Brewery Chat: Minkoff Brothers Revamp Chicago's Famed Berghoff Brewery

THR_Berghoff_Cover_1.jpg

The end of the 19th century was a fine time to be a Chicagoan. The first L trains rumbled over downtown's streets and the city welcomed the world to the most influential World's Fair of all time. 1887 also saw the birth of Berghoff Beer, a brand that still sits on Midwestern shelves 126 years later. However, after a century of success, the brand had seen a steady drop in market share, especially since the recent explosion of craft beer.

Change is brewing at Berghoff. Back in June we had the chance to attend the relaunch party for Berghoff Beer and got a few minutes to chat with brothers Ben and Josh Minkoff whose family owns the Berghoff brand and are personally leading the charge to resurrect the brand from obscurity and lift it to the heights Chicago craft beer drinkers expect.  A month on and they've hit the ground running. Berghoff's lineup can be found in an increasing number of establishments throughout Chicago and the midwest and the rebirth is well under way.

Our short chat with Ben and Josh wasn't nearly enough to wrap our heads around this immense task so they invited us to their West Town office to discuss what they've been up to, their goals, and how they plan on getting there. 

Hi guys and thanks for having us in! So Ben, how did you end up taking the lead at Berghoff?

Well our family owns it but this brand never really had a face and someone to really tell the story. Our family bought the brand in '94.

Now that you've had your official relaunch, what's your role at Berghoff?

Everything. Before I got on, it was all pretty much run by one guy. There was no marketing, no PR, no branding. It was pretty much, what we had was what we had. He was taking care of all the logistical things which is half of the business. You need to make sure people get their beer. I've come in and changed the marketing, the PR, we split sales and I have my hand in some of the shipping logistics so I know how much beer we have and where it's shipping.

Can you speak a little bit to the shift in what the brand was to what it is today?

Before there was no marketing. The packaging was very plain, very simple, just block letters. The types of beer we were doing were fairly simple. They weren't bad by any means, they just didn't evolve with all these other beers. Berghoff was a craft brand before there were all these crafts. Go back, 12-15 years, Berghoff was there on the shelf with the other 5 brands. Amstel Light was a craft, Pete's Wicked Ale was a craft. That's when Berghoff was pretty big and it was a prominent craft in that market. Then all these other craft beers came in and have completely changed the beer industry. You see what the likes of Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams have done and how they came in and just kept growing with all the changes in the industry. We just didn't do that.

We were ahead of the game before and then we’d fallen way back. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re just trying to put the wheels back on it.

When we first changed our packaging we always had that signature Berghoff crest. When we switched from the Berghoff crest to the block lettering, that's when the perception of the brand completely changed from being a craft brand to a value brand. That was one of our biggest mistakes. When we did that, everyone looked at us in a completely different light because we went from having all these craft beers who were making different styles to just making the basic line. We didn't make many new beers and even the ones we came out with were plain. They weren't engaging. We were ahead of the game before and then we'd fallen way back. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, we're just trying to put the wheels back on it.

When we redid the packaging with Randy Mosher, he really brought more life into it. We have the signature crest and he brought in these interesting colors that brought life to it. We looked at labels from the early 1900's for inspiration. That was our goal. We didn't need to drastically change what we were doing, we needed to fix it. 

THR_Berghoff_4.jpg

How was it working with Randy Mosher? He seems to pop up everywhere in the local scene.

Amazing. He's genuinely a very very nice man. He was so welcoming and he talked to anyone. He was just so engaging and immediately upon reaching out to him, he replied right away. Our relationship really just went from there. He's an expert. He's a beer guru. I've been learning from him and how he interacts with people. He's one of the original home brewers and one of the leading beer writers in the industry. He's also been working with 5 Rabbit and the stuff they're coming out with is pretty amazing. It's more complex than anything else out there.

The other guy we worked with was John Hannafan. Randy is the creative guy while John is the technical guy who ties everything together. Randy comes up with these really good ideas then they collaborate on certain beers. They look at our recipes and add subtle tweaks but stay true to our style. The quality of beer is back and our beers are each respectively high quality beers. 

Can you talk more about how the beer has evolved since the relaunch?

Well we had all the recipes. They didn't need to be drastically changed, they needed to be refined. Each one is very stylistically true to that style. If you go through each of the beers, that's how that style is meant to be made. That's what we have to hang our hat on. We make a very high quality beer but we're not making anything crazy. That doesn't mean we're not going to. But we have to reestablish our core drinkers and then once we do that, then we can start having some fun. But we need to change the perception of what we were into what we're trying to be. It's a high quality craft beer.

We've started to see Berghoff on shelves next to craft beer instead of next to PBR. That fact alone must be worth a lot to the brand.

