Scott Witsoe was unexpectedly laid off from his job. Faced with the idea of looking for a new one or seeing what he could do with his passion for brewing beer, he chose the latter. Almost a year to the day later he has a nanobrewery up and running, a tap room for customers, beer sold commercially in major restaurants in the Denver Metro area and a recent write up in The New York Times.
Here is a bit of his story.
The only thing I can compare to making your first beer to is falling in love. I always wanted to do a nanobrewery on the side, but it never worked while having a day job. My wife and I decided that getting laid off was maybe a sign and a few days after that I was looking for locations. Everything went at warp speed from then on.
What was the time between being laid off and signing the lease?
My last day at work was February 28, 2011 and I agreed to the lease a week later.
You never considered trying to find another similar job?
I worked from home at my previous job for 5 ½ years, so the idea of going back to a traditional work environment made me nauseous, whereas the idea of starting a brewery made me feel giddy. So I decided to delve into my passion right away. I learned very quickly that attempting to do this while having a day job would have taken years. I had never opened a business before. Everything I did after signing the lease was something I was doing for the first time. I quickly had to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Explain the concept of a nanobrewery.
It does not have an official definition as a microbrewery and other breweries do. Breweries are measured in size by the number of barrels they have. I think the largest a nanobrewery could be would be a three to five barrel system, certainly no bigger. I have a one barrel system. I brew 31 gallons at a time which is incredibly small.
You stress on your website that Wit’s End beer is the result of a very manual process.
My equipment has no automation or electronic controls. It is very, very manual. I coax my beer through every step of the process. I have to be intimately involved in every step of the way. When you are making beer maintaining certain temperatures is very, very important in how the beer tastes. Two or three degrees can change how the beer turns out so it is very, very important to be involved. A lot of the bigger breweries will have electronic controls that will have set temperatures and thermostats. It is not saying it is easier because you are dealing with a larger scale and there are many other challenges I don’t have, it is just that my process is so incredibly manual. I fill kegs by hand. I carbonate them individually. Every step is by hand up to the point I am pouring it into pints into the tap room.
How many employees do you have?
Zero. When I say I am a one man show I don’t mean that euphemistically. I literally am a one man show.
Did you choose your equipment based on cost?
Mostly. The cost difference between this and the commercial equipment is substantial. This is all financed by me and my credit cards. Being self-financed and a one man show I had no other option to go the nanobrewery route with my space in an industrial area. I couldn’t afford the rent in a retail area or the costs of commercial equipment, so it was either do nano or do nothing. It was a no brainer. The hope is that I can enjoy success and have the good fortune of growing a bit incrementally. At some point I would love to be able to get into a larger system to get more beer out there commercially and have longer hours in the tap room. I would like to get this to the point where it can sustain my life and I don’t have to ever think about a day job again.
I think opening a brewery and making beer is the dream of many. What do you think are some of the misconceptions of what you do?
That I have all the beer I can drink and it is party time and always fun, and of course, it is fun, but it is an incredible amount of work. It is a very labor intensive process. Any brewer will tell you that 80% of the process is cleaning and 20% of the process is actually brewing. The next biggest misconception is people think you have an endless supply of beer. This is not the case as I am afraid I will run out of it in the tap room. I rarely bring beer home. I just buy beer for home. I would hate to have the guy that came to the brewery for a specific beer not be able to have it because I brought too much home. I am very protective of my beer. If people make the effort to come to my tap room I want them to come in and have all the beers available to them. I want them to have a great experience. That is really important to me.
Was there anything else that happened along the way that you completely did not expect?
On a more positive note, it would be how well received everything is. I always thought I made pretty decent beer, but when you have mostly friends and family drinking your beer and telling you it is great you never really know. There is that fear in the back of your mind. I have been extremely humbled by the incredible support I have gotten from my customers. It is amazing how many regular customers I have and all the new faces I see are absolutely incredible. The media has been very kind to me. There is still a long ways ago, but if you had asked me five months ago if I thought it would be like this, I don’t know if I would have believed it. It has been an incredible, humbling and flattering experience to me. I have to pinch myself every time I see someone walking in the door.
How many beers do you typically have at one time?
