Fulton's Brian Hoffman says brewery is already at capacity
Katie Hoffman Fulton co-owner talks about the company's growth and the Minnesota brewing scene
Over the past few years new breweries, brewpubs, and contract brews seem to spring up monthly. As so many new companies start up, the market share continues to show room for growth.
The Hot Dish sat down with Fulton Brewery's co-owner Brian Hoffman and two pints of the Ringer to talk about Minnesota's changing beer landscape, their growth as a company, and what he'd like to see done to help the surging brew scene.
The downtown brewery, which just opened production in 2011, is already at capacity.
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Hot Dish: It took a while after the contract brewing to open the brewery. How important to you was it that you had a Minneapolis or Minnesota brewery?
Brian Hoffman: When we started home brewing back in the garage, it was really just for the fun of it. When we made the decision to start a brewing company, our end goal was that we had a brewery we were all able to work for. That was the only vision that we had, and so contract brewing was the avenue in which we were able to make that happen, and it was a great thing for us. We still contract some of our beer because the building here isn't big enough to support everything that we are able to do right now. Again, the ultimate goal is to bring everything in-house, but, yeah, I think we always wanted to be a Minneapolis brewing company, and I don't know why that came about exactly, but that was the ultimate goal for us.
HD: You mentioned you still do some contracting. Have you grown faster than expected?
Hoffman: Much, much faster. All of our bottles, the six-packs of Sweet Child and Lonely Blonde, are currently brewed out of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, by Pointe Brewing Company.
They do a great job for us. They're a great company to work for, and it's the only way that we were able to get our beer on the market right now.
HD: You were the first taproom in the city. Is that coincidental or did you have a hand in the Taproom Bill?
Hoffman: We were the first taproom in Minneapolis. Lift Bridge, I believe, was the first one in the state, but, yeah, Surly definitely got the ball rolling on that -- the Surly Bill/Taproom Bill -- but once they did, I think there wasn't a small craft brewery in the state that didn't kind of jump on board and throw their support behind it. We worked with the lobbyists and spent a lot of time down at the Capitol as well to try to get that bill through, and then, once it was through, essentially all that bill said was that you can now apply to your municipality for a taproom license. So we needed to work with the city of Minneapolis to create that taproom license, and my partner Jim [Diley] was very, very involved in that. It was great. They were very great to work with, and I'm excited it went through and the taproom is open.
HD: Could you imagine being a startup without this cash flow from the taproom?
Hoffman: Well, there's a bunch of different ways to do it. It's happened. We kind of did it without it, a different way, but it sure does make that business model look more palatable.
HD: And you also do the taproom-specific beers from time to time?
Hoffman: Yeah. Some of that is just ... let's hit that target market and see if they like this beer. Is it something we should scale up and put out? And so, for the Ringer right now that we're drinking, it's a taproom-only beer right now. It started that way and it's gone over pretty well. We're very happy with the beer, but it's now a capacity issue for us. It's capacity constraint that we're not able to work enough of the Ringer into our production to get it out around town. It's not so much of a "We want to have taproom-only beers that aren't available anywhere else so people come here," it's more of "Let's see how it goes, and it went really well and we can't quite get it out yet."
HD: I have to ask about Target Field since it's so close. Was it part of your plan while looking for a brewery to be this close to a center of activity?
Hoffman: The way that we branded our company: Minneapolis, Minnesota, was in our logo; we all lived in Minneapolis at the time; we wanted to make a Minneapolis brewing company. So when we were looking for a spot for our brewery we were looking anywhere in the city of Minneapolis. There are definitely some different parts of the city that we looked at more closely than others. And then, this location here, we were looking at one just down the road and the landlord of this current building emailed us. [He] sent a random email to our info inbox and said, "Hey, I like your beer. I hear you're looking for a brewery. I think I have a building that might work out great for you." And that's kind of how we ended up here.
Target Field is a bonus. When we first started we couldn't do the taproom, so just from the marketing standpoint for us then was the walk-by traffic from people that had probably never heard of us before, to see our logo on the side of the building. We always hoped that the Taproom Bill would push through -- we always thought, and still do now, that it is a really great thing for the growth of small breweries in the state -- but we didn't really ever think it was going to come as fast as it did.
