I’ll bet a good chunk of the entrepreneurs who started the 700+ new breweries of 2013, inspired by seeing New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas opening second brewing locations to cope with demand, or Stone and Brooklyn Brewery start production in Europe must want to know, how do I succeed in the long term? What’s the recipe for sustainable growth? Can I one day join the ranks of legit, famous breweries?
On a recent trip to Atlanta GA I discovered the ingredients to a good recipe, first cooked up in Boulder CO in 1992 by college room-mates Freddy Bensch and Kevin McNerney, the founders of South East craft powerhouse, SweetWater Brewing Co.
I was given a guided tour of SweetWater’s second home, an impressive 25,000 square foot building that is fast becoming a major Atlanta tourist attraction (like World Of Coca-Cola, only with better tasting drinks), by my old friend Seth “Hermanator” Herman, SweetWater’s Sales Director. (Or Field General, as it says on his business card).
Here’s what I got from my visit – arranged in the style of a good ol’ Southern fishin’ trip campfire recipe. Just take a look at SweetWater’s website – it’s how they’d want me to write this, I’m sure of it.
If you want great results, plan ahead
You could loosely call SweetWater part of the fourth wave of craft breweries, as it opened up in Atlanta in 1997. Its founders, Freddy Bensch (still CEO) and Kevin McNerney (who has since left to become brewmaster at 5 Seasons Brewing), were able to learn the lessons of the 90s craft explosion at one of its epicenters: the great state of Colorado. They brought the West Coast philosophy to the South East, and also a long view.
In 2004 they moved to their current premises in Midtown Atlanta, and in 2013 invested significantly to create a modern, slick brewing operation that has capacity to brew 400,000 barrels a year. That’s about twice as much as they currently produce, but at an average growth rate of c. 30% for the past few years, that kind of capacity headroom is prudent. Freddy Bensch looks to the future and he has the confidence to back himself and his 90+ employees.
Get yourself a sweet spot
Georgia is one of only five states that doesn’t allow a brewery to sell beer on its own premises, which is a significant handicap. (Find out more here.) But that didn’t stop Freddy and his team from making sure their brewery is a great place to come sample their beer, or see a great band, or even get married. (SweetWater hosts an average of 25 wedding receptions a year.)
The brewery is easy to get to from almost anywhere in Atlanta, has plenty of parking, not one but two huge bars, a large garden space and outdoor stage, well set-up for shows.
As a result, the place is bustling when they host tours and tastings, and they turn out thousands of enthusiastic SweetWater converts most every week of the year.
Land yourself a big fish…and give him a name
As much as some folks might argue otherwise, craft beers are about great brands as well as great beers. From Jim Koch’s genius in naming a beer after Founding Father Sam Adams (who, contrary to popular belief, was not a brewer but a maltster), through Brooklyn Brewery having “I Heart New York” designer Milton Glaser create their logo, to the Stone Gargoyle, successful craft breweries tend to have vivid brand personalities.
SweetWater is no different. Well, in a way it is because theirs is pretty standout. Named after the Sweetwater creek west of Atlanta, it’s all about the laid-back, super-chilled, outdoorsy fishing culture. The slogan “Don’t Float The Mainstream” says it all, and it’s well represented by brand icon Trouser the Rainbow Trout, who manages to show up most places the beer does, including tap handles and as a 30 foot mural on the side of the brewery.
As for the tie-dye color scheme that forms a backdrop to a lot of brand imagery and beers named 420 and Hop Hash…well, you can read into that what you will.
Make some fine brews
Like (almost) all good craft breweries, SweetWater’s philosophy is grounded in great beer, first and foremost. Head brewers Nick Nock and Mark Medlin are rightly seen as godfathers of the Georgia brewing scene, following in the footsteps of founder Kevin McNerney. They lead a team of 8 experienced brewers who innovate and experiment at the boundaries of what beer can be.
SweetWater’s flagship is a robust but balanced Extra Pale Ale called 420 – the beer the brewery has become known for. Their permanent portfolio also contains a sharply aromatic IPA that is rapidly gaining in popularity, Georgia Brown, a smooth and rich brown ale, a crisp pilsner adroitly named Take Two Pils, a refreshing blueberry ale and Hop Hash, a pungent, punchy double IPA made with resin scraped out of Yakima hop pelletizers.
