How Homebrewers Transformed a Hobby Into a Business

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The impressive tap selection at Eugene, Oregon’s Tap & Growler.

Business is a combination of vision, drive, execution, and above all, timing.

Two homebrewing friends, Colby Phillips and Patric Campbell, combined experience, interest, and a timely jump on a change in Oregon law to create not one, but two distinctive beer bars in Eugene, Oregon.

Today, Tap & Growler and Beergarden are lively hubs for craft beer, wine, and other craft beverages, along with distinctive combinations of food and events.

Change in law brings an opportunity

The craft beer industry has been growing at a breakneck pace. In 1978 there were just 89 US craft breweries. By 1998, that number had grown to 1,514, according to the Brewers Association.

By  2016, the US had a record number of breweries: 5,301. And Eugene was no stranger to craft beer— home to nationally and globally renowned, award-winning breweries Oakshire, Alesong, and Ninkasi Brewing, the 33rd-largest brewery in the country and the fourth-largest in Oregon.

All that beer had to go somewhere. By 2012, Phillips and Campbell had a solid vision of what they wanted to do.

“We both had long-term homebrew backgrounds as well as business backgrounds and felt like we could use both to create an interesting and successful craft beer bar,” says Phillips. “I also had a fairly extensive knowledge of the craft beer world, breweries, and their beers. My previous career in sales took me across the state and country and I went to every beer bar, brewpub and wine bar I could in order to help create this idea I had brewing in the back of my mind.”

Then there was that law change.

While filling growlers—jugs with volumes such as 32 oz. (quart) or 64 oz. (half-gallon)—was already legal in Oregon for beer fills, a 2013 law opened up growler fills for other beverages, such as wine and hard cider. Phillips and Campbell knew this could be big.

In September 2013, in a renovated 1918 former loading dock near Eugene’s upscale 5th Street Public Market, Tap & Growler opened.

“Our point was to be the first place to specialize in pushing both beer and wine equally. The name Tap & Growler was meant to imply that we were a taphouse/taproom that patrons could enjoy a pint and that we filled growlers as well,” explains Phillips. “This model has turned out to be effective. The taproom feel and selling pints has been crucial to our success at T&G. Growler fills have helped us maintain a large and diverse tap list.”

With 81 rotating taps pouring craft beverages from around Oregon and around the world, Phillips and Campbell knew they also had to focus on providing a curated experience. The storage conditions, appropriate glassware, ongoing training, and behind-the-bar lookup references ensures that all personnel serves each type of beverage correctly. “It’s a challenge to find someone equally versed in, say, beer and wine,” says Phillips, “so we all cross-train each other with our respective expertise.”

In addition to over 40 taps of beer, Tap & Growler offers wine, mead, cider, kombucha, soda, and cold-pressed coffee (sake has even been offered). They also offer house cocktails, and a food menu developed and prepared by the chef-owners of The Zingaro, a food cart that has a permanent spot at Beergarden.

“We’re still a beer bar primarily, but want to make sure everyone walks away happy and enthusiastic about our pub,” says Phillips. “We also had to significantly expand our kitchen and food menu to help keep people coming back.”

From growler to garden

Building off the initial success of Tap & Growler, Phillips and Campbell began discussing ideas for something even more inventive: a “festive environment” combining a beer garden and food cart pod.

Located in a renovated 3,000 square-foot former service station next to a garden center and just west of a busy highway interchange, Beergarden’s indoor/outdoor space has become a popular local hangout not only for its 46 taps, but for The Zingaro, Sporks A la Cart, and Lani Moku Grill, the three food carts in permanent residence (an additional one to two carts can also rotate through on a temporary or seasonal basis).

“Beergarden kicked off with an opening on Friday, June 5, 2015,” says Phillips. “We remember this specifically because it was Eugene Beer Week and we were scrambling to open for our advertised Grand Opening on the 5th. We had no soft opening.”

The 1,000 square-foot public inside space combines seating for 60 with a decor of industrial and green garden design: red oak, brass, leaded glass, copper arch planters, garage doors, and concrete, with seasonal plants on tables. In addition to the taps, a limited bottle selection is also available for enjoying at Beergarden or for taking home. Outside, a covered patio and canopy area seats 30 at 4-top tables, a horseshoe booth, around a central double-sided gas fireplace, and along long picnic-style tables. The neighboring Gray’s Garden Center also works with Beergarden on providing plants and growing space, and there are plans to construct raised beds and wine barrel planters.

