CO-FOUNDER – PORTICO BREWING COMPANY
ortico Brewing Co. was started in 2012 by two friends home-brewing out of one of their parents’ basements…Well, no, not really. I just thought that sounded like a good startup story.
The reality is that Portico is a beer business I helped start, grow, and sustain over the last six years. Along the way, I’ve grown professionally and creatively and learned a lot about myself while trying survive in the competitive world of craft beer.
How the Hell Did I Get Here?
My relationship with beer began when I was working on an eighth grade science project, tracking the specific gravity as alcohol formed over time. I asked my next-door neighbor, Phil Bannatyne, founder of Cambridge Brewing Co., if I could borrow some unfermented beer (wort). He gladly obliged (with permission from my parents, of course), and I was immediately enchanted by the process and the magical nature of this fascinating brown liquid.
Fast forward twelve years to grad school at Babson. I was messing around with a couple of consumer product concepts, but wasn’t excited about any of them until I met my now-business partner, Alex Zielke. He asked me and a couple other guys in our section if we were interested in home-brewing with him, so a group of us decided to try it out.
We quickly learned that Alex really knew what he was doing. He had left a career in biotech to get his Brewmaster Certification at the VLB (Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei) Institute in Berlin before going to Babson for his MBA. He not only taught us the basics of boiling temperatures, mashing, sparging, making a yeast starter, and all the rest, but he also explained the complicated chemistry behind each step.
Perhaps I was reminded of my eighth grade beguilement with beer or intoxicated by the trickery of turning cereal water into alcohol. Either way, I was hooked.
Pretty soon, most of the members of our little beer club dropped off. It didn’t surprise me—brewing really isn’t for everyone. It’s a long day of doing one thing for a few minutes, sitting around for an hour, then doing another two-minute thing, then a ten-minute thing, then more sitting around.
There’s also A LOT of cleaning involved (which I admittedly find sort of relaxing) and it requires a keen attention to detail. And if you’re lucky enough to do everything right, you still have to wait a few weeks to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone, but it was for me.
What started as a group effort turned into just me and Alex meeting to brew at his place, grabbing lunch at American Craft in Brookline (sadly no longer with us), drinking Bud Lights (yes, you read that right), and all along talking about ideas for how we’d one day start our own beer business.
Having no money and observing how newcomer Pretty Things had started their business as a “gypsy” brewery (contracting out of Buzzards Bay Brewing), we thought we’d take a shot at the contract model. After calling a bunch of breweries and finding that most were too large for us—Buzzards Bay was 100 barrels a batch, for example—we decided to look into alternative options. We eventually discovered Watch City Brewing in Waltham, a small-ish brewpub with a 14-barrel brewhouse. After talking to brewers Aaron and Kelly, we discovered that they almost always had an empty fermenter—in business we call that “excess capacity”—and our eyes lit up.
After many conversations and lots of sampling home-brews (some of which we still brew today), we were told we could have a fermenter for our first batch. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to be a frickin’ beer business.
Now that we had a place to brew, we had to decide on a name. I had worked for an architect for several years and was interested in words and ideas from that space. I kept coming back to the term “portico”—which is a columned porch structure—both for its universality and also for its suggestion of an entryway.
These ideas appealed to the styles of beers we were making—approachable ‘gateway’ craft beers that focused on simple ingredients and technique. Architecture also inspired the aesthetic I wanted to achieve with our branding—minimalistic and mostly black and white—and our beer names, including ‘Two Point Pils’ after two point perspective and ‘Escher’ after the graphic artist known for impossible architectural drawings. We even designed our tap handles to resemble the Guggenheim museum in New York City, one of my favorite buildings.
The final step was to figure out where we were going to put all the beer—in brewing we call this “cooperage”—so we raised a little bit of money from friends and family in order to purchase enough kegs to fill at least three batches. We found out about a large shipment of used kegs coming to the states from a defunct brewery in Germany and snagged 100 of them for around $100 a pop. It felt like we would never be able to fill that many kegs until we learned that Rogue in Oregon had bought 10,000 from the very same shipment. Humble pie.
