What a Ride – 8 Years of Hops & Grain
What a Ride…
Had you asked me 10 years ago what I thought I would be doing on the verge of turning 40 I would have probably said that I just hoped I make it. In my own passive aggressive way this was just me resisting the demands of others. What is “making it” after all? If you would have dug in a bit more and asked a more specific question regarding what career I would have, where I would be living in 10 years or what I thought would have been a fulfilling life I’d have likely told you that I would be riding my bicycle and living along the front range of Colorado. Fast forward 10 years and I don’t live in Colorado, not completely at least. I do ride my bicycle every day but make absolutely no money doing it. Quite the contrary actually. But I can absolutely tell you that I don’t regret anything that I’ve done over the past 10 years. There are quite a few things that I might have done differently, knowing now what I didn’t know then. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They’ve been some of the most challenging years of my life, the most stressful years of my life but also the most rewarding years of my life.
The brewery that I opened back in 2011 is fast approaching its 8th Anniversary. As a person who prefers to not dwell on the past, I sometimes like to force myself into an exercise in reflection. And this is just that. A reflection of the past 8-ish years.
I find great joy in telling folks that are just opening their own breweries that when I opened Hops & Grain Brewing I did it with $325,000 dollars, a healthy dose of naivete and a strong sense that it would “maybe” work out. East Austin has been my home for the better part of the 14 years that I’ve lived in Austin. Before dreaming up the idea of opening a brewery, I managed a running store called Rogue Equipment at the intersection of East 5th Street and San Marcos, right next door to Progress Coffee. A lot has changed since then but thankfully, there is quite a bit that has remained the same. The vibrant and diverse culture that I fell in love with is still very much alive and well. Business opportunities in east Austin continue to grow as more and more development occurs and the beer scene is as good, if not better, than any other part of the city. But responsible development is also needed in east Austin in order to preserve what so many of us love about our neighborhood.
Back in 2010 as an energetic 30-year-old I would ride my bike past an old warehouse at the east end of 6th street and wonder what was going on inside. Oftentimes the door was open, and I’d wander inside to see stacks and stacks of El Milagro tortilla chips as far as the eye could see. The building had no signage and I’m quite certain that I was trespassing, but I’ll never forget looking at that building and envisioning how cool it would be to have a brewery there. Right at the dead end of 6th street in the heart of east Austin. A street that most people think of as the shot bar, party district that runs through the heart of downtown Austin. But once you crossed under the interstate and headed east away from downtown, a whole new experience awaited, full of culture and passion. After months and months of riding by this building I noticed a For Sale sign out in front. I had just started raising money to open Hops & Grain Brewing and I was certain that finding a location was going to be the only way for me to get over that last fundraising hump. And this location was absolutely perfect for what I envisioned for my brewery. I made a few calls, located the seller’s agent and inquired more about the property. At the time they were trying to sell the property and I, unfortunately, did not have the wherewithal to even entertain a real estate transaction. After all, I was only 74.5% sure that what I was trying to open would be successful and the idea of taking on more money to purchase the entire building just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Looking back now, that was one of the biggest mistakes I made in opening the brewery. Back in 2010 the property was listed for $1.2M. I won’t, for my own sanity, type out what the building appraised for just last year but let’s just say it’s about 10 times what it was listed for back in 2010.
Anyhoo, after keeping in touch with the seller’s agent for the next couple months I was informed that they had found a buyer. So, we were introduced and began discussing lease terms, something that I was wholly unfamiliar with. But, as they say, fake it till you make it. Turns out we would be the first tenant in the building and with that I was able to negotiate a pretty sweet long-term deal, one that I’m quite certain our landlord now greatly regrets. But for that I am thankful, even though I still kick myself for not purchasing the property. Documents were signed and the plan began to take shape. I won’t bore you with all of the construction details so we’ll just fast forward 14 months and jump right into the beginning of making beer at Hops & Grain Brewing.
The concept for Hops & Grain was always pretty simple. Back in 2011 if you wanted to manufacture and distribute beer in the state of Texas you could not operate a tasting room in the sense that most of us are now used to. Selling a pint of beer to a customer in a brewery was not legal. Having been introduced to the brewing industry during my time living in Boulder, CO I couldn’t really imagine having a brewery without a tasting room. Even though we couldn’t sell beer direct to customers I was still adamant about having a space where people could gather.
So, I decided to build out a small, 300 square foot air-conditioned tasting room where we would just give away free samples and offer tours. You see, back then there were only a handful of breweries in Austin and very few even opened their doors to customers. I was committed to opening a brewery for east Austin, not just in east Austin, and I couldn’t imagine doing that without a place that the neighborhood could come hang out in. Most weekends in our early years we would have beer drinkers hanging out all over the long hallway that runs down the middle of our building. *I’m pretty sure this violated all kinds of TABC regulations but at the time I wasn’t too concerned. Oh, to be young again…
Fairly quickly we began to see new tenants move into the building. The very first was a glass blowing studio followed fairly soon by an aerial arts studio called Sky Candy. And within about a year and a half the entire building was full, mostly occupied by an eclectic blend of creatives. And it was a pretty rad place to spend a Saturday afternoon. Grab a free beer sample, watch a glass blowing demonstration and then wander down the hall to the multitude of art galleries that resided in the building.
