America is the land of opportunity. While Washington gives us plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, the future rests with the dreams and aspirations of new entrepreneurs– in private business and in public or community service. We’ll occasionally bring you their stories. Last week, our digital content creator Adam Kazda sat down with Ronnie Fink, head brewmaster at The Modern Brewery in Saint Louis, Missouri. We discussed his personal journey through the trials and tribulations of opening a business as a young entrepreneur. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did.
RA: Why did you decide to become a brewer?
Ronnie: When I was in High School and College my parents always told me to do something I loved and turn that into a career. In high school, science came easy to me, so I looked at what I careers made the most money with a science degree, and naturally picked dentistry. However, like many college students, I became interested in beer, but not what everyone else was drinking at parties, specifically craft beer. I began experimenting in college with small scale home brewing and fell in love. Junior year I decided I no longer wanted to be a dentist, but wanted to pursue a career in craft beer.
RA: What happened after college?
Ronnie: After graduating with a biology degree, I was wait-listed for the Master Brewer’s Program at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). During the waiting period I got a job working in a lab for Monsanto in Saint Louis. I was good at my job at Monsanto, but I hated the corporate life and knew instantly I had made the right decision to go to brew school. I was completely uninterested in the work at Monsanto. If I were born the generation before, I probably would have stuck with the job because the money was good and it was a safe. Instead, I took my parent’s advice and set my sights on something I loved.
RA: Can anyone get into brew school? I’m thinking of making a career change.
Ronnie: (Laughs) Unfortunately, just to get into brew school at UC-Davis, you had to have multiple prerequisites like organic chemistry, biology, or calculus.
RA: Rats. What was Brew School like?
Ronnie: Well, the one thing that was very different about brew school than my previous years of education, was I actually wanted to learn. I studied more in the 6 months of brew school than I had in my entire education career, and I think it was like that because I looked forward to learning. I wanted to learn, I wanted to be a brewer, so I enjoyed learning and putting in the time (which were 40 hour work weeks). You know, I went through college and never took or had the option to take one dentistry class. I think it’s good to go to college and experience new things, but I think college should be tailored to what you want to do in the real world. One major downfall, I think, with the education system.
RA: So did you just drink beer all day?
Ronnie: Well it was a little more complicated than that. Brew school was both hands on and classroom. We had access to a brewery where they explained how things worked and the process of brewing.
RA: What gave you the idea for Modern Brewery?
Ronnie: My longtime friend and best man at my wedding, Beamer, went to brew school at UC-Davis as well and always had the classic college conversation: “Hey, we should open up our own brewery.” So that was always our dream, but we knew we couldn’t open our own straight out of brew school.
RA: So what happened after brew school?
Ronnie: After brew school, we wanted to get real world experience, and I highly recommend it if anyone else has a dream of opening up a microbrewery.
I got a job working for a small brewery in Lawrence, Kansas, Free State. There I got to enjoy the whole brewing process and everything that comes with owning a microbrewery like, festivals, bottling, cellar production, etc. We also needed time to find investors for our microbrewery, and, like most guys my age, I needed some cash to pay off my student loans.
RA: Speaking of investors, many start-ups are stalled by financial regulations, hindering them from securing capital to start a business; did you run into this problem?
Ronnie: During the three years I spent gaining knowledge and experience at Free State, Beamer and I were looking for investors to get our microbrewery, Modern Brewery, off the ground. We eventually had to sell part of the brewery to get the funding we needed. Since we were starting in a recession (2010), we knew banks wouldn’t give two kids $1-2 million dollars for a risky investment. So we went to private investors. When we finally found investors who were willing to work with us, we negotiated back and forth. To start a brewery there are lots of up front costs (brew tanks cost hundreds of thousands each), so it’s hard to tell an investor that there will be no instant return. That’s why we went private, we could be more open with the investors about the return on their investment and how much return they would get and when.
RA: How did Modern Brewery get its name?
Ronnie: Well, in brew school we had the idea of starting the brewery around the famous Edison light bulb. We thought it would be really cool to have light bulbs on top of tap handles. At one time the light bulb was modern technology’s greatest achievement, so we thought Modern Brewery, with the light bulb as our logo would be the perfect name.
RA: Who makes up Modern Brewery?
Ronnie: There are 5 five of us. Myself, Beamer, Brian, Brad, and Tim.
RA: Can five guys run a brewery and be friends at the same time?
Ronnie: (Laughs) Well, all of us have definitely had our ups and downs, especially since we have different ideas and work ethics, but at the end of the day its work, we’re friends after.
RA: How do you come up with beer name ideas?
Ronnie: A lot of our beers are based on comic book characters. I was a comic book kid, and really enjoy the marvel movies.
Our Belgian style beers are named in French.
There’s no real science behind it. It’s actually one of the toughest jobs at the brewery (laughs).
RA: What is your favorite part about being a brewer?
Ronnie: It has an artistic manual labor feeling about it, it’s blue collar, there’s nothing fancy about brewing beer.