Becoming a Salesman
While the kegs were on their way and the first batch was on the calendar, we now had to find places that actually wanted to purchase our beer. So I hit the streets—in sales we call this “pounding the pavement”—armed with home-brews of Fuzzy Logic (the first beer we planned to brew) with labels I printed at home slapped on recycled 12oz bottles.
I had zero sales experience, so admittedly my first days as a salesman were rough. I also had a hard time taking criticism given that the product I was selling was one I had made. On the flip side, when I got positive feedback, it was that much more rewarding.
But like anything new—and I believe this is true about relationships as well—it’s all there in the beginning. The sales style that I quickly developed, the restrained persistence that I learned it took to make a sale, and the ability to sense when an account just wasn’t a fit are all consistent with my current approach. I learned to trust my instincts early on and absorbed a lot of information from those first sales calls that continues to help us grow the business.
When the pavement was sufficiently pounded, I had landed a handful of accounts all eagerly awaiting our first batch of beer. With customers lined up, kegs on the way, and a batch of beer scheduled for liftoff, Portico was born.
“I also had a hard time taking criticism given that the product I was selling was one I had made. On the flip side, when I got positive feedback, it was that much more rewarding.”
Working the Side Hustle
Starting a business with very little investment the way we did also meant that there was no salary built in for all of our hard work. With grad school loans to repay and a desire to move out of my parents’ house—in adulthood we call this “lame”—I decided that I needed a day job to pay the bills.
I knew that this could hurt our growth unless I could carve out several hours in the day for Portico, so I decided to take a somewhat bold interview approach. I came right out with it and told potential employers that I had another business opportunity that was important to me, that I would give them everything I had during the hours I was working, but that I needed flexibility to be able to continue to run Portico. And lo and behold, it worked.
Now, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this strategy if you need a job quickly, but I will say that when I did land one—doing business development and marketing for a real estate consultant—I felt incredibly empowered. I had been honest with them and could now work my day job without guilt or fear that I would be reprimanded for my frequent absences to make sales calls or deliver beer.
Having worked cubicle jobs for years, I understood the resentment that can come from feeling fastened to your desk. Portico became my escape valve and a light the end of each deadline that helped me push through the workday doldrums. It was a daily sense of excitement I had never experienced before.
Working a double life isn’t for everybody. It’s tiring, it can kill your weekends, and you’ll probably miss out on joining that dodgeball league all your coworkers keep talking about at the water cooler. But for the right personality, it can be a much needed respite from the slog of the workday, keep the brain firing in new and exciting ways, and expose you to interesting people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. It has done all of that for me.
The Hustle Continues
Now six years in, I am proud to say we’re still a growing business with new accounts and new customers each week. We’ve also got a great team – including fellow Babson’er Ian Chester and former chef turned event guru Ben Engle – pushing the company forward and wearing lots of Portico hats every day. As anyone with a pair of Warby Parker glasses and finely manicured facial hair can tell you (by the way, I fit this description), craft beer is pretty hot right now. But this also means there’s a lot of competition.
Portico has certainly been challenged to compete amidst a growing landscape of breweries, taprooms, beer bars, and increasingly sophisticated palates, but we continue to find our place in the market. We’ve stuck to our guns in making approachable, uncomplicated beer with lots of flavor, and I’m proud of the fact that we haven’t followed the trends. We’re always improving, tinkering and trying to outwit ourselves, and continue to be our own toughest customers.
As for me, I’m still hard at work on the side hustle, brewing and selling, but no longer delivering (we have a large regional distributor now). And I’m loving it. I plan to someday add a small brewing facility and taproom to our operation, but until that time I will continue to push myself to grow the business the way I’ve come to know how: with hard work, a youthful fascination for what I create, and a lot of hustle.