Have you ever been curious about how to open a brewery? It’s certainly not easy, but it might be more achievable than you think! Today we’re excited to share the story of how Jef Smith is in the process of going from homebrewer to pro brewer by opening Loaded Dice Brewery. We hope you find his story inspiring and his advice helpful in pursuing your own dream!
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Let’s start the interview!
Thanks for joining us, Jef! Our hope is that other homebrewers who are interested in opening a brewery can learn from and be inspired by your experience in opening Loaded Dice Brewery! We’re excited to be speaking with you!
Thanks! Even though the brewery isn’t open quite yet, it’s been an interesting, but fulfilling experience.
Tell us a little bit about Loaded Dice Brewery!
Loaded Dice is a new brewery opening in Troy, MI, and we’re bringing the spirit of homebrewing back to craft beer!
Loaded Dice Brewery will never take things too seriously. To me, I got into homebrewing to hang with friends and be social. We made jokes. Poked fun at each other. Played poker together. Threw around the frisbee or football. It was about that. That’s what I want the brewery to be like. If I take things too seriously, it would be forced. If I try to be traditional, it wouldn’t be honest.
When you open a brewery, it can be hard to stand out. What makes your brewery unique?
Loaded Dice will be an “open brewery”, similar to an open kitchen concept at a restaurant. We want to create and encourage conversation about the beers we brew. Want to know our recipes? Our cards are on the table. Malt. Water. Hops. Yeast. We want you to know what we know, and what you know, ya know? We even have a super-secret mobile app in the works to help with this. (Hey, that’s another revenue stream!)
My background is in tech and startups, so it’s natural to leverage these elements in the brewery. I have coined the phrase “Open Source Brewing” where we hope to unlock the recipes and process to lift the curtain (so to speak) of the brewing side. With this, I plan on using some newer devices and tools to provide more information. An example of this would be using Tilt Hydrometers in all fermenting beers. Tilt are essentially a BlueTooth beacon that transmits a signal to a phone app to give data about the fermentation phase of the brewing process. This information would then be displayed on the patron side of the brewery. The hope to keep the consumers informed, and to spark conversation and interest into the process.
But the conversation goes both ways. It can’t be all about our ideas. We’ll regularly tap (another pun) our customers for their great ideas and, heck, we might even make those ideas into beers. We’re going to set the standard for what an “open brewery” should be.
I want to do some “Crowdsourcing” of recipes and beer creation. I want to make my customers feel like they are intimately involved at the brewery. This is still a work in progress, but the brewery will have an interface where the customers will have the opportunity to create and vote on recipes. The hope is that we do one or two of these recipes per month and have them be “feel good taps” where $1 per pint will go to a local charity.
We believe in sharing information. This is why we have decided to borrow themes from the open source community and reveal the “source code” of our brewery. Not only will we openly share all our beer recipes but also the processes we’ve been through to open and run the brewery. For example, we have shared photos on our Instagram page at various stages of the taproom build out.
Expect to see mash schedules, fermentation profiles, brew house and bar schematics and many other things related to Loaded Dice Brewery. We feel sharing of this information is a great way to give back to the brewing community and help educate others looking to open a brewery.
What styles of beer are you most focused on?
As a homebrewer, I always said that if I ever opened a brewery, I would brew traditional “true to style” German recipe founded beers. However, I also have a culinary background, so I tend to play with flavors profiles and treat beer like a plate of food.
I am a craft beer enthusiast, first and foremost. I am constantly trying new beer styles and using it as “market research”.
I brew traditionally, but cannot help myself with playing with flavors. Also, my brand lends to creative spins on these. Case in point is a Weizenbock called The Fat King, named after Elvis and his favorite sandwich. It’s pretty traditional to use a yeast that produces a lot of banana notes. I add Peanut Butter powder, some smoked malt and salt to make it a PB, Banana & Bacon beer.
Loaded Dice Brewery is casino and gambling themed, and I have been constructing recipes like this to fit within the theme. For example, we make a NEIPA called the Dank Vegas. We try to have fun with our descriptions, like this one for the Dank Vegas:
Dank Vegas: You, Phil, Stu and Alan all go to Vegas for a bit of a boys vacation. Alan got some of this dank stuff and you all engage in some recreational usage. The next 24 hours were a blur. Someone’s tooth went missing. Phil got married to a stripper. Iron Mike punched out Stu. You all kidnapped a tiger. And all of that is what you had photos of…who knows what else happened. It stayed in Dank Vegas. This is a New England style IPA brewed with Strata and Mosaic hops, and Golden Promise malt. Strata is the star here. The flavor and aroma has been described as “passion fruit meets pot” and will hit you with melon, mango and citrus along with dank herbal notes of cannabis.
What are your flagship or best selling beers?
Because LDB isn’t actually open, I can only say what beers have been the best received. The Fat King has medaled in the two competitions it entered. Home Game Lager (and Amber American Lager) also has a medal to its name. Beyond that, The Luckiest Man is a Pina Colada Milkshake IPA that everyone seems to be enjoying. Here’s the description of that one:
LUCKIEST MAN: Back in your poker playing days, you heard of this legendary gambler simply called “The Luckiest Man”. No one can recall meeting him, or seeing him, but everyone knew about him. Stories were as grand and passed on like Aesop Fables. The crux of his story is that he went on an epic run over a six month period winning enough money to walk off into the sunset. It’s now believed that he is sitting in a beach cabana in the Caribbean sipping on Pina Coladas. We can’t be with him, but we sure can drink with him.