I usually have about 5 or 6 beers.
It seems like the handcrafted beer brewing process provides a lot of opportunities to screw up.
Oh yeah, absolutely. The more involved you are the more chances there are to screw up. Every single batch is a personal creation. If something went wrong with a batch or two of beer that would be massive detriment to revenue. There is a whole lot that can go wrong and it can be very, very stressful. But when it goes right and I can have a customer come in and see their face light up when they enjoy my beers – having that experience and seeing them enjoy it makes the process all worth it to me.
How is your beer different than others?
I like drawing on a lot of brewing traditions. I have always tried to stay true and honest to who I am and I promised myself I would never make beer based on needing a certain beer product category. My beers are not crazy beers that are extreme for the sake of being extreme, but I do like putting my own personal stamp on things. I like to call it the New American Brewing to borrow a term from the culinary world. I like taking all these influences and coming up with something new things and crossing stylistic borders in making beer.
I am not chasing after the perfect stout or the perfect pale ale. My Belgian Oatmeal IPA crosses three brewing styles. What drives me is what inspires me. I don’t set any restriction for myself on what I brew. I am a one man show and what I brew has a tendency to be all over the place.
I sort of embarked on this thing knowing I would give it everything I had and survive or fail I would take the opportunity to follow this dream. Should it fail and I have to go back to the race of Corporate America and I will never have any regrets and I will never wonder what if. If I continue to succeed then I am living my dream and that is not a thing a lot of people get to do.
What are the major stages of making beer?
Most beer is made out of malted barley or another malted grain. Hops are the typical spices used in beer. Then there is water and yeast. Almost any beer has these four components. The most basic definition would be mixing the crushed malted grain with hot water. This process is called Mashing. You extract the sugar in this process. You then drain the liquid and rinse the grains to make sure you pull all the sugar out. Then you boil the liquid for anywhere between 60 – 120 minutes and this is typically when you add the hops to spice the beer, which provide bitterness to balance the sweetness, flavor, and aromas. When it is done boiling you cool the beer immediately. When it is cooled you add the yeast. Yeast is another important flavor component. When the yeast eats the fermented sugars this is where the alcohol is created and C02 is released. You cool it again, letting the yeast drop out. I let it mellow a bit or condition, and then I transfer it to the kegs and carbonate it.
What is the time from beginning to end to do this?
Two to two and a half weeks, but there are tons of exceptions. Some beers age for years. I have a beer that has been aging for months.
What is the investment needed to start a nanobrewery?
It is around the 50 – 60k range. If you get into a larger set up it is just a whole different stratosphere as far as cost. For most start up breweries that is a pretty low amount, but it is all relative. Another theme you will see in nanobreweries is guys and girls that are finding creative ways to get things done. Rather than analyzing the perfect way to do things they are taking action and getting things done because they need to get shit running. I am not going to do anything to sacrifice the quality of the beer but you have to be creative to get a business launched and not over analyze the process.
What do you think you would be doing right now if you never lost your job?
I would probably still be in the position I was in and very likely dreaming one day of opening up a nanobrewery and that would have probably stayed a dream. I really feel that getting that kick in the ass is what caused me to do this. I don’t know if I would have had the time or the courage to do it if I hadn’t been thrown into the fire.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wanted to start a brewery?
It will cost twice as much and take twice as long. I feel completely euphoric and panic stricken on a daily basis. Sometimes at the same time. You have to have passion about something to the point where you almost have blinders on. Where you are focusing on something like a laser knowing that this is going to happen. It is about finding that passion and if you have it and truly feel that in soul. You have to have faith, for lack of a better word, that everything will work out. It is about driving forward with everything that you’ve got and going for it. At the end of the day if it fails at least you have done everything you could and if it succeeds you will be the happiest person on earth.
To learn more: www.witsendbrewing.com
To visit The Wit’s End Brewery: 2505 W 2nd Ave, Unit 13 Denver, CO 80219, Scott serves Denver made pretzels and if you would like to have a little more to eat he welcomes you to bring in carry out, order food while you are there or just bring dinner from home.
To Follow Scott & Wit’s End on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WitsEndBrewing
Some of the bars and restaurants that have featured Wit’s End Brews: