Increased barrel production and market expansion top the list for this popular Chicago-based craft brewery.
Note to readers: This Q&A is part of a series of peer interviews from The Equipped Brewer. Installments will share the key experiences, lessons learned, and advice of owners, operators, and other key contacts at young craft beverage companies as they’ve tackled the challenges of growth.
Founder and President of Solemn Oath Brewery, John Barley.
For some breweries, brewing is not only a science and an art, it’s a promise. Such is the case for Solemn Oath Brewery, a small operation 25 miles west of downtown Chicago in Naperville, Illinois, where founder and president, John Barley and his three partners—one of which is his father, Tom, and the other two, his best friend and best friend’s father (whose names Barley prefers to keep private)—have made a dignified pledge to serve their community with an authentic aesthetic and quality craft beer.
Inspired by the Belgian brewing traditions observed on winter breaks from college (his parents moved to Brussels after his high school graduation, Barley said), along with the American craft brewing renaissance happening out west (he visited his brother, Joe in California in 2010), Solemn Oath launched in 2011 with a business plan and brand—and no brewing experience.
“The only person that came from [a beer background] for the first few years was our head brewer, Tim Marshall,” Barley told Equipped Brewer, explaining the brewery’s beginnings in 2011. “We were a bit of a misfit crew, from everywhere that wasn’t beer.”
Today, less than five years later, Solemn Oath is gearing up for a forecasted production year of 7,500 barrels in 2017—seven times what was produced in 2012, which clocked in at just under 1,000 barrels, Barley said. Though brewery has continuously increased its space, unit by unit, from 7,000 square feet to 17,500 in the industrial complex in which it’s located, Barley says that growth has intentionally been conservative, keeping the company core intact.
“We like to brew beer and know where it’s going to go,” Barley said. “We want to make sure we’re able to support it, not just send beer out there to have it go sit on a shelf. [We want to] develop relationships [and] create an authentic audience.”
Staying “true to the “Chicagoland heritage,” Solemn Oath specializes in barrel-aged brews of all kinds, with beers sitting on anything from bourbon barrels to sherry barrels, and the Belgian-focused, west coast-inspired brewery also produces an eclectic mix of refreshing pale ales and lagers, each a pledge to tell the Solemn Oath story, one sip at a time.
Q: Can you describe Solemn Oath’s production growth since you started brewing in 2012?
We’ve grown more than 700 percent since we opened. We keep buying tanks and keep hiring human beings. In comparison to a lot of things happening in [the craft brewing industry], it’s not too aggressive—I still feel like it’s pretty conservative.
Q: Did you start Solemn Oath on your own or do you have partners?
[We are a group] of 4 partners, all family and friends. My father, my best friend (who acts as the CFO, not a full time employee), and his father. We’re a small group of people and we treat it very formally. At board meetings, it’s not “Dad,” it’s “Tom”—it gives is that extra boost of formality.
Q: What was your professional background before opening a brewery?
My background is more in the creative and design side; I was the communications director for a youth-focused non-profit. Prior to that, I was working in the sports communications realm. I never home brewed—my side of the skill set is business, branding and marketing.
Q: How would you describe your marketing efforts at Solemn Oath?
[Solemn Oath is] a very creatively focused brewery. We focus on beer quality first and foremost, but something that has been important to us since day one is the atmosphere in which you’re experiencing our beer.
We have a full time illustrator, Jourdon Gullett… We were draft only for the first 18 months or so, but still created full artwork and brands for every beer that we made. For me that’s what made it feel more real, feel more alive—[the beers] take on little personalities of their own.
[The brewery also features] simple, clean artwork, including 12 and 15 foot tall murals.
A full-time illustrator creates artwork and brands for every beer produced by Solemn Oath.
Q: In what ways has your experience in the nonprofit sector affected your leadership at Solemn Oath?
“Working on a tight budget, for one. [In a nonprofit], you start at zero every year, instead of allocating ‘X’ number dollars; you never know if money is going to be there. [At Solemn Oath], we run lean, and spend money on things that we actually need, like people, and things focused on the quality of the beer.
Q: When did you first become interested in craft beer, and at what point did you decide you wanted to open a craft brewery?
I got turned onto beer [during college]. I grew up in the Milwaukee area, and when I went to college, my parents moved to Belgium. So going home for winter break would be Brussels… [It opened my eyes] to what beer can be. I was a Harp drinker before that. We utilize that influence here. We’re a Belgian inspired brewery, but also very American. [We use] Belgian yeast, American hops, and do wood aging in all different types of barrels.
In the early 2000s or so, [I visited] my brother, who was living in California, and we went to 10 or 12 breweries. On the flight back, I started making notes about what I would do [if I were to open a brewery]. In August 2010, I started reaching out to breweries across the country—I had no beer connections whatsoever—and the response was overwhelming.
