While COVID-19 has forced every industry to make changes to their business model, arguably no industry has been as impacted as that of breweries. From the rising popularity of alcohol delivery services to the recent authorization of to-go alcohol orders in Texas, breweries have entered 2020 with a whole new approach to selling beer.
That gives smaller breweries like 4th Tap Brewing Co-op a leg up on their biggest competition. Over the past few months, the popular North Austin brewery has showcased what the future might look like for local brewers. They've proven the importance of flexibility as an organization, smoothly adjusting to everything from curbside pickup to going viral on TikTok (one million views and counting!).
Recently, 4th Tap's co-founder John Stecker joined us on Instagram Live to discuss the unique co-operative business model and the challenges of being a brewery in 2020. You can watch the full video for the unedited conversation, but here are a few of the key takeaways from the conversation.
On Life as a Beginning Homebrewer
John Stecker: "I started homebrewing in my kitchen. And I just realized that if I made the beer myself, it tasted better, there's more alcohol in it. So I did the math and it was actually cheaper per drink than buying it at the store. And I also found out that if I put it in a keg and called my friends, they'd all come over and hang out. So that's kind of what got the social side of things started. And it was just the thing I kept doing all through undergrad."
How You Know It's Time to Open a Brewery
John Stecker: "We had been brewing beer for a while and taking it to our own parties. And when I got married, I brewed all the beer for my own wedding. After a while, we realized friends have been asking us to bring beer to parties, other events. And then over time, we started having strangers asking us to bring beer to events or weddings or software launch parties.
We started getting involved in some of the South by Southwest events. And one time we brought about 70 gallons of beer out to an outdoor art festival. And over the course of three days, everything got consumed and people kept saying all these great things to us. And so that was around when we decided maybe we should be getting paid for this, as opposed to just to giving away for free.
On Adopting the Co-operative Model
John Stecker: "One of the guys in the team was working at Blackstar Co-op here in town at the time. So he was familiar with the cooperative model and we started getting involved with some of the cooperative scene here in Austin. At the time, [it] seemed like a great way to organize our business... [It] was more just it fit our concept of how we wanted to proceed, how we wanted our business to kind of function internally.
And by that, I mean with beer, at any step of the process - from the malt that we bring in, the ingredients, to the brewing, on the hot side, to the fermentation side, packaging, even the person serving the beer at our bar - the beer can be made a success or a failure at any point along that entire time. So we felt like it was important that anybody who worked here had a sense of ownership of what they were doing and as a cooperative - not just a sense of ownership, but the potential to have actual ownership in the company itself and share in the successes of the company.
On How the 4th Tap Team Collaborates on New Beer
John Stecker: "We found a balance of trusting each other's instincts, but also giving good collective feedback. The best example I can give is if somebody comes up - we'll take, for instance, our Neapolitan Stout, which we're actually about to release here in a few weeks. The first time that recipe got proposed, I remember thinking to myself, that just sounds like a not-good idea. Just too much, too many flavors, too many things. And a couple of people felt the same way, but the people who were for it were so much more enthusiastic about the idea that we just said, 'Well right, well, you know what? We trust you guys. We trust your taste. If y'all really are sold on this, let's run a few pilot batches, we'll test it out.' And it turned out to be really delicious.
So we approach a lot of the beers like that. Somebody's got that flash of inspiration. They've got that idea like, 'Hey, I want to work with this ingredient. I want to build this kind of beer.' We do our best just to let them if they've got vision. We want to let them have their vision and produce it."
How Businesses Can Adjust to COVID-19
John Stecker: "Anytime you try to put a new system or a new way of doing business to your customers and say, 'Hey, we want you to stop doing it the way you've been doing it. We want you to do it this way now,' there's always going to be pushback. There will always be people who are like, 'I'm sorry, I liked the way things were done.' But with COVID, everyone seems extremely open to new ways of interacting with businesses. So that learning curve that there's been almost no pressure from any of our guests to adapt to the new ways of interacting with our brewery. People have been rapidly embracing how things work now, which has been great."