Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Boy and A Bird (aka A Fat Man and A Raven) - BLACK RAVEN BREWING! 1/14/15


Those that have been reading Eclectic Arts over the years (the print magazine and this here blog) know that I try to be as honest and up front about my interviews as I can.  I've pulled interviews from the vaults and told everyone so. 

What follows is the most in depth interview I've done to date - particularly when it comes to a local brewery. 

I sat down with Beaux Bowman from Black Raven in December 2013.  Yeah, that's not a typo.  2013.  It’s fucking 2015 now.  I'm lame I know and I apologize to everyone, especially Beaux.  Job changes and other assorted issues put the magazine on the back burner.  Well, not anymore!

We didn't really cover much of what was new at the time - I wanted to know more about the early beginning's as there really wasn't much.  There were blurbs about this new brewery in Redmond in 2009, that sort of thing.  Awards and medals but nothing you could sink you're teeth into about the brewery or the folks behind it.

I had a whole long ass introduction typed up - recollecting my experience in great detail with Raven from the soft opening in 2009 all the way up to the present.  But it didn't feel right.  After editing Beaux's interview, what he had to say was much more interesting than anything I could type.  So I nixed all of it - every last word.  This seems to be a pattern with my interviews (see the Vienna Teng interview in issue 1).  Perhaps I should learn to skip the intros?

To me it's The Raven.  To others it may be that hotshot brewery on the Eastside with the long lines at the brew fests that keeps expanding and expanding (either production or taproom size).  Or it may be the brewery in Redmond that opened up in 2009 with only Mac N Jack's and Red Hook nearby.  Or perhaps you're one of the few that, for whatever reason, don't care for Black Raven.  All two of you can stop reading this interview now. 

It was almost called Flying Squirrel Brewery by the way - but we'll talk about that later.

Alright, open a bottle of your fave Raven beer (or the growler you got filled at the taproom) and let's hear from the man himself - Mr. Robert "Beaux" Bowman.

(The interview was conducted in the Black Raven Taproom prior to Christmas 2013.  Beaux showed me around the entire brewery prior to sitting down to talk over a Festivus ale.)

BTW:  The title refers to me and my experience with Raven - just to clarify.  - Mark

M: Well thanks for doing the interview.

B: Sure.

M: It’s interesting when I was trying to do research on you, there’s not much out there on you is what I found out.  There’s something from a Georgia reporter back in 2008 I found and it was interesting as it pre-dated the opening of the brewery.

B: That’s correct.

M: It was kind of talking about what this was going to become of this new brewery venture.

B: Right.

M: And then everything else was about when the brewery opened in 2009 or about the expansions, awards, but nothing really about you.  You guys have such a reputation around Washington now, it was like how come there’s nothing on Beaux?

So from a previous interview Dick Cantwell (Elysian) asked when’s the next time you and he are having a beer together? *laugh*

B: It’s been awhile. That’s the blessing and the curse if you will. Thankfully we’re both really busy, but at the same time, we’re both really busy. Sometimes the business of making beer and running a brewery can get in the way of stopping to share a pint. Especially so for us because we’re still so young. I’m very hands on so it is sometimes hard for me to break away.

M: Are you as hands on now as you were from the beginning?

B: Oh yeah, yeah.

M: How many days would you say?

B: Usually 6 days a week or 7.  Last year has been, with the previous expansion, pretty much 6 or 7 days a week straight through the year. It’s been challenging, but it had to happen. Going forward, my target is 5-6 days per week, hopefully more like 5.

M: It’s all for the business, the long run for sure.

B: Yeah, exactly. And also our general contractor John has been helping us build this place. From the beginning, he has helped us build this place. He has been doing all of our general work and then I do a lot of the process type projects. With the help of Terry from Georgetown Brewing, I spent most of my summer in 2013 sweating copper. Basically I lived on a scissor-lift for a few months. I just like building things and working on projects. As much as I (mostly) enjoy it, it does takes me away from the things I really also need to be doing. You know those boring tasks like sitting in the office and working on the computer and all that kind of thing. I get computer crazy sometimes…the guys tell me, “You got those computer eyes again”. Sometimes I’ve just got to walk around the brewery and clean a keg or something, do something else to clear my head. I realized a while back that I can’t brew all the beer. It feels like I rarely brew anymore. Last year, I probably brewed less than a dozen times, myself. This next year I expect to be back in the boots a bit more.

M: Cause there’s so much other stuff that needs to be taken care of.

B: I’ve got really good brewers and cellar folks. I’m involved with all the batches, but I’m not physically mucking out the mash. Generally I’m not running the brew for the shift. I’m more of an overseer, if you will when it comes to that. Looking at all of our numbers, did we hit all our specs, how are the beers tracking, the profiles right, little internal changes…quizzing the guys, “hey what’s your numbers, tell me your numbers for the day”.

M: Is that something you wish you were doing and somebody else was doing like the computer work?

B: Kind of, yeah. There are definitely those days. It’s been a transition for me because I originally got into brewing because I didn’t want to sit at a desk. That’s a big portion of what I do now. I fly a desk, I kind of have to. That’s my role now. The business is expanding and growing. We have 17 people right now on staff plus Kat and I, my other business partner. There’s a lot of stuff going on that has to be dealt with and decisions to be made that only we can deal with. She works full-time at Microsoft, so she’s only here some evenings and the weekends. Her role is pretty much office manager. So she’s doing a lot of the bookkeeping and keeps my spending in check. Administrative projects, that really helps because I can do it but it’s the same thing as computer eyes… I don’t really enjoy it that much. So I do very light parts of that, but she does more of the heavy lifting on that kind of thing, she’s better at it anyway.

