It’s been said that starting a business partnership is like getting married – only more expensive. There’s definitely some truth to that.
Our journey into corporate marriage truly began one dark, cold October evening back in 2016. Three beer minds gathered around a dining room table in a southwest Calgary house. The goal? To see if they could work together to start a brewery.
Those were the true beginnings of Cabin Brewing Company, even if it didn’t have a name at that point. The trio were Jonas Hurtig, Darrin Sayers and me - Haydon Dewes. All three of us had been trying, in different ways, to get a brewery started. By process of elimination, we realized we could work together. And you know what? It made sense.
Darrin and Jonas’ journey began earlier in 2016. The pair had met at the Cowtown Yeast Wranglers homebrew club and both were among the club’s top brewers. They became friends. All home brewers ruminate from time to time about starting a brewery, and that's what Darrin and Jonas did. These discussions became more serious. Then the planning began. It was getting serious.
I was also a homebrew club member, but didn’t know Darrin and Jonas well. I’d see them at club meets and bump into them at beer events. I’d tried beer made by both of them and had been very impressed.
I’d been working with my beer-loving wife Jill, who was on maternity leave at the time with our second child, on the possibility of starting our own little brewery. Turning 40 had made me realize I had another 20 years (at least) of working, in a job I liked - but not loved. It was a midlife crisis, but instead of a shiny sports car I was looking to buy something way more expensive. A shiny brewery.
I am an English literature major and Jill is a voracious reader (she devours a book a week) and we both have a love affair with books. We wanted to start a brewery called Paperback Brewing, with a library-themed taproom with wall to wall books. It was going to be amazing.
As we worked through financials and our work plan, two things became very apparent. The first was that starting a brewery was going to take an immense amount of work, with much of the hands-on work in the brewery itself falling to me. The second was that we had some major gaps in our skill set; I am only mildly handy with tools and wouldn’t know where to start with construction or brewery installation. I also had no idea how to brew on a commercial level – and knew enough from my own observations of the brewing world to know that this was vital if we wanted to make a product that we could be proud of.
We decided to approach an additional partner to join us. My mind immediately went to Jonas; affable, well connected, great brewer, commercial brew experience – he ticked all the boxes. I sent him a message on Facebook Messenger. Here are the messages, verbatim:
Haydon: “Hey man – somewhat serious question… Are you looking to do your own thing brewery-wise yet? Jill and I are having crazy thoughts about ruining our lives by going down the brewery route and looking for someone we like who can actually make beer to partner with (i.e., you). If you’re at all interested, let’s talk...”
The response came quickly.
Jonas: “Hey man! I am actually working on something already with another friend of mine. Thank you for thinking of me and if this doesn’t end up working out, let’s chat :)”
(See, told you he was affable…)
It was back to the drawing board. I sketched up a list of people I knew who could fill the gap. Fortune dictated that Darrin would come to my house that weekend - I had organized a homebrew exchange through the club for those of us who had grown our own hops at home and then brewed beer with them. When he came to my house to collect his beer, I popped the question; have you thought about starting a brewery?
I couldn’t believe it - he also said he was already working on something with someone else. But then the giveaway line came - “He’s a professional brewer.” The penny dropped. Jonas – our first pick brewer, and also a friend of Darrin - worked at Wild Rose Brewery. It had to be him.
I proposed the three of us meet over a beer and compare notes. I had cash to invest and marketing experience. A few days later I got a message back saying "let’s do it". And that’s how we ended up huddled around my dining room table that cold October evening, sharing good beer, talking about working together.
I mentioned earlier that the three of us working together made sense. Why?
In our opinion, you need some very specific skills in order to make a brewery successful. The first is the ability to make great beer. That is our raison d’être. I keep repeating something that Andrew Kulynych, owner of Bench Creek Brewery, once told me. I remember that moment vividly. We were sitting on the patio of his brewery in rural Edson, drinking a glass of Naked Woodsman, straight from a mispoured can off the canning line that was operating inside. As fresh as it gets. I'd been in Edson for work and had to overnight in town, so arranged to drive out and say hi. I was writing for The Daily Beer at the time so couldn't pass up an opportunity to visit such an isolated spot.
The gravel road to his brewery was being torn up by a roading crew, and it looked impenetrable. After a five minute wait, the crew arranged for a front end loader to reverse through the destruction with its shovel flat on the ground to literally cut a track for me to navigate my small rental car through the mess. And so, as Andrew and I sat there in the sun, the quote came, and it stuck with me: "The only two things you need to do to be a successful brewery is make great beer, and make money - in that order. If you switch those priorities around, you fail."
Andrew may not even remember saying that. For me, it was a foundational moment. It stuck with me, so having Jonas as founder and head brewer was a huge win - the man can brew, and brew good. His recipe formulation and technical brewing skills are second to none. He’s a beer judge. He can run a brewery laboratory and ensure beer is of the highest quality. He’s a key part of our trifecta.
The second is the ability to actually do stuff. Things that make the brewery run effectively and efficiently. That’s where Darrin comes in. He’s a mechanic by trade, a hobby scientist, a handyman, an amazing brewer, a beer judge with impeccable sensory skills and a hard worker. As head of operations we’ve got someone who can keep the brewery running smoothly and seamlessly.
The third thing you need is the ability to tell your story. To establish a brand and get it out there. Ultimately, this means the ability to sell your product. It doesn’t matter how good the beer is if no one knows about you. That’s where I come in - a crime and politics newspaperman by trade, more recently a communications advisor and manager. I’d used those skills and created a beer news blog - The Daily Beer - focusing on the booming Alberta beer scene. That led to me becoming the CBC Eyeopener beer columnist, and drove me to become to a Certified Cicerone and beer judge. There’s nothing I love more than creating a compelling brand and telling our story - the story of building our Cabin. The story of great beer.
Ours is a story of three people with complementary skills finding each other. But are complementary skill sets all you need?
We also put great importance on being able to work together, and share a common vision. For us that means the highest quality of flavourful beer, served in a warm and friendly environment. We’re all ambitious and plan to lead, not follow, when it comes to the beer we make.
And so, we are back to the point about how starting a long-term business is like getting married – you’ve got to find someone you trust and admire, and share common values and goals with. There needs to be synergy. You need someone that helps make you a better person.
And so, as we sat around the dining table during that first meeting and looked each other in the eye, we knew there was a spark. We could see the future, and we were nervously excited. We knew we could make each other better and as a unit, be among the best. We agreed to forge ahead and take the initial steps needed to make our partnership work.
We didn’t know it as our glasses clinked and we toasted to our success, but one of the biggest challenges was about to begin – developing a comprehensive business plan. But first, we had to come up with a name. Simple right? Well, you’d think so. In Chapter 2, we’ll explain why such a simple task took such a long time.