Crafting a Lager Brand: Sean Farrell of Lake Brothers Beer Co.
INTERVIEWED JULY 12, 2016
IN LAKEVIEW - CHICAGO
Even the most ardent craft beer fan has a 'go-to,' all day, easy to find beer. In several parts of the country, that beer is specific to the region. A Texan might tell you Shiner, a New Englander: Narragansett, and other east coasters are loyal to their Yuengling. But what's that beer in the Great Lakes? While the Midwest is home to several large legacy brands making a comeback, nothing has risen to the top as the unanimous light beer of choice when those IPA's and Imperial Porters just don't hit the spot.
A new beer brand conceived in Chicago and raised in Detroit, Lake Brothers Beer Co., aims to be that beer for the Great Lakes region. Founder Sean Farrell and his partner are looking to fill a market niche many maybe didn't notice was missing. To make things even more challenging, neither founder has a brewing background and have started their brewery in downtown Detroit—a significant drive from their homes in Illinois. We sat down with Sean to find out how and why they're taking this approach, whether they consider themselves 'craft,' and why you need a new beer that you can enjoy with your father–straight outta the Great Lakes.
Neither you nor your co-founder have brewing experience. Why start a brewery?
Well, Mike [Grodecki—Co-Founder] and I are brothers-in-law. Over the past few years, we've developed a great friendship and respect for each other. And three years ago, we decided the time was right to do something entrepreneurial. We started meeting regularly to talk about a multitude of different ideas for going into business together. As you guys probably know, the conversation kept coming back to beer. But it wasn't just beer in a generic sense—it kept coming back to this idea for a beer brand, that we thought was missing in the market.
There's a ton of great beer out there right now. What did you see as missing?
We had a very defined sense of what we wanted that brand to be. We wanted it to be regional in nature to represent the Great Lakes, which is obviously a region we've both lived our entire lives. We wanted it to be a lager—a lager that today's craft drinker can appreciate the quality in. In your branding writeup on us, you said, "This looks like a beer you could sit down to share with your dad, and both enjoy." That's exactly what we're striving for from a branding perspective and, more importantly, from the liquid perspective. If you've been drinking domestic beer your entire life and haven't jumped on the craft boom yet, this is a beer you can share with somebody who has...and hopefully you can both appreciate it. It's a good, full-flavored beer that's not too assertive.
It sounds like there might be some crossover between domestic brands that are still loved by many craft drinkers. Miller High Life for instance.
We were inspired by a few different brands that we thought the Great Lakes were lacking. I would say Narragansett out east, Shiner, and certainly Yuengling. These are brands that have almost become ubiquitous in nature. If you walk into almost any bar, you're bound to find at least the flagship from any of those guys available. We were very realistic that today's market is crowded and the two of us weren't going to be able to create the next best style or be on the cutting edge trend wise. We're taking a step back and our intent was always to do one style of beer. This is our Lager — the present and also the future of our company. This isn't the first, to then be followed by a Pale Ale and Porter. I would never say never — that we wouldn't do other offerings — but the segment of the market that we want to compete in is the Lager. We want to make a Lager the Great Lakes can be proud of.
How do two non-brewers from Chicago end up launching a brewery in Detroit?
Like I said, we'd made the decision to find out what it takes to give this a go and really put our money where our mouth was. We started chipping away at it, reaching out to anybody we could for help and introductions to others in the industry. Along the way, we learned a ton. It was never our intent to build a facility of our own. We knew from day one that we were looking at contract production. When we had finally honed in on the formula, we started looking at where to have it made. We looked at a lot of different facilities and the only requirement that we had was that it was in our "wildest dream" footprint of where we wanted to be distributed — the eight states that touch a Great Lake. This beer wasn't going to be made outside of LA, it wasn't going to be made in Memphis. But certainly we looked at quite a few options, most notably a couple in Wisconsin.
The beer we're drinking came from Brew Detroit. How did you settle on them? There are certainly no shortage of contract options in the Midwest.
Right around that time, Brew Detroit was coming online. A group of investors had bought an old ball bearing factory and were making heavy investment in equipment and personnel. They brought in a brewmaster by the name of Ken Balau. He has a great reputation and experience in the industry, most notably as the Head Brewer at Bells. We went to kick the tires at a few different facilities, but when we got to Brew Detroit, it just all clicked. Their equipment was all new and state of the art. When we met with Ken and told him our vision and what we wanted to make, it aligned really well with his qualities as a brewer. We loved that the brewery was located in the Corktown neighborhood, and the team there really viewed it as a partnership rather than a contract. The other facilities are more established and to them we would have definitely been the low man on the totem pole. They would have delivered and done a good job, but we would have just been a contract. At Brew Detroit, it was quite clear to us that we were going to be able to grow with them.
You've brewed your first batch and it's out in the market. Where can we get our hands on it.
Well technically, it's the whole state of Michigan. Obviously the focus for us is Metro Detroit. But it's obviously a lot easier for us to get to southwest Michigan to do a lot of sales calls, and there's a lot of Chicago people that vacation there. So we've put some focus on that area, especially in the summer time when those towns are busiest.
Brew Detroit has a tasting room. Are you on tap there?
