Sunday, October 20, 2013

Strike CEO Jenny Lewis and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich Talk About Their New Brewery

Drew Ehrlich and Jenny Lewis at a recent beer festival
It's been a busy year for the South Bay's Strike Brewing.   In addition to the busy day to day operations of growing their two year old business, they won gold at the U.S. Open Beer Championships with their Imperial Red and expanded their distribution into Southern California.  On the personal side, CEO Jenny Lewis had a baby and Brewmaster Drew Ehrlich got married.  And now just this past week, they've announced the opening of their own brewery in the first quarter of 2014

Over the past two years, Strike has been contract brewing at the Hermitage Brewing facility just south of downtown San Jose.  Strike has now leased approximately 5800 square feet at 2099 South 10th St., San Jose, where they will begin building their brewery located barely a 10 minute walk from the Hermitage facility. 

I caught up with Jenny and Drew last Friday as they emerged from a brewery planning meeting.   They took a few minutes out of their busy time to talk about the new brewery in the works.

Q: What was the process like?
Jenny: It was very long and we had to be very patient.  It had always been our goal to move into a brewery when we started and we’ve been looking at buildings for two years.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle?
Jenny:  Capital has always been the biggest hurdle and that’s true for most businesses.  Of course, we also needed to find a building with the right utilities and layout where we could build the brewery.

Q: What made the deal happen?
Jenny:  We found the building a long time ago.  What made it happen now was a combination of raising money from a group of angel investors and an SBA loan.  A big part of my role since we launched in December 2011 has been raising our Series A round.

Q: What will you be able to do with your own brewery you couldn’t do as a contract brewer?
Jenny:  This will really help us control our brewing schedule and manage our own inventory in ways we couldn’t before.  Hermitage has been a great launching point, but contract brewing put us under certain constraints.  Drew’s always wanted to brew more interesting beers which he can now do at our new brewery.
Drew: There are a lot of beers I’ve wanted to make, like sour beers and barrel-aging some of the current beers in our line-up.  I’ve wanted to try some lagers and Jenny’s been bugging me to do a fruit beer.

Q: With Hermitage’s Brewery only a short walk away, do you think the South San Jose industrial park you’re locating in can become a beer destination?
Drew:   We certainly hope so. One of the impetuses for creating Strike is that we didn’t see the San Jose area as a great destination for beer lovers, such as San Francisco, Portland or San Diego.    We thought we could help fill an unmet demand here.
Jenny: We wanted to be near the sporting arenas in the area, like the San Jose Giants Stadium, Sharks Ice, the Fairgrounds and (San Jose State’s) Spartan stadium where there are a lot of potential partnership opportunities.
Q: Any developments you can share when the brewery opens?  When will the tap room open?
Jenny:  We don’t want to put exact dates on things based on the uncertainty of the permit and build out process.  We hope to be brewing by the beginning of next year and open the tap room as soon as possible after that.  Being up and running by SF Beer Week is our goal.

Q: What sort of risk are you taking on by this move?
 Drew:  Luckily we’ve gotten our beer out there and won some awards, so there is not as much of a risk as when we first entered the market.  It gives us the opportunity to maintain our flavor profile, and brew really consistent high quality beers.  Right now, Lagunitas is building a new brewery in the Chicago area and they’re going to have to make sure the beer coming out of that brewery tastes the same as before.  We’ll be going through that same process and we have to do it quickly.

Jenny:  There’s always a financial risk in business and it can come from anywhere.  It is scary going out on our own and starting something from scratch, trying to pay salaries to support families and grow a business.  But it's also rewarding seeing this goal finally realized after five years of planning.  I’m excited to see what the next few years bring.
Q: Over those last five years, there have been a lot of new breweries.  I can go to my local Safeway or Costco and now find bottles of Strike, but I can also find bottles of other beers from breweries I never used to see there.  Do you have any concerns about the increasingly crowded craft beer marketplace moving forward?
Drew:  Not really.  There was a study done by the Brewer’s Association and they concluded the market was not yet saturated.  It also compared the beer market in the US to other the beer markets in other countries which indicated there’s room for more breweries here.
Jenny:  There are a lot of breweries coming online, including nano breweries, contract brewers and brewpubs.   Hopefully we’ve done a good job differentiating our niche so far, and I think moving into our own space will only help that.
Drew:  Plus we don’t mind other breweries in the area.  The nature of the craft beer enthusiast is to try a lot of things.  So even if they drink something from another brewery around here, they’ll get drawn into trying something else and eventually they’ll try something from Strike.  There’s a sort of symbiotic relationship between breweries in the same geographical area, to a point.

I found talking with to Jenny and Drew during the interview was like talking with a couple kids who couldn't wait to move out of their parents house.  It's just beer, but moments like this remind us lots of hopes and dreams revolve around it.  The South Bay brewing scene just got a lot more interesting.

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