Staff Retention

10648301_1071259959581417_362256683812601827_oCrooked Run has done one thing exceedingly well: staff retention.  With 20 employees on staff, we’ve added quite a few new members, but in five years of business, we have lost very few employees.  I think this is very important to the success of our business for a variety of reasons.  Why is staff retention so important, and how do you keep people on?  It’s not very complicated, but time and again I’ve seen the effects of neglecting to do a good job keeping people happy, and they can be devastating.

The biggest issue facing restaurants right now is personnel.  With Americans dining out more than ever before, restaurants are struggling to remain fully staffed.  A similar situation is facing breweries as well, with a shortage of both back of house and front of house staff.  For the time being, more breweries continue to open than close.  Finding and keeping qualified staff is harder than ever these days.

For taproom staff, the money can be very good, but there’s such a demand for servers and bartenders in our area that you can be fired from a job with very just cause and get rehired the next weekend somewhere else.  While a bar may have somewhat of a revolving door for employees, one very important thing to keep in mind is that your individual bartenders have regulars–sometimes friends, sometimes people they meet through the course of their work, but people who come to see them.  If your staff leaves, other people may too.  One bar in our area fired their entire staff, and, to their surprise, nearly their entire customer base went with them.  In addition, many bars and breweries suffer due to often times a single disgruntled employee.  I peruse Yelp fairly frequently, and I often see situations where one rude taproom staff seems to ruin the reviews for the place.

For brew side staff, the money is less, which means as an owner you need to find other ways to keep people on.  Hours are long, the work is tough, and upward mobility can be limited.

So how do you keep people on and happy?  It’s not really complicated.  You need to treat them well and pay them well.  That sounds obvious, but it definitely is not for a lot of brewery and restaurant owners.  You need to be aware of the effects of turnover.  If certain key staff leave, the short-term effects can be devastating, and the long-term effects can cost you a lot of time and money.  Basically, if someone is important, pay them.  Pay them more than the average pay for the position.  If your head brewer leaves, you could end up losing thousands per week in the interim.

But pay is only one thing, and can be limited by your revenue.  People actually don’t care about money so much as they care about recognition for a job well done, which can take many forms in addition to just extra dollars.  Find ways to make people feel better, feel included, and feel like they get something out of their continued hard work.

At Crooked Run, we do a few things to address these items.  First, we pay higher than average.  Second, we offer insurance and other benefits, and hopefully soon retirement plans.  And third, we genuinely care about our employees.  We’ll buy lunch for our staff once a week.  If someone is on the bar and needs a break to eat, I’ll cover for them.  I’ve helped our employees move.  I still mop floors.  We take our staff on company outings once a quarter to things like laser tag, go-karts, etc.  Lee and I still aren’t taking full salary, but all our key employees got substantial raises this year.  I tell everyone that as we grow, you can grow with us.  If we bring in more revenue, we can pay more.

Do this stuff because number one, it’s the right thing to do, but number two, it will lead to the long-term prosperity of your company.  So many areas of the economy are experiencing major disruption right now, and hospitality industries need to either figure out how to pay higher wages, or re-evaluate their businesses.

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Upcoming Beers

supernaturalteaserLast weekend’s golden sour release was a huge success!  Thanks everybody for the support.  I was really pleased with how our second bottled sour turned out…after Cuvee, I knew we needed to keep going strong with our mixed-ferm stuff and Nepotism was a nice follow-up.

Here’s a preview of what’s coming up.  We are going to be offering regular weekly can and bottle releases going forwards…some cool stuff in the pipeline! The goal is to continue to offer our cores on a regular basis but also some cool one-off stuff.  A greater variety of cans, more high abv 500 ml bottles, and 375 ml mixed-ferm sour bottles.

3/6 Without You: DDH IPA w/Ekuanot and Lemondrop.  Soft, pillowy, very mellow.

3/9 Firelight: A collab with Charm City Meadworks, this 16% wheatwine is made with avocado honey.  Bourbon barrel and rum barrel-aged versions available in 500 ml bottles.

3/9 Katana: DIPA w/cherries and vanilla

3/17 Skittlebrau: A collab with Eavesdrop, a gose conditioned on strawberry, lemon, and orange Skittles.

