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Engineering a Career Around Beer: (512) Brewing Company Founder Kevin Brand

Engineering a Career Around Beer: (512) Brewing Company Founder Kevin Brand

When a chilled glass is set before us, the condensation forming on the outside and the foamy froth brimming on top of the elixir, our hearts all skip a beat. Cool, quenching, and satisfying. Heavens Almighty, Benjamin Franklin was right! It is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

No one understands that better than (512) Brewing Company Founder Kevin Brand. His love of beer started by tasting a buddy’s home brew. Quickly he was creating his own. Now, he’s shaped the industry of craft beer in our city and beyond.

“I got started in the early to mid 90s. I bought some equipment and just started mixing beer. I had no intention of doing anything in the beer industry at all, I mean, that wasn’t even on the radar. I was a mechanical engineer. You can do so many things with that degree, but brewing isn't really something that comes to the top.”

His background might not have lent itself to his passion for brewing, but that’s definitely where his talents lay. Despite a full-time career as a quality engineer and, later, manufacturing engineer for a couple of startups, he realized that for him beer might be more than a hobby —but a way of life. “I was looking to see what was next and it just kind of naturally fell into place. My brother in law, who was a big beer fan, told me I should get into beer because we were always complaining about how there wasn’t any local beer in Austin on the tap wall at the bar. There were afew, but very, very few. This is 2007, so I start looking into it. All the lights just kept turning green. I said, well if I can afford it, I'll do it. If it’s a good market, I'll do it. If I have a knack for this, and running a business, maybe I'll do it.”

And from that tiny suggestion, his beer legacy was born. But first, he had to do some research. “I started going to a few local breweries and seeing how they were doing things. I was kind of sneaking in on a tour, or asking if I could come by and poke around to see how they get this done. Then I found this space on Google Earth. It wasn't on the market, but I just basically bought the main equipment that I needed and decided I could do it. I installed it myself.”

Along with great beer-making skills, Kevin had some luck in that he really cornered the market. “It just so happened Texas was, at the time, almost devoid of hoppy beers and new breweries, and it was a time where there wasn't anybody on the market doing this.”

You might be wondering why Kevin chose the name (512) for the brewery. For Kevin, it’s all about home and history. “(512) is really designed to embody this region. (512) represented all of south/central Texas when I was growing up and Texas had only 5 area codes. So I really am trying to remind people of what Austin used to be, and also give them the taste of what we have been able to maintain here.”

Taking what he learned from his father, another entrepreneur, Kevin created a unique beer with an approach that focused on sustainability. “I think what’s really the most unusual and special thing about (512) is that we're committed to organic and really sustainable packaging. It’s very unusual for breweries to not give into the disposable packaging, which is a huge portion of the market. We're very draft-beer focused, and we use more organic grain than anybody in the state, which is really something that I'm proud of. We’re committed to using about as much organic ingredients as possible.”

Craft beer has exploded in recent years. Going from roughly 2,300 breweries in2013 to more than 4,000 in 2016. Sales of craft beer went from about 6 percent of the market in 2011 to 12 percent in 2016. One of the things craft beer fans love is variety, and that’s something Kevin gladly embraces. “We started with three beers. When I was in Texas, I couldn't find any IPAs, India Pale Ales, with big hop character. There weren't any being made at all, so we came out with an IPA.  I also wanted a Belgium Belgian style wheat beer, and also a pale ale, something maybe not as bold as the IPA. But then I knew I wanted to do seasonals because at the appropriate time of the year, people want a dark beer, or a super light beer, whatever. Pecan Porter was the first seasonal we did, and after I brewed that one time and tasted it and got the reception, we decided it was something that we would do forever. We got quickly into the core four as we called it. Four beers that we offer all year and we probably make about 15 or so other beers all year.”

(512) has maintained a primary focus on being present in restaurants and bars, rather than in-home. The rise in popularity of craft beer helped him get his foot in a lot of doors, but Kevin still has to do put the time in to getting his brews served. “Luckily we're in a very bar-rich town. We really do have the most per capita/per area alcohol consumed in the state, so it’s really not hard to throw a rock and hit about ten beer bars. Restaurants are the second tier for us. Mostly, it’s cold calling bars. It’s going in and saying,“What doesn't sell well on your draft wall? Try this, we can do it,” and then telling people my story. That was really the key to getting people to try it at the beginning. Because Austin has this unusual support for local business, so saying, “I'm the guy that made it AND I'm the guy that brought it AND we're five miles away,” really made a difference.”

Being his own boss isn’t always easy, but it’s something Kevin realized he wanted way back when he was an engineer. “I wanted more control. I wanted to be the master of our destiny as a company. As an employee, I never had as much control as I wanted. That’s also why we financed (512) the way we did. It was without anyone else’s influence—just me and my wife, Sara. I had a vision, so I said, “Okay, I'm going to do this and I don't want anybody’s money. I don't want to be beholden to anyone. I want to do this with any money I can scrape together.”

Even with a strong vision and family support, Kevin still had to deal with fears. “What I fear the most is public humiliation. I don't fear running out of money, being down and out, or making bad decisions, but I fear public humiliation every day. It’s constant for me. At the very beginning I was scared maybe the beer wouldn’t compete with these other products you can get in Europe or out of state. I was nervous about whether we would make the grade. I was also fearful of having too many people too quickly. I wanted to grow fairly slowly and keep the people I hired very specific.”

Turning a hobby into a career isn’t always a dream come true. Very often, it’s a way of turning something you once loved into a chore. And, as Kevin found, changing the scale from hobby you do for yourself into product you produce for others takes a bit of adjustment. “I was quietly hoping along the way that there would be a red light or two, because I knew this was going to be a lot of work. That very first day I brewed beer, I was in the tank—you have to get in the tank and shovel out the hop, grain, and the water, and dig your way out of a figurative snowdrift, almost, of spent grain, and get all this the grain out. At that moment I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore. I've made a huge mistake. I don't want to this sweaty, crazy, hands-on, labor-intensive thing anymore." So I was kind of hoping along the path there might be an excuse for me to go back to my cushy desk job. But I was glad in the end that all the lights really kept fairly greenish.”

Having learned a lot on his journey, Kevin has some insight to share with other would-be entrepreneurs. “I think the recipe for success includes hiring people that are good at something and not teaching them everything. Because I don't know everything, so I ended up learning with someone else. It was probably a mistake that I stayed close to making the product for as long as I did. (512) might have realized some of our success earlier if I'd hired a few more people that knew what they were doing and could teach me.”

But no matter how many struggles he’s faced, Kevin admits he wouldn’t have it any other way.“ I wish I could be here 24-hours a day. I really do. I've had several legitimate jobs and I was never really that excited to stay late or work on the weekends. I don't really want to leave this place. I just don’t. Sara and I have a deal to keep me on schedule, I drop the kids off at 8am and pick them up at 5:30, so those are my hours. But that feeling of wanting to be here is a real difficult one. I have some guys that are key in strategy that really don't get going until the afternoon, so sometimes it’s five o’clock and we're in the middle of stuff and I'm like, “Oh man I don't want to leave now!” And I never wake up dreading going to work. I haven’t felt that way in eight years. I can't wait to get to work, I’ve got so many problems to solve.”

Who knew that this was a love story? The love of creating, the love of this business, and of course, the love of beer. But as Kevin sits back and looks at a glass of this outstanding product that he created, he has to say, “Mr. Franklin was right...and I am happy.”

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