M: How do you map things out like with the different beers you guys are brewing that the other guys are doing. Do you sit down like once a month and map it out like on a board what you’re supposed to be brewing, when it’s going to be in the tanks and that kind of thing.

B: It’s loosely mapped out monthly. We’re kind of fighting that growth battle because of production bottlenecks. We don’t have enough kegs so we can’t empty this tank and then there’s a tank dependency that you’ve got downstream to consider. We’re given these production crunches a lot. We’re going to brew this beer today, but we don’t have enough kegs, this has to be delayed a day or this has to shift to next week. We can plan fairly well for what a month or two, but it’s pretty dynamic. It does change a lot and sometimes it can change day of at this point which is challenging. We are also revising and refining our lineup and annual release schedules. We’re working on making that better, but it’s also having the limitations of equipment or if something’s taking a little longer than it should, well we don’t want to rush it and push it. We want to wait for it, so you have a beer that takes an extra day to finish or needs another day of conditioning or needs another day of carbonation or settling or something, to be right, that can push the schedule or change the schedule as well. Right now the beer itself is kind of pushing us around, but we’re starting to push back. There are a lot of things that have changed. We’ve been constantly expanding and growing ever since we opened, which is great, but it’s challenging. Our challenge is how do we keep growing, how do we keep doing this and making more and larger production without losing what this is. We do it, but it comes at a cost and the cost is charged to ourselves. It makes it a harder day, a harder week; more energy to get to the same result and that will get better. It’s starting to, especially now we’re getting more kegs and have more tanks. We’re just now starting to see the increased production capacity by moving things physically further apart so we’re not standing on each other. We also added a production manager position. I don’t know if you know Tom Mace, he used to be at Redhook before coming here. He can oversee the production process, schedule and plan. He’s taken some of that off of my plate as we go forward. By not having my focus on hour-to-hour operations on the brewery floor, I can see the bigger picture and make the decisions I need to make. Before I didn’t have the time and things were just sometimes chaotic. Almost every day I’d go home going argh, I forgot to do this, I’ve got to do this tomorrow, I got to do this next week and things were just starting to slip through the cracks.

M: I think it’s interesting cause the average beer drinker that comes here or is a fan of Raven, they think that because you guys have built this reputation of growing and expanding you guys have this kind of swagger to you and at beer festivals you guys always have a line so they think you guys are on easy street now, money’s coming in right now, they’re just kicking back having beers in the back and they don’t actually realize it’s actually been tougher in some ways with the expansion and all the popularity that you have you try to maintain standards and also find the balance.

B: It is and I tell people this all the time if you’re on the outside looking in, we make it look really easy. We do make it look easy and it’s really hard. Then again, so are a lot of things. There’s a lot that goes into this… blood, sweat, tears and beer. Luckily everybody’s on the same page here. We have fun with it. It can be a little stressful sometimes, but for the most part it’s pretty good.

M: So, bringing you back, let’s go all the way back then, are you from Georgia?

B: No, Mississippi.

M:  Okay, so can you tell me what life was like for you growing up and then eventually you ended up at Kodak, correct? Okay, so if you can fill in those gaps for me that would be great.

B: Okay. I was born in Jackson, Mississippi in March of 1970. We lived there until 1979, we moved to Northern CA, Bay Area. My parents got a job transfer, so we lived in the Bay Area for 5 or 6 years, then we moved to Central Valley of CA where I went all the way through until Junior College in the Central Valley. From there I moved back to Mississippi, to Hattiesburg and finished college at William Carey.

M: What did you major in?

B: Business administration with a focus on marketing management.  It's fairly relative now, considering I’m running a business. That kind of worked out for sure but the funny part again was when I was in school and would be asked,“what do you want to be”. I didn’t really know. I was just working for Kodak processing labs at the time wondering what was I going to do after this (Kodak)? That industry was dying; you could see the writing on the wall because of advancements in digital photography. It (photo finishing) was a really interesting and fun industry but it wasn’t going to make it, so what now? I did that for eight years and went to college at the same time. I really didn’t have a definitive goal at the end of college such as “when I graduate I'm going to do blah, blah blah”. Graduation was my goal, get this done because I’ve been going to school on and off for years.  Just get it done and I’ll figure it out later. Well, about the last year of school, I thought about it a little more and realized that I really wanted to get into the brewing industry because I’d been home brewing and it just seemed interesting. I also talked to people in breweries and heard about how they loved the industry. I started looking into it and doing some research. I thought about transferring or trying to transfer to a UC Davis fermentation science program. I would have had to backtrack and that would have probably added another 2 more years because I would have had to go back and get some more science classes. That wasn’t what I wanted to have to do. I figured I would just try a different route and secure some work in a brewery washing kegs or whatever else new guys do, just get into the industry and see if I liked it. At that time in 1999, there were no breweries in Mississippi. 1999 was actually the first year of any operating breweries in the state of Mississippi, which is bizarre.  I think it was one of the last states to legalize brewpubs and the only state that up until 1999 had never at any point had a commercial brewery.