The line up is bolstered by seasonal “Catch n Release” beers. I got to taste the excellent Happy Ending Imperial Stout, a mellow but potent beer, brimming with chocolate and coffee notes beautifully blended with spicy, herbaceous hoppiness.
The brewery also experiments with what they call the Dank Tank, a limited release series personified by El Danko, craft beer’s answer to Iron Maiden’s Eddie mascot. The actual Dank Tank is a 150bbl fermenter painted by fantastically talented artist John Dunn (who designed most of SweetWater’s imagery) which stands proudly at the front of the brewery.
It’s well worth noting that SweetWater implements a strong Quality Assurance structure, with a team headed up by Dr Paul Chlup, QA Director, making sure that everything that leaves the brewery is on the money.
Staff your kitchen with a team for the future
Success in craft beer requires a cornerstone of exceptional beer, but to grow you also need a great business. And that requires a winning team. CEO Freddy Bensch has built himself a team with vastly different perspectives and resumes, but with three things in common: relevant experience, a love of the craft beer culture and the ability to get it and get on with it.
Some great examples are VP of Sales Dave Guender, whose long background in beer (Gambrinus, Gold Coast Beverage Distributing and Inbev) has enabled him to build the relationships that have taken SweetWater into five new states in the past 24 months (and two more next month); Brian Miesieski, whose background at ABI, Diageo and marketing agency The Strategic Agency (and the Jersey Shore) equips him well to manage field marketing; HR Manager Joe Simmons, who blends a love of country rock music and craft beer with his experience managing HR at a large hospital; and Director Of Digital Dank Brian Diggelmann, whose experience in digital marketing agencies combined with a passion for the craft scene allow him easily to represent SweetWater in social media and on the brewery’s excellent blog.
And of course there’s my old buddy Seth, and you can find out more about him below.
Create just the right environment to get cookin’
I spent almost two days in and around the SweetWater brewery when I visited, which included two of their famed tasting and tour sessions. Apart from the fantastic beers, the slick and efficient brewery, the impressive events spaces and bars, the surprisingly extensive and high-quality range of branded merchandise, the branded paraphernalia pointing to all the cool events and community projects SweetWater engages in (I can’t believe I haven’t even mentioned 420Fest yet, the annual music festival SweetWater puts on, which this year is headlined by Snoop Dogg) and all the bright, dynamic people I met, the thing that stood out to me as the key ingredient in the company’s success is that…it’s just a great place to be.
Something the near 100 employees exude is that they’ve got cool jobs, and they know it. There’s a sense of camaraderie and fun all round the brewery, and, from everyone I talked to, a clear sense of purpose. This is a company that’s going places, and which in its hometown has already achieved iconic status.
So if you’re starting up a brewery and you hope one day to be pushing the boundaries of both brewing and regional distribution, you could do a lot worse than mix up the same handful of ingredients as the SweetWater crew. With enough hard work and loving attention, maybe you too can end up being the place people want to come and live out their dream job.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes, with Seth Herman, Sales Director at SweetWater Brewing Co.
- Can you describe what your company does in one sentence?
A craft brewer in Atlanta, Georgia that brews great beer, prioritizes quality and is actively involved in the local community.
- How long have you worked here?
In March 2015 it will be a full, fun two years.
- How and why did you come to be here?
I moved to Atlanta from Baltimore, Maryland in 1995, which was just before Freddy Bensch moved here. I started off tending bar and got to see SweetWater from the beginning – I remember trying the Extra Pale Ale many, many years ago – and have always kept an eye on the brewery’s development and its incredible impact on Atlanta.
I worked for Guinness for 15 years, which I loved, but I always had in mind that I should be involved in something smaller and a little closer to home. As SweetWater grew, and as the buzz around the beer increased it became more and more tempting to get involved. So two years ago I made the move, and it really feels like a dream come true.
One of the things I respected the most about Guinness was the focus on beer and the focus on quality, so I knew I could only join another beer company if it had that same priority. And SweetWater does, in spades. Most of my sales career at Diageo – Guinness was around the South East which is SweetWater’s main territory, so the relationships I have with distributors and retailers has been invaluable. This role feels like my calling. It allows me to combine the best aspects of selling beer and building a brand. And there’s no more exciting time to be here: this is take-off time for SweetWater.
