in one barrel batches and an experiment goes awry, you can just dump it and you’re out a few hundred bucks and learned something in the process. As our friend Lefty says, “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” We currently (well, probably not by the time this is published) have on tap a birthday cake double pilsner that we brewed for our first anniversary, where we put an entire baked-from-scratch and frosted cake into the mash. It came out great – an easy-drinking wheaty pils with a hint of vanilla, and has been a good seller for us, but it could just as easily have come out terrible, and doing it was a risk that many of the bigger breweries would not have taken. If that’s not unique, I don’t know what is.

Even the experts don’t seem to know how the whole nano revolution is going to turn out. And just like some home brewers are making great beer and some still need more experience, there will be some nanos out there making great beer, and some needing to hone their processes more. But one thing is certain, we offer consumers more choices. Maybe you’ll find a new favorite beer you absolutely love. Maybe you’ll be there the first time a new style is invented, or a new ingredient is used, Maybe you’ll be there on the one night a nano taps their only keg of an experimental beer that is amazing, awesome and perfect, but will never be made again. You’ll have an experience that none of your beer-loving friends will ever get a chance to have. It’s like temporary art, and you’re there at the right moment to appreciate it. I don’t know myself how the nano movement will play out, but we’re going to keep making beers that are a marriage of the traditional and the rebellious, beers that are different but drinkable. We’re going to keep using quality ingredients, buying local where we can, keep trying to be greater members of the community, and we’re going to keep trying to be worthy of the faith our amazing customers have put into us.

We're excited for Great Storm, can't wait to see the progress on all that they're up to! We'll also agree with Jeff's statement about the fun part of being a nano is that you can experiment, this is also one of our favorite parts of what Great Storm is doing. Thank you Jeff for taking the time to respond here. Readers, if you haven't been out to Great Storm yet, you better do it!

Great Storm Brewing is located at 204 Mt View Lane, Colorado Springs, CO 80907

- - -
Stay updated with our email updates and like us on Facebook. We're also on Twitter and Instagram at @focusonthebeer.

BeerEric Steen