3/23 Sunshine Type: A collab with Turnover, an IPA w/lactose, vanilla, mango, pineapple, and guava.

3/30 Supernatural: saison w/hibiscus, Nelson hops


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Happy New Year

20180101_1222012017 has been a great year!  We brewed a lot of beer, learned a lot, and made new friends.  I am proud of all we have done in this year–cans, bottles, coolship beer, collaborations, and lots of new equipment.  What’s in stock for 2018?  Take a look.

Less rotation: Don’t get me wrong, we will continue to offer new beers.  But we’re going to start rebrewing some beers that really stood out.  Winners from this year are:

Envision IPA w/Vienna malt, Mandarina, and Sorachi Ace hops

Dedicated IPA w/Motueka and Denali hops

Only You IPA w/Comet and Citra hops

No Captain DIPA w/Ekuanot and Lemondrop hops

Noriega triple IPA w/pineapple

Dolce Vita BBA milk stout w/coffee

Best Days hefeweizen

Saving Light saison

Vibes Berliner w/blackberries and vanilla

Crankcase Baltic porter

Altruism dark sour w/elderberries

Nepotism golden sour

Cuvee coolship red

Mixed fermentation sours: Currently, we have five different iterations of a 30 BBL golden sour base fermenting with different yeast strains.  We also have 20 BBLs of coolship red fermenting as well.  We’ll be releasing a previous golden sour in one month that fermented for 8 months in barrels.  Look for more of these beers from us as time goes on, in both draught and bottle, and in distribution as well.  We feel as if the market is lacking this style in distribution, and I aim to fill that void.  I think we are already on the right track with 375 ml bottles.

Greater distribution: We are exploring adding another 40 BBL tank and also contract brewing Heart and Soul.  It’s become clear that we cannot brew enough to meet demand for distribution, especially in cans.  My goal of creating an accessible double dry-hopped IPA has paid off.  It’s really crazy–the first time we brewed into the 40 BBL, we were only planning to fill it halfway.  On the second turn of the system, we decided to just go ahead and brew four batches.  When we sent the beer out to distribution, it was more than I had ever put out.  I was very worried that it wouldn’t move fast enough, and spent the whole week going out and doing sales in the evening and pestering our distributor to help move it.  As it turns out, the beer sold out in two weeks, well before another batch was ready.  That made me feel pretty good, but a bit alarmed, since I promised a lot of accounts that it would be available all the time.  And cans…cans sold out in a day!  We cannot really distribute many cans on this scale and keep enough for the taproom.  I also absolutely loved a comment I read on a Facebook page.  “I love that I can go to Crooked Run and pick up a four-pack of Heart and Soul whenever.  It’s one of the best IPAs in the area and there’s no line.”  Not too bad!

Seasonal beers: If we can get another tank or contract brew, that means we can do some more seasonal beers for distribution and cans.  Expect to see Vibes (Berliner w/blackberries and vanilla) and Charm (super thick 7% milk stout) in cans, and Best Days (super hazy hefe) and Crankcase (Baltic porter) in distro.  We’re exploring roll-on labels and new shrink-sleeve cans so we can expand our repertoire of four-packs.

Expansion: We will hopefully be adding additional space at our Sterling location.  It’s become clear that we do not have enough seating, and we can also use some extra space for more fermenters.  We intend to add 3,000 sq ft of additional taproom space, a second restaurant, a stage for live music, and a separate sour facility.  Our existing Sterling taproom is undersized because of county regulations that went into effect in 2016 that limit taproom size to 20% of total square footage.  We are looking forward to having more seating and an area for private events.



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Upcoming Beers

Here’s a look at what is in the pipeline.  Reminder: dates not guaranteed and probably will change.

12/27 Crankcase Baltic porter

12/29 No Captain DIPA w/Ekuanot and Lemondrop CANS AVAILABLE

1/2 Only You IPA w/Comet and Citra

1/5 Sin Nombre imperial stout w/vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks

1/12 Verdant Force DIPA w/Citra and Simcoe CANS AVAILABLE

1/19 Halcyon IPA w/Galaxy and Blanc hops

1/25 Charm milk stout

1/27 NEPOTISM golden sour bottle release!



