"Discerning craft-brew drinkers usually try many beers, but they try local ones first," Danckers theorizes, and his Buckeye patrons have proven him right from the beginning.
Good for What Ales You
As the truck hisses to a halt in front of Cleveland's Gund Arena, the air brakes sigh and the driver jumps out and throws open the truck's overhead cargo door. Passersby smile with relief as workers wheel the precious cargo into the stadium in plenty of time for the Cavaliers game later that day. Barrel after barrel-60 in all-roll into the building and down airy corridors to await distribution. Gund Arena has just received 1,900 gallons of Crooked River Brewery's Arena Draft.
A company president is rarely concerned with the trivial details of each delivery. But Crooked River's president, Stephan Danckers '83, is different. Earlier that day, he helped fill the barrels and load them on the truck.
Such is the atmosphere at Crooked River, a place that, for now, is "small enough so that everyone's roles aren't clearly defined." Each of the 11 employees pitches in wherever help is most needed, and it's common to see the head of sales on the line, slinging bottles, and filling cases.
Personally, Danckers prefers the title brewmaster, not president. He was born a brewmaster; presidency was thrust upon him. After graduating from Wabash in 1983 with majors in biology and philosophy, he attended the University of California at Davis, where he received a master's degree in food science. At Davis, he learned the brewer's art, with the goal of eventually working in one of the nation's big breweries.
At the same time, though, he noticed that three microbreweries-the only ones in the nation-had sprung up in California, and they piqued his interest. Eventually, Danckers became more and more attracted to the craft-brewing industry, and in 1991, while working as a brewmaster in a Cleveland restaurant, began to research going into business for himself. He and his wife visited hundreds of breweries and brewpubs over the next few years, and by 1994, Crooked River filled its first bottle. Today, the brewery has four regular selections, ranging from a light ale to a dark porter, and seasonal specialties, such as autumn's Erie Night Pumpkin Beer.
The Local Favorite
Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of the Crooked River Brewery. For now, the Crooked River is content to flow only through northern Ohio-from the shores of Lake Erie down to Columbus. Half a state might seem like a small area if you're selling long-distance service, but microbrews are a different ball game.
In such a competitive industry, Danckers considers a small distribution area to be the company's best strategy. So far, he's been right. He sets his course guided by both historical perspective and up-to-date business savvy. For the better part of brewing history, he notes, beermaking has been a local art, with each town and village forging its own brewing traditions. In terms of brewing history, only recently has the emergence of the "deep-pocketed brewing giants" slowed that trend.
It's not unreasonable, then, to hope to lure imbibers with picky taste buds back into a traditional setting. "Discerning craft-brew drinkers usually try many beers, but they try local ones first," Danckers theorizes, and his Buckeye patrons have proven him right from the beginning.
The desire to remain local is also supported by current business trends. Nationwide, the phenomenal popularity of microbrews means a precarious balance of feast and famine for small brewers. More consumers are buying specialty beers, but many more brews compete for the customer's money. Shelf space is like a good home-hard to find, hard to maintain, and the neighbors are always too close. New brewers to the market have a difficult time, Danckers says, because they can no longer survive merely being a great-tasting, local brewery.
"They have to be more than that; otherwise, the grocery stores won't even talk to them. Consumers never notice that there's a real 'weeding out' process going on, because it happens behind the scenes. If we tried to sell our beer in Indianapolis, it would be tough, because all we would be is a package. We wouldn't be able to say we're the local brewery."
So considering the woeful statistics for start-up businesses-that over half fail in their first few years-and similar tales that keep many potential entrepreneurs gratefully cubicle-bound, Crooked River is a major success. Since 1994, the company has grown by 30-35 percent each year. In 1998, Danckers predicts that the company could fill 9,000 barrels, up from 6,000 in 1997.
A barrel, the brewing industry's main unit of measure, holds 31 gallons of beer. A more familiar site to Wabash alumni is probably the half-barrel, the ubiquitous "keg" of choice that for years has served as Saturday night's fountain of youth and Sunday morning's harsh harbinger of mortality.
It's the Craft that Counts
In four or five years, Danckers hopes to have the brewery running at its maximum capacity-40,000 barrels. The number seems hard to imagine right now, but a few years ago, so did 6,000. For some perspective, consider that Anheuser-Busch, the country's largest brewer, shipped 91 million barrels in 1996. But as craft-beer drinkers and brewers stress, quantity and quality should never, ever be confused.
As the company grows in sales and staff, it inevitably begins to resemble a "real" company and has less and less of the frenetic amorphousness of a startup. With an amusing lament, Danckers sees job descriptions, performance reviews, and other corporate indicators approaching, as they have for so many other successful small enterprises. At Wabash, he jokes, "taking a few more business classes would have helped," noting that much of his business training has taken place on the job. But he praises his science background, which prepared him for brewing's incorporation of micro- biology, chemistry, and engineering.
Although running a business has its stressful moments,
Crooked River is a good fit for Danckers. In the past, owners of other small
breweries have decided to go to work for their larger competitors, often
selling off their brands to the giants. "There are times when you don't
even care that you're spending so much time because it's so fun, and other
times where you wonder when it's going to end. There are times when I feel
like chucking it-working for Stroh's and doing my eight hours." But
overall, he says, he's not swayed by the pressure. "I'm really enjoying
it. I don't want a way out right now."