M: That’s crazy to think about, but at the same time that doesn’t necessarily surprise me. There’s a couple of traders that I trade with, like one’s from TN and for him, he has to drive like 3 hours to get to a town that …

B: The odds of finding decent beer down there (Mississippi) were horrible. That is what really started the whole brewer thing for me, when I moved back from CA to Mississippi. I had already been exposed to the local brewpubs and got a feel for what this microbrewery thing was and I developed a taste for it. When I moved back to Mississippi, it just wasn’t there. Now I’m back in the southern country and it’s like “oh man, this isn’t going to work out so well”. So I started home brewing to try and see if I could make something that had hops that you can actually taste. That’s really where my brewing started and it was out of necessity.

M: Yeah, there’s no good beers, I’ll make my own.

B: It was very limited. About the only thing we had for local craft at the time was Abita.  They had a brewpub near the production brewery. I used to go over there once or twice a year and check that out. But even then, you’d have to travel and have to search for anything really interesting. Thankfully that was starting to change when I left in 2000, but there’s still a long way to go. At least now there are some breweries in Mississippi and it’s starting to evolve. People are also getting better distribution offerings there. I knew it was time to go somewhere there are actual breweries. I wasn’t going to find a brewing job there because there were not any breweries to work at. So I figured I should go to where the breweries are. At that same time, my brother had accepted a job at Eddie Bauer corporate in Redmond. He had a corporate apartment for a couple of months while he found a place, so I had a free place to stay. I came up here and starting badgering breweries to hire me.

M: What year was this, like in 2000?

B: Yeah, late 2000.

M: So you’re up here bugging breweries, what happened next, what got you in the door?

B: The boys on the other side of town, Mac and Jack’s were crazy enough to hire me so I started to work for those guys and ended up being their night brewer for about 2 and a half years. So that would have been early 2001 to 2003 and a half, I think like October of that year. I think it was almost exactly 2 and half years. From there I went over to the Celtic Bayou when it was a brewpub.  I was there for about year and a half, almost 2 years, I think. Then there was an opening at the Seattle Ram U-Village, they were looking for a head brewer and I jumped over there. I was there from 2005 to 2007 and left there to start this project, which in theory was supposed to open in late 2007 or early 2008. That didn’t happen, there were a lot of delays so that was a learning opportunity. Just because you thought you had everything lined up and ready to go, it turns out rugs can still be pulled out from under you. So that was a challenging year of trying to get everything back on track. At the time, the leasing market for commercial buildings was on fire. You hardly could find any property, the vacancies rates were so low in this market, and you almost couldn’t get a place. Most landlords just didn’t want anything that had to do with a brewery. They could be extremely selective of who their tenants were because they had options.

M: The market was dictating that.

B: Yeah, we had a very hard time getting someone who would actually lease to us. We were funded and ready to go. Ready to sign the lease and we looked at probably a dozen or more spots. Not just looked at, but really, really tried to get into them. I got really good at laying out potential breweries on a little plan setter as built of the space because, that one fell through, throw that one out, next space, okay this goes here and this goes there, here’s what we’ll need to improve, that fell through, throw it away. I got pretty good at that game.

M: Were those buildings all around in Western WA?

B: Redmond, Woodinville, Kirkland, Bellevue, Issaquah. Mostly Eastside though, our preference was Redmond. At the time there really were such limited opportunities. We knew we wanted to be in a manufacturing park environment because that’s what we are first. This taproom is just the showroom for the brewery, this is secondary to that use and we’re not a brewpub. If we were a brewpub with a restaurant, we’d be downtown in a retail area. Problem with that is, well for one, that’s really not our focus. Two, you’re really limited on how much volume you can produce in such a small space because those places usually don’t have square footage. You need a lot of square footage to make beer. As you see, we still don’t have enough space. We have 13,500 square feet and I feel pinched. As soon as we get this expansion done, it’s like we’re out of space again. Which is great, it’s a good problem to have, but we’re using up a lot of real estate. It’s a manufacturing facility at the end of the day, so we have challenges with that. We had to make sure we were getting into the right zoning to do a mixed model, because we knew we wanted to do the retail part. So you put all those factors together and it brings out a very limited list of real estate to look at. Then when you find the spot, well then it comes down to who owns it and who’s the landlord for that spot. Would they even want to deal with you? A lot of times the answer was no because you’re going to come into their building, you’re going to poke holes in the roof, you’re going to dig up my floor, you’re going to make the whole neighborhood stink. They have got a guy tomorrow that’s wants to come in and take the space and just move boxes and furniture in. Who do you think they are more inclined to lease to? We had a lot of those situations. Luckily these guys (our landlord) had a lot of these concerns up front but were willing to explore them with us. They’re all legitimate concerns, but a lot of things can be blown up quite a bit. So when we came in here, we had to have their engineers and architects come through and review everything. We had to spend some extra money on that to make sure they were really okay with it. There were a couple of things that we pushed back on that I thought were unreasonable, and they politely agreed it to be a little too much. We were a new business, they didn’t know if we’re going to be gone in 6 months. At the time, we didn’t know if we were going to be gone in 6 months either.  We just started a new business at the end of 2008, started building and moving in September/October 2008.  Those were not good days to be doing this. It was basically like, oh shit, what have we done? We signed the lease in July and got the key in September… oh boy.

M: That’s when the recession hit.

B: Oh yeah it was. There were some, "did we do the right thing" moments while we were building. And then especially once you get closer to the time to open, you’ve been writing checks for months with nothing coming in and you’re hoping that somebody, anybody shows up. You know what I mean? You truly don’t know what’s going to happen.

M: You can have that Spinal Tap moment.

