Book Review: “Brewing Up A Business” by Sam Calagione

Wiley, 2005 – $24.95 – 280 pages

It's timely to read and review a book about the founder of a small brewery. The growth of micro-breweries in the United States and, in particular, Michigan, counters the economic malaise that has crippled most manufacturing sectors. Combine this with the agricultural components needed to make beer, and you have an industry that has plenty of promise. Michigan alone has close to 100 microbreweries; and the increasing production of local hops, continued emergence of local brew pubs, and increasing consumer demand are clear signs that the handcrafted beer craze is not going away any time soon.

Enter Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware. Calagione started brewing beer in the 90s, when handcrafted beers were considered highbrow bit players in the brewing world. Beginning with a hope, luck, and determination, Calagione cobbled together the first brew pub in Delaware. Building on the motto of "Off-centered ales for off-centered people" Calagione built his business into 110-person company that today sells beers in 30 states and three countries.

Brewing up a Business is essentially a how-to manual for any aspiring entrepreneur – not just beer makers – who wants to know how to be resourceful, facilitate controlled but innovative growth, and learn from one's blunders. Calagione describes in detail how the ability to create and adjust stems from his early years of not fitting with traditional education. His profile patterns that of other accomplished entrepreneurs that almost innately sought betters ways of doing things.

Few books better capture the reality of starting a business better then Brewing up a Business. This holds true from the excitement of an initial business concept, making the decision to start, and challenges that have to be overcome as the business grows. Along the long, winding road to prosperity, Calagione's progress is demonstrated by his conversational narrative and the small photo section in the book's middle. One photo shows the meager 10-gallon brewery equipment UPS delivered to bootstrap the start-up and later shows the modern-day Dogfish Head Brewery location that stores 20,000 gallon of beer.

Brewing up a Business is a freewheeling book, describing well the recent phenomenon of product specialization and small-niche consumer demand. Calagione shines when he describes his realization that plenty of his customers seek different kinds of beer and that marketing his restaurant and beer means that he doesn't have to be all things to all people.

Calagione explains that building a group of reverent customers is more subversive and involves setting the tone with a superior product and having customers recommend the beer to like-minded friends. In other words, not everyone is going to like a hoppy Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA, but those who do like it will have serious conversations with other beer connoisseurs and bring them into the fold. These customers then become devout followers that form the foundation of a customer base.

One can't help but appreciate Calagione's grassroots marketing efforts – many of which failed on the front end but reaped benefits later. A favorite of mine is a publicity effort where Calagione, with a six pack of beer in tow, rowed three hours across a river from Delaware to introduce his beer to at a bar in New Jersey. Three people were there to meet him for the grand arrival; Calagione wrote off the trip as a failure. But one of those on the shore that day was a writer who wrote about the trip, which eventually was picked up by USA Today for a story that would go on to reach millions.

It's the refreshing business-related book written by someone who has gone through the process with real trials and tribulations.

Quick Summary: Brewing up a Business is light on theory and heavy on practical lessons that any business owner can relate to. It's true that Calagione, who has become an entrepreneurial celebrity of sorts, likes to boast about his accomplishments, but as baseball great Dizzy Dean once said: "It isn't bragging if you can back it up."

Chris Wendel is the Regional Director for Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC) in Traverse City. The SBTDC assists businesses with one-on-one business consulting, market research information, and entrepreneurial training.

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