Scott LaFollette is the owner/brewer of Blank Slate Brewing Co., a new production brewery that just opened in Cincinnati. Blank Slate is selling its beer on draft to bars and restaurants in the Cincinnati area. LaFollette chronicled his journey in an entertaining and honest blog that talked about the nonglamorous side of setting up a brewery. It’s a must read for any wannabe professional brewers.
Question: Why did you become a brewer?
Answer: Because I’m not very good at anything else.
I got bitten by “the bug” in college. Shortly after discovering there was better beer than Busch Light in this world, I discovered homebrewing. I was immediately hooked. I decided after a few batches that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
I started working on ideas to start a brewery before I finished school, but all of my ideas turned out to be illegal. So I finished school, got a job and paid off my student loans. All the while studying, saving, brewing and preparing to open a brewery “someday.”
Working in the corporate world was boring a hole in my soul. You would have thought we were trying to cure cancer the way people would get all bent out of shape over the most insignificant things. I couldn’t take it anymore and finally decided it was time to put my plans into action. Plus working as a polymer chemist in a hot factory huffing plastic fumes all day just can’t compete with the feeling of pride you get from seeing someone enjoying something you made.
Q: Blank Slate just opened and has started selling beer. What are your immediate and long-term goals for the brewery?
A: The immediate goal is to carve out a niche for myself in this market. I want to cultivate good relationships with Cincinnati beer drinkers and beer retailers. I am trying to build my brand through honest marketing and of course the creation of new and interesting high quality craft products. I don’t have intentions to grow as big as I can as fast as I can. I want to focus on the local market and grow organically. Long term I would like to spin off a brewpub. There aren’t nearly enough brewpubs around.
The other immediate goal is to get myself out of debt, but realistically that’s probably more of a long-term goal.
Q: You've chronicled the lengthy process of opening a brewery in an entertaining and honest blog. What's the best piece of advice you can share for someone who wants to open a brewery?
A: I get asked this question often. I think it’s kind of funny because I’m still figuring a lot of it out myself and I haven’t really proven that I know how to do anything yet. I wish there was one simple answer but there are so many places where this process can trip you up.
It’s been said before, but research every aspect of this business that you can for as long as you can. I’ve been studying this industry for nearly 10 years and I’d say I know about 20 percent of what I probably need to know. Make sure you know your market and have something new or different to offer. Don’t base your whole business plan on copying what others are doing.
Beyond that I would say don’t skimp on equipment. My operation is comprised of mostly used equipment and I probably skimped a little in places I shouldn’t have and I am already “paying for it.” Don’t skimp on important things like pumps and heat exchangers, don’t ever take what someone tells you about a particular piece of used equipment to be true without checking it out yourself, and never buy from China. OK, that last one may be a little harsh, but it’s a particular sore spot for me…
Q: Ohio is experiencing a massive surge in craft brewery openings. Do you think there's still room to grow here or will the state at some point hit a "beer saturation point?"
A: Yes and yes. I think there is still room for growth especially here in Cincinnati. It seems like we are always late to the party. There are currently four craft breweries in Cincinnati and by the end of this year there will be four more (including Blank Slate). That’s double the number of breweries in one year.
I know of at least 3-4 more in planning that may or may not happen in the next two years after that. At that growth rate there will eventually have to be a plateau. All of us may not survive.
There will be breweries not just here but all around the country that will fail at some point. Everything in this world is cyclical and the brewery business will be no exception. I was around during the “bust” years of the late 90s/ early 2000s. I don’t think we are heading for a crash like that but at some point things will slow down.
I try not to worry too much about it though. Everyone just has to pursue what they feel is the best course of action for their brewery and the rest will happen how it happens…
Q: Which beer – any beer in the world – do you wish that you created/invented/brewed and why?
A: That’s a tricky one. There are so many great breweries making so many great beers. I guess I’ve always been fascinated with beers like Rodenbach. The flavors that come out of those wood tanks are simply amazing. There are certain beers like that which can only be made in one way and in one place. They are a part of the landscape of that area and I think that makes them truly unique.