And the beer business was booming, absolutely nuts. We grew our production from 600 bbls of beer in our first year in business to 1800 bbls in our second year and 3200 bbls in our third year. And we very quickly ran out of space. And thanks to the hard work of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild we saw a few laws change in the state of Texas. One of which finally enabled manufacturing breweries to sell a pint of beer directly to a customer. And luckily for us, around this same time, one of the tenants that was located right next door to us had decided to move out. So, we promptly jumped at the chance to take over their space and open a proper tasting room to take advantage of these new liberties our generous legislators had bestowed upon us (heavy on the sarcasm). When the brewery opened, we occupied a meager 2,800 square feet but this expansion would take us close to 7,000. A hefty jump for a brewery owner that was still only 76.5% sure that this thing was going to work out.
In those early years we had one hell of a team of brewers working for us. Outside of my very first employee, every other brewer that worked at Hops & Grain had never worked in a brewery before. We were scrappy, lean and as far as I could tell, having the time of our lives. We made a few mistakes but always tried to fail as fast as possible. And we had a good number of successes, which we celebrated heavily. The glory days, if you will. A small team of dedicated brewers learning something new every day and most likely drinking more than we should. Sales continued to grow, and we continued to build our team with talented, dedicated folks. And the brewery scene in Austin also continued to grow. Needless to say, it was a heady time for beer in Austin.
When I look back on those early days I always smile. They were a hell of a lot of fun, oftentimes reckless, but always fun. And we matured a lot, and very quickly, most likely out of necessity. We learned a lot about the beer business and what it meant to be a successful brewery. I personally failed a lot as a leader, but I always tried to fail fast, learn what I did wrong and try my best not to do it again.
I remember getting countless emails from folks that were thinking about opening their own brewery and were looking for advice. Always with the question “if you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently”. I never actually responded to those questions because they never made any sense to me. I always thought that if you have to ask someone else what they would do differently then you probably shouldn’t be trying to do what they’re doing. Learning from mistakes, in my opinion, is the spice of life. Asking someone else how to avoid mistakes seemed like the lamest way to live. And I still pretty much feel that way. I always responded better to questions like “what are you most proud of” or “what is the single craziest day you’ve ever had owning a brewery”. Hell, how about “why the hell are so many people opening breweries”. Those are fun questions and those were questions that I enjoyed answering.
Owning a brewery is not for the faint of heart or head. It’s an all-consuming endeavor, not unlike owning your own business in any other industry. The difference in beer is that we produce a product that many people look forward to enjoying at the end of a workday. A beverage that brings people together. A beverage that is intoxicating, literally and figuratively. A beverage that, when cared for, can express far more emotions than you can put into words. It can also make people angry, sad, happy, shy, verbose, expressive, melodic, melancholy and whole host of other emotions. It can bring communities together and, unfortunately, sometimes divide them. It’s a dangerous beverage, an exciting beverage, an artistic beverage and a communal beverage. It is, hands down, one of the most unique beverages out there. And I couldn’t be happier to have the opportunity to produce and sell it on a daily basis alongside some of the most talented and passionate folks in the business.
Looking back on the past 8 years is an exhaustingly exciting exercise for me. I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and alongside, some of the greatest people I know. And unfortunately, I’ve also lost a few of the greatest people I’ve known. Our team continues to grow and not just in numbers, but also emotionally and spiritually. Hops & Grain Brewing would not be what it is without all of the people that have contributed over the years. The future will undoubtedly hold more adventures, more successes and more defeats. And I hope that we can continue to find gratitude in all of it.
Our new brewery down in San Marcos has been producing beer now for a couple of months and, as I type this, our Austin brewery is getting a few much-needed upgrades. A massive new chapter in our story has just begun, in a new city, with a new community of beer drinkers. And I’m certain that the next 8 years are going to be just as crazy as the past 8.
A few of my closest brewery owner friends and I have this saying that we often jokingly say to each other.
“So, you wanna open a brewery huh?”
It’s a subtle reminder that we are all bat shit crazy for trying to do this but we’re all stronger because we did it. As far as the past 8 years, it has been one hell of a ride. Have we “made” it? Honestly, who cares. We’re having fun, trying to be a better version of ourselves, striving to push boundaries, and seeking to be the best community members that we can. And that makes me happy.
Come out and celebrate 8 years of Hops & Grain Brewing with us this month. We’ve got some fun events planned, plenty of tasty beers and lots of great stories.
We couldn’t be where we are without the communities that have supported us along the way, and for that we are eternally grateful.
Cheers friends, onward and upward! – Josh Hare (Founder | CEO)