Almost every homebrewer I’ve met has sat down with one of their beers and thought, “I should open a brewery.” It’s a passing thought, but what’s not to like? Brew your own beer, run the bar like iZac or Ted Danson, and enjoy the fruits of your labor day in and day out. I asked my old brewing friend if he was still thinking about opening his own brewery. His response was along the lines of, “Why would I do that to myself?”
Opening a brewery comes with a lot of freedom when deciding what business model to pursue and what beer styles to explore. With that freedom, expect a huge initial investment involving equipment, licenses, and real estate. Seems easier to let someone with a degree of business acumen and a bit of money take the financial risk while the brewmaster is hired to create a few money-making beers with the bonus of being as creative as they’d like with flavor profiles and ingredients when crafting the house’s other beers.
But there are still the bold out there going after the whole kit and caboodle. Jessica and Erika Jones of Giant Jones Brewing own one of the newest, if not the newest, breweries on the block. Jessica and Erika saw opening a brewery as an inescapability. “We opened a brewery because we couldn’t not open a brewery more than we decided to open a brewery.” But why Madison? Surely the area is getting close to capacity.
Turns out that’s not the case. Jessica says, “There are quite a few breweries around the area, but there’s space for probably twice as many because the amount of beer that’s consumed in this town doesn’t compare to the amount being produced in this town.” So there’s a great place to start. Define a location’s need and determine if it’s met. Apparently, we’re not quite there yet…by a long shot.
But how then does a brewer or entrepreneur decide what business model is right for them? For Giant Jones, it was a well thought out process that took 10 years to come to fruition. “We had just kept pushing against opening a business,” Erika says. “I think there’s a lot of models out there. We explored some of them. We explored having business partners. We explored doing a cooperative. There’s so many possibilities, and I think we ultimately asked ourselves ‘what’s going to make the most sense for us?’” They ended up going it alone together with a clear cutoff point when it comes to capacity: 1,200 barrels. That’s the number they came to that will allow them to live the life they want by fully utilizing the space they invested in.
And that’s another thing: the space. “Once we said we’re gonna brew in this space and we’re gonna brew at this particular scale, it pretty much narrowed down what we were gonna be,” Erika says. “What equipment we could buy or the size of things. … It’s a big learning curve.” They also went in knowing they would be moving 80 percent of their beer outside of the building as opposed to, say, Working Draft Brewing, which looks to move most of their beer in house.
Jessica goes into the headache of actually building in that space. “Every day of construction, multiple times a day I would very quickly have to become an expert in something I didn’t know existed to make an expensive decision I’d need to live with for the rest of my life. And once I had made that decision five minutes after discovering the topic, I could forget that that topic existed anymore because I would never have to make said decision again.”
Another part of the planning process really comes down to knowing the market you’re entering and knowing yourself as a brewer. I’d say over the past decade the Madison beer scene has undergone an evolution of sorts. In 2008, to me going to breweries was almost straight up comparing one style to another interpretation. Here’s Ale Asylum’s Amber Ale—I wonder how that compares to Capital’s or Lakefront’s. Now we have over 20 breweries in the area, and they’ve taken on different philosophies in what brewing can be and how that translates to sales and community.
This allows for someone looking to insert themselves into the Madison brewery scene to find a gap of sorts and bring something new to what deceivingly might look like a full table. For Erika and Jessica, they saw an opportunity to bring on big dry beers (as opposed to big sweet and malty ones). Jessica had already asserted her expertise in the area, having written the curriculum for two of the three classes when Madison College started their craft-beer certificate program, and now she could showcase her approach to less-common styles in Madison. “We love Barleywines,” Erika says. “We felt there’s not a lot of familiarity with that in this area and this region.” They also wanted to have beers that didn’t leave patrons one and done, so they ensured stronger versions of familiar styles would be on tap that also showcase Jessica’s knowledge.
And when it’s said and done, there’s no guarantee of success. There are ways to plan ahead and try to circumvent potential shortcomings, but the risk is there. The risk is real. At the heart of it all, every brewery knows who they are and where they are, and they work to embrace and be a part of that. “We’re a little organic brewery run by queer women that pays living wages,” Jessica says. Erika adds, “We can make a little impact here, in our community.”
May new breweries continue to raise the bar and, with it, our pints.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Giant Jones Brewing recommendations:
I fell in love with their Stout, but definitely make the trip and try all of Erika and Jessica’s tap beers.
When it comes to breweries doing great things and paving the way, Jessica and Erika couldn’t pick. Everyone in Madison and the rest of the state bring something unique and integral to the scene. Drink beer from wherever you are.
Giant Jones Brewing
931 E. Main Street, Suite 9
Madison, WI 53703