Non-Compete? Not a Problem.
Leaving a popular brewery to make unpopular beer
Dan and Taylor Suarez opened Suarez Family Brewery in 2016, in bucolic Columbia County, New York. At the time, an outsider might have seen this as an odd location, but the landscape is strikingly similar to northern Vermont, where Dan spent several years working for Hill Farmstead Brewery, as well the locations of many breweries that have given him inspiration in rural Belgium and Germany. However, regarding the beer, Suarez Family Brewery was set in a totally different landscape from his prior employer.
Suarez made it known before opening that they would be making simple everyday ales and lagers, and country ales. Without saying it, they were also saying they were not going to be brewing big IPA’s like those that Hill Farmstead is so well known for. This piqued my interest since it scratches where I itch (in addition to the fact that my cousins have an orchard just a few minutes from the brewery), many others were interested too.
Was this a sign that the tide is turning against the popularity of big, bold brews versus humble beer? Probably not. As Taylor Suarez notes “the hazy NE IPA is a craze for a reason – they are an easier style to nail”, and bold brews can often hide flaws. Pilsners, lagers, bitters, and other humble beers require great skill to do well, and have little to hide behind. While there has been some recent attention given to pilsner, she does not see it as an enduring trend unless there are enough people doing it well. Gradually though, there do seem to be more and more breweries that are being bold enough to make what they are most passionate about, despite current trends in the market.
Around the same time Suarez Family Brewery opened, Mark Fulton, Director of Brewery Operations at Maine Beer Company, decided to return to where he grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. After working for years making highly sought after IPA’s, Fulton decided he wanted to switch gears a little and return to making the styles he was most passionate about. Fulton opened Reason Beer with a couple of childhood friends, and a visit to their website, for me, is a nice throwback to an earlier era when a brewery simply named a beer based on its style, albeit, with a modern aesthetic. This is the story for their core beers. Rotating beers are more in line with recent trends, aka, the brews we make to stay in business.
While Fulton wanted to break away from the IPA heavy lineup Maine was making, he found Maine’s notable bottle style was just the right fit for his sessionable brews. The volume is spot on (and the beers are delicious), but the vessel, for sale by the individual bottle, seems in contrast to the notion of sessionable beer being one that can be enjoyed by having several at a time. Reason has recently released a couple IPA’s in 16oz. cans, and it would be fantastic if some of their core beers could make it into the same format.
Over in St. Louis, the highly anticipated Rockwell Beer Co just opened. Rockwell co-owner Andy Hille, previously of Perennial Artisan Ales, opened the brewery, in part, to focus on classic styles (see feastmagazine.com). This is somewhat in contrast to Perennial, which tends to avoid classic styles, and is quite popular for its big stouts and experimental Belgian style ales. While it just opened, given the anticipation for the brewery, and the experience of the brewers, it is likely that Rockwell will find success.
Diamondback Brewing Company in Baltimore has taken a different path to brewing humble beer. Started in 2014 brewing by contract, opening a brick and mortar in 2016, Diamondback quickly gained popularity, catering to the market for big IPA’s. However, a 2017 post on their website speaks of a visit to Suarez and other northeastern breweries as life changing and inspirational. While I don’t think you will see IPA’s off their menu anytime soon, a recent Good Beer Hunting podcast episode indicates a strong desire to focus on creating everyday beer moving forward.
Relying on Dedicated Staff
For Suarez, Taylor notes their small staff has been “critical” to their success, adding “the main parameter for growth is 'we'll only grow as much as we can while keeping the same number of staff'... Mostly we're just trying to ensure that everyone here (including us) has a good life / lifestyle - working hard doing something that they find interesting (but not taking it too seriously), having some fun doing it, and getting enough time off to explore and rejuvenate.” This model may work better in retaining employees in a profession where brewers rarely make it past two years at any particular place of employment. It is also in opposition to some of the “it” breweries that have had explosive growth, and is certainly interesting to think about juxtaposed with the recent stir caused by Trillium Brewing Company and the wages, and wage cuts, they have offered their staff (see vinepair.com for more).
Despite the facade of brewing being a glamorous job, it is manufacturing work that offers low pay (for more on that, check out Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog). As a result, the opportunity to work at another brewery for just a few dollars more can certainly be an incentive to leave. This is concerning for some brewery owners as the market is competitive. They may feel possessive of recipes and techniques, and some require staff to sign a non-compete clause. This results in low-paid brewers having to pay for a lawyer just to get and/or leave a job.
The title of this post is made in jest, but depending on the terms of a non-compete, a brewer could move to the other side of town, brew a completely different style of beer, and still be sued. This was the case for Alan Sprints in 1993 when he was sued by Widmer Brothers Brewing after he had signed a non-compete, later leaving to start Hair of the Dog in Portland, Oregon. In that case, Widmer backed off, but the company was dealt a huge blow by angered consumers who rightly saw the move as aggressive and out of line. The incident was recently discussed on Jeff Alworth’s Beervana Blog site in light of a lawsuit filed by Toppling Goliath against a former brewer (that case has now been dismissed, with both parties reaching a confidential agreement (check out the Iowa Beer Blog for more). It seems clear customers don’t like to see breweries taking these types of actions against employees, but in a Good Beer Hunting post at the time the story broke, Bryan Roth noted “it's probably only a matter of time before the kind of lawsuits that Toppling Goliath is pursuing become more common.”
What about talented brewers starting a venture that don’t have to worry about non-competes, but also don’t have the luxury of pointing to past experience at “it” breweries to get noticed? Is the reception of their product different? Do they get rated differently on sites like Untappd and Beeradvocate? They likely face more of a struggle, but perhaps the success of Suarez, Reason and others provide hope for those starting out, looking to make humble beer.