B: I remember thinking: I just really hope people show up. It’s out of the way, not a lot of vehicle traffic and it’s not exactly a retail zone over here. You’re coming over here for a reason, and we weren’t the reason yet. Are we going to become the reason or are we not? By not having a kitchen, are people not going to come here because we don’t have food? Flying Saucer Pizza was (is) here nearby. We got hooked up with those guys right away and that worked out great, still does. Jim down here at the Willows Deli, he’s been a good neighbor also. We have his menus out and he’ll bring food down sometimes for people, but other than that there were not many food options. It made you start second-guessing your plan, but luckily, people caught on really quick to what we were doing. Okay…this just might work. So that was a big relief but again, we underestimated our demand. The taproom was immediately too small and that caused more, "oh shit now what" moments. At that point we just overflowed into the brewery space with temporary retail seating each night by building keg walls to extend the taproom.

M: I remember that.

B: We would do overflow seating after 4 o’clock which we weren’t really supposed to be doing, but wasn’t going to tell people to go home. Stand back here, it’s cool, it’s hot, hey we’ll try not to spray you with water while we’re working. People kind of liked that for a little while. Some people didn’t…. you’re making me sit in the brewery? That worked out pretty good for a few months but okay, what’s the next step? What do we want to do about this “problem”? What do we want this thing to be? Originally it was just me wanting to make some beer and have it pay for itself. That’s about as lofty as my goals were, pretty basic. As Nigel puts it, "somewhere to go tinker around". Go out in your garage and tinker around kind of thing. It wasn’t quite that basic but that was kind of the idea. Let’s just do something really cool but really small and just enjoy it. But it took on a life of its own. It became this thing, this bird project that needed to be fed. We have to, this doesn’t happen every day and we’d be foolish to say we’re not going to do anything with it. It wouldn’t be fair to us or the people that work here at the time. I think we can do something more with this opportunity and I don’t think it’s just a flash in the pan. There seems to be something here. The people that worked here at the time (and most still do), we all talked about it. Karen and I would talk about it. When Andy was here we talked about it. Keil and I, we’d talk about it. What do you guys want to do?  Do you want to go to the next step and expand the taproom? What are your thoughts on this, you guys are in this also. Everybody said: we’re ready; we’ll support it, let’s do it. So this first expansion was back in 2010 for the second bar. We got one more extra bathroom, which we desperately needed. We got more seating and a second bar, because that little bar in the front just can’t handle it. Then we added another cold room back there where the brew house currently sits, which helped out for some more cold storage. We thought, okay this is cool. This will help for a little while but then all of that filled up. Well, okay, let’s see what happens. Maybe this will thin out and normalize in a few months. No, it didn’t and it’s not going to thin out, this is the new normal. We can handle this if this is what we are becoming, we will just get more space again. Luckily space opened up here the next year and of course we took it. Well, let’s put some more seating in and figure out what to do with the rest of it. It actually allowed us to partially solve a problem. Without access to the back area, you wouldn’t know there was a brewery here. The way the building is laid out, you don’t really see that there is a brewery back there, it’s really buried. So how do we recapture that? We needed some way to show some the process. The best thing that ended up working out was adding the barrel aging room. Now at least you can see there’s something going on over here. Hey, what’s in those barrels over there? What do you guys use the barrels for?  People were suddenly talking about the process. It gave you conversation starters and sparked curiosity. Anytime people are asking questions about that kind of stuff means they’re interested and you can tell your story. That worked out really well and it gave us some more storage space in the back, which was nice. Do you remember when we used to have the patio in the summers in the back? That really didn’t flow very well. For us, it was hard to staff from up front. It was challenging for production because we had to stop early so we’re not interfering with retail. Retail and production can’t reliably use the same space. You can for a short while but we were having a hard time trying to get our work done. Customers would complain about the noise and smells sometimes. Well, it is a brewery! We talked with the landlord for quite a while and finally agreed on how to fix it. We built a patio area up front instead and it works out much better. That was in the summer of 2012 and was the last of the retail expansions. We’re maxed out by building codes on retail occupancy and can’t add anymore seating. So this is it, this is a nice number of seating for retail. Now let’s put the energy into expanding the production, expanding the brewery and that’s what last year has been all about.

M: Thinking back on those things that you just mentioned, I contacted you or Kat via email in March of 2009. At that time I was getting headfirst into the whole craft beer thing, trading, and didn’t know you could age beer, barrel stuff and all that and somebody got back with me about the Founder’s Club because that was what I was interested in.

I think you guys opened at 3 o’clock on that soft opening in April. It was packed in here! I remember my sister-in-law was going to meet me here. I told her, "you got to get over here, I’m standing in the back cause there’s nowhere to sit in here, there’s so many people." I remember you guys had the Flying Saucer Pizza that was over there along the little walkway, and there was a guy that came here that bought one across the street and he was like, is it okay to have food in here. I said, yeah, they’ve got some right over there. Argh…

Also, Andy, and I don’t know if it was yourself, but we were literally sitting over there (pointing) in the old taproom when you guys brought in this furniture that we're currently sitting at. So we’re sitting at the original rental tables when I was here that day back in April '09. As you were saying, when you guys expanded the taproom, I was thinking maybe I could go in there like on a Tuesday and it won’t be packed. Didn’t matter what time you were in here, there was always people, people, people, people. Even today on a Monday, you’re not packed, but you’re not empty either.

B: Yeah, only today we decided to open at noon because we normally open at 3:00. So this was all last minute - people that read our Twitter or Facebook. It’s not technically open time yet.