Oh yea. The hardest thing to do is changing people's perception of a brand. It's gonna take time and it's going to take hard work. But I think that everything we have in place; the branding, the messaging, the tap handles and most importantly the beer is there. And at our prices we're still very affordable. You're seeing six packs out there at $8.99, $9.99, $10.99. Us, we're at $7.99 which is very reasonable especially for the quality of beer that we have out right now. That's what consumers want. They want good quality beer. People who are looking for the value beer are going to be looking for something totally different.

We were lucky in that, coming in, this beer had a history. It had a brand. It had a name. Starting a brewery from scratch now a days must be so hard. You see what's out there. The one's that keep sprouting up, I have real respect for them. They're making really quality beer and they're doing a good job getting it out there.

THR_Berghoff_2.jpg

You started out as a German beer. Have you had any success with the German background in Chicago?

That's what we have to get back to and it's an ongoing process. By doing all this change, we kind of turned our back on some of our core drinkers. We were at this $5.99 six pack and then they see this $2 price increase and that's a big deal to them. For some of these drinkers, they're not happy with what we've done. They're saying "the new Berghoff sucks, bring back the old Berghoff." Well you're always going to have that when you're making drastic changes to an entire brand.

Usually brands haven't changed every aspect of their beers. They typically come out with a different line and slowly progress and see how they do. We just made the jump to show we're getting back to who we are as a heritage brand. We just relaunched in June so it's going to take time. Hopefully we can get back into those American/German bars where we fit.

At your launch event we were really intrigued by the idea of the Überbier series. What are your plans there?

It's just the one (Germaniac Pale Ale) right now but we're meeting soon to go over some of our upcoming beers. I see it as an additional seasonal that will come and go. Who knows though? If people really like a beer and they're buying it we're going to sell it. There's no reason just to stop it. The Germaniac is such an entryway into a Pale Ale. It's not overly hoppy, it's very introductory. What's interesting is that, really good beer bars, this is the beer they like. It's a Kotbusser style where we followed the recipe exactly.

While we are making American/German style beers, we've added a contemporary twist. The Reppin' Red is a pretty unique beer that's not really a traditional German style. That's where the Überbier series is. It's where we'll experiment. In these next beers, I really want to do something fun.

THR_Berghoff_3.jpg

How's your relationship in the Berghoff restaurant? They're kind of an institution in Chicago.

Our relationship with the restaurant is very close. They run the restaurant and the cafe and we do our thing with the beer. They have all of our beers on draught. We are one of the sponsors for the Oktoberfest they throw downtown. They're a huge monument in the city and it makes the beer brand more legitimate when you have the restaurant that has all this history. We're separate entities of essentially the same brand. Different ownership but we work well together. I still work with the family, we check in about the beers, what we're doing and we still sell the soda for them.

When one wins, the other wins. We connect on social media and jump on events together. People have trouble distinguishing between the two but it's fine being all one brand because the heritage really comes with the name.

You've already made huge strides but where do you see Berghoff in 2 years?

If it’s going to be a significant, relevant brand, we need it to be significant in Chicago. Chicago is where this brand will live again.

I think we need to build the brand in the Midwest. We're a Midwestern brand for sure. We have to rebuild Chicago. If it's going to be a significant, relevant brand, we need it to be significant in Chicago. Chicago is where this brand will live again. That's not saying that we can't be successful in other places because I really think we can. It has midwestern heritage written all of over it. We had our first brewery in Fort Wayne, Indiana, we're made in Wisconsin, and have been since the 60's. I want to make it a relative brand in the Midwest and then we can start looking at opening up other distribution networks. But you can't open up too quickly. I think you've got to build on where you are rather than jumping around. Then again, some brewers think differently. They want to open up as many markets as they can because they have the capacity to brew all this beer. I just don't see that being our strategy.

So, one final question. If you're not drinking Berghoff, what's on hand?

A lot, we like to try a lot of different beers. I try a lot of Ale Asylum out of Madison. They have very very good beer and they're all hoppy. Every single one of their beers is some sort of IPA. They're really the coolest brewery in Madison. On top of them, I really like Lagunitas, Founders and Bells. Ideally though, the brand I want to be like is Great Lakes. I think Great Lakes has a bit of everything and they're all so good. There's nothing bad you can say about them. They have their core beers which are all very good and then their seasonal beers are great. They just came out with all their 25th anniversary beers this year which have been amazing.

Another brewery that's really awesome is Surly in Minneapolis. They just built a $40 million brewery with awesome beer and a beautiful beer garden. I'm also a huge fan of 5 Rabbit's stuff and that's not just me being biased to Randy. They make some very good beer that's now being brewed at their new facility. They contracted at six different places and weren't getting the same product. They just needed to get it out there. Now that it's at their facility, everyone should give them another shot.

BerghoffLogo.jpg

Cheers to Ben and Josh for taking time out of their evening to chat and share a few beers. Find out more about what Berghoff is up to on their fantastic blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter