Brewing and Blogging in Chicago: My Interview with Ben Finch

My one year blog-er-versary (see what I did there?) snuck by me on May 16th, and my very first blog post was an account of the Finch’s Beer Co grand opening party. It was a pretty basic post and I hadn’t quite mastered how to post pictures yet, but that post and Finch’s still holds a special place in my heart.  So, it is rather apropos that Chris Jecha, Beverage Director at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap, asked if I wanted to interview Ben Finch, owner of Finch’s Beer Company, in a Brewers and Bloggers event being held at Jake Melnick’s during Chicago Craft Beer Week. I was honored that I would be asked to participate in an event during CCBW and I began developing questions pertaining to the marketing and business side of brewing.  Below is the transcript from the interview, edited for brevity’s sake and to cut down on my annoying over-use of speech crutches.

GirlsLikeBeerToo: You have a reputation for being a marketing guru and have worked with clients such as MTV. What are the differences with marketing for other products vs. craft beer?

Ben Finch: The big difference between that business and this business is that that’s a service-based business and this is a product-based business. Two very different models, and craft beer is unique even within the product model. People that develop products across the US and the world obviously have different initiatives behind them and beer is one that, for me, felt like a really great fit. I was obviously a fan of beer, right? Everybody seems to drink beer. But I’m also a fan of building a brand. The difference, though, definitely is that I don’t go to work and have clients anymore, my clients are folks like you guys, bars and stuff. That’s the biggest difference. 

What have been the biggest challenges marketing for craft beer?

The biggest challenge was underestimating the challenges that are involved in product development. Beer is beer, and whether you are a brewer, have been homebrewing for 15 years, and you are starting your first brewery, or you’re a guy in a different industry like I was, there are just so many moving parts to it. And I think that as you develop a product it’s just a different beast than that other world. I think the single biggest challenge to beer is just not having people try it and like it, but then getting people to repurchase it. I should preface this by saying that Richard Grant is our Head Brewer and an owner, and I am the marketing side of this.  And one of the things that is apparent is that a lot of people like to try new beer in this industry, but they don’t like to continue to drink it. Even really good beer. If you talk to any brewery, that’s an issue. I have this theory that that states that out of 10 people that walk into a bar or Binny’s or whatever, craft beer drinkers have maybe five rotations. The challenge is to get your beer into one of those rotations; to be one of the five regular beers that they drink.  Then if you can get them to pick your beer up once during those five times, then you are succeeding in the sale side of it. You know, beer is beer but beer is still business. And I’ve been very upfront about that.

Finch’s Beer Co. has a very successful social media campaign.  How did that campaign come about?

Social media is something I did before I started the brewery so I sort of knew what it was about, and I got into Facebook and Twitter really early on. I knew there was a huge amount of risk promoting a social brand before we had beer, too, though. We had almost 2000 Facebook followers before we even had liquid. And there’s a big risk with that because if it’s not good, it’s not good. The social media side of it was the easiest way to get the momentum early on in the process. And it was easy to do and it was cheap to do. And it was something I could do along with Richard and the other early people. It’s an initiative that in real time lets you get a real feel for what’s happening. I think the craft beer week’s been a great example, you know, of the power of social media, right?

Definitely, absolutely. So, how have you sustained that campaign over the first year of Finch’s?

The biggest single thing that helps sustain social media is new releases, new product releases, specialties. So, generating new releases and doing beer that’s separate from our Threadless IPA, which is a flagship, or our Cut Throat, which is a flagship, or our Golden Wing, which is a flagship, and is a specialty. People log on, they want to check us out on Facebook, and they want to see what we’re doing. Second to the product is on the event side. So we don’t really do things like this [interview] very often, I think this is the first time I have ever done a Q & A like this. Normally the event side is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful aspects of social media. With social media you absolutely have to have both to complement each other. So, we use events, we use product development, and release, and we use our community to push new followers back in. We have almost 7000 followers on Facebook now in just under 13 months, and 3500 followers on Twitter. We don’t have tens of thousands but every day [we get more]. I think people tune in to see events and new releases. They also tune into social media to find out where they can get the beer.

