A visit to Gigantic Brewing Company

Van Havig at Gigantic Brewing has a reputation as a brewer, a thinker and a straight talker. Here he is on the art of running a small but profitable brewery.

Gigantic Brewing Co. in Portland Oregon.

“I’m not an artist, and I hate being called an artist.  It pisses me off.  Calling me an artist denigrates what actual artists do.  I’m a businessman and a brewer.  I run a brewery.”

So said Van Havig, the founder and Master Brewer at Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Company, when I visited his five-year-old brewery on the outskirts of Oregon’s biggest city.

Van has a reputation.  As a brewer, as a thinker and as a straight talker.  During my visit he didn’t disappoint on any front.

Gigantic was born of necessity and irony.  On course for a PhD in Economics, Havig lost faith in the dismal science and turned his hand to brewing.  He joined Rock Bottom in its infancy, and spent 16 years with the company, opening breweries in Maryland and Virginia along the way.   In 2010 he was fired for criticising the company’s new management in some comments picked up by a Portland beer blog.

Kicking around Portland looking for a brewing gig, Havig was propositioned by Ben Love, then the Head Brewer at influential Hopworks Urban Brewery, to pair up and start a brewery.  Launching in 2011, right before the craft beer wave began to crest, the duo made a business plan with a difference.  Go small.  Go profitable.

“I was talking with Ben about our ideas,” Havig told me.  “I said, ‘I don’t want to be big like Ninkasi – I don’t want to be gigantic’, quickly followed by, ‘Fuck, let’s call ourselves Gigantic!’.”

Ben Van Gigantic

Here are Ben and Van, heroes of their very own comic book!

There are several remarkable aspects to Gigantic.  The one that struck me hardest is that at five years old and just over 4,000 barrels of production, the company is profitable and nearly debt-free.

“We’ll have paid our loans off in three years. And we’ve been profitable for some time,” Havig explained, matter-of-factly. “We have investors who have stakes in other breweries and they can’t believe we’re turning a profit at this scale.  I have to show them the books on a regular basis!”

By all accounts, Havig and Love are highly skilled brewers, and take it from me their beers are excellent.  But in a market like Portland, which is not short on excellent beer, there’s more to it.

I asked Havig to extrapolate.  He answered that, simply, they focus on profit.

“Nobody talks about profit publicly in beer for two reasons,” Havig said.  “One is that they don’t want their financials discussed by outsiders, and that’s perfectly understandable.  The other is that there’s this fake, romantic side to this industry where people want to talk more about art and craft than running a business.  I think it’s totally unhelpful.  If people want to drink beer made by small, local, independent businesses, they need to get comfortable with the idea of breweries being profitable.”

He took a sip of tea before adding, “Or their favorite breweries won’t stay open or they won’t stay independent.”

Another part of Gigantic’s secret formula – the ironic-name bit – is the manageable size.  While many breweries open with the lofty ambition of one day being the next Sierra Nevada, Havig and Love always wanted to stay small.

“Talking about barrelage is just talking about how big your dick is.  I’m not interested in that,” he said. “I’m interested in running this brewery at 5,000 barrels profitably.”

“I’m not building another brewery – I’ve built four already,” he continued.  “Ben and I are building a sustainable brewery that gives people a great quality of life.  Well, which will give everyone except me a great quality of life.  Work-life balance is not my strong suit.”

Van Havig Straight Talker

Van Havig has a reputation as a straight talker. Here he is in action.

All of Gigantic’s metrics show balance, which demonstrates the measure of control they have.  55% of their sales is in keg, the remainder is in 22oz bottles – which, astonishingly, are more profitable for them than draft sales.  Their taproom sales are only 10% of their volume (but 25% of their revenue). Oregon takes 55% of their production, but the company is able to sell profitably to specialty customers in 12 other states, two Canadian provinces and even five other countries.

And Gigantic is efficient.  One of Havig and Love’s most impressive efficiencies is the sourcing of their label art.   No two are the same, and each one is a unique commission from a professional artist.

“I think it was Ben who said we should try working with artists.  That set this idea off in my head that our beers could be like comic books – interpretations of the same thing by different artists,” Havig said.  “You think about Batman or Superman, they’ve gone through these changes as they’re interpreted by different writers and artists.  It’s the same character, but different artists make them look and feel different.”

