Expanding a bootstrapped sideline business is a tricky and challenging affair. Despite the challenges it is actually a rewarding and fun experience.

On top of that it is also a serious learning process. Learning involves a little bit of everything… From plumbing and electrics all the way through to financing and taxes.

Since we have been building Gallows Hill Brewing Co at our own pace (we intend to stick to this going forward) and not always with the same exuberant fervor as others, I have decided to put in more effort to document and share our journey. Pretty sure there will not necessarily be weekly or more frequent updates, but there will definitely be more effort being put into documenting our expansion and progress with the brewery.

You may be wondering where we are heading with the brewery… As a start, let’s clarify what is important to us:

The brewery is a serious business, but it is by no means a “get rich quick” scheme. (Anyone getting into the beer business with that in mind should seriously reconsider their position.)
We aim to build the business in a manageable way into a sustainable small endeavour that suit our lives. Those lives involve young families and serious day jobs. Juggling all the responsibilities will be no easy task. We have to accept that this juggling may result in things at the brewery not always going as planned or at the pace originally intended.

We are local. Our operation is based in a gritty part of town undergoing a slow revival. Despite the issues of crime in our area we intend to stick it out and be part of building up our bit of the city. Breweries all over the world are contributing to uplifting rundown neighborhoods and derelict industrial areas.

In South Africa alcohol producers are too easily painted with a tar brush and depicted as the source of evil in our society. We accept that the country does have an alcohol abuse problem, but the mass consumption market is not really the market we are aiming for. Breweries, bakeries, butchers, green grocers, etc. are essential components of a properly functioning society. In our opinion a world without good quality beer is not worth living in.

Being a bootstrapped, small scale & amateur brewing operation (none of us studied fermentation sciences or went to brewing school) we will surely make a number of mistakes along the way, but our eternal strive will be to produce high quality beer our way. We are going to be honest about our products and we take everything about our beer and brewery personal. It is part of us. Due to running our brewery the bootstrapped way, some things we do will be a little unconventional.

The brewery is self-financed! We have no big financial backing or external investors at this point. It is simply a case of investing our own resources and income from our day jobs into the business. We are lucky to be able to do it this way. On the one hand it adds a certain amount of pressure to make it work and forces you to work smart and to make compromises in certain areas. On the other hand it gives us the freedom to do whatever the hell we want to. We do not have a banker or other investors breathing down our necks drooling for payback or returns on the investment.

We have day jobs and young families. On the one side we have two doctors and a little one who is not even six months old. On the other side we have a chef, a structural engineer and a 3 year old toddler. The doctors have crazy & haphazard working hours. My work can be sporadic, often riddled with deadlines, travel, corporate bullshit and having to manage people and projects across the country and around the globe. On many occasions family commitments and work demands forces brewery related tasks and plans to play second fiddle or to take a rain check for a couple of days. Having the brewery is a creative outlet for all of us. It keeps us sane to some extent, I think.

We are still fairly young. Even if we are completely on the wrong path and it does not work out, we will be OK. There is still a lot of life and living left. At least we hope so, right!

Back to where we are heading…

As a start. We are going to make beers that we enjoy drinking. At the moment that is to a large extent Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Porter, Stout and Barrel Aged Beers.

Variation will probably be the norm. The perfect beer is something we haven’t brewed yet. Maybe we can get there… One day…

We are not in the game of pushing high volume, low flavour beer. We will also not participate in the price war game.

Pay to Play” is unethical and wrong. We will not do it.

Our initial growth will be fairly slow… This is largely due to demands from our day jobs for the next 6 to 8 months, but also because we would prefer to ramp up gradually. There is still a lot of learning and figuring out required.

This is probably a good time for a bit of a recap…

After a burglary mid 2015 - that cost us quite a bit of stainless steel kit - we got to the point of having to decide between plodding along as we were doing at the time, or taking it more seriously and expand the business. After a lot of deliberation, arguments, back-and-forth, etc. we decided on a brewhouse size, selected an equipment supplier and decided on a broad outline of how we planned to run things.

By a stroke of luck I tracked down a guy in our big-ass firm (one of the perks of working for a Fortune 500 multinational) running a small brewery in New Zealand with his best mate. After a couple of emails we learnt a lot from like-minded folks who’ve gone through a similar situation and managed to track down the actual manufacturer of the equipment we were going to buy through a middle-man. With a slight setback in time, scoring about 30% off the equipment cost and getting the opportunity to customize our brewhouse for very little additional cost, we pushed the button on the manufacturing of our new brewery.

Late in 2015 our 3 main brewing vessels arrived. Unpacking was a bitch in the scorching Cape Town summer heat.