This is kind of in line with what you already said but how have you adapted the strategy as Finch’s has grown? How have you adapted the strategy to incorporate other markets?

Pre-launch, social media was about building a brand and buzz about us launching, post-launch it all about continuing to build a brand and continuing to support the beer. So it is different.

So, what is your take on the current Chicago craft beer scene?

Oh, well, how long do you have?

I know, right?

I think this will be interesting for the folks in the back of the room who are visiting us from the East Coast because there is obviously a strong craft beer presence on the East Coast.  Chicago is just now kind of going through its craft beer renaissance; most cities have already gone through it, most major metropolitan cities of this size. Of course, we’ve had Metropolitan for four or five years, Half Acre for four or five years, we’ve had Two Brothers for 14 years, but we haven’t had a whole lot else, right? I mean, there’s Argus that started up a little before we did, and then we came into market, and then there’s Pipeworks. In Chicago proper that’s it, still. And a bunch are starting this year. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next six months, 12 months. I think the better side of that question is not where it’s at now but where it can be in 12 months from now. How will Finch grow, how will Half Acre grow, how will Metropolitan grow, how will Argus grow, how will Pipeworks grow. And how will the ones just starting out grow, if anything, if they will grow at all. It’s definitely healthy, there’s a lot of room here. It’s interesting because in Chicago there’s a lot of room for craft breweries but the market place is already pretty saturated with craft beer. In other words, there are already a lot of brands here that are craft beer driven.  You have hundreds of labels at Binny’s and only a few locals are on the shelves. So that’s really going to be kind of interesting, to see if the local folks can kind of push those other folks around a little bit. Especially with Lagunitas coming and building their new brewery [in Chicago], it’s going to be a craft beer destination in the next five years, for sure. The reality with small breweries, 20,000 barrels or less per year, like Two Brothers and under, Two Brothers, us, Half Acre, Metro, probably Revolution who is opening [their production brewery] soon, there is still relatively few of us, so really that question is poised for, like, where it’s going to be in five years from now rather than where we are now. We are in our infancy now, like the internet was 15 years ago.

What do you suggest for those that are opening breweries in Chicago over the next year or two?

To not do it.  

I had a feeling that was what you would say.

It’s been the greatest, honestly, I’ve been working on the idea since 2010 and Richard [Grant] signed on in mid-2010, he’s our Head Brewer and also an owner, we broke ground in January of last year and we had beer in market by April in 2011and we’ve been in market now a year. And it’s been the craziest two years of my life, it’s been great, way more fun than my other business ever was for sure. But on the flip side you can get your ass chewed big time and spit back out. It’s a lot of work, you know? Launching any kind of product, and it’s not really popular to talk about craft beer from that standpoint but, you know, it’s a reality. Launching a product whether it’s beer or whether it’s paper clips, it doesn’t matter, it has to sell and people have to want to buy it. I think what I would tell people is that if they’re serious about it, they need to be passionate about what they’re doing, whether they’re a brewer or whether they’re like on my side, more marketing/business side of it, and they have to have a lot of money. You’ve seen the success with Pipeworks and Kickstarter but you’re still talking six figures to start even a small nano, seven-barrel brewery. The reality is that you have to have millions and millions and millions of dollars to do what we’ve done and what Half Acre’s done and what Metropolitan’s done. It’s not popular to say that but it’s the truth. It’s the reality.  The problem with the business is that you’re constantly reinvesting your capital into the business and that’s the single biggest thing that people getting into the game understand. They go out and raise money, and they’re happy, and they get the brewery going and then they go out. We’ve been very fortunate because we’ve been able to retain all of the ownership since we started. We haven’t sold any shares of Finch’s yet to anybody except the family, and Richard has a small piece, but my dad and I own the rest of it. That’s rare. Normally by now you’re going out to get big chunks. So, the single biggest thing I would tell people is to watch and cover their ass. If Richard was sitting here, as the brewer, he would probably tell you something obviously very different, something along the lines of the beer, the quality of the beer. So it’s going to be a different answer depending on who you talk to.