M: So can you or maybe you don’t know what to put your finger on? Is it because there’s a lack of market on the Eastside or what was it that whole lightning in a bottle thing that you said you wanted to take advantage of it. As a consumer I absolutely saw it.  It makes you guys look like magicians or something, but like you said there’s been a lot of trial and error, a lot of luck, a lot of hard work.

B: It’s all of the above I think; it’s not just one thing. There’s just a multiple combination of things that occurred and lined up and were done to make this happen. One of them was that at the time, we both (owners) lived in Redmond. The other was that we lived in Redmond and there weren’t many options for something like this. I mean, where did you go? You were not going to find it in Redmond in 2009; there were no brewpubs in Redmond at the time. Mac and Jack’s have always been in Redmond but they don’t have a brewery taproom. So there really wasn’t anything like this here. I thought Redmond was right for the project and that this would make a great spot. When I worked over at Far West Ireland/Celtic Bayou in Redmond the Bear Creek Brewpub in town was also still open. After the brewery closed at the Celtic, Bear Creek closed soon after. I kept thinking that somebody’s going to figure this out before I can pull anything together, I just know it! Somebody’s going to beat me to the punch, but they didn’t. We were lucky in that regard. Another factor is the people that work here at the Raven. We try to be very friendly, very service-oriented and make beer that’s really good. Beer that we like to drink and something we can stand behind. In some ways it’s really simple. Make good beer, treat people right and try to have fun with it.

M: For myself, I can think of a time when there was a stretch of maybe 9 months that I hadn’t been back in here and I came in through the door and Karen was like, hey Mark. How the hell did she remember my name? I’m not like Carmichael who’s in here every week or whenever (Hi Carmichael!). The fact that she did that, said a lot to me. Oh my gosh, they do give a shit about the customers and the regulars and anybody else, let alone the beer was fantastic the first time I had the Tamerlane I don’t think it was even called that at the time.

B: Batch One Brown Porter.

M: Yeah, you had all the guest taps that first day. It stayed that way. So if you saw me, there’d be a nod, that you recognize people. Even like if you’re neck deep in trying to keep the beer going on in the back and everything else you’re doing. But there seems to be a thought process behind like let’s say the Flock Party that you guys definitely learn from mistakes, you figure out how to make it a good experience, like if you guys were there as a customer, what would you want at this party?

B: Exactly.

M: And you don’t see that a lot from the beer things that I go to. So other people start mimicking it. Triplehorn mimic your party but that’s really flattering. You’re doing it right.

B: Other events are great, we get to go to other brewery parties and have a good time and not have to work! We went to that event (Triplehorn), and it was a good time. In some ways it’s easy, but in some ways it’s not. Flock Party’s a good example. You’re right, what works and what doesn’t work. What do we need to fix for the next year? And what do we need to add for the next year?  What do we need to do different for the next year?   It’s easy sometimes to slip into complacency. We try and remember to stand on the other side of the table, stand on the other side of the bar if you will. I try to mentally come in here as a guest, come in as a customer, what do I see? Usually in the mornings before we open, one of the things that I like to do is to walk the taproom, before anyone’s even here to set it up. I’ll look at things like the boards and tables and stuff like that. What do people see? What do we need to clean, what do we need to fix? I’ve got a couple of things on that list I haven’t got to. You know, the big stuff that stands out.  Are we sending the right or wrong messages? Yeah, we put thought into that stuff. We don’t always get it right, but we try.

M: Right, it’s apparent that you’re thinking of about it consciously. You’re not just like haphazardly, going, oh yeah we did this, we don’t know how we did it but it worked out well. No we actually got it together.

B: Again, going back to what is it? There are so many different things, but you can’t just necessarily have one success factor like, oh, I have great beer so I can be an asshole to everybody, who cares, etc. No. You have to have everything working together. You need a nice place, a comfortable place. One of the big challenges here was when we moved in to this sterile office building, how do we make it comfortable? You’re going to be coming in here from work most likely, and probably right down the street with what color paint on the walls? When we moved in, the paint the color was a horrible, bright yellow. The ceiling tiles, we had white ceiling tiles and nasty fluorescent lights. Nobody wants to sit in that after they leave work. Yeah, that would be the cheap way to go. We’re a brewery taproom, who cares, right? They’re just here for the beer. No, let’s do something more, let’s make it nice because we’re going to live here and let’s have a nice house. That was a big, big focus. Let’s make it comfortable. Let’s walk in the door and you’re not at an office park anymore. Part of our inspirations, or cues, were some of the nicer wine-tasting rooms. When you go to the nice ones, they’re very comfortable, warm, inviting, that sort of thing. Well, how do you bring that to a brewery taproom situation?

M: Is that why you guys hired an interior designer for the taproom?

B: Exactly. And those were our concerns. Please help us figure this out. This is how we want it to feel; now how do we get there? We want warm colors, we want wood, and we want a way to incorporate some metal. The furniture worked out great, the heavy wood, Northwest look if you will, which is kind of fun. She helped us with that initial build out and really defined the look of the taproom. She also helped us lay out the initial design of that first front bar. That bar was a challenge and a half. It’s such a small, small space that that bar was built in. It had to serve 10 taplines, sink, pour station, store glassware, computer, all of that stuff in that little space. When we first taped it out on the floor, it was like how are we ever going to do this? She helped us cram all of that stuff in there; make every single square inch count. There’s not much room up there. You remember when it opened, you get 15, 20 people in there, you can’t move.

