By Angela Rose | Jul 17, 2016
16 full-time, 7 part-time
Barnes and Zeilstra, with backgrounds in small business entrepreneurship and brewing respectively, knew exactly what they wanted for Black Tooth Brewing Company from the beginning.
"We were focused on becoming a regional craft brewery from our very first meeting," Barnes -- who is also president of the Wyoming Craft Brewers Guild -- recalls. So with the help of six equity partners, he and Zeilstra opened Sheridan's first craft brewery in 2010.
A $7.5 million expansion in the summer of 2015 -- including 18,000 square feet of brewery space and a new, fully automated, 30-barrel W.M. Sprinkman brewing system -- allowed them to rapidly increase production from 2,500 barrels to 4,500. This year they are on track to produce 10,000, though their state-of-the-art facility is capable of brewing at least five times more.
"I think we could brew 15,000 barrels this year, but I don't know whether we'd be doing ourselves any favors moving into new markets that rapidly," says Barnes. "Our business model includes only opening markets when we can have someone routinely go in and ensure we're providing quality customer service." At present, Black Tooth distributes three of its flagship beers -- Saddle Bronc Brown Ale, Bomber Mountain Amber Ale and Hot Streak IPA -- in cans and on draught throughout Wyoming as well as in western South Dakota and southern Montana.
They're still using their original 10-barrel Newland brewing system to produce seasonal and limited edition releases as well. "Black Eagle Baltic Porter is one of our most decorated beers," Barnes says. "We've won eight or nine medals with it, but we can't put it in a can for distribution. It just doesn't make sense to brew 90 barrels of it and then tie up a fermenter for roughly a third of a year."
In total, Black Tooth's brews have collected wins on three different continents. "We won a European Beer Star award a couple years ago as well as awards in Australia and at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival in North America," Barnes adds.
Though he doubts these accolades carry much weight with individual consumers, they have opened up distribution opportunities. "I don't think medals directly sell beer, but they can certainly start a conversation with distribution partners," he says. "Sheridan, Wyoming, is a little bitty place in the middle of nowhere. But we've won 51 medals in national and international competitions. That keeps distributors interested in learning more about us, tasting our beers and visiting our facility."
Favorite beers: "My favorite beer of ours is Black Eagle Baltic Porter," says Barnes. "That's the beer that I choose above all others. However, we've won tremendous medals with a beer named 1314, which is a barrel aged English strong ale. We age it in Wyoming whisky barrels that we get from a distiller in Kirby."
As far as other breweries' products, "I'm always going to be a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale guy," Barnes adds. "And 5-Barrel Pale Ale from Odell Brewing Company is also one of my all-time favorites. I have great respect for a lot of companies out there that make fantastic beer."
Challenges: "Managing growth in general is a challenge," says Barnes. "You're always finding out you don't have enough of something. Like we don't have nearly enough kegs. We started out with 3,300 and almost immediately had to lease 1,500 more. I think we're still short another 1,500 for what we actually need given our full volume. We hash this kind of thing out with our partners and investors, but nobody really knows how much of anything you're going to need. You can base it on some industry standard or talk to other brewery owners, but at the end of the day you're still just kind of throwing darts and hoping you got the number right."
Opportunities: "The explosive growth of the craft beer industry presents unbelievable opportunities for guys who make great beer," Barnes says. "If the so-called bubble ever bursts, those guys are going to be in a better position to be successful. I think we're one of them. When we put our blonde ale in cans, our distributors jumped on it. They couldn't wait to get it because our beers sell so well. So our current opportunity is to expand our portfolio with other beers based on the reputation we've built over the last five years."
Needs: In short, a greater sense of stability. "We became a startup business again when we expanded even though we had five years under our belt," Barnes muses. "We had to throw almost everything we knew before out the window. For example, our payroll is now seven or eight times what it was three years ago. We used to carry $15,000 to $20,000 a month in receivables and now we carry $70,000 or $80,000 a month. We used to have $25,000 or $30,000 worth of inventory, whether it be raw goods or beer in process. Now we have $250,000 in inventory. I'd like to get some measure of stability on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis to learn from and grow into as opposed to what has been our chaotic -- but exciting -- current situation."