This Milkshake IPA was made with lactose and palm sugar added to the boil to give it a creamy mouthfeel. Additions of Sabro and Mosaic hops bring notes of pineapple, coconut and tropical fruit. And why stop there? We fermented this recipe on pineapple puree and then heavily dry hopped with Galaxy and Vic Secret. Finally, we conditioned it on grilled pineapple, coconut, and rum soaked vanilla to round out this tropical delight. Because: we can.
But there are a few others: Czech the Turn (Czech Pils), The Grand Old Man (Sour IPA w/ elderberries), and Field Bet Wheat.
Are you planning to focus on taproom sales or distribution?
I have changed my expectation during the COVID-19 shutdowns for when I open. The business model has changed on the fly. When the brewery opens, it’s going to be curbside pickup, call ahead ordering, hyper local distribution and delivery. I can’t imagine the days of having 100 people in a taproom is going to happen any time soon. This is ok. My approach was always to be the small guy on the block. This change may actually be an advantage. Initially, the plan was to only be open Thursday-Saturday and maybe some Sundays. I am pretty much doing everything at the brewery from the start. I am also going to keep my “day job” as long as it is possible. Fortunately, both the brewery and my workplace are minutes from my house. This would have allowed me to brew (if necessary) Monday-Wednesday evenings (starting even on my lunch, or work from the brewery). Now, I can still do that, but be open for pick up those days, and not to really have to hire a full staff. This will allow me to gauge the demand and need easier as well.
When and how did you decide to open a brewery?
Opening a brewery has been on my mind the first time I took a sip of Sierra Nevada in 1994 (showing my age). I didn’t know a beer could have a depth of flavor and hit you with different profiles like that beer hit me. I didn’t know that in 20+ years I would be writing a business plan to open a Nano-Brewery, but it is what got me started.
Once I had a business plan, I started to look for partners and funding. Funny thing about asking investors and banks for money — they aren’t too interested in “passion projects” or investing in someone without any tangible experience in the domain. I launched a Kickstarter in January of 2019 that was successfully funded in March, 2019. That gave a bit of a startup cash to buy the Brewha. From there, my wife and I pulled money from retirement accounts to locate a space and start the build out. This is where we are at today.
I have developed great relationships with several local breweries and brewery owners. My main role model and mentor has been Andy Thomas of Starving Artist Brewery in Ludington, MI. I stumbled on this place when I had an Uncle/Nephew getaway three years ago. His brewery is in a barn on his family property. It’s a brewery IN A BARN. Andy is epic and charismatic. He’s dealt with my daily barrage of texts and emails with all sorts of questions, freak outs and panic attacks. He’s giving me so much more than anyone should. Once I open, I will have plenty of paying it forward to do.
What is one thing you wish you had known before opening a brewery?
It’s not that I didn’t know it, I just didn’t have the real world experience with starting a business. I feel like I have researched and budgeted properly, but things don’t happen always as scheduled. For instance, finding an architect and getting the plans approved took me 3+ months. That I didn’t expect. I knew it would take time, but not 12-15 weeks.
What has been your greatest success running Loaded Dice Brewery?
I think building the brand and social media presence without actually being open. I feel that I have done a decent job of cultivating a following without actually being out there yet.
What was your greatest failure in running Loaded Dice Brewery, and what did you learn from it?
Expecting to get investors on board without actually having a business or being open. You can tell a great story, and supply a vision, but it doesn’t mean that investors will come with open checkbooks and hand you gobs of money. Investors are there to make money, not just to help you achieve a dream. You need to build some form of trust on both ends of the partnership.
What is the number one piece of advice that you would give to someone who is interested in opening a brewery?
Be ready to be disciplined and put in a lot of work. If I were to do it all over, I would have a partner to take on some of the work instead of trying to do it alone. Build a good network of lawyers, accountants, and other service professionals that you can leverage, too. You’re going to need them!
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
When and how did you start brewing?
I started with some friends on some Mr. Beer kits. We quickly realized that wasn’t giving us the quality we wanted. We all pooled money and bought some expanded equipment (brew kettles, fermenters, etc). With this group, I went from extract, to partial all-grain, to all-grain to investing into a 3-vessel HERMs system. Due to the many moves during the recession (my family moved from CA to SE MI to W MI to Nashville, TN then back to SE MI in four years), I lost much of my system and equipment. I dabbled with an all in one system (Mash and Boil) that I really liked. Once I decided to take a leap to opening a brewery, I purchased a Brewha BIAC (1.5BBL) system. Knowing (and assuming) that I would be tight on space, these systems made sense. However, the space doesn’t have the height clearance necessary to use these.
Do you have any formal brewing education?
I don’t have a formal education. As I mentioned, I was a beer and homebrewing enthusiast first who was looking for something to do with friends. Couple that with being a culinarian and maybe a little too much ADD, and I grew rather obsessed with creating recipes and coming up with different ideas to make something unique with beer.
Is there anything else about you, your brewery, or your beer that you would like to share?
I may not make the “best” beer, but I will try to give a unique experience which each beer I make. My favorite thing is not only to come up with the recipe, but to craft the story of the beer. I want my customers to know the inspiration behind each beer I create and why.
How can people connect with you?
When the world starts getting back to normal, we’ll be opening the brewery! We’re located at 1725 Rochester Road, Troy, MI 48083. Hope to see you there!
Email us at: email@example.com
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Jef! Best of luck to you and the rest of the Loaded Dice Brewery family in the future!
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