Yakima County Development Association - On Tap: Start-Up Advice from a Craft Brew Artisan

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Jean publishes a blog called the Enterprise Corner.  It features articles on entrepreneurship, local industry trends, manufacturing news and periodic ‘toolbox’ articles showcasing assistance, incentives and other resources for local businesses.

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On Tap: Start-Up Advice from a Craft Brew Artisan

On Tap: Start-Up Advice from a Craft Brew Artisan

July 22, 2011

Yakima Craft Brewing. Just Good Beer... 

Sometimes a business name and slogan says exactly what it needs to.  Jeff Winn, founder of Yakima Craft Brewing, recently spoke at the monthly Entrepreneur Spotlight and educated the audience on the craft brewing and hop industry, where the name of Yakima's only brewery (for now, we hope) came from and where they are today. Winn explained how Yakima Craft Brewing got started.  He and his family were living in Portland, he was working in the high tech corporate world, brewing beer at home that people raved about.

After his 40th birthday, he decided to take the plunge, quit his job and relocate to the origin of craft brewing, hops and coincidentally, his wife.  It also helped that Yakima is equidistant from two of the largest craft beer markets, Portland and Seattle.  Winn noted that the craft brewing industry only makes up 5% of the beer industry by volume, but 10% in sales (dollars), meaning that there is a larger profit margin for craft beer compared to mass produced.  Even more importantly, craft beer has weathered the recession fairly well, and is now seeing an increase in the female market sector, which is virtually untapped for marketing potential.  Winn says, "As people discover craft beer, they just can't go back."

A lot of thought went into his business name - Yakima, where Bert Grant's is credited with opening the nation's first post-prohibition brewpub in 1982 and where 75% of the nation's hops are produced; Craft, which he explains making beer is an 'art' or craft; and Brewing, which is the manufacturing process of making beer.  The slogan is simpler yet, Just Good Beer, but sums up nicely what their mission is. Winn acknowledges that he developed a business plan and still uses it as a working document, and even more, that his projections were fairly close to actual revenues and expenses. 

Jeff contacted our office in 2008 and we were honestly very excited that he was seriously considering starting a brewing company in Yakima County.  After we talked with him, we were even more impressed; he had a solid business plan, knew the business and most important, knew the amount of money he needed and was relying on bootstrap financing. As fortune would have it, Jeff was able to make two important connections with the former Grant's Brewing.  He was able to connect with Chris Swedin, who had worked for Bert Grant and he was able to get a hold of some of Grant's original brewing equipment, which he still uses today.  Jeff and Chris are the two person team that not only brew the beer, but bottle, label and market as well.

The biggest challenge they are facing right now is that they simply cannot brew enough beer to satisfy demand.  Some would argue that this is a GOOD problem to have, and they weren't discounting how happy they were that the product sells as fast as they can make it; however their only step to expand the brewing capacity is to completely dismantle the existing operation and purchase all new production equipment.  This is not only expensive but a major challenge when they have to still supply product to their customers!   They are still relying on raising funds among family and friends and committed to remaining a Limited Liability Partnership.  For them, maintaining that governance and control is very important, rather than opening up to a large group of investors. Jeff has some frank advice for start-up companies.

The first comment is that, 'Most owners don't get paid'.  He commented that he and Chris often work 60-80 physically-demanding hours a week; pouring any profits back into the company.  The second thing Winn stresses is that entrepreneurs have to be passionate and have the passion to live and dream the business.  It's easy to see why Yakima Craft Brewing is a success; you hear the passion and determination when Jeff talks about their beer and craft brewing in Yakima.  Jeff and Chris are taking a slow, yet realistic, approach to growth.  They have seen other companies create a lot of product, while at the same time creating a lot of debt and they chose to go the opposite route.  "Start small, develop a reputation, improve quality, expand when you need it", says Winn. Aside from being a craft brew 'artist', Jeff is also a graphic artist.  Jeff designs all the labels and he and Chris come up with the names for each variety.  They have a great philosophy and it carries into their product. 

One of the first rules of the business is to use hops grown in the Yakima Valley.  The other rule is that they don't brew to the market; they brew the type of beer that they like, and hope other people like it.  Again, that passion rings true.  One of the recent labels is the 1982, a tribute to the year Grant started brewing in Yakima. If you haven't had the chance to try Yakima's only craft beer, visit their tap room for a pint and snack; a word of advice though, go early.  Since adding a small tap room onto the production facility, it has been busy every night.  Jeff sums up the last three years by saying 'There is nothing better than the beer business'. We are so excited to see Yakima Craft Brewing succeed; Jeff's philosophy, commitment to the craft and community and smart business sense is refreshing.


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"A lot of the leaders here in Yakima are very probusiness and make it easy to do business in Yakima." - Lisa Shields-Long, Co-President, Shields Bag & Printing