By Chris McClellan
Call me cynical...
But on the scale of an entire lifetime, I think 20 years is a lot longer than you might think. It's an indescribable journey, and most of the memories we accumulated over that time have long since faded away, relegated to that odd moment of nostalgia or deja-vu. Remember that thing you did that one time? Over 20 years, it's a sparkling, ephemeral moment in time in an unconscious moment. I'm prone to hyperbole, but this is a very real thing.
But let's say, for a moment, that you've been building a business for the same 20 years. Those moments, over that same time frame, are often thrown into sharp focus. There was intention in those moments. There was deliberations. The stakes were high. The passion was omnipresent. A fast flowing river of critical thought, stress, joy, success...and failure.
I absolutely love the entrepreneurial spirit, and Freddy Bensch loves it as well. After 20 years, Sweetwater Brewing Company is going strong down in Atlanta, and Freddy couldn't be more positive about the outlook for his brewery, his people, and the steps they're taking to fortify their brand in the most competitive beer market in the world.
We caught up with him while he was in California. It's a quick interview with Freddy here on The Brew Enthusiast. Enjoy.
So...how are things going Freddy?
Everything’s going fantastic. 8 months ago I would have said differently, but we fixed a lot of things and tapped into some new folks at the brewery. People don’t love change, and we're finally in a good place. We always like to say that if you’re not evolving, you’re dying. For the first 15 years of business we relied on grassroots marketing to toe the boat at Sweetwater. When you’re finally changing it up after that amount of time, it can be hard, but we’ve got a lot of smart people, so we're going to make it.
What do you mean?
The competition in 2017 is incredible, so we are trying to cast a wider net with a more specific campaign. We’ve always been about the environment and the outdoors, and we've started tapping into those pillars and delivering a marketing message around those ideals. That being said, we’re definitely not going to abandon the things we’ve done for the past 20 years, including supporting the community in Georgia. Looking at the bigger picture, Atlanta itself grows by hundreds of thousands of people a year, which is a whole other challenge we're also addressing.
Sweetwater is celebrating 20 years, which is pretty crazy to think about. Does it feel like a long time? When you look back on one or two of the major challenges you worked through since you started, what stands out to you the most? Are you a better company for it? What would you have done differently in regards to addressing those challenges?
It honestly feels like 3 or 4 years to me. People ask me that quite a bit. It’s been so incredibly fast and incredibly fun, and it’s different every day. If I was doing something I didn't love to do, 20 years would feel like an eternity.
To your other question...it’s always easy to look back and say “I should have done this and I should have done that”. We set up some great parameters around the brewery, putting beer and people first. That's still our focus, and luckily we haven’t stepped on any major landmines. The recent challenges, with all the new entrants, is making the business the most challenging I’ve seen. At the end of the day, the tough get going, and it’s forced us to operate at our highest level. It’s probably the most raw we've ever been as a company. Should we grow faster or stick local…no telling whether the decisions are right or wrong until we do them.
How do you keep people around with so much competition out there?
People want to be recognized for their efforts. We’re a pretty lean company, so we put them in a place to kick ass. Mentally, physically, and monetarily. We allow them to know how important they are at the brewery, every day.
Who are you aiming to be, as a company, in the next 20 years? Bigger than ever before?
We’ve really always been an inward facing company. There’s always been that brewery that focuses on the competition, but we’re always ensuring that we can be the best we can be. Everything we’ve done to create the Sweetwater brand focuses on that idea. I still feel like we have the ability to take the brand to that level. Continue to do right by the beer and consumer and the people. We absolutely have to work harder, but we’ve got an awesome brand that’s got a lot left in it, so I'm really positive about our future.
Who are you aiming to be, as a company founder, in the next 20 years? Do you see your role changing any time soon?
Back in the early days I pretty much did everything, everday. These days, my role has developed into an air traffic controller position. My employees possess skillsets that I can only dream of possessing, which is a great thing. I’m making sure they’re successful in their respective areas. The job now is trying to ensure the 150 people are working toward a common goal. My role is getting them to see the vision, and then empowering them to get there.
Do you ever tired of it?
My 7 month old makes me tired. My 20 year old brewery makes me excited. You get caught up in the inertia of the business. There’s always another challenge, and I’m really competitive. I wanna win, and I want our people to win.
What's your daily routine these days? Some hot yoga in the morning?
If you call a hot diaper hot yoga, then I’m all about it. Typically start with getting the kids out of the door, but from there it’s touching base with all the leaders at the brewery. Making sure we’re functionally sound. We’re only in 19 states, and being the 15th largest brewery in the country, we have a lot of runway ahead of us. Back to your question earlier, we really think the Sweetwater brand can be a national brand, so a lot my day is spent on how we’re going to take it to the other 31 states.
You get out in trade much?
You have to be in market. Every day, ear to the ground. Stopping into the package store or bar, listening to the customers. That's where your business is, after all.
Let's talk about beer. The brewers have engaged in a lot of different creative endeavors over the years with stuff like the Dank Tank series. What keeps Sweetwater on its creative toes, so to speak? I'm sure all the other breweries out there can provide some inspiration right?
It’s all about the cast of characters back in the brewhouse. In their own way, they’re the craziest bunch of wackos you can hang out with, but they're so creative. We try to empower to them to do whatever they want to do. I’ve got a list of beers that those guys want to make at any one point that 15 or 20 beers long. The marketing team, who works on the branding, artwork, and content, are equally as enthused at what they come up with. It keeps it fresh and raw, and the consumer wants new and interesting.
The creativity never ceases to amaze me. If it feels right, smells right, tastes right, then we’re going to let it rip. Most of the time it works, but sometimes we make a bad decision. That’s what really cool about Sweetwater. It’s loose. We don’t have a board. We can still do what comes from the gut, and what feels right.
Do you think consumers give a hoot about "local" like they did a few years ago? Is that still part of the Sweetwater Identity in GA?
The answer is absolutely yes. I mean, right now, one of the most critical points of decision making process for the consumer is “where is that beer made”. They want to know the brewery. They want to know where it’s from, that it’s fresh, why they do what they do, and they want to support what’s happening in their community. People want to know not just the beer, but the people behind it. We still sell 50% of our beer in our backyard in Georgia, and that means a lot to us.
What are drinking these days that isn't a Sweetwater beer? Local brewery that's really crushing it in your eyes?
I’m splitting a lot of time between California and Colorado these days. I would say Telluride Brewing makes phenomenal beer, and I’ve been enjoying a lot of it.
420 Fest lineup looks pretty amazing this year - you have any input on those acts? 4 sets of Panic?!?
I remember I was walking through the quad at CU when I was in college and Panic was playing a show there and it literally stopped me in my tracks. I'm really looking forward to it.
Come jam at 420 Fest with us!