I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Donovan Bailey, the Founder and Head Brewer of Down The Road Brewery, in Everett, MA. It was a wide-ranging conversation where we dove into Donovan’s military and entrepreneurial background, the pros and cons of self-distributing beer, how a young brewery can use experiential marketing to build a brand, and much more. Grab a beer and enjoy!
Tell me about the journey that led you to starting a brewery
Growing up my father always talked about making his own wine and beer and stuff so when I was 17-18 years old, he and I went over to a local homebrew shop over by Elliot Street and got all the stuff we needed to make an extract batch. We boiled up some beer, let it ferment, and it didn’t turn out great…but it wasn’t horrible. It was beer, that’s for sure. So over time, it got better and better but when I went off to the Army in 91, I didn’t really homebrew much at all. But when I came back from the Army in 98, I got way more into homebrewing and simultaneously finished college at UMass with my BS in microbiology, although I never actually worked as a microbiologist.
After college, I actually started my own construction company – we were into roofing, building houses, remodeling houses, stuff like that. Then the downturn came in 2008, which hit me pretty hard. I got a job at National Grid, which I did from 2008-2013. Then I got laid off, at which point I realized my time would be much better spent making beer so we made the decision to start Down The Road.
From that point onwards it took a couple years – about 1 year just learning about the business and how it would work. Then another year fundraising and all that good stuff until finally in late March, we put our first product on the shelf, which was the Pukwudgie Pale Ale. Luckily that sold out pretty quickly so we picked up a second product, which was our Saison, and then we added the Kolsch. From there, we added the Brown Ale (aka The Hooligan) and finally in January we added the Darkest Night Imperial Stout. Since then we’ve added a few more: a couple IPAs, the Berliner Weisse.
Using contract brewing to meet demand
We’re currently in the process of building the Down the Road brewery in Everett, which is going to be a 20-barrel brewhouse with four 20-barrel fermenters and one 40-barrel fermenter. That’s really not enough to meet our demand – last year we sold about 1100 barrels and this year we’re pushing towards 3500 barrels. So we’re probably going to have to contract brew about 2/3 of our beer this year. We’ve been able to keep our margins pretty healthy in spite of contract brewing, in large part because we hold a wholesale license and self-distribute.
On self-distribution and the advantages it brings
Because we hold a wholesale license and fully self-distribute and deliver our own beer, we essentially save 30% of our margin, which allows us to stick with contract brewing in a scalable way. Self-distribution can create a management nightmare but it’s been working so far.
When you work with a distributor, you have to somehow stand out against all the noise. The largest distributor in our neck of the woods has 200 brands of just craft alone – how do you stand out against that when first starting out?
Self-distribution is something a lot of breweries are thinking about – what are some of the pros and cons?
One thing that most people don’t realize is how self-distribution affects cash flow. Being a small brewery, you kind of need to pester people to make sure they pay you. So often times, you have to wait to get paid whereas when you work with a distributor, you deliver the beer, get paid in 30 days, and it’s pretty simple. To give you a sense of some of the numbers, at any given time, we have about a third of our accounts receivable overdue, even with the persistence.
The other challenge is the logistics. We deliver our beer 3-4 days per week and we’ll probably ramp up to 5 days soon. Things can fall through the cracks if you’re not careful and detail-oriented.
That said, despite the challenges, I would definitely go with self-distribution again – you just have so much more control over your brand.
How did you come up with the name Down The Road Brewery?
We wanted to create a place which felt local and where everyone is welcome no matter what your background is and could feel some ownership of. We want folks to have the feeling that our brewery is their place. We don’t care who you are or what you are – we’re here for the community to enjoy our beer, hangout, and all the other fun stuff that comes with that. Down The Road as a name conveys all of those local, friendly attributes we want to represent.
Your beers have really interesting “fairy tale-esque” names – how did that come about?
Honestly, it was kind of an accident. We were trying to come up with a name for our pale ale and someone came up with the name Pukwudgie, which stuck. So I went online to try and find an image and what came up was this really cool one by an artist named Nikki Rossignol. So I got someone to put me in touch with her and it just went from there – she started doing the artwork and coming up with the names and stories for our beers. So this fairy tale name and artwork thing wasn’t some grand strategy or anything, it just kind of happened.
How do you decide which beer you’re going to make next?
I kind of just brew what I like, although I do take things like commercial viability into consideration. I trust my instinct. For example, people told us that our Kolsch would never work and now, in terms of our sessionable stuff, it’s our best-selling beer.
In terms of recipe development, I usually do a lot of research on the historical aspects and what people are doing today. My principle is to create something that is representative of a certain style but with my own twist on it. I want it to be recognizable as mine. Many of our recipes were things I had homebrewed before – for example, the pale ale and kolsch. I also worked on the imperial stout recipe for something like 10 years, off and on.
What’s the main difference between homebrewing and commercial brewing?
One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that really complicated recipes (homebrew recipes) don’t translate too well to commercial beer. The beer can end up tasting kind of muddy and unfocused.
How did you educate yourself on beer making?
I mostly learned by reading books and experimenting. I read a lot of the more technical brewing books. In particular, the best one I read was New Brewing Lager Beer by Gregory Noonan. Personally, I think the more you understand about the science and the art of brewing, the better your beer will turn out.
What are some of the mistakes you’ve made along the way?
Probably the main mistake we’ve made is being a bit undercapitalized. Next time around, I’d probably try to raise a bit more money earlier in the process.
The other thing was when we switched to our new contract brewer, we should’ve gone into that with a bit more inventory in the pipeline. We hit a bit of a snafu in the process of switching from bottles to cans and we ended up not having enough inventory, which led us to have a slow month last month.
How has the internet played into building your brand?
About a third of our marketing is done online (social and things like that) but the rest is much more experiential – tastings, festivals, and at-brewery events. For example, we’ll have folks come over to the brewery and help and we compensate them with pizza and of course, beer. So people really feel like they’re part of the process. We don’t have a taproom yet but once that gets built, that’s going to be huge for us.
Is brewing a science or an art?
It really depends on what kind of brewing you’re doing – for example, sours are as much of an art as anything. But if you’re doing something that’s more of a German style, to do those accurately requires strong technical knowledge.
What are some of your personal favorite breweries and styles in the world?
I love most of the Belgian lambics, except for the ones that try to be too sweet. I really like what Vinnie (the founder) at Russian River is doing with their sour program – everything I’ve tried has really been good. I love session beers – what Chris at Notch Brewing is doing is really cool – the hoppy corn lager called The Mule is very nice. I like a lot of the English stuff on cask, a nice pint of Fuller’s London Pride on cask is a bit of beauty on its own.
I’m not a super huge hophead so I don’t get as wrapped up in the IPA world as other people are.
You can connect with Down The Road Brewery on Facebook and on their website. They’re also currently fundraising – if you’re interested in getting in touch with Donovan to discuss opportunities, please send me an email or let me know in the comments and I’ll put you in touch with him.