Building a Brewery, Chapter 3: Outside Expertise

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Oakhold’s barn is taking shape // Photo via Caleb Levar on Twitter

[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of monthly journal entries in which Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery founders Levi Loesch and Caleb Levar write about the trials and tribulations of starting their mixed-fermentation brewery in Northern Minnesota. Catch up with Chapter 1: Oakhold Digs In and Chapter 2: The Right Tools For The Job.]

With all of the developments over the last month I am feeling like we are confidently on our path to firing up the kettle. The pessimistic side of me has always expected the dreaded ‘project-killer’ news—that insurmountable obstacle that finally puts our dreams to bed. Perhaps I’m selling myself short, or more likely, it’s just my way of making the anxiety a little more bearable, in the vein of a true born-and-raised Minnesota sports fan.

In many ways, planning the brewery reminds me of the efforts made by my wife Carol and I when planning our wedding. There’s agonizing over every detail. The types of things that you never thought you would care about are suddenly the source of fierce debate, strong opinions, and lost sleep. Willingness to compromise and not losing sight of the bigger picture are important, but so is the admission that you don’t possess all of the skills and knowledge needed to realize your vision. At some point you need to know when to raise your hand and get some help from the pros.

Starting a business, it goes without saying, is a risky endeavor. Neither Caleb nor I have the entrepreneurial spirit embedded in our DNA. Neither of us grew up with business owners in our families. We are both fairly risk-averse, skeptical, and sensible—not exactly the qualities of a quintessential entrepreneur. Perhaps that explains why we have taken such a deliberate and methodical (read: slow) approach to opening the brewery over the last six or so years, rather than borrow a million bucks and dive in headfirst. And perhaps that patience and deliberation explains our inclination towards mixed-culture fermentations that demand so much more time, attention and forethought.

Oakhold founders Levi Loesch, left, and Caleb Levar sample some of their beers at The Growler editorial office // Photo by Joseph Alton

Oakhold founders Levi Loesch, left, and Caleb Levar sample some of their beers at The Growler editorial office // Photo by Joseph Alton

We are not lawyers or accountants, we don’t have any branding or marketing experience, and most significantly, we didn’t (at the beginning) have professional brewing experience. That definitely gave us pause. I mean, would you hire a newly minted lawyer to defend a complex lawsuit? Would you throw a new nurse at a patient in the ICU and expect they could handle it alone? Brewing certainly doesn’t involve high-stakes life-or-death situations, but the principle applies. For the sake of our and our family and friends’ dollars, we couldn’t transition out of homebrewing without first gaining experience in an established brewery.

After Caleb received his Ph.D. in microbiology a year ago he started working full-time as an assistant brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative, where Oakhold has also been collaborating on a large number of barrel-aged, mixed-culture beers. He has been able to see what does (or doesn’t) translate from homebrewing to professional brewing, and his experiences at Fair State will be important for the overall success of Oakhold. At some point, you have to commit to your craft, and it should happen before you intend to ask people to pay you money for practicing it.

As we’ve said in the previous chapters, we will never be able to do it all by ourselves. One lesson we have been fortunate not to have to learn the hard way is to bring in people who want to help you promote your vision, and then trust them with the autonomy to make the best decisions they can on your behalf. I don’t anticipate that we’ll ever be big enough that we’ll be able to hire a staff accountant, attorney, or many of other specialized functions that a brewery requires. So building those professional relationships and level of trust is that much more essential, since direct daily oversight is just not a realistic expectation.

Next page: Calling in the experts

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