What’s it like to start a beer company?

May 16, 2011

This past month Jubilee celebrated its one-year anniversary, so I thought I’d go back and talk about what it was like starting up.

For starters, I was scared sh*tless.  I didn’t know anyone who had started a business, so I had this giant mental hurdle to overcome about how hard it would be and how risky it was.

The first draft of Jubilee's art

In May of 2009 I moved back to Nashville and was looking for a job after trying to find every way possible to start a brewery in Richmond in the middle of the Great Recession.  I was looking for marketing positions, but I might as well have been looking for unicorns.

So after a couple of fruitless months and a lot of psychological masturbation concerning my future, I decided to start Jubilee.

The first step was finding a brewery.  I reached out to BBC and they were interested in contract brewing (a mutual family friend put us in touch).  Probably the hardest part of contract brewing is finding a brewery…so I lucked out on that one.  Thanks Bunny.

Then I met with Lipman, my distributor.  I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the meeting.  I was prepared to sell them on Jubilee and figured as a start-up beer company I would have to make a compelling case for why they should spend time helping a little guy get off the ground.  After giving them an initial overview of Jubilee, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of the meeting was spent with them selling ME on why Jubilee should go with them.  I would like to attribute the direction of the meeting to my amazing business savvy, but the reality is that craft beer is so hot right now that distributors will take a chance on a new brand…especially one with a social mission.

So I had the brewery and the distributor on board, but how was I going to fund it?

After thinking about getting family friends to invest and agonizing over the decision, I decided to cash out the small amount of money I had left and go for it on my own.

Putting money into a brewery is a bad financial decision in any circumstances, but cashing out stock in the middle of the Great Recession put me in line for a Darwin award.  So to justify the decision, I decided that I would learn more from the experience than I ever would going back to school…even if Jubilee went tits up, it would be a great real world education in business.

Did I mention that starting Jubilee also meant I didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment?  Yep, I had to live with my parents while I got it off the ground.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad…having a chance to spend time with my parents as an adult was actually a pretty cool experience.  For the first month.  But no matter how cool your parents are (and despite what I thought in high school mine are pretty cool), there’s just something ego deflating about moving back home.

When friends would ask how I was doing, I commonly responded that I was “living the dream…32, single, unemployed, and living at home with my parents.”

I kept telling myself that 10 years from now I could look back and either say “I lived in an apartment for 8 months” or “I started a beer company”.    Now that I’m paying my own bills again, I know I made the right choice.

Almost there...

For the past couple years I had very lofty visions of what “starting your own business” looked like.  I imagined a complex web of obstacles that only the brightest and the best could overcome.

Those visions took a big hit as I gazed around the waiting room at the Secretary of States’ office.   After overhearing several conversations from people waiting to form their LLC’s, I couldn’t help but think, “they’ll let any idiot with $300 start a business.”

I started to feel a little more confident in my ability to start a company and I quickly realized that there really wasn’t anything to be intimidated by…my friend Charlie Malone helped me realize that I didn’t need to spend $1000 for an attorney to file my LLC paperwork.  At Mojo Grill he pulled out the single piece of paper you need to fill out.  The hardest thing on there was spelling out your business name.  Seriously.

The most confusing part about the beer world is that every state is different in terms of permits and licenses, so there’s not a definitive website with a simple checklist.

So I walked down to the ABC office to see what kind of permits I would need to contract brew.  Swing and a miss.

Apparently beer isn’t alcohol in Tennessee, at least not until it reaches 6.3% ABV.  The nice woman at the ABC office directed me to the Department of Revenue.  I’ll admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly she was.  And when I got to the Department of Revenue, the lady at the reception desk greeted me with a smile and went out of her way to help me.  This isn’t how “government” is supposed to work…these folks need to go to the DMV and learn how to treat customers as nuisances.

Tennessee is set up to handle breweries, distributors and retail….contract brewing doesn’t really fit nicely into one of those boxes.  Luckily for me David Thomerson, who oversees beer permits, could not have been a nicer guy and he worked me through the proper permits that I needed, including pointing me in the right direction for a federal wholesalers permit (another example of how contract brewing doesn’t fit nicely in a box).

Really the only big pain in the ass of starting Jubilee was waiting on label approval from the federal government.  Every label on a beer bottle has to get the seal of approval from the federal government…and while I’m sure this started out as a way to protect consumers, it seems to have become an artwork judging panel.  When my label came back to BBC after 120 days of waiting (they promise 60 days max), they told us that the red dress of the lady in background could cause someone to mistake the word Ale that was also in red.  You serious, Clark?

Original Label

So if you look at Jubilee’s label, you’ll notice our designer had to blur out part of the background.

Once the labels were approved, the final piece of the puzzle was a general business permit in Davidson County.  As I anxiously waited in the lobby to receive my business permit, a rush of excitement came over me.

I was actually doing it.  I was starting a business.

The excitement level took a nose dive as a walking wet blanket came over and handed me the permit.  The best way I can describe the woman is a female version of Stanley from the Office.  With a speech pattern that would make Eeyore sound excited, she said “Mr. Dunkerley, here’s your permit…congratulations…I guess you can start making millions.”

That woman undoubtedly pops balloons at little kids’ birthday parties.

Label Approved

Despite the lackluster sendoff I received, when I walked out of the county commissioners officer, Jubilee was officially a business.

It wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought to actually start a business…like most people, my fear of the unknown overtook me at times and I turned relatively simple processes into big mental hurdles.

The hardest part was getting out of my comfort zone and actually deciding to go for it.

If anyone reading this is in a position of doubt about whether they can start a business, just remember the realization I had in the Secretary of State’s office…

“Any idiot with $300 can start their own business.”

What’s stopping you?

(This post is the 3rd in a series about my experience starting Jubilee.  Next up I’ll be talking about the lessons I learned from talking to other breweries.  Please feel free to email me at if you have questions or suggestions on topics)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Colin Hugo May 6, 2012 at 5:56 am

Dear Mark,

I am a student at Stellenbosch Universtiy, South Africa. Might come to a bit of a shock to you that I have stumbled upon this website and have very similar interests, but then again it might be a very regular occurrence.
I am busy studying a bachelor of commerce, with a very keen motive to start my own business. A beer brewing business, and be being able to help the community around the business. As you mention the “unknown” does keep us from making our dreams a reality. I have a few questions I would like to ask about starting a company and also if there is any advice you can offer me it would be greatly appreciated.
Did you have your own beer already before starting up?
What are the most important things to start with?
I am still only a first year University student but am really motivated to start a plan or have at least a better idea of starting a beer company. As I was reading your experience I felt I could really relate to it, having the same ideas and goals. Anything you may feel I need to know or do would be a great help

Thank you for your time,

Colin Hugo

Teresa July 26, 2012 at 12:42 am


Brandon November 17, 2012 at 1:27 am

This was invigorating, sobering, and enlightening at the same time, like the beer I am trying to brew. Thanks!

Mark November 17, 2012 at 11:52 am

Thanks Brandon. Best of luck on the brew!

Mark November 17, 2012 at 11:53 am

Shoot me an email at Happy to chat.

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