HD: All four co-owners have now quit your other, pre-Fulton full-time jobs. How has that allowed the company to take off?
Hoffman: When we finally quit our day jobs, I remember thinking, "Oh, this is going to be great. I'm going to be full-time and have so much time to get stuff done." And, I guess instead of dropping the ball on like four-out-of-every-five things to be done, I'm just dropping the ball on two-of-every-five because nothing makes more work than work. But it's been really great. The 10-, 14-, 16-hour days don't feel quite as rough as they did before when they were split between this and a day job.
HD: Do you feel that contract brewing helped your development for knowing what you're doing in the transition from home brewing to contract before you had your own brewery?
HD: You learned every angle.
Hoffman: We were the self-taught home brewers, so the thought of going from our little three-tier system to a massive scale is beyond intimidating, and you just don't know what you're getting into. The fact that we were able to contract brew, we got to spend a lot of time there and get to know the process, and then, while we were contract brewing at Sand Creek [Brewing Company in Black River Falls, Wisconsin], one of my partners, Pete [Grande], got his degree from Siebel, so at least he has some formal education. All of those things together helped a lot. The time that we were able to spend almost as an apprenticeship down at Sand Creek was invaluable.
HD: We already talked a little about Minnesota and Minneapolis's place in your brand. Locally there's Fulton, Harriet, Nordeast: What is it with local names and neighborhoods that appeals to beer drinkers?
Hoffman: That's a good question. I think, on a higher level, it gives you a sense that you can relate to the product. For us, we started home brewing in the Fulton neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis, and so we weren't very creative with our home brew club at the time. When it came time to incorporate ourselves as a company, we spent hours and hours talking about what the best brewery name would be, and it ended up being Fulton.
The thing about those names is that, while locally you can relate to them, they're not so esoteric that when you get to other states Harriet and Summit and all those still feel like a good beer name.
HD: The local industry is obviously growing pretty fast. You're new in the game, but you're veterans at the same time compared with a lot of others. How do you feel about the industry's growth right now?
Hoffman: We're really happy to be a part of it. We've had some good beer in Minnesota for a long time with Schell's and Summit and the brewpubs, but the boom locally now is really exciting.
When you look at other states in the country that have five times the amount of breweries we have, they also have five times the amount of market share for craft beer, and so it's just a prime example: We're not all fighting for the same consumer, we're all helping expose more people to craft beer, and that's a wonderful thing.
I go out to bars and I rarely order a Fulton (I drink plenty of that here), and my fridge at home is full of a bunch of local and regional beers. I started this company with my friend because I love beer. I don't want to limit myself to one beer for the rest of my life, or one brand.
HD: The laws have been opening up, too. Are there still a lot of roadblocks that you're encountering: if you had to pick one that hinders development--
Hoffman: If I had to pick one in particular it's a really easy question. Currently in the state of Minnesota, if you are a production brewery and you brew more than 3,500 barrels a year, you are no longer able to sell growlers. That did not change with the Taproom Bill.
My understanding of why that law is in place is that the wholesalers unions and the Minnesota licensed beverage association and other interested parties worked with brewers to allow production breweries to sell their beer directly by growler to get up off their feet and then, once they're established, then they don't need that revenue stream anymore. I don't know how long that specific law or statute has been in the books to be honest with you, but it seems a little silly to me that 3,500 barrels and now you're all of a sudden established. Oftentimes, that's the breakeven point for how much beer you need to sell to pay for your equipment, salaries, rent, utilities, ingredients, etc...
It's just it's really frustrating. We feel like we're just getting some traction, and all of a sudden, probably next year, at some point we won't be able to sell growlers anymore because we will then be considered a big enough company that we don't need that revenue stream, and we're still just a small business that's trying to make it. That's a good chunk of revenue to lose.
HD: Have you learned a lot about government since opening the brewery?
Hoffman: I have an MBA and an attorney as two of my partners, so I am lucky enough not to have to get too involved, but even as involved as I have been I've learned much, much more than I ever cared to know about how government functions at the municipal and state level. It's dizzying.