When Giants Go Small

Last week we learned that Peter Bouckaert was leaving his post as New Belgium brewmaster to launch a small start-up. Bouckaert is one of those legends in brewing; not only has he helmed New Belgium for two decades, but was responsible for starting their incredible foeder program and turning New Belgium into the eight-largest brewery in the US. It was under his leadership that New Belgium launched a second facility on the East Coast and became an industry leader in sustainability. And of course before that, he brewed at Rodenbach.

This is far from unprecedented. Several years back, John Harris left Full Sail to start Ecliptic here in Portland; before that he'd been the founding brewer at Deschutes. Larry Sidor, who started his career at Olympia, went on to Deschutes where he radically expanded operations and turned the brewery into a national leader. In 2012, he left to start Crux Fermentation Project. In 2015 Chuck Silva left Green Flash to start Silva Brewing. More recently, Mitch Steele, who once worked for Anheuser Busch and then went to Stone Brewing, left to start New Realm in Atlanta.

This can't be an easy decision. Breweries like New Belgium are pretty amazing places to work. The equipment allows brewers to make any beer in the world. All of the companies I mentioned here are known for their experimentation and inventiveness; they're not just making the same flagship beers giant batch after giant batch on push-button equipment. Being at a brewery like New Belgium gave Bouckaert a high-profile platform, and he got to do things like author books, give keynote address, travel, and collaborate with anyone he wished. A brewer can probably expect to make more money--and certainly take on less risk--than at a start-up. And of course, big breweries have the resources to do things like this:

So why would a brewer trade a stable paycheck, 40-hour work weeks, and regular vacations to go in debt, work around the clock, and assume all the uncertainty any new business brings? There seem to be some common themes. I spoke to Mitch Steele, and he mentioned something I've heard a lot. “The idea of getting back to my roots, spending more time in the brewery, and having a smaller operation was attractive, for a number of reasons.” One thing all these men have in common is that they were working brewers, not entrepreneurs. They like being in breweries. Overseeing a larger brewery is fundamentally a management job, but safe to say all these guys got into the business because they like watching the mash blades swirl.

John Harris echoed the vision of going small. “That's a big part of the focus. When I left Full Sail, I felt like I needed to get back into the pub scene, into the small brewery scene where creativity is number one.” So did Chuck Silva, in an interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune, he said, “I’m not trying to build a brand and just grow, grow, grow. I want to do projects that are more sustainable and very local.”

But they also have personal motivations. Steele put his this way: “It's actually a pretty complicated question, but for me the opportunity to build a brand and a lineup of beers from the ground up was very attractive. I have never really done that before, when I got to Stone, it was already well established and had a very strong identity and reputation. As much as I cherished my time at Stone and the amazing opportunities I was provided there, this was a chance for me to possibly realize my own vision, which as I got older became more important to me.”

Larry Sidor (left) christening the new brewhouse at Crux Fermentation Project

Silva and Sidor both had individual passions for the kind of brewery and beer they wanted to make, visions that couldn't be realized at Green Flash or Deschutes. As much as big craft breweries are willing to experiment, they aren't vehicles for expressing idiosyncratic visions. Harris put it this way. “I'm not saying creativity wasn't something at Full Sail, but just creativity to make what I want to make, what I want to do. There are a lot of styles of beer that I want to make that can't be explored in breweries that make 300,000 barrels a year. For me, it's about getting back into the brewhouse and making some fun beers.”

Developing new recipes, new programs, and new beer lines are creative processes, but they live within a pre-existing vision. Getting to start a new brewery means owning every piece of the business, from the brewhouse size and configuration to the feel of the pub to the names and designs. Until he launched Ecliptic, very few people knew John Harris had a passion for astronomy. He was able to indulge that with the new place, from the beer names to the pub lighting, which has a cosmic design.  You drink a Mirror Pond and you might think "this is a John Harris beer." You walk into Ecliptic and you have a sense that everything is John Harris.

There's one final element here. If I had to identify the single quality the best brewers all possess, it's easy: curiosity. Some brewers are technical, some artistic. Some are quiet, some are outgoing. But all of them, from Hans-Peter Drexler to Olivier DeDeycker to John Keeling to Bouckaert, Steele, Sidor, Silva, and Harris are all driven by a curiosity of how processes, ingredients, and chemistry work to create flavor. And so it's not surprising to me that their curiosity is what leads them to leave these larger breweries. They have done the work of creation there; they've explored the available frontiers. The tickle of curiosity would therefore naturally lead them to entirely new projects.

When I interviewed Bouckaert back in 2012, I don't think he was considering leaving New Belgium. But as he finished talking about his approach, I might have seen in his final words the seed of his departure:

If I find a better way to make better beer, I’ll make a better beer. I’m not stuck in tradition—I’m not a museum. I want to continue to learn.
— Peter Bouckaert

My guess is that Peter Bouckaert won't be the last of this growing group. The very quality that made these brewers so valuable to large breweries is the one that will send them off on their own projects in due course.

Jeff Alworthbeer biz