Thanks to our bootstrapped approach the expansion is not a case of simply unpacking a couple of containers or crates, and paying a guy to fit the jigsaw together. We had to do it all ourselves. Sourcing all the additional pieces to turn 3 main stainless steel vessels into a functioning brewery is a mission. It is a real bitch when you factor in the generally poor service provided by most South African firms. It takes quite a bit of time to pin down good suppliers with who you can build a relationship and then work together to build a business. (More about that on another day)

Where we stand now there are a couple of small items still missing and a bit of tweaking that needs to be done before we can move into full steam production. At least we managed to run the necessary testing required, proper initial CIP and passivated the tanks.

This was followed by our first big kit brew day. Surprisingly the brew day went pretty smooth. Obviously there were a couple of process related issues. Mostly in terms of timing and a minor boil-over incident… Gladly nothing that cannot be sorted with some better planning.

At least we can confidently say we are now in the home stretch before we start brewing again in earnest.

Do not spread yourself too thin…

This is probably the biggest piece of truth from the Allagash founder. SA breweries should take note…

Don’t be a mile wide and an inch deep. Jerry Sheehan, who runs a number of our distributors, told me this.

And we learned it the hard way. By 2005 we were selling about 5,000 barrels of beer in 30 states and frankly not doing a great job anywhere. Around then, we made the tough decision to walk away from a fair amount of this volume and pull back — eliminating territories where we did not think we could be competitive and relevant.

Now we’re selling 80,000 barrels of beer in 17 states, and I’m much prouder of the job we’re doing today in all of our markets. Better to do a great job in a small pond than a not-so-great job in a big pond.

I think every business has concepts like this that are so simple they easily are overlooked.

Craft Beer Styles

The Brewers Association recently published a comprehensive style guide.

To satisfy your inner beer geek… download a copy of the guide here.

“2014 CraftBeer.com Beer Style Guide, published by the Brewers Association, located at: http://www.craftbeer.com/style-finder”

We Make Beer…

“I make beer because I like to drink beer, and so does everybody else,” Andris told me once. “I figure if I’m making people happy, then I’m doing something right. And if I can make a buck doing it, then good for me.”
It was that simple. There was no grandiose vision of delivering the masses from mass-produced, monotonous beer. Nor was there a desire for great fame or recognition. Andris’s approach was based on the notion that somewhere not too far away, somebody would get off work, change into comfortable shoes, grab a beer out of the fridge, and find a moment of satisfaction in that first taste. It might not solve all of life’s problems, but when he or she took that first drink, everything would be made just a little bit lighter, a bit better. People depend on brewers to provide them with that moment of relief, and brewers take their role in that relationship seriously.”

We think this pretty much sums up a large portion of our approach to beer. Beer makes people happy… We all love drinking beer; and with that us at Gallows Hill Brewing Co loves making beer. Regardless of the new-prohibitionist approach some authorities take these days, beer is part of the fabric of our society. We will keep doing our part to keep it that way. Being able to enjoy a cold beer after a long day is a well-earned right for any person… A slice of relaxation and freedom.

Thanks to a lot of relaxation happening this time of year; the untimely load-shedding stint from Eskom; and the capacity of our operations at present we are struggling a bit to keep up with demand for our beers. It is not something people like to hear, but we will most probably run out of stock a couple of times this summer.

Being in this situation is not ideal, but when trying to start a small brewery while maintaining demanding day jobs and other personal commitments upgrading and growing a small business takes a lot of planning and very often longer than expected. It is also part of our plan… Growth in manageable and smaller steps. Some people just jump into bigger things without making sure all the numbers work and they have given enough thought to all of the components that form part of running a brewery, we don’t. We do things our way…

2014 was a great year. The support and feedback was great and reassuring. We seem to be on the right track and the foundation to build a much larger operation is taking shape.

Our plan is to start building on this foundation in the coming year, starting with gradual increases in our production capacity and then increasing our market footprint a bit.

Thanks for the great support in 2014.

(Excerpt above from: Lewis, Sean. “We Make Beer.” St. Martin’s Press. iBooks. This material is protected by copyright. Check out this book on the iBooks Store: https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=842473770 )

The Realities of Brewing… Well, sort of…

The first six months of selling beer flew past. It is actually still a bit hard to believe that we are running our own small brewery.

As with all new businesses the start can be tricky. In this short period we’ve already learnt quite a number of good lessons. Juggling a brewery - albeit VERY small - with day jobs, family life and other commitments is no easy task, but it is actually quite fun and a good challenge.

So you might ask: “What did you learn so far?”

Well, for starters: Do not piss off the tax man. The South African Revenue Service is not renowned for their sense of humour. Cross your T’s and dot your I’s.

You cannot please everyone and you cannot make beer to suit every palate out there. Just accept it. As long as you remain committed to good quality beer there should be at least a few people who share your taste.

It is not easy to make money. People who work for salaries all their lives will never understand this.

Having a good distributor on your side is worth it! It makes life a lot easier, especially when time is one of your scarcest resources.

Reliable suppliers are not that easy to find. Forging good relationships with the good ones will pay off in spades.

We have to upgrade our brewhouse much earlier than anticipated. You can never do too much research on your planned equipment configuration.