M: I remember distinctly, that my sister-in-law knows the sink in your bathroom. She said it’s like a pioneer sink. Who would think to put that kind of thing in a brewery? And I remember talking to Karen, oh here’s the business card of the interior designer who helped design all of this stuff. Again, there’s that someone put some thought into what they wanted and how they were trying to achieve it. They went out and reached out to professionals. That makes sense, because a lot of people they just figure it out as they go and say this is good for now. It ends up looking like a mess after awhile. And then you’re building upon another mess.

B: Exactly. She was really helpful sorting out the mess. I had my ideas, Kat had her ideas, my brother who does all the design work, he kind of had some ideas too and she (designer) had her ideas. We would all just get on the same page and she’d be like, okay I’m going to sketch this out, what do you think of this? I like it. One of the bigger challenges is hearing multiple people say things and then how do you make something that works for everybody? 

M:  Well, I remember the official opening in May, cause you had the Mayor here and you cut the ribbon.  I think maybe that’s also what you guys have done is create a sense of community here and it’s very different sense of community than what a Seattle brewery has in my opinion. It’s more just a place to drink your beer and other places over here are trying to mimic it now on the Eastside. That’s how I felt when I first came in here. I remember looking at the tap list and again it was all the guest taps and you had the brown porter #1 or whatever it was and there were a bunch of people who were ordering the guest taps and I’m like, why don’t you get the beer that you guys make?  But that brings up a question, why was that the first beer.

B: The brown porter? The first batch we brewed, we thought there'd be pretty good odds that we’re going to have to dump it because something’s going to go wrong. It’s all brand new and we’re going to find that something’s not right in the system, or we missed something somewhere and we end of dumping it. It really went like this: "Hey Andy what do you want to make? Oh, let’s make a porter. No, let’s make a brown. Let’s make a brown porter. Oh okay, cool." So we did it. And we fully expected that maybe we’ll have to dump it, and then we’ll decide what we’re making next. Make another brown porter or move on to something else. Then nothing happened, everything worked out great. We were happily surprised that nothing went wrong. And we were saying, "hey man, this is pretty good. So, okay we’re going to have to make this again and maybe give it a name”. It wasn’t originally in the lineup even though it was the first beer. It wasn’t going to be one of our standards; it was just going to be a one off special batch.

M: Well I’m glad it made it into the lineup.

B: We need to give this thing a name and add it to the lineup. The original lineup was 5 beers, not 6, so we ending up adding it in as Tamerlane Brown Porter. At the time when we first opened, I would work a shift maybe once at a week at the bar, usually Sunday afternoons. What I would hear from patrons was “I don’t like dark beers, but I like that” or “I just only like hoppy beers”. It just seemed to fit this in-between style need with our customers. It really appealed to many different people. We’re definitely making this again, because it just fit.

M: It makes sense, cause my dad is, he drinks beer but not a lot (and doesn't like dark beers). When I brought over a growler of it that year, he looks at the color and says I don’t want any of that. I'm like try it, have a sample of it. He does and says, "Oh, this is pretty good".  He ended up drinking a pint of it and my dad doesn’t drink anything dark like that so like you said somehow it fit this empty area for some people that don’t like that, they like that, the exception beer.

B: And it continues. By the numbers, it sells more than I would have expected to sell year after year. If you look at the breakdown of sales, it’s got its steady place and pace. It’s not something you go, “Hey I’m going to get rid of it and put another IPA”, even though IPA’s in this market sell like hotcakes. Everybody makes an IPA or multiple IPA’s and there’s a reason, people buy them. It’s one thing we knew when we opened: Geez, here we go with yet another IPA, here it comes Redmond, we got to make one too. Well, it better be good so let’s put some thought into this. We did, Andy and I wracked our brains on it. What do we want this to taste like?  Where do we want this to fit in the world of IPA’s? Let’s do something that’s really balanced, but it’s got a backbone to it, but it’s not overly bitter, overly resiny, overly harsh, lopsided, one-sided, a little roundness to the beer. And that was the goal of the Trickster - to do that and apparently it works. Then I would hear the same thing at the bar: “Well I don’t like IPAs, but I like that”. Then when you first start hearing that, it’s like oh shit, maybe it’s not IPA enough. But then you get the IPA guys who like it and you realize this is solid; this is just the right balance. We’re not in the IBU war to make the most bitter, resin saturated IPA in the world. We want something we can drink two pints of without scraping our tongues.

M: That make sense because that beer for a lot of the beer drinkers around here. It’s become like do you need a Northwest style IPA, they point to Trickster. And which brings me next to when you started doing Wisdom Seeker. Where did that come from and where’s it taken you? To me, that’s kind of like the first specialty beer you guys were doing.