Two of Gigantic’s original beer labels. You can buy the label art as posters.

“We have a template contract which is probably a little more in the artist’s favour than ours, but we don’t really want much from them. We pay everyone a flat $1,000.  We just give them the name we’ve decided on and the style and we just let them do whatever they want,” he said. “A surprising number [of artists] are into the idea of doing a beer label.  It’s like a neat thing for them to add to their portfolio.”

Van Havig lives up to his reputation as a passionate and straight-shooting brewer.  What surprised me was his grounded pragmatism.  He dropped several amazing quotes on me.  This is my favorite excerpt from our conversation.

“Brewing is not supposed to be fun.  It’s a profession. It’s my vocation.  Arbeit macht das leben suess, as the Germans say: work makes life sweet.”

“I make beer; to make a profit; to earn myself, my partners and my employees a living.”

Van Havig Gigantic Brewing

Van Havig of Gigantic Brewing Co.

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Van Havig, Master Brewer, Gigantic Brewing Co.

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?

We make beers that we want to make.

  1. How long have you worked here?

Five, five and a half years.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

I’ve been brewing 22 years professionally at this point.  I joined Rock Bottom in ’95, when the company was about five years old.  It had five brewpubs, I think. [It now has 30]

I spent 16 years there and became quite senior on the brewing side.  Then there was a buy-out and the new management made what I saw as some poor decisions.  I talked publicly about those poor decisions and was fired.

I didn’t necessarily want to open my own brewery, but I wanted to keep on brewing and I didn’t want to leave Oregon.  Ben [Love] had already been talking to me about some kind of gypsy brewing arrangement.  So when I got fired his reaction was that we should start up a brewery.

This was 2011, which was about the time I would say American craft brewing was hitting its stride.  In a way I think if we’d have waited a year we would have found it way easier to get money; I think in 2012 you started getting rich people just running around waving checks wanting to own a brewery.  And you know, that’s probably a good thing that we started right before that time, because it meant we had to work a little smarter and maybe write a slightly more realistic business plan than we otherwise would.  I like the kind of brewery we’ve become.

  1. What is your daily routine?

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am office boy.   Everything from invoices, to inventory, to people reviews.  And projects.  I’m the one who researches and plans new equipment and processes.  Ben’s the one who drives us forward and I try to figure out how to make it happen.  I like to say Ben is the gas pedal and I’m the brake.

Thursdays I run the packaging line, and Friday I run the morning shift, brewing.  Most Fridays I start the brew at 6.30, turn it over to somebody else at about 11 and then go to the bank.

Most of the operations are run by our Head Brewer, Scott Guckel.  Scott and I go back a long way – we’re like an old married couple.  He’s brewing employee number one and I hope he never leaves.

Van Havig: Office Boy.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Can I tell you a joke real quick? Ask me that question again.

[Which I duly do, and half way through the first word…] Timing! Sorry, that’s one of my favorites.

But seriously, it’s timing.  And it’s people.  Which is also frankly the most rewarding part of my job.

There’s a big difference between being a good brewer and being a good people manager.  I can run a brewing system by myself or with one assistant and I can do it perfectly.  But when you add in more people, and you have to manage communications, what happens when you’re not around, and trying to have people grow, and develop, and do the right thing – it’s a whole different game.

I mean, if it’s not the hardest thing, it’s definitely the source of the most stress.  I really, really give a shit about the people who work here and I want them to be happy and have a great work environment.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

I have to answer from multiple points of view.

As a business it’s all about how good of an operator you are.  Despite the romanticism about breweries, this is a business.   Breweries have been businesses since at least the 1600s, and that really is the main thing.  That’s everything to paying attention to quality, to being respectful of your consumer and what she wants from you, to being prudent with your expenditure and most importantly to paying attention to your bottom line.

Breweries can do one of two things: they can sell beer, or they can sell a relationship to their customers.  That’s the philosophical key to success.  At every level in the industry, beer is personal.  Even at the Bud, Bud Light level, beer is a personal thing to the people who drink it.