Working at our tasting room and someone ordering our beer and saying that they like it, is a huge bonus of being a brewer. Most people don’t realize how much goes into making the beer they’re drinking.
RA: How has the community embraced Modern?
Ronnie: We’ve been lucky, we have the luxury of being surrounded by three great neighborhoods in Saint Louis: Dogtown, The Hill, and The Grove. Lots of the same people show up to drink at the tasting room, and lots of people want to drink beer that’s local.
Right now Saint Louis is on a non-chain restaurant kick, which is helpful for us. It seems every week a new restaurant opens up and that’s a boom for business. We enjoy doing business with locally owned restaurants and bars. You really feel the community connection.
We also distribute our own beer, which is unique. Our guys deliver and visit bars and restaurants so there’s a personal connection. Some breweries have a distributer deliver their beer. I think by delivering it yourself you really engrain yourself in the community and you can put a face on the beer you’re selling.
RA: There is so much craft beer in the market. Do you see trouble ahead with limited shelf space/bar taps?
Ronnie: Depends. It’s different city to city, state to state. Craft breweries find success because they find where they fit in a market. You can get 50 IPAs into grocery store shelves, but people want to identify with the beer/brewery. You have to establish your neighborhood roots first. People who are thinking too global could be in for a pit fall. If there is a bubble on the horizon, a brewpub rooted in your neighbor will whether the storm.
RA: Do you think craft beer is a generational thing?
Ronnie: I think it’s a generation removed from my parent’s generation. When I was growing up, all you saw was bud light. The kids in high school and college now, their parents have been drinking craft beer, so I think those kids are more likely to grow up and enjoy craft beer too. You know, people in Belgium have been drinking sour beers from 18 years old; I think people in the U.S. will have a similar course to trying new and more unique beers.
RA: What’s the one thing patrons don’t know about the craft beer business?
Ronnie: They don’t see that it’s a small business, it’s not just fun, it is at the end of the day, a business.
Also, we’re not taken seriously sometimes. People may not know that when you order a beer at our tasting room, you are getting the beer that that bartender made. Everyone at the brewery had a hand in making that beer.
RA: Were there challenges you had to overcome, being a young person, an older person would not have to worry about?
Ronnie: Like I mentioned before, some people don’t take you seriously, or you’ll get more attitude than someone who is older. Sometime we get the look like “And how old are you?” Mutual respect is tough.
RA: What barriers did you have to overcome to start the business?
Ronnie: For us, Beamer and I weren’t as versed in the business part. We had a business plan, but we didn’t have experience in business. We never owned our own business, so it’s a lot of living and learning. After we handle problems, usually we’ll look back and say, “man, we should have done that differently.”
RA: Did you have to obtain a license or have to take courses in order for you to start your brewing business?
Ronnie: There are already strict regulations on selling alcohol like what days we can sell, what times, and if you bottle, there has to be testing on it.
When we first started brewing, inspectors would come in and tell us this and that were wrong, but they would tell us how to fix it. There is a lot of leeway in the business, so it hasn’t been too restrictive thus far.
Also, depending on your license, the state dictates how much alcohol by volume you can put in your beer and how much you can make. In Missouri, we have to make a certain volume of cider or wine every year to keep our license. We don’t even have to sell it; we could make it and dump it down the drain. So that definitely takes time out of our schedule when we could be doing something that is more important. Originally the law might have made sense, but that one should probably be looked at.
RA: What challenges have you faced when it comes to hiring and managing employees?
Ronnie: Well, we didn’t have a handbook for new hires, rules, or regulations, if you’re late, etc. When we started we were young. It’s an ever-changing process, how do you establish barriers when you are buddy-buddy with your employees. Establishing boss, mentor, friend roles are difficult.
RA: Have regulations hindered your ability to run the business you want or created financial burdens?
Ronnie: Not yet, it’s a very regulated industry, but we’re small. Taxes are a huge pain, though. Those could be less of a burden, but we’re too small for it to be hitting us hard. As we grow though, we can see the tidal wave coming, and we’ve heard from some of the other bigger breweries around.
RA: Advice for young entrepreneurs?
Ronnie: You need to get experience in your field before putting all of your energy into it; you have to have some understanding of the industry. Be prepared and be organized! You’ll be better suited. Gather mentors. Microsoft Excel. Take some business classes.
RA: How do you balance Family and work life being a business owner?
Ronnie: In the world of small business, you put in more hours than you get paid for, but it’s easy to see why you’re working. It’s your business; you are more willing to put in extra hours. My wife, Angela, is very supportive, she is always looking to help. She is more small business oriented now, and spends time helping us and other small businesses in the community we live in.
RA: Knowing what you know now, would you partake in the journey of starting the brewery again?
RA: What’s the next thing for Modern?
Ronnie: We are trying to find a way to expand that will minimize risk. We need to raise more capital and now that we have employees to look out for, we want to have specific plans and goals to make succeeding easily achievable.
RA: How can people learn more about Modern?
Ronnie: Our website is www.ModernBrewery.com, but we post most often on Social media. Facebook, Instagram.