B: Yeah, Wisdom Seeker was one of the first ones. I think Le Petite was before it but it was right there in the beginning for sure. Wisdom Seeker, that was another one with Andy and myself saying okay, we showed we could brew the balanced IPA (actually there are two beers that came out of that conversation). Wisdom Seeker and what ultimately became Beak Tweaker IPA. The idea being, this one’s a nice, well-rounded balanced IPA, let’s do something on the double IPA side and really punch things up a little more, but still keep a balance to it. Then we would debate about NW styles, San Diego style, that sort of thing as far as influence goes. Then we worked out what the malt recipe is going to be for this thing. What are the malt contributions, what hop varieties, what are we wanting in the glass?  Basically working backwards, what do we want to taste, what color is this beer going to have, what flavor profiles, aromatics and it just ended up being Wisdom Seeker. It hit right away. People were like, oh, you have to make this again.  Yeah, I know we really like it too, so we definitely have to make this again. Immediately we just knew, this is our rotating double IPA seasonal and maybe someday, we can get to the point where we can make it more often, but at the time we only made it about once every six months or something like that. It wasn’t very frequent. It’s got 6 hop varieties in it for a few reasons. In 2008, not only was the economy in bad shape, so was access to hops at the time. We were still in the hop crisis, so we had limited access to hops and then not knowing what would we have going forward. Can we still get the varieties we want, what’s the situation going to be in the future? So that’s part of why some of these beers, like Trickster, are multiple hop beers. We don’t want to be tied to just one or two hops that make up that beer’s profile. Although there is a hop signature in that beer, so if you don’t have Simcoe and Amarillo in that beer, it’s not going to be Trickster. Luckily we haven’t had to change the hop recipe of Trickster. The tricky part in Trickster, or any IPA or hop-forward beer, it’s (hop) a perennial plant, so every year that hop profile can be slightly different. That’s kind of something you have to balance in the brewery. Obviously there are some parts you can calculate such as bitterness potential. Other aspects such as aromatics and flavor can be a little trickier. That’s the main reason there are five hops in this beer, don’t get stuck on one variety. Wisdom Seeker has six, spreads it out even more. These hops also have some common threads between them so if one hop gets in short supply, you can kind of make it up in the other hop. Again, being burned by the hop crisis in some regards, we don’t want to be relying on one hop in particular and not being able to have it. It also rounds the beer out anyway. Gives us a little more dimension having multiple varieties.

                      (Photo courtesy of Bank of America and Black Raven Brewing Company)

M: What’s been the most expensive beer to brew?

B: Wisdom Seeker’s not cheap to brew, that’s for sure. Old Bird Brain, the barley wine can be pretty expensive. It’s very low yield, high cost, time-intensive, part of it is barrel-aged, and it’s all re-combined. We pre-age it in the brewery, so you’re sitting on this inventory for a year before it's ready. The barrels can definitely drive up the costs. Time and materials, they’re not cheap. It takes a lot of time, not only storing them and waiting on them, but also tending to the barrels. There’s a lot of work in the barrels. We realized that pretty quickly. Somebody’s got to spend the day just working on barrels.

M: Dick (Cantwell) had mentioned something about the fact that a lot of people customer-wise don’t think about especially if it’s bottled, why does it cost $15 or $10, or whatever. Well, I just spend $6000 on cocoa nibs, or I just spent on whatever.

B: Oh yeah, the additional ingredients get really expensive. And we have a couple of those beers with all of those special ingredients in there, that stuff’s not cheap. Cocoa nibs for sure, we use that in a few beers. Gun Powder has cocoa nibs in it. The specialty bottle thing is really hard because of the bottle costs. You’d be amazed just how much the glass itself and the screen-printing costs, plus the double hit of freight because you have to ship them to the screener, and then ship to the brewery.

M: So after you do that and you put beer in it and you put it on the line and you do all the other labor that goes into it, then you end up with more cost than expected.

B: Especially on a smaller scale. So you’ve bought your 750 ml Belgian bottles, made in Germany and shipped over to the distributor, then they are screen printed (labels) on the bottle. So now you have shipped the pallet of bottles to the screen printer (paying the freight). You now ship that pallet into the brewery (paying freight again). Now we bottle it all up and do the foil-wrapped top. As soon as you do the calculator stuff and look at it, you realize what you have got to charge for it. If we can’t make our margin on it, then I don’t want to do it, it’s not worth it.  I’d rather just put it on tap and then I don’t have any of those extra costs, but then you can’t get beer out to other people. Not everybody can get over here to Redmond but when you have something bottled, well bottles travel. It gets our beer into more people’s hands. So, that’s worked out really good.

M: Do you ever see or do you even want to get to the point where you have a bottle where you’re doing a Darkness Day or Dark Lord Day. So like your Great Grandfather Raven, highly coveted. Do you ever want to see it become one of those big things or is it more I don’t care it’s wherever it falls, where it falls in terms of a following. Since you’re trying to expand the bottle marketing.

B: Again, it’s really simple. We make stuff we like and we put it out for sale. Open the door and turn on the lights. Wisdom Seeker’s definitely taken that cult level following with bottles. As soon as they go on sale, we’ve got a line out the door. They’re sold out in 2 hours, the whole run. To this day, they’re gone the day we put them on sale. And we usually bottle about 40, 50 cases of 22’s with a 2 bottle limit. That’s pretty amazing, that’s pretty powerful. That blew us away - and it still does. The demand is still there, which is great. The barley wine surprised me. The 2012 Bird Brain, we did the release and we had about 370 bottles of it, 12 oz individual bottles. It was gone in less than a day and that’s barley wine…wow, okay. Yeah, that’s good, people are buying it, but at the same time it sucks to walk in and there’s nothing in the cooler when you’re a customer.

M: I see those threads on forums on beer things where they’re talking about, when are you getting over there, people are like tweeting, is there anything left? They just opened at noon; get me a couple of bottles. The demand is definitely there. It’s spreading for sure, so I think a small portion is going out to trades, going out of the state. Some people just want to have it, sitting at their house right now. I’ve got Splinters at my house right now in bottles because I love it.

B: A lot of folks trade growlers; well we don’t offer those in growlers. Especially if it’s a really big ABV beer, most people don’t want a growler of that stuff. A little 12oz bottle or 22oz bomber is just right. Plus growlers traded across the country don’t hold up well.