To be successful as a brewer you need to be proficient but you also need a lot of luck.   My dad always said, the way to get ahead in this world is luck, ability and perfect timing.  Any one of those alone won’t do the job.  Two of the three and you’ll do okay.  If you land all three, you’ll be successful.

And notice that only one of those three is ability.

Gigantic Brewing Company Labels

A selection of Gigantic’s distinctive and profitable 22oz bottles in a Portland Whole Foods.

  1. What is success for you?

Being able to have this business, giving a good return to my investors and not eating dog food when I’m old.

I am a glass three quarters empty kind of guy. I worry constantly.  We are extremely financially solid, but that doesn’t stop me worrying.  In three years we will have all our loans paid off, and at that point I really won’t have to worry about the $170,000 that leaves my business every year.  And when that happens I think I’ll be able to relax.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I wish the beer industry would be more realistic and self-reflective.  There are these various myths that everybody buys, and to me they’re just what they are: myths.

Like, “These days if your beer’s not amazing, you’re screwed.”  Bullshit!  There are so many successful breweries with half-assed beer.

Or, “Macro beer drinkers are so susceptible to marketing but craft drinkers know what’s up.” Are you shitting me?  I could take the same better than average beer and put the name Vinnie Cilurzo on it and people will go crazy; or I could put the name Max Wakowski on it and people will just go, “Never heard of him, this beer’s average”.

There’s just this lack of humility, you know.  There are so many people in this industry who claim to be totally free thinking and to know the truth, and they need to think about what they’re saying.  Drives me batshit crazy.

When it comes to brewing that lack of self-reflection manifests itself in a lack of science.  There are so many brewers out there acting off of anecdote or their belief in their own genius.  I mean, I guess it’s marketing, and I get it, but the number of brewers who do something totally pointless in their beer, like putting hops in the mash, and claim it gives their beer an edge drives me crazy.

Or this whole New England IPA thing – I’ve drunk beer like that hundreds of times.  That’s just what beer tastes like out of the fermenter.  It’s not really new. But people like it, I guess. Whatever.

A great selection on tap during my visit. (That’s right. All beers…$4.75.  Seriously, move to Portland.)

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

I hate this question.

  1. Anchor Liberty. One of the best beers in the world.  It’s old, whatever – it just tastes great.  So bright, so clear.  Just a great beer.
  2. I’m such a sucker for Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux right now. (Actually I’m always a sucker for Avec.)
  3. Lately I’ve been telling everyone: go get a Michelob. Go get your ass a Michelob; what weekends were made for! It tastes like beer in its Platonic form.  It’s beer that tastes exactly like beer.
  1. Apart from your taproom, where’s the best place to get a beer in Portland?

Now this question I like.

It’s a toss up between The Victory and Horse Brass for me. I’m not so much a beer geek as I’m a pub geek.  Both of those places have great draft lists and so-on, but it’s not about the beer, it’s about the place, the environment.  Pubs are where beer is supposed to be drunk.  I always try to seek the best ones out when I travel.

There is, believe it or not, a single best pub in the universe.  It’s called the Three Stags’ Heads in Derbyshire [England].  It doesn’t exist in a city, it’s just at a crossroads.  It’s only open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.  It’s not even what the owners do – they’re potters, who bought the property with the pub and the license, so they felt obliged to keep the pub open.

The physical space is tiny, and the bar itself is even tinier.  You walk in and everyone turns around and stares.  But as long as you’re friendly, polite and open, this is the greatest place you will ever go. (If you’re not friendly, and you act like a tourist, they have no issue throwing you out!)

I love pubs because it’s where people come together and just enjoy being together.  That’s what beer does so well.  I’ve always believed you drink wine with your family, cocktails with your boss and beer with your friends.

Gigantic Brewing Company Middle Finger

Seen in the office at Gigantic. Tentatively titled ‘Gigantic Middle Finger’.

6 Comments on A visit to Gigantic Brewing Company

  1. Loved this from start to finish Jon. How refreshing to hear someone on the inside cutting through the layers of bs that usually pervade!

  2. Great interview!

  3. Alissa Larrance // June 9, 2017 at 7:03 am // Reply

    Great article about a stand up Portland icon!

  4. Great article. Especially the no-BS straight talk about running a business from Van. I can see why they turn a profit for their investors better than other breweries.

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