Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 58 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
What constitutes a brewery’s soul? Is it born in humble beginnings, or is it forged by the decisions its owners make as it grows and expands? If a brewery’s ability to produce more of the beer its customers love comes at the cost of doing business with the behemoths of the industry, does the reward worth the risk?
As craft beer and breweries crawl out of their respective childhoods and enter adolescence, these are some of the questions that face owners who have built their companies from small operations into significant local or regional players – which is exactly what Aaron Barkenhagen of Bootlegger’s Brewery in Fullerton, Calif. is trying to accomplish.
Bootlegger’s, which produces the highly-hyped Knuckle Sandwich Double IPA, put out its first keg of beer in April 2008 after Barkenhagen started the business with around $125,000. He and his father, Mike Barkenhagen, assembled the previously-owned brewhouse equipment and constructed the brewery themselves in order to save money.
“There’s a lot of breweries that are well-funded from family and things like that. We were not necessarily,” Barkenhagen said. “It was really more a bootstrap model. I was able to open the brewery with about $125,000 total – the majority of that being my own money. Basically I maxed out every credit card, took a second (mortgage) out on my house, cashed out my retirement – everything I had to do to get it up off the ground. It was a big risk the way I did it, because I didn’t have a trust fund or anything to fall back on.”
Although growth was typically slow at the start, the risk paid off. The Bootlegger’s brewing staff grew from just Barkenhagen and the occasional volunteer brewing a couple of times a month, to a staff of six brewing 10 times a week.
“When I ran out of favors to call in, then I had to start hiring people,” Barkenhagen said. “We still allow people to volunteer periodically, but like I said, when you start getting into more of a production environment you have to make sure there’s consistency. If you don’t have controls, then you need consistent people.”
As the brewery operations began to expand, so too did Bootlegger’s distribution area. While Barkenhagen has always aimed to build a strong presence in Southern California before spreading outward, eventually that region became too much to manage on his own and he began working with outside distributors. And now that business is doing even better, Barkenhagen is looking at more ways to expand.
Part of that expansion means getting bank loans, but it also means more deals with distributors – including working with those owned by the big boys like Anheuser-Busch/InBev.
“We’re definitely going to have some major growth next year,” Barkenhagen said. “We’re right in the middle of distribution deals within Southern California that will provide us much wider access into accounts… As much as everybody may hate Budweiser and Anheuser-Busch and the companies that distribute them, realistically these are well-funded and well-organized companies that have the resources to take a brand and sell it like crazy. As long as on the brewery’s side, as long as we’re careful and throttling that growth to a certain extent and making sure it’s the type of customer we want and appropriate for our brand, I think it can be nothing but good things.”
Barkenhagen learned how to brew the same way thousands of amateurs across the country have – in his garage on a propane burner. Bootlegger’s founder began brewing in his garage with his brother when he was 19 years old, and that was the only brewing experience he had before putting everything he had into opening his own commercial brewery.
“When I opened the brewery I hadn’t worked in a production brewery before, I had only homebrewed, so it was all new to me,” Barkenhagen said. “But I paid a consultant to come in for a couple of days to teach me how to use the equipment. After that I did it on my own.”
That consultant was Lee Chase, the brewmaster who helped build Stone Brewing Company into a major figure in the craft beer world. He showed Barkenhagen how to use the unfamiliar equipment – such as pumps to move the wort from one tank to the next – and some of the things he would need to know to run a brewery. From there, it was all up to Barkenhagen and his wife.
“After that I just kind of went for it,” Barkenhagen said. “The first year I basically did all of the brewing, the sales and deliveries all myself. After a year I quit my day job (in the insurance industry) and decided to really start ramping it up. We added some capacity and have just been growing ever since.”
As Bootlegger’s grows, Barkenhagen has not forgotten his roots. He is a product of Southern California, and earned a degree from California State University, Fullerton – where he penned the business plan that eventually became Bootlegger’s. His brewery was one of the first to open in his area of Orange County, and he takes pride in being a local business.
While some breweries look to invade other markets as a means of expansion, Barkenhagen is keeping his eyes focused on his current location.
“I want to saturate Southern California,” he said, “if we grow outside of Southern California, it will be by building a brewery in another location. The idea is keeping things close to home and not building a giant, monstrous brewery that services the entire United States. I would prefer to have regional breweries. Once we get to a point where we are comfortable and are starting to see our growth level off a little bit, we will look outside of Southern California to build another brewery.”
A Fistful of Beers
Barkenhagen’s initial plan was for a brewpub, but he decided against it when he figured that managing a restaurant and a brewery might be too much for an inexperienced businessman. Still, the innovative spirit of the homebrewer and a brewpub remain intact at Bootlegger’s.
“At our anniversary parties, we have 30 of our own beers on tap that we’ve brewed ourselves – there aren’t very many breweries that can say that they have that,” Barkenhagen said. “We’ve brewed a bunch of different styles, that’s part of who we are. We are continually trying to innovate and try new styles and recipes and things. From that standpoint that’s where I think we haven’t lost our homebrewer’s edge because we’re not just focusing on three flagship brands. We’re doing a lot of different stuff.”
One of those different beers was a malty Double IPA that Barkenhagen called Knuckle Sandwich.
“We started brewing it, it was available on draft for about a little over nine months before we started bottling it,” Barkenhagen said. “Honestly, people liked it, but it was just another beer that we had available on draft. As soon as we put it in bottles, I think that’s when things took off in terms of the hype. People started trading it across the country, and it just kind of took on a life of its own at that point.”
Adding to the hype and rarity of the beer, a shortage of Simcoe hops has led to decreased production of Knuckle Sandwich – with the next batch scheduled for brewing in December and release in January.
Despite the popularity of Knuckle Sandwich, Bootlegger’s is far from a one-trick brewery. Barkenhagen is constantly searching for new inspiration and attempting to nail his vision of what a beer should taste like.
“My general philosophy is that you should do whatever it takes to get to your target flavor profile that you want,” he said. “For us, that means that we cycle through five different strains of yeast on a regular basis. We always have five strains of yeast in our brewery… the resulting beer from that is more distinct flavor-wise than it would be if we used the same strain of yeast for every beer.”
Bootlegger’s uses a Belgian strain, a Hefeweizen strain, a California Ale strain, a Whit strain and an English yeast to make beers like its popular Old World Hefeweizen, which remains the brewery’s top seller.
As popular as Knuckle Sandwich is, ultimately it is beers like Old World Hefeweizen and Bootlegger’s other year-round offerings (see sidebar) that fuel the brewery’s growth and determine its identity. As it grows and expands once again into uncharted territory, what that identity will become remains a question that only time can answer.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and homebrewer and is currently working on his first book.