Well, you’ve already answered this question to me personally before we started, but what events have you hit up during Chicago Craft Beer Week?

I haven’t been to any. I’ve been taking care of my new twin girls. So I’ve been at home.

Yes, congratulations. Where do you see Finch’s this time next year?

I don’t know, I really don’t know. I mean, right now we’re in five states distributing and by June we will be in eight, and that’s it for right now. That’s part of the expansion plan, and that will bring us to capacity in this facility by 2013ish, end of next year. We have plans to build bigger and turn our current facility into a specialty batch only facility but that’s many years down the line. So our goal is to just be as good as we are today if not better a year from now, for sure.

You guys have really stepped up the one-offs and special releases recently. 

We’re doing specialties now in bombers, 22-ounce bottles, every six weeks. So Toasted Summer [Kolsch, collaboration beer with Cleetus Friedman of City Provisions] was released yesterday, and six weeks from now we will release Fascist Pig, which is an Imperial Red, which hasn’t even been talking about yet, it’s going to be very killer. We’re going to be doing a collaboration beer with the Chicago Outfit which we are an official sponsor of this year, we are going to do an IPA with them. And then after that we’re bringing back our Secret Stache Stout. It will be our first specialty beer that we make a seasonal. And that will be on draft and also in bottles. So moving forward all of the specialties will be both on draft and also in the 22-ounce bottle. To your point, though, we did do a lot of specialty beers [from the beginning] but they were all draft only. That was before we started canning, before we started bottling, we did everything from a Belgian to a Dunkel to a California Common Rye, and those beers were real big for us last year too. The next one that will be available on specialty draft will be the Fascist Pig.

What has been your favorite Finch beer so far?

It’s our least popular beer but it’s Golden Wing. I think Golden Wing is highly unappreciated. It does very well on draft, it does OK in the can, but not like Cut Throat and Threadless. I mean, those just kill it, so. It’s a hoppy blonde and I don’t think a lot of people get that. It’s funny because it’s found its niche on draft. People love it, people want to put it on their line when they have a shit ton of hoppy beers and then they have a break with Golden Wing. We see it on draught at bars like Five Star and others where it’s all pale ales and India pale ales. Golden Wing for sure, though. It’s hoppy but I can drink it, it’s a lawnmower beer. It was designed to be a good gateway beer.

We spoke about this briefly before but you guys have been forging into new markets recently and are now in, what, five states?

Yeah, five states but I should clarify that we are not statewide in all five states. We’re in Wisconsin but we are in Milwaukee and Lake Geneva and so on. And we are in Georgia but we really are just in Atlanta and Savannah soon. We’re in Michigan statewide, we’re in Indiana statewide, we’re in Illinois but we’re in Chicago, Central Illinois, and Rockford; and then Pennsylvania we’ll be statewide; Connecticut is not statewide; and Kentucky will be statewide. So, we’re in seven or eight states but we’re not going to be everywhere. You won’t be able to walk into 7-11 and get Finch beer, you know?

Ben Finch thoroughly engaged in my hard-hitting, journalistically eloquent questions.

I’ve seen how difficult it is to get into the Chicago market. How difficult is it to get into other markets?

Chicago has been our most challenging market. There are a lot of reasons why there aren’t a lot of breweries here. It’s a very loyal city. And it’s taken us this whole last year basically to do it. We’ve been very successful and we’ve sold a lot of beer nonetheless, but it’s also hard because there is a lot of selection in Chicago. Every single state I go to, when I travel to a new market, they say to me how we have everything in Chicago with regards to craft beer. That’s literally what I get everywhere. Even in Georgia, in Atlanta, they’re like, “We can’t get this, we can’t get that; you guys get this, you guys get that.” People here don’t even realize how spoiled we are. We have the best selection in the Midwest in Chicago, it compares to a Philadelphia or New York or Boston. Chicago is on that level in my opinion.

What are the challenges with getting into other markets?

