Catching Up With Blank Slate Brewing Company – Part 2

Blank Slate Brewing Company joined the Cincinnati brewing scene in Spring of 2012, and I sat down with him in the fall of that year. Realizing it’s been three years since then,  we sat down for another interview recently. Scott and I talked for a long time, this is a long post please bear with it, it’s worth it. What follows is part two of the interview, read on for Scott’s thought on the craft beer industry, going pro, Untappd, and more. For part one and everything old, new, and coming soon at Blank Slate, you can read part one here.

I’ve edited what follows for grammar and flow.

Last time we talked about the local beer community being a big family and rising tides raising all ships. Now that it’s not just a bunch of little guys, and there are two big guys, has that changed anything?

Not really. It’s still very much exactly that same kind of community. Has it changed some? Certainly. Not necessarily in a negative way, just in a growing way. Yeah, some guys are now bigger players in the community, but it doesn’t mean I can’t call those guys up and say “Hey, I need something” and they won’t be right there to help me. The only tricky part is sometimes I don’t know the guy to call now because 40 guys work there, 38 of whom I never met. I used to know every person who worked at every brewery in town, which isn’t the case anymore.

Photo courtesy of Queen City Fresh
Photo courtesy of Queen City Fresh

At the same time with some of the new things, when I started up most of us knew each other before starting breweries; from the homebrewing circle or this or that. The difference now is you hear about projects starting up and you have no idea who that guy is or what their background is. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just as things grow and expand out it’s impossible to know every single person involved.

Streetside Brewing is opening ¼ a mile away. What are your thoughts on them opening so close?

Anything that helps to revitalize this neighborhood and bring more people here, I’m totally for it. The Eastern Avenue corridor just right up from where we are is an entertainment district same as Walnut Hills and OTR. I think the East End is the next neighborhood after Pleasant Ridge and Walnut Hills where stuff is going to start to happen. It’d be cool to have this area become the other brewery district, ya know, there’s the OTR Brewery District and we’ll be the East End Brewery District with Streetside, Bad Tom, and ourselves. I know the folks who started that brewery, they come in here a lot, and we talk a lot and I wish them all the best.

Read more about Streetside at WCPO. Image courtesy of WCPO.
Read more about Streetside at WCPO. Image courtesy of WCPO.

A big thing happening is the 12% ABV bill. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m all for it, I mean it’s stupid we can’t go over 12%. It’s not going to have a big boon to my business because I’m not going to brew over that, sure occasionally, but it’s not going to open wonderful new avenues of revenue. But from a retailer side — we’re in Cincinnati so we can hop over to Party Source and get whatever we want, but in Columbus, you can’t do that — the lost tax revenue on the retail side of beers they can’t sell in the state because they’re over ABV. Based on that alone I don’t know why they don’t change it.

MillerCoors Ohio 12% Bill
MADD hasn’t spoken out about the bill this time, but MillerCoors has.

Being craft brewers, we seem to have some little bit of sway in the legislature as small businesses. So we could throw some weight behind that. Some breweries would love to go over that, like Hoppin’ Frog. I think if the law ever passes we’ll make a celebratory beer, and it’ll be a 2.5% stout just to say who the hell who cares. We do a 10.5% beer right now, Long Way Home, and it’s such a pain in the ass to make. It’s a huge burden to make those beers, but just the fact that you’re not able to do it is so dumb.

The one thing that does encourage me on the 12% thing this time around is I haven’t heard a lot of pushback from the anti-drinking crowd.

Where do you think we should focus lobbying efforts?

From an Ohio craft standpoint, I’m all for the 12% thing, but we shouldn’t be putting money into it. It doesn’t have any impact on me day-to-day as a business. What we should work on is trickier. There’s a lot of very mundane bullshit in the liquor code that I’d love to see either clarified, cleaned up, or outright changed. As a business, I try to run by the straight and narrow as much as possible. You see other guys out there doing shit that’s blatantly not right, and they should know better and maybe they don’t know; the bottom line is they don’t get busted for it because there’s not enough enforcement. This is a weird thing to say; I wish there were more enforcement of liquor laws, but we should really change them.

If a bar posts on Twitter that they have us on tap and I retweet that, it’s illegal because I’m technically giving that guy free advertising. There’s free advertising like spending $100 to put a billboard and say “come to this bar to drink our beer.” But on Twitter, no money changes hands there but it’s still considered illegal. There’s stupid stuff, like at a bar you’re only allowed to have two lighted signs in a window. Now say 4 feet behind that window you have a wall covered in signs, and you can see those signs through the window it’s okay. That doesn’t directly affect me, of course, but there are things along those lines that everybody does and bars expect you to do, but I can’t do that because that’s technically illegal.

So what do you do? Do it and break the law, don’t do it and lose that tap handle? And it works down to the distributor level, there are things that everyone’s distributor does that’s in the gray area of the law. If these are the rules, let’s enforce them, but if these are the rules, they’re dumbass rules and let’s work to change them.

The biggest threat to craft beer: last time you talked about the number of new breweries and competition for tap handles and shelf space, hop shortages, and distributors were not taking on new brands. Do you still think those are threats or have recent buyouts given you new concern?

That’s a big ass question. We’re still not there yet; I viewed those threats as being in the future, and they’re still there. I think the threats for shelf space and tap handles still exist. Would I say it’s any worse than it was three years ago? No, it’s probably better than it was three years ago. Taps and shelf space have grown over that time. It’s still certainly something to watch out for, but it’ll happen when it happens, and we’ll all know and we’ll all have to plan for it.

Pressure from buyouts and things. For someone like me, small guys like us, the buyout thing is interesting banter and gossip. At the end of the day does it have any impact on anything we do on a day-to-day basis? No. Even the AB Miller thing won’t have any impact because it won’t happen in the US; it’s a global thing. If it does happen in the US, we should revolt against the government because it’s totally over at that point. My distributor is a Miller house, and it’s going to have no impact on that Miller house on a day-to-day basis. The overlords they’re beholden to may change, but they’re still beholden to overlords.

Saint Archer
MillerCoors bought Saint Archer a few months ago.

The thing I do find very interesting is some of the smaller buyouts that have happened like Golden Road and St. Archer. In the past when Big Beer worried about Craft they’d buy a big brewery like Goose Island. From a business standpoint, it makes sense. Now St. Archer’s been in business for two years, yeah they’re on exponential growth curves, but you can still argue that they’re not a proven business. The fact that AB and Miller are starting to target those guys tells me that they’re getting very desperate and are willing to leverage very high-risk investments into craft beer.

Goose and Elysian were older and more well established, but they had owners who had no good succession plans. Miller comes knocking on your door and yeah sure I’m out of here. You can’t tell me that when they [Golden Road/St. Archer] started that business it wasn’t into the back of their mind that they wanted to grow it as fast as possible and sell it as fast as possible. You can’t tell me that possibility wasn’t on their radar; it had to be part of their business plan from the beginning.

Now you’ve got guys where some guys with enough money put together a great brand and some good beers and grow it exponentially with the expressed written consent to sell it to Miller. That begins to undermine craft beer. They’re not going to market themselves as a brewery that wants to get bought out by Miller; they’re marketing themselves as being independent and the small guy and craft beer. That discredits a lot of what craft is about and for that I have no sympathy for them. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that happening.

From @OsbornBrewing on Twitter: Transition from homebrewer to pro. What’s the hardest, most eye-opening, unwritten unexpected part?

That’s like an hour-long answer. I have to preface this by saying going from homebrewer to pro: are you going from homebrewer to working at a brewery or homebrewer to starting a brewery.

Working at a brewery? Be willing to work to clean your ass off and do everything you already know how to do, but like to the Nth degree more

From homebrewing to opening a brewery? Honestly, if you think it’s as simple as that you need to go back to the books for ten years. You need to spend a lot of time not thinking about homebrew; spend a lot of time thinking about equipment, and buildings, and permits, and build-outs. You understand how to make this pale ale recipe 5 gallons at a time, and need to learn how to make it 300 gallons at a time. The process, and the infrastructure, and all those things that make that happen that’s where you need to focus on your education. Keep playing around with homebrew recipes and tweaking things, but that’s only going to take you so far in one aspect of opening a brewery. It’s a very important aspect for sure, but it’s as important as nine other aspects of opening a brewery.

I started homebrewing in 1998 doing extract on a stove top with no temperature control; fermenting fruit beers at 90 degrees and wondering why they got moldy. When I started thinking about this being something I wanted to do, whether working at a brewery or opening a brewery, was about 2002. I continued to homebrew and do a lot of stuff, but I was refining my process. At the same time, I was learning and reading everything I could on the business side, the equipment side, the infrastructure, all those different aspects of it. [Ed. Note: Blank Slate opened in 2012]

If you’ve brewed two batches on your stove top, and you think you want to start a brewery you’re at least 6 or 7 years away of spending every minute reading up and learning about it from being even remotely close from being ready.

What are your thoughts on Untappd?

Untappd and other things like that, those apps, RateBeer to some extent. They’re great apps that you can keep track of beers you tried whether you liked it, didn’t like it, and what you liked about it. You can have your own personal database so you can remember if you tried that beer and what you thought about it. From a personal standpoint, that’s a wonderful piece of information to have.Blank Slate Brewing Company on Untappd

My gripe with those apps is from the Brewers side of things. I don’t mind that you can drink a stout, and you can rate it a one, and your comment is “I’ve never liked stouts, and I don’t like this one.” That’s a perfectly fine piece of information for you to have for yourself. The problem that people don’t realize is that when Stoutyyou rate that stout a one, that rating funnels into that breweries overall rating. Now you’re telling the world that you hate that stout, it’s a terrible beer, and people shouldn’t drink it. But you’re telling them that because you don’t like it, not because it’s a bad beer, or infected, or not to style, or it’s just a terrible abomination of nature that should’ve never been created. Your palate is your preference, and you’re entitled to that opinion.

Those ratings, to me, should be private to you and not bear into a rating for the brewery itself. If they removed that part of it, I’d have no issue with it. When I go on there and happen to look at ratings for my beers, which I don’t do because I’m not that much of a masochist, and I happen to see that someone rated my stout a one that sucks, it hurts, it’s like someone kicking me in the balls. Remember that breweries are people too.

If you have a problem with something we’ve done, with our product, if you’ve gotten a bad product, I like to believe that we’re available. It’s easy to find us, send us an email, reach out to us through Facebook, Twitter, or come 2015-11-11_14-59-21down and see us. If you’ve got a problem I want to know about it. But come to me about it so we can talk about, I can ask you the details of it, we can work on it and try to figure it out. But to go on some anonymous app and say, “I was at this place and this beer sucked. Fuck these guys they’re a bunch of stupid assholes who don’t know what they’re doing.” That’s like a personal attack and that’s not giving me the ability to make it right. If you want to come down here and meet with me and talk about it, and you’re still not satisfied and still think I’m a real asshole then fine, but at least I had a chance to make it right.

–That’s the end of the interview–

Okay folks, thanks for reading all of this. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed talking to Scott about it. I’ll do my best to make sure it isn’t another three years before I sit down with Scott again.

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