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Méthode Traditionnelle

MTpaintThis week, we are wrapping up winter coolship season.  We brewed six batches of our winter coolship red, Cuvee, for a total of 20 BBLs to work with.  I feel pretty good since I am really liking last year’s, and am stoked to have a lot more beer to work with next year.  20 BBLs is not a lot, but the fact that it is 6 different batches makes things a little more interesting.

Cuvee was meant to be a uniquely American sour ale, with a base of Red X and rye, and special mash schedule meant to mimic turbid mashing, the traditional labor-intensive mash and boil used by Belgian lambic brewers.  However, I’d like to also work on a Méthode Traditionnelle beer as well.  What is Méthode Traditionnelle, or M.T?  M.T. beers subscribe to a set of standards used by lambic and gueze brewers.  You can read about these standards and the background of the M.T. Society here.  In order to use the stamp pictured above, a beer must conform to these standards.

Mainly, the difference is that M.T. beers use a turbid mash, unmalted wheat, and aged hops, and Cuvee did not involve any of those.  While I think the schedule for Cuvee produced very good results, I am excited to try to produce a beer that adheres to these standards.

The base beer, which we will try producing in the spring, will be called Primo.  As per requirements, it will be made of 50% pilsner and 50% raw wheat.  Depending on the trajectory, we will experiment with producing some fruited versions with cherries or raspberries.

Overall, I am really happy to be able to make some of these beers and that we have had such success so far.  As a homebrewer I always dreamed of making sour beers like this.  They seemed so mysterious, but now we are starting to understand the process.  There is still a lot of mystery, but that is part of the allure.  You set up conditions to hopefully produce something good, and then roll the dice.  I am excited to see what we and some of our friends at other breweries are going to produce over the next few years.

While we wait, we have some more mixed fermentation sours nearing completion.  Our next release is a golden sour made with Flemish ale yeast blend and aged in oak barrels for eight months.  This beer, called Nepotism, will be released soon in bottles.  We really like the way this turned out, and have already started making more of it.

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The Realities of Running a Small Brewery

In Loudoun County, we have a lot of breweries, and even more are slated to open.  The business-friendly local government and plethora of flex warehouse space pretty much guarantees the majority of new breweries are going to open here.  I am happy for the success we have had, and I think we will do fine even as the market passes saturation and some breweries begin to close.  However, in my experience in the last three years I have seen an alarming amount of misconceptions about running a brewery, and I think if some people realized the inevitable endgame shaping up here, they might think twice about opening a brewery this late in the game.

First, a 10-15 BBL brewery is not going to make you a wealthy person.  If you have a head brewer on payroll, you are losing a big chunk of your profits.  Your scale isn’t great, it’s a ton of work, and you pretty much have to be an operating owner putting in 50-80 hours per week to make it work.  You might be reading that and thinking “I’m OK with working that hard.”  OK sure, but for how long?  How long until you start to miss spending any time with your family?  I’ve seen it happen.  Also, you might think you don’t have to work that hard.  Some people don’t.  They also don’t do even close to the revenue that we do.  In my opinion, if you invest in the plant, you put it to use.  If you don’t care about making any money, I would urge you to not open a business and take away revenue from people that need it.

Second, your numbers for distribution should be very conservative.  I have heard some just insane numbers from people opening/who have opened breweries.  The distribution market is so completely saturated at this point.  People have told me all sorts of things, like 200 BBLs/month in draught with no sales rep off the bat, or 420 BBLs/week on a 15 BBL system.  Ain’t happening.  What galls me is that I politely try to help people, but it is never well-received.  Well, I have been there and done it.  I spent all summer taking first shift brewing and then doing sales until bedtime.  All to move 6-8 BBLs of beer in distro per week.  I had to twist peoples’ arms to get them to put us on tap, and we make some decent beer.  I have done everything I can to help our accounts and distributor move more beer.  Now our stuff is moving and we have a rep, but that was not something that happened overnight.  I have heard rumors of some 40 BBL breweries in planning with zero industry experience.  That is insane.  No one should be opening with a 40 BBL brewery at this point in the game.

Third, if you are not brewing the beer yourself and selling it yourself, you’d better hire a real ace team.  You probably want to pull a brewer from a really good brewery–just a suggestion.  The beer industry has a lot of intricacies, and figuring out sales can be tough.  Your MBA is not going to be of much use here.  I handle brewing, production management, and sales management myself.  It’s nice in the aspect that I can coordinate planning across all three, but I am working essentially three jobs.  Sales has been the most maddening to figure out.  Constant rotation at bars means I may be selling a decent amount of beer, but I still can’t definitively tell you where we are on tap currently.

Lastly, here is the big one.  If you ever want to sell your brewery, its value will only be in relation to its profits.  If your brewery isn’t profitable, it will be worth its fixed assets, which currently get you about 90+ cents on the dollar.  Well, just wait a year or two.  That number is going to go way down.

You may think your brands or IP will be worth something.  Nope.  First, there is zero loyalty right now with thousands of breweries putting beer on shelves.  Unless you are pretty big, your brands are not worth anything.  Second, who wants brands or IP from a failed brewery?  I have seen two breweries for sale with asking price way over their fixed assets (and I have no idea what their debt is.)  What exactly would I be paying for here?

I hope if you’re planning a brewery and any of this was news to you, you don’t tune it out and think somehow none of this applies to you.  The next five years are going to be very interesting, and I am already seeing some surprising things.  Better bring your A-game.

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IMG_20171127_114736_537Last weekend, we did our first of five coolship beers for the winter.  What’s a coolship?  A coolship is a wide, open-topped vessel for cooling and inoculating wort with wild yeast and bacteria present in the air.  It is a very old concept still used by Belgian lambic brewers, and an increasing number of American breweries.

We did our first simulated coolship beer last year using a 30 gallon kettle as our vessel at the Leesburg location.  Many homebrewers are fixated on the idea that a coolship needs to be a shallow pan, but in actuality the dimensions are all based on cooling rate.  On a small scale, a cube or cylinder with equal length, width, and height is more ideal.  The goal is to cool your beer from near boiling to ~70 degrees overnight.

While the beer cools in the coolship, it is exposed to ambient yeast and bacteria.  The inoculation rates and types of different organisms are determined by what’s around in the environment and the cooling rate.  We did three runs of the test beer last November and December to blend together into one beer.  I am happy to say the results were really good.  Surprisingly good, actually.  Maybe a bit of beginner’s luck, but that first beer will be bottled and released soon, and I think people will like it very much.

We decided to brew the same beer every winter for a release one year later.  This beer, simply called Cuvee, will be our focus for our spontaneous program.  (We may experiment with a spring spontaneous beer as well.)  Our cuvee is a unique spontaneously fermented beer.  It is primarily Red X malt, a red malt with a very bready, toasty flavor, along with a good amount of rye for body.

Lambic producers use a labor-intensive mash and boil method called turbid mashing, which produces a highly unfermentable wort, leaving plenty of long-chain sugars for brettanomyces and pediococcus to chew on as the beer ages.  I decided to opt for a much simpler method.  The grain is mashed at 162, followed by a big decoction to 174, followed by sparging at 190.  The resulting wort is boiled and hopped to around 5 IBU before transfer to the coolship.

The coolship was fabricated by our friend Rod at Matsys, a company that does welding for DoD.  I gotta say, he did about the best job you possibly could on this thing.  Made of 100% stainless, it features all sanitary welds, a 1.5” tri-clamp drain, and 1.5” tri-clamp filling port.  The basin sits on a heavily reinforced base with casters, which can be removed.  The legs are adjustable and are set to slope for a full drain.  Lee also built a framed screen to go over top to keep leaves out.



Because we aren’t exactly flush with storage space at the Leesburg location, the cooled beer is transferred into barrels in our van and taken away for off-site storage at Beltway Brewing, a contract brewery nearby.  Once we get a second bay in Sterling, we’ll use that to store our sour stuff.  We opted to use third use bourbon barrels for this beer, since they are a bit smaller than wine barrels and our 3 BBL system produces about 110 gallons of wort max, so two 53 gallon barrels is ideal.  Many thanks to Brothers Craft Brewing for some empty barrels!

We plan on four more runs of this beer in the next three weeks.  The beer will then be stored and eventually blended to produce next year’s cuvee.  I am incredibly excited to be doing this, since this represents the pinnacle of advancement as a brewery.  We offer pretty much every other type of style of beer, and soon good mixed fermentation beers will be part of the taproom experience as well!

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