Six months later, in January 2011, the business plan was locked down and fully funded. We started with no equipment and no space—just fully funded with a plan. It took us 10 months to lock down a space, and we hit the market in 2012.
Q: How did you go about asking for help from other breweries?
[I reached out to] breweries I respected, small and large. I started emailing and cold calling them, and talking with some distributors here locally. [By getting their] feedback I was learning, [it was an] education process. [I wasn’t asking about how to make] beer for beer’s sake, but how to run a sound business.
Q: How much capital did you have to raise before you were comfortable starting the brewery?
We got the ball rolling with $675,000 or so.
Q: How much has the brewery expanded since then?
[Our brewhouse equipment started with] a two vessel 15 bbl system with three 30 bbl fermenters and one 15 bbl fermenter in a 7,000 square foot facility. Now we’re at 17,000 feet...We’ve rebuilt the entire brewery. Six months ago, we turned online a three vessel 30 bbl system with 60 bbl fermenters, which will be running full capacity in spring.
Q: What are your plans for expanding Solemn Oath’s distribution in 2017?
We’re only in eight Chicagoland counties, and now NYC—we’re just starting to spread our wings a little bit. We’re hoping to lock down Wisconsin in the late spring/early summer, and we need to start planting some seeds in other areas. We’re a big city brewery, [but] we want to make sure we’re able to support [that sales growth], not just send beer out there to have it go sit on a shelf. [We want to] develop relationships [and] create an authentic audience.
At the end of the day, we’re all people. I take a lot of pride in fact that we manufacture something real and tangible, and I take pride in the fact in we have our end product after collective hard work. Our success here locally is built around a strong culture and community [that we] built over the past four years...we’re fortunate to have a lot of people supporting us.
Q: What are some ways Solemn Oath connects to the Chicagoland community?
We do three or four different events every week—we’re very active. We do a lot of nonprofit stuff, like giving donations to community projects. We haven’t anchored with one [organization but] support as [many] as we can, whether that means donating beer—we’re donating beer every week to different groups—or giving tours, or raising money.
[One event we do] is Kegs for Kids with Hopleaf, [a bar which is known as] the OG of craft beer in Chicago—we help those guys all time. We collaboratively raise money for schools in their area in Downtown Chicago.
[We also] built a series of events around our Old Order membership [a bottle membership program which entitles member supporters to nine of the rarest barrel aged beers offered by the brewery]. One is Hammer Down, a day members come to the brewery and have no idea where we’re going to take them. This year, we went to a dirt track demolition derby with 80 or 90 people. Another example is when we had people come in, we had a whole bunch of cans [of our beer] and went to play laser tag. It’s all about getting people outside their comfort zone.
Q: What was the most difficult situation you faced during your first year of business?
We were pretty fortunate, [in the sense that] there were no massive failures or quality control issues. The challenge in the beginning was getting the word out and making as much beer as we possibly could in a limited infrastructure.
Trying to get our beer out there [was the biggest challenge]. I like how we did it, because we didn’t grow too fast, which kept us all hands on deck. At that time, I was cleaning a lot more kegs compared to now, when I’m spending more time with my computer.
The only person that came from [a beer background] for the first few years was our head brewer, Tim Marshall, so we were a bit of a misfit crew from everywhere that wasn’t beer.
[The good thing about that was that] we didn’t have preconceived notions of how things had to go based on what the industry was doing. [For example, we didn’t focus on tap takeovers], we focused out the gate on getting beer into as many high end beer bars as we can… In Chicago, [the craft beer market] is transitioning to a different consumer right now, because we’re maturing as a market. Staying adaptable is so important for us. [As a new brewery], we’re able to adapt very quickly, to react and have a lot more fun with it. This revolution is happening nationwide. Being small and passion driven allows everybody to change the course of industry.
Q: Now that you have five years under your belt and have undergone recent expansion, what are some additional goals for the next five years?
2017 for us is really about expanding a little bit into a couple of new markets, like shipping more regularly to New York, which we’ll still probably do quarterly or when we can. Locally, we’re growing like crazy—we’ll run out of beer in the spring, then get a couple more tanks online. [Other than that, the goal is] making sure we’re happy with the brand, and the beers we’re going to be rolling out in bigger way.
We spent the first three years making a lot of different styles, and for 2016 and 2017, we’ve begun to stabilize. Not that we won’t do fun and innovative things, [but] our beers are battle tested. When we first hit the market, we didn’t want to say ‘this is our IPA,’ or ‘this is our Belgian pale ale,’ we made a whole bunch of different beers of the same style, and figured out with our customer base what we should be making year-round, as opposed to [having to] redefine it, so they’re the best versions of the styles we can make. That’s where we’re at now—we have a handle on the beers we should be making and want to be making—and 2017 will be validating that.
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