- What is your daily routine?
Every day is different, and every day is challenging. I’m generally traveling two to three days a week and the rest of the time is spent at the brewery overseeing communication to and from the team in the field.
I manage a team of 14 who are each responsible for a market and one or more distributors, and I’m accountable for making sure they have what they need both to execute and to develop themselves. A lot of time is spent working cross-functionally at the brewery to equip the sales team with the best tools and information, and a lot of time is spent with the team, helping coach them to manage their relationships. I also have quite a bit of direct contact with our wholesalers, as I am their representative back at the brewery.
No two days are the same. While I’m working a lot harder and longer than ever, I’ve never enjoyed this sense of satisfaction before.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
SweetWater is growing fast and we’re constantly recruiting new people, so we need to work hard to stay ahead of distributor expectations. We’re still establishing the processes and tools that enable us to deliver for our customers. A good way to describe it is that we’re building the car while we’re driving it!
This business is only 18 years old, and is expanding rapidly. In my time here we’ve gone from distribution in 7 states to 12, and the work required to enter a new market and train up new distributor sales teams is considerable. But it’s also great fun.
What makes my job easier is that thanks to our brewers and quality team, I can always rely on great beer to sell. It’s just about forging the framework to get it out in front of consumers.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Passion, enthusiasm and a strong work ethic. And a sense of humility, to learn from the ground up. A lot of people think working in beer is about hanging out in bars and drinking pints, and while, yes, you do get to do that, there’s vast amount of work involved, especially in today’s market. In my experience, it’s only the people who genuinely love what they do every day and are prepared to go the extra mile that succeed.
To me what’s key is to have total belief in and love for the beer that you’re going out to represent. I’ve been blessed to work for two amazing breweries, and while I don’t drink as much Guinness as I used to, it’s still very special to me. And while I was at Guinness, SweetWater was a bit of a mistress to me too!
You might not get rich selling beer, but it’s a hell of a journey, and you will get to experience things that money can’t buy. I know for a fact that there is no other career I would have rather had. And it’s a long way from over.
- What is success for you?
Beyond making sure that my wife and I are happy, secure and comfortable it’s about waking up every morning and looking forward to the day ahead. Living a passion is a privilege, and I’ve been lucky to find what I want to do and to be surrounded by people who are helping me do it.
My wonderful wife has always been supportive to me and has done a huge amount – including moving five times in 11 years – to allow me to follow my dream. I’m very grateful for that.
So you could say that success for me is happening, and has been for some time. Looking to the future I want that to continue, and at SweetWater, with the success the brewery is enjoying, I don’t see any problems with that.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change a thing about the overall structure, that’s for sure. The three-tier system is as American as apple pie, and I think it enables and encourages the vibrant beer market we now have.
I guess if there were one thing I would want to happen it would be for every brewer, supplier, distributor and retailer to do everything in their power to ensure the quality of the beer being sold. Beer quality has long been a big deal to me, and thankfully my employers have shared my feelings on the subject. But there are still too many people out there who either don’t understand or care about beer quality, and I believe every consumer has the right to expect beer that is as near to perfect as it can be.
[Editor’s note: see The Drinking Classes’s view on the matter here.]
9. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- Our neighbors in Athens GA, Creature Comforts, make a wonderful Berliner Weisse called Athena. It’s delicious, refreshing, sour, crisp – probably my favorite day-drinking beer at the moment.
- I’d need a rich satisfying stout or porter in my top three, and apart from our own Happy Ending Imperial Stout, Founders Breakfast Stout is a solid choice.
- These days you can’t have a top three beers without an IPA, and while I love SweetWater’s IPA the best, Ballast Point Sculpin is a great example of this very American style of beer.
10. Apart from your tap room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Atlanta?
Well, I have a pub in my basement called the Purple Pig that my wife and I and all our friends enjoy very much, but for a slightly bigger beer selection I’d say I’ve consistently been drawn to The Family Dog in north west Midtown over the years. Great environment, well-kept beers, good selection of bourbon and some excellent bar food.