The rise of brewery incubators

Picture this scenario: You’re a talented homebrewer with enough chops to go pro, but the business side of opening a brewery—marketing, distribution, branding, etc.—is one giant hurdle you just can’t imagine crossing. Enter the brewery incubator.

Over the last year or so, brewery incubation has become a slow-building trend, one that aims to help brewers cross over from amateur to pro. It comes in a variety of forms: There’s the Houston-based Brewery Incubator, which invites a rotating class of wannabe pro-brewers to use its facility, and test-market beer at the incubator’s League of Extraordinary Brewers collaborative brewpub. In Cleveland, the soon-to-open Platform Beer Co., hopes to provide a similar service, by inviting aspiring pro-brewers in to develop recipes and experience brewing on a commercial setup. Finally, there’s Alchemy & Science, the satellite brewery incubator arm of Boston Beer Co., that operates L.A.’s Angel City, Vermont’s The Traveler Beer Co., and soon-to-launch Miami-based Concrete Beach Brewery. But none, so far, promise to be as game changing as what’s about to open in Florida: BrewHub.

Set to officially begin brewing in June, BrewHub offers an impressive range of services—pretty much everything you’d need to hit the ground running—and the company’s helmed by seasoned experts. On the business side, there’s CEO Timothy Schoen (a former vice president at Anheuser-Busch), president Jerry Mullane (a former senior executive at Anheuser-Busch), and VP of operations Gary Prindiville Jr. (a 25-year vet at Anheuser-Busch and co-founder of the William K. Busch Brewing Co.). On the beer side, chief brewer Paul Farnsworth (instrumental in launching roughly 100 breweries throughout 10 countries) will oversee the brewing operations. These guys aren’t messing around.

So what exactly does BrewHub do?

For now, it looks like BrewHub’s bread-and-butter will be partner brewing. The company recently announced it penned deals with Cigar City, Orange Blossom Pilsner and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery, and will brew a combined total of 40,000 barrels-per-year under the supervision of each brewery’s brewmaster (note to Floridians: expect a sudden increase in Cigar City availability later this year). Outside of partner brewing, the company can assist with all aspects of sales and marketing (from sales training, to pricing strategies, labeling and packing, public relations, media placement, and development of special events). It also provides analysis on distribution (from pinpointing which markets a product would thrive, to providing legal advise on distribution contracts). The company’s also exploring export opportunities within eight countries, including the U.K., Australia, China and Denmark. It looks like the ultimate turnkey option for established and about-to-launch breweries, unlike anything the craft industry has ever seen, and it’s just the beginning. BrewHub plans to eventually operate five facilities across the United States.

So how will this change beer? Currently, new breweries bubbling up on the craft beer scene are kind of like garage-rock bands in 1960s, or the first wave of grunge in the mid-to-late ’80s. They’re DIY, learn-as-you-go, and somewhat rogue—but those that break through to the national stage (for instance, Tulsa’s Prairie Artisan Ales) offer a style and attitude that just can’t be replicated. While the incubator aspect of BrewHub is yet-to-be-seen, I’m expecting (to continue the analogy) something akin to Motown or the Brill Building: A company that combines artists with in-house talent to provide a consistent polished product, and uses industry connections, expertise and established infrastructure to ensure those products thrive.

This could be a big opportunity for breweries looking to quickly leap to the next level of exposure. With potentially five facilities operating across the country, the future craft beer landscape is beginning to seem a bit more unpredictable.

Posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014