We're not. We brewed 200 barrels and, in hindsight this wasn't the best choice–we packaged all of it. As an upstart not knowing any better, we thought it was really aggressive to demand any tap handles around town. We quickly learned that was a mistake. As soon as we get through this first run of beer, we'll be able to put some portion of the next run into barrels.
As two non-brewers, how did you get the recipe?
We had very specific ideas for what we wanted in the beer but we didn't have the technical knowhow to produce a commercial formula. So we worked with a partner in Minnesota who'd helped others either take a homebrew recipe and commercialize it, or take nothing but an idea, and produce a formula and pilot batches. That's the approach we took.
What do you say to a drinker that's weary about a Detroit beer operated from Chicago?
Our mission statement–which is on our packaging–is, "Honest beer, honest folk." We're very self-aware of our situation. We fully expect skepticism. From the minute that we set out to do this, we came up with the ethos that nobody is going to get anything by today's drinker, and nor should they. They deserve to know who owns these brands, who makes their beers, where it's made, and what's in it. Given that, and because we're proud it's made in Detroit, we'll tell everybody exactly where it's made and exactly who owns the company. It's absolutely an open book. When we went and launched to a room in front of 86 sales reps, we were two non-brewers, contract brewing out of market, to guys that are in the industry and have seen and met all the local owners. That should raise skepticism, and it did. We have to combat that. We do that by being incredibly open about it and making sure our branding is authentic, and the liquid is of consistent quality. If those two things happen, I think the skepticism from the drinker will go away. We know our margin for error is even smaller than the local brewpub that opens up down the street. We don't have the same level of support from the local community that might be willing to give us a pass.
I think so, but the main difference between us is those brands are heritage and are being reinvented and reintroduced today. This brand, although it looks like a heritage brand, did not exist. So it's being introduced without the benefit of 100 years of history behind it. That's a challenge and why we have to make sure the liquid is great. We're thrilled with the way the branding came out. It certainly stands out on the shelf.
You've mentioned the branding several times already–it's obviously very important to you.
Yes, because we don't have that physical location and we're so limited in our offering of one brand, we have to put all our effort into making sure the drinker has a great experience with the liquid and the branding. The goal was to take a nod from the heritage brands and do it in a modern and refreshed way. Everything was intentional.
As you mentioned, we showcased Lake Brothers in our Beer & Branding column. How did you settle on designer Richie Stewart to bring that all together for you?
We found Richie through the website Dribbble–he runs a Boston design firm, Commoner. I was spending a lot of time on that site quickly clicking through all the artist portfolios. As soon as I saw Richie's and some of his past work, I was drawn to it. I think that's because he, in a lot of his past works, took a nod from classic Americana style. It didn't look kitschy or imitated—it looked real, authentic and modern. I loved that and I stopped the search there and then. We had a phone conversation and just immediately clicked. He understood what we were trying to achieve and why it might have a place. In the next two years, I joke that the only person I've talked to more is my wife. We've literally corresponded every single day, including holidays. It's been a long journey, and he's been awesome to work with.
What's the biggest difference between the average Detroit and Chicago drinker?
Obviously we're used to great beer being brewed in Chicago and the surrounding areas. But I don't think I had an appreciation for just how good Michigan beer is–and just how much there is–until we decided to throw our hat in and brew there as well. Obviously on the west side of the state there's just so much choice and we're still learning a lot about that market. It's a great state to be a beer drinker.
Would you say Lake Brothers is a craft brewery?
By definition, yes. But honestly, I don't think we are, because I'm not the one brewing it. I didn't grow up homebrewing. To me, craft always meant small and inventive. I think the definition of craft needs to change a little bit in today's market with changing ownership and all the new entrants into craft. By current BA definition, absolutely we should be defined as craft. To put us on the same parallel as some of the other players, I don't think we're working there. Certainly our goals aren't the same and I don't think we're playing the same game.
Where do you see Lake Brothers a couple years from now?
Patience for us is going to be really important. We have to build a home base in Detroit and Michigan. But obviously, we are excited and anxious to follow the lake around.
With Chicago being the next stop?
Northwest Indiana and Chicago, yes. We have a distribution partner lined up in Chicago. But I honestly think one of the worst mistakes we could make would be making that decision too soon. If we haven't built any identity then we could very easily get lost in today's market and just be a placeless generic brand. That would be my worst fear. We're in it for the long haul and are quite cognizant it's going to be a slow road to where we want to be.
What else are you drinking at home?
In the past six weeks, nothing else has been. Obviously it was a really proud moment to see a product that we had poured everything into in packages. I live in Naperville and Solemn Oath is there. Those guys are doing a great job. They had a different business model when they came out too and they've executed on that and built out a space they're going to be able to capitalize on.
What are you drinking when you're back in Michigan?
Batch Brewing is across the street from Brew Detroit, in Corktown, so that's a natural pit stop for us.
Cheers to Sean for meeting us for a few lake view rooftop beers in Chicago. Be sure to check out our Beer & Branding piece for LBBC, here. And, look for Lake Brothers Beer Co. lager next time you visit Michigan, and be sure to bring one home to share with your dad. We think he just might like it.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Interviewed by Nick Costa, Tom White & Jack Muldowney.