Flood of craft breweries prompts changes at Milwaukee beer incubator

John Graham and Michael Anderson created The Crafter Space in 2014 to create a better environment for craft breweries in Milwaukee. A year later, their 10-week course Barley to Barrel was born.

But just five years later, Graham said the Milwaukee craft brewery scene is very different, with the city reaching what he called a saturation point in the number of breweries. With that in mind, Graham said the company is adapting its Barley to Barrel program to better serve the current climate.

Graham and his team offered four Barley to Barrel classes, at a cost of $1,000 per 10-week course. About 15 months ago, the programs were halted to, as Graham said, “let the program ferment.” Something the founder did not expect was many participants of the course ended up pursuing careers in brewery.

Six alumni of the Barley to Barrel class ended up starting their own breweries. Brewfinity, Copper State Brewing Co., Component Brewing, Stock House Brewing, New Barons Brewing Cooperative and Duran Brewing Co. opened following a Barley to Barrel class. Faklandia Brewing, Sabbatical Brewing and Wizard Works Brewing all plan to open shortly, also following a Barley to Barrel program.

Additionally, Barley to Barrel alumni work at Third Space Brewing, Good City Brewing, One Barrel Brewing and Spike Brewing.

“That has allowed us to say okay, Milwaukee may have an appropriate amount of breweries presently. What are those breweries going to need as they grow?” Graham said.

The Crafter Space team is currently in the planning stages of this next revival of training. Graham hopes to have something finalized by the end of the year.

“The next iteration could be more of a technical training either in person or via video, film, saying here’s five skills you need to have to walk into a brewery and be successful,” Graham added.

Some of the questions he finds breweries asking is the need for additional expertise in the industry.

“They’re going to need staff, staff that they don’t want to just start from the ground level, someone that doesn’t know anything about working in the brewery,” Graham said.

Graham said he sees breweries leaning strongly toward the hyper-local direction. Many of the Barley to Barrel alumni are looking to start neighborhood breweries and not have the expansive distribution that breweries such as Milwaukee Brewing Co. and Lakefront Brewery have. He sees the Milwaukee craft brewery scene at a reasonable distribution now, not as saturated as San Diego with four breweries on a corner but also fewer and fewer areas that do not have any breweries.

In order to redevelop this craft brewery incubator, Graham said The Crafter Space is currently speaking to brewery experts about what they want to grow their breweries to the next maturity stage. Some topics that come up are the skills needed to enter the brewery industry and the ability to understand the impact of marketing both within the taproom and on the manufacturing floor.

In a perfect world, Graham would want a fully operational brewery to use as a teaching facility. That was always his dream.

“I don’t know there is a need for that. I would probably like to partner with somebody in this market that’s already brewing, that has time, which is probably the most precious commodity,” Graham said.

Other options include online programming via coursework, videos or a podcast. He also discussed tailoring his material so that it applies both to local breweries and can be accessible and relevant to other breweries throughout the country.

Graham said a new model will also require a new payment plan. He expects it will most likely be cheaper than the original 10-week, $1,000 program.

“I’m pretty proud of the people that are in Milwaukee and the suburban rings for doing the right thing, scaling the right way and having the right goals and I’m glad that we’ve had some folks come through the program and either start a business or go on to work in one, to change their career, to move into an opportunity like that,” he said. “That’s pretty gratifying.”

Margaret Naczek, Milwaukee Business Journal

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