Other markets for us have not been super challenging. The challenge has been to pick the right markets. That’s been the challenge. And to pick the right distributors. We’re a production brewery so distributors are everything.  We’ll be in eight states but 35 markets. Some states we’re with Budweiser distributors, some states we’re with Miller distributors, in Illinois and Michigan, we’re with independent distributors.  It’s different in every state. The networks are different in every state. The beer is managed differently in every state. So those are the major challenges.

What has the response been to Finch’s from customers in other markets?

It’s been very positive, very positive. I’d say overwhelmingly Indiana and Michigan and Georgia have probably been our best states, I would say, from a launch standpoint. It’s hard to gauge why that is, though. Atlanta is interesting because they have six million people and they literally all drink craft beer. And in Chicago you have six million people but only two million drink craft beer. Sweetwater, of course, is also in Atlanta, so they’ve paved the way. They are, like, the New Glarus of the South.  We are the only ones down there in true pint-sized cans, though. That’s been the single biggest awareness as we’ve entered other markets, they love that. In Atlanta, for instance, we are the only brewery besides Sierra Nevada that have pint cans in the entire market.

So, besides having twins, how did you celebrate Finch’s one year anniversary?

I didn’t. That was it. Well, we installed new equipment. We installed five new fermentors and one new brite tank. So we expanded. And then all the guys and I had a drink. And then they all went and cleaned tanks. It was good times. Maybe for our second anniversary we’ll do something more fun but it kind of snuck up on us.

Well, I asked you this question before and you told me it was not accurate. I am, of course, referring to the Time Out Chicago article where you were quoted as saying you were not a big fan of craft beer prior to starting Finch’s. Would you like to clarify that statement?

They misquoted me in that article. I explained to them that I was getting into craft beer when I was with my other business. And I got into craft beer through Goose Island, Two Brothers locally here, that’s what I knew of.  I wasn’t drinking Metropolitan, I wasn’t drinking Half Acre, of course they didn’t exist yet. Half Acre might have existed but it was when they were still contracting. But whatever, you do interviews and shit happens. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. I thought I knew a lot about beer when I started but obviously you learn, and you learn that you actually didn’t know anything. I’ve never been the guy who claimed to be the brewer, either. Our brewers are excellent, they have over 30 years of collective brewing experience between the three guys that we have. And Richard at the top, he does a great job. So kudos to them, really.

What styles of craft beers are you really enjoying right now?

Well, I haven’t been drinking lately because I’ve only been sleeping, like, two hours a day [because of the twins]. But otherwise, a really solid pale. When we traveled down to Georgia I really liked the Sweetwater 420, it’s a killer beer, and everyone drinks it. It’s like the [New Glarus] Spotted Cow of Atlanta. But overall, I would say a pale ale or IPA. I think right now, though, the Golden Wing continues to be my favorite Finch. As far as other local beers, definitely Metropolitan’s [Krankshaft] Kolsch, I like [Half Acre] Gossamer a lot, too. I like Daisy Cutter, off and on. And then Pete [Crowley] does a really good beer at Haymarket, it’s like his double Belgo IPA that he has on draft, I can’t remember the name. I also really like [Revolution’s] Anti-Hero.

I really learned a lot about the business aspect of opening a brewery on this night.  Ben Finch is a wealth of information and, while not always a popular topic, he was frank about what it takes. A HUGE thank you to both Ben Finch and Chris Jecha for taking time out of their super busy schedules to participate in this event.  Jecha is thinking about making this type of event a regular occurrence at Jake’s. Is that something you would be interested in? Let me know in the comments section. My talented hubby and brother took video and audio of the event and I hope to post video pretty soon.  In the meantime, enjoy all of my hubby’s photos here

4 Responses to “Brewing and Blogging in Chicago: My Interview with Ben Finch”

    • girlslikebeertoo

      Thanks Packey! I would too. There was another event during CCBW where Paul from Chitownontap interviewed Pete Crowley and Doug Hurst. Hopefully there will be more events like this! Cheers!

  1. Winnie

    i enjoyed reading your article. I will look for events like this in NYC. I love beer too..

%d bloggers like this: