Microbreweries: Self Education Changes a Mature Industry

By David Blake

We talk a lot here at Degreed about the value of self-education and lifelong learning, and its potentially profound impact on individual lives: how it can boost your career, increase your overall knowledge and understanding of the culture you live in, and, in the case of reading, can actually make you healthier as you age.

Then there are the dozens of stories of larger-than-life figures whose formal educations were truncated for whatever reason but who went on to create massive companies or great works of art.  Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard after his freshman year to go work at a startup hobby computer company in Albuquerque, NM, is the perfect example.  Or one of America’s greatest writers, Mark Twain, whose education ended before he even hit high school, but who spent years haunting libraries and traveling before spinning out the single finest American novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Self-education also can transform industries.  The example that most completely illustrated by the rise of microbreweries and the impact they are having on the beer industry.  Thirty years ago, the beer industry had all the earmarks of a settled business.  There were two or three major national brands that dominated the market, and a number of strong regional breweries that held their own.  And that was about it.  The product they produced was all pretty much the same, and the competition boiled down to distribution agreements, clever advertising strategies, and marketing muscle. The fact that the product they produced was largely bland and flavorless seemed to be of no consequence.

Then beer drinkers, looking for something that actually had flavor, started teaching themselves how to make beer.  And then began selling it.  By 2012, according to the Brewers Association (a trade group for microbrewers and craft beer makers), the microbrewing business had annual retail sales of $10.2 billion.  In addition to that, this craft beer segment of the industry provided more than 108,000 jobs (including staff members at brewpubs.)  And all without a single course at a university anywhere on how to make, market and distribute craft beer.

Thousands of craft brewers enter the market every years.  In order to get a sense of how someone goes into craft brewing, David Raether talked to James Burge, the founder, owner, brewmaster and “Fearless Leader” at Pure Order Brewing Company, a new microbrewery in Santa Barbara, CA.   Burge opened Pure Order earlier this year with the help of his brother, William, and cousin, David.

How and when did you get interested in brewing beer?  What resources did you tap -- so to speak -- to teach yourself brewing techniques?

“I started brewing beer at the age of 16 with my father after my siblings bought him a brew kit for Christmas.  They all stopped brewing after that first batch, but I never had it in me to stop brewing.  A lot of my knowledge of brewing came from all the mistakes I made (and believe me there have been plenty and continue to be).  After I made a mistake or something didn't go as I had hoped or thought it would I quickly began to research as to why.

“Back when I started, the internet wasn't prevalent so you had to rely on other brewers and books or experiments to get the answers you were looking for. I experimented a lot and tried things over and over to see what would happen, gaining a lot of knowledge this way and experience.

“Books were ever so important in my knowledge of brewing and continue to be.   I had rather extensive beer library consisting of books I read multiple times and referred to frequently.  Lastly, the internet is now a very good place to receive brewing information.  There are a lot of forums and websites out there to help a young brewer gain knowledge on the subject.”

What did you learn about opening a brewery that you had to teach yourself?

“Everything.  I did work for a distributor for a few years in LA and I learned a lot about the distribution side of the beer industry.  And a local brewer in Santa Barbara, Kevin Pratt at Santa Barbara Brew Co., has taught me a lot about industrial size brews.  But other than that I have worked hard, researched a lot and found myself learning all I can about the professional side of things largely on my own.”

What were some of the biggest surprises you had in going from brewing in your home to actually setting up a business, and what obstacles did you have to overcome -- by trial and error and tapping into other sources of information?

“What was most surprising to me was the amount of additional things you need to know about stuff that has nothing to do with beer.  A large portion of my day consist of stuff that has nothing to do with the production of beer at all.

“The largest obstacle we have had to overcome is the underestimation of the size of commercial real estate in Santa Barbara.  It took us over a year and a half to find the building we are in today, and if it wasn't for a hardworking real estate agent scouring the market daily we may still be looking.  We have had an overwhelming amount of support from friends and family helping us and advising us through the process as well as a lot of support from the beer community within Santa Barbara.”

Burge’s story is a classic example of self-education.  He majored in Geology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX, but his real education came from reading books, experimenting on his own, and talking to others who had gone before him in launching a similar type of business.

Pure Order isn’t going to knock Miller or Anheuser Busch off their perch any time soon.  And that isn’t even their goal as brewers or business owners.  The goal at Pure Order is to make a quality product that tastes good to them and their customers in the Santa Barbara area.  The cumulative impact, however, of thousands of people like Burge all over the country attempting something similar, however, has shaken up an industry that had grown stale and flat.

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