While the tap selection is inspired by Tap & Growler, the novelty of Beergarden is the combination of indoor/outdoor space, along with the variety of food provided by the food carts. “There are a few pods that have started to congregate,” says Phillips, “but nothing organized like this with a common building. We couldn’t pass up this opportunity to unite some good local food carts with the garden center and create an inviting area for these carts and patrons to gather.”

Lunch and dinner crowds come for anything from live music, to a food truck meal, to an enclosed space where kids can play (minors are welcome till 9 p.m.) The on-site food carts pull in lots of foodies and food cart fans, and the location—at a confluence of neighborhoods and major streets and highways—brings in people who aren’t necessarily drawn in because of the beer. In its first year alone, Beergarden racked up “best beers on tap,” “best new restaurant,” and “best new business” people’s choice accolades in local media.

“What I love is there’s no specific type of age group or type of person,” says Chelsy Navarro, owner of Lani Moku Grill, a Hawaii-focused food cart which has been at Beergarden since the beginning. “We see it all, from young kids and families drawing on the wall with chalk, to people who want some beer and music, to high school reunions.”

The space’s popularity has made for some growing pains, with Phillips is currently trying to figure out. “Our main challenge at Beergarden has been adding more seats and to continue to help build on the garden aspect we’re looking for.”

There have been good surprises too though—such as making space for an outdoor stage. “The live music on Thursdays and Saturdays has been well received and not something we initially were going for.”

The risks of success

With 20 employees, 2 locations, and a presence in an industry that is in the midst of fast-paced change, Phillips also knows that he and Campbell have to stay aware.

“The biggest challenge right now for any taphouse or beer bar is the saturation of the market,” he explains. “You have to stand out and do things right to continue to be successful.”

In addition to listening to feedback from customers, food cart owners, and staff, Phillips and Campbell try to stay proactive in monitoring local events, industry trends, and customer interests. “Being adaptive to market trends is essential to the long-term success of any business,” says Phillips. “We seek out changes so that we’re at the forefront of any new trend.”

Advice from a beer bar owner

For those starting or growing their own beer bar, taphouse, or tavern, Phillips has some advice based on his experience:

Make the rounds

Visit places similar to the business you want to create. What works? What doesn’t?

“I visited dozens of pubs, breweries, and tasting rooms,” says Phillips. “I borrowed ideas from each place, good or bad, to help us create the spaces that we have now.”

Ask yourself: Are you offering the right mix of what people want?

“We started out right in the middle of the exploding growler fill station era that mostly focused on filling growlers. It appears that having good food, location, and ambiance is vital to the success of taphouses/taprooms,” says Phillips. “We had the location and ambiance, but have had to work to add the food component.”

How will you stand out?

Area breweries often allow food carts and food trucks to set up shop during public tasting room hours—but Beergarden put together a mix of food, decor, curated craft beverages, and a welcoming, family-friendly environment that has proven to be a winning combination.

“Live music in an outdoor venue has helped create an energetic feel. The decor and feel of the pub is consistently noted as a positive from customers. The tap and bottle lists are very well curated by our seasoned veteran beer steward. Finally, the location might be as or more important than anything. All of these features together have significantly and symbiotically helped create the success of Beergarden.”

Even a specialty place can be accommodating and approachable

Beergarden isn’t just for beer geeks, perhaps best illustrated by an American-style craft lager that is Beergarden’s sole permanent tap.

If someone comes in for a meal but isn’t necessarily into craft beer, that lager gives them a familiar point of reference—and can win them over into coming back again.

Timing is everything—so take advantage of good opportunities before you lose advantage or momentum

When a law change made it possible to have an establishment like Tap & Growler, Phillips and Campbell made it happen. Where others saw a vacant former filling station, Phillips and Campbell saw a garden.

“We knew we couldn’t pass up on this location when it became available,” says Phillips, “and this has proved to be a good opportunity for us.”

Have a sense of place—and a sense of humor

The lumber for the woodwork, bar tops, and tables in Tap & Growler? It came from the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery in Milwaukee (and in homage, PBR is always on tap at T&G).

All the decor and furniture in Beergarden came from a local Marie Callendar’s restaurant that was about to be demolished. The salad bar sneeze shield now hangs above the bar. These things not only add character, they give customers a laugh—and a story to tell when they spread the word.

Fresh and interesting

For Phillips, both Tap & Growler and Beergarden are finding success because he and Campbell understand that they have to keep things local, fresh and interesting—the sort of thing their demographic is looking for.

They also know that they’ll remain willing to change. “Adapt or die,” says Phillips. “And surround yourself with smart people who are on your side.”

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Anthony St. Clair
Anthony St. Clair
Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.
Posted in Growth & Metrics, Management