Q&A With Bryan Brushmiller: Brewery Founder Discusses Growth, National Honor, Disturbing Industry Trends

Q&A With Bryan Brushmiller: Brewery Founder Discusses Growth, National Honor, Disturbing Industry Trends
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BERLIN — For a growing number of people on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Bryan Brushmiller’s meteoric rise in the craft brewing industry has become the stuff of local folklore. You’ve likely heard the story but if you haven’t, here’s the “CliffsNotes” version: the Great Recession left the Salisbury graduate jobless and frustrated, and as he was trying to figure out what he was going to do to help feed his family, he took a leap of faith and gambled on his passion: making beer.

Yet, Brushmiller’s emergence from a garage hobbyist to one of the industry’s brightest stars hasn’t just become his victory. In a way, Burley Oak Brewery’s success has been a victory for the entire local region and the kind of unlikely success story that this country loves: showing that small businesses can rise up from nothing, even during tough economic times, and become something that matters to a community and beyond.

Burley Oak’s rise was recently topped off with some pretty substantial national nods. Yahoo Travel named Burley Oak one of the top 50 breweries in the country and it also named it the best in Maryland. We sat down with Brushmiller to talk beer, and the balancing act of growing your brand while trying to stay true to your roots as a hometown hangout.

Q: It seems each year since you began, things keep getting bigger and better for Burley Oak. Were the recent accolades the largest “pinch me” moment in your young career as a brewer in a long string of “pinch me” moments that have happened in the past few years?

A: Yeah, 100%, because I’m still the guy that’s just making beer in his garage. So, to be able to do this in four years, to get national recognition, it’s something that we always wanted, but we’ve never done it by saying, ‘we are going to sell the most beer and get recognized nationally by being the biggest.’ What we’ve always focused on is quality and just making stuff that’s really distinctive.

Q: How do you balance growing the brand and still trying to retain the feeling of being a hometown hangout?

A: We have a meeting on Mondays, and we talk about me being the captain of the ship and I try to direct it in that exact way. We feel like we are big, but we are really a very, very small brewery. What we brew in a year, some breweries do that in a day. Even a bunch of local breweries that have opened since we’ve opened are making a lot more beer and shipping beer to a lot more states. What we are trying to do is build a brand that says ‘come to Berlin. Come to the taproom and see our town,’ all while employing 14 people from the town and staying here. One of the things in craft beer is that a lot of it is focused on having quality beer, so it doesn’t have to be the biggest.

Q: As some beers are selling the taste or the style or just latching onto this niche of craft brewing, which has exploded in popularity, you seem to be selling not just beer, but also the lifestyle of the town that you are in.

A: Yeah and what a town. It’s creative, it’s artistic. A lot of people are very forward thinking and progressive, and we emulate that in the product that we are putting out to the country or the world.

Q: But with the accolades that you are getting in four short years, and being a very small brewery in an industry that has exploded in popularity in the past 10 years, you are proof positive that quality over quantity is not only a marketable thing, but also something that you can hang your hat on and survive.

A: Right and that’s just how to structure a small business. Like, the question of how do I pay these people and still keep them employed while we are staying small. We ask ourselves that question all the time when we talk about our growth. We really don’t want to be big. You are probably going to see in the next 18 or 24 months that Burley Oak has stopped growing because we can only grow so much to stay in this building and this town.

Q: But, does that scare you at all?

A: It doesn’t really because that’s the model. For me to come to work every day and brew beer, and for my son to be able to come here in 10 years and brew beer. It’s a craft. It’s not necessarily world domination or anything like that. It’s just us being artistic and artisanal craftsman that does a trade that I’ve learned and I’ve taught other people, and hopefully, I can teach my son. It’s worked in Belgium and in other parts of the world. Why can’t it work here in our little town?

Q: But with that said, and while I think you have a much more European approach to your own business model, in America, most people want to get as big as you can as quickly as you can. So some people might hear that and say, ‘he’s settling, what the heck is he doing because he has this great product?’ Do you ever question your own vision for your business?

A: Yes all the time. I question it for two reasons. One being that our industry is under attack from large corporations buying small breweries and coming into local towns. I saw this today when I personally sell beers on Tuesdays in our local spots, and one of the ladies told me ‘we are starting to see a price war.’ So, we are starting to see large corporations make no money off of the (craft) beer they are selling to disrupt the small craft brewing industry. They are lowering the prices tremendously.

Q: So, you can get craft beer way cheaper and I’ve read about this, they are described as like Kamikaze dive-bomber breweries…

A: Yes, that’s exactly the term that Sam (Calagione from Dogfish Head Brewery) used and I talked about when he was here recently brewing a beer with me. He calls them suicide bombers. Basically, these corporations are worth billions of dollars, and for them to come in and say, we are going to make little to no margin off of this (craft beer) because the volume is there. They aren’t really looking at paying back stockholders because they have a corporation that basically will keep the coffers filled, and it’s disruptive to the craft beer industry.

Q: Is that directly linked to the fact that because of the growth and explosion of the craft beer industry, it’s taking a real market chunk from the so called “big boys?”

A: Our small craft, independent breweries are growing every year in the last 10 years. We went from a 5% of the beer industry to now 12% or 13% and in a few years, it could reach as much as 20%, and that’s a big chunk out of a $100 billion industry.

Q: How much more of that chunk or that niche, or that slice of the pie can the craft brewing industry take from the “big boys,” from the longstanding regular American Pilsners?

A: They must have asked themselves that same question and said maybe they could take all of it. So, they are apparently hedging their bets for that and buying a bunch of craft breweries so if it all goes away, they are saying, ‘well, we have what they’ve are doing.’ So, it’s the whole ‘if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them’ thing.

Q: But, do you believe this dive bomber mentality is actually going to take some of these small breweries out?

A: Yes and it’s crazy. I went to buy a piece of equipment the other day and I called this guy from Colorado. I said, ‘hey, I like this piece of equipment, but if you don’t mind me asking, why are you selling it?’ He said, ‘we are downsizing from a 15-barrel system (which is the size of Burley Oak) to a seven-barrel system’, and when I asked him why, he said distribution is quite difficult in Colorado because there are so many breweries now. He said we were selling kegs for $160 a keg and now people only want to pay $80 a keg. It was the exact numbers of what Sam was telling me was going to be happening in our industry. The guy told me that they are just staying local and selling beer out of their tap house and they’ve actually grown and done better as a company by staying local.

Q: Well, if that is happening in the industry, and people are having success being local, all the while having a hard time going into other regions because people want to drink local beer, is “local” the magic and perhaps the most important and vital word in the success of a small brewery?

A: One hundred percent, and that was the second part I was going to mention. If we can sell things here, you will have it fresher, and it won’t be spending time on a warm truck where it’s being shipped across the country. We don’t want it to be degraded by shipments and time and temperature out of our hands. Local means fresh, and that’s why it’s such a buzzword. It means you are getting something fresh from someone you know. In our industry, I feel like that’s the key for me.

(To listen to the entire conversation, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.