M: And I think back to the Wisdom Seeker days, back when I remember coming in here, there was like 2 people that wanted a growler. But, the next time I came back in, I think 6 months later, there’s a small line outside and people were sitting in their cars when they had the 2 growlers. And after that, it was ridiculous, it was like forever and at that point you guys were already looking at the bottling at some point.  It sounds like you’re going to do just what you do.

B: Also you start overthinking it and then maybe trying to plot and plan something, it can backfire. So we were like okay, we can do more next run and I can feel pretty good about it.

M Who comes up for the names for your beers, but you said your brother does designs for a lot of this. So when emails come out, is that you and names of beers, is that you?

B: Could be myself, could be one of the guys. We all take turns coming up with ideas.

M: Did you ever think there would be anything else besides this? The reason I ask is I didn’t know Dick (Cantwell) was an aspiring writer back in the day. He said, if that had taken off, there’d be no beer. And is that a similar case for you? Like I was like home brewing, so I wanted to see where this would go?

B: Exactly.

M: And since you talked about the expansions…

B: In 5 years we’ve kind of grown up. There’s more opportunity, more potential that we’ve just put on the brake a little longer. Hold on, hold on there, slow down a little bit. So whatever the next step, the next taproom beer, the next brewery expansion, we want to do it right and not stumble over ourselves. We’re really careful, so far so good. It seems to have paid off. I’ll tell you this, I don’t know otherwise what I’d do and I don’t want to find out.

M: You’re all in.

B: I’m all in, I’m a lifer, and I don’t want any other career. I don’t want to write a resume again, I’ve written enough. If this things bombs, I’ll go work for somebody else in the same industry.

M: Do you ever see possibly 10 years down the road you’ll have other locations?

B: Yes.

M: On the Eastside or just depending on where the location is or the building.

B: We tried already to do that but had some issues with municipalities. We tried to open a second facility in Woodinville. We gave up on that and walked away for now. We’ve got some long-term stuff kind of fermenting. So yeah, definitely see a second location. As to what that looks like and where it’s at, still working on that.

M: One thing that’s interesting that Dick (Cantwell) brought up, was that this area has a lot of small breweries, but you don’t have too many in the middle and you don’t have anyone beyond that. His concern with that, the equipment and the quality of beer that’s being made was that eventually it’s going to start saturating the market by mediocre kind of stuff and people aren’t trying to raise their game to get out of that bottom part to the middle part and beyond the next level of beer. Do you see something similar or do you have a different take on that.

B: Like you see this phenomenon continue or where the market goes?

M: I would say both. Even where I live, so many new places open up and I had no idea they were there. All these new small ones pop up and you never see them expand like you guys have expanded. Maybe that’s their thing and that’s fine, but if you have a bunch of them, it’s like after awhile, well your IPA tastes like this guy’s IPA, or this one’s making half-ass beer and eventually, I’m just going to go where I like it and they’re going to eventually die out.

B: I can see that. I think with that background, you really don’t have much of a choice. You really have to grow to some point or you might just get tired of doing it because you’re not making any money. A number of people have used that as a stepping-stone to get to the next step. Schooner Exact and Two Beers Brewing are great examples. They started one a keg at a time. I guess they said, we have to do something more, this isn’t going to work forever. We’re not going make any money and what impact are you going to have on anything?  It does impact larger breweries like us in the tap market because that’s a pretty easy sell to a bar. Oh, here’s a new brewery, here’s a new guy on the street. He’s got a new beer, so you give him tap space. Well, somebody had to come off to get that handle. And then that guy’s gone because the beer doesn’t sell or he’s like, screw this, this sucks I’m not doing this anymore. So then another guy jumps in and takes the handle. There’s only so much tap space, there’s only so much shelf space. Those channels, I think are going to get even tighter. I think there’s always going to be room for a well-executed neighborhood brewpub. Put a ten-barrel system back there, two guys or gals working production and never have to distribute. They’re probably not going to get rich, but not many are in this business anyway. You pay your bills and go on vacation every year and you’ll be happy. There’s room out there for more of these types of situations. But as soon as you take it past that, now you’re in the distribution channels. You’re fighting with the same thing you are down the street or down the next neighborhood, down the next block, town, and state. You’re seeing a lot of these guys, established brands expanding. Elysian’s a great local example. They’ve added so much more capacity, so much more distribution and new retail locations. That’s happening everywhere right now. Everybody’s expanding; everybody’s putting in new breweries, expanding existing brands of beers. It makes it harder and harder to establish a small regional brewery. Don’t get me wrong here, you can still do it, it’s being done right now. You hear a lot of, "I’ve got to get a bigger brewery”, and it never ends. We need more kegs, we need more this, we need more blah, blah, blah. Where does it stop?" And that’s one of the big challenges. Where does it stop? What do we want to be able to make and how far do we want to keep going in debt. That stuff doesn’t come cheap. Luckily, so far it works. If it weren’t for the retail, I wouldn’t do this. It’s not worth it. It’s way too much money and too much work. Retail component makes it work. I don’t know how some of the guys do it; they’re straight production and no retail sales. A lot of them don’t anymore. They’ve moved out of that, they’ve added little taprooms, they’ve added growler sales, whatever, because the revenue and their margins go up. Especially if you’re distributed, your margins are tight.

M: I’m at the point, with you guys again, from the outsider’s point of view that you guys over 5 years have just gone crazy over on the Eastside, how often do you get like home brewers or new business guys, could be whoever asking, picking your brain for advice. That must happen a lot. Does it ever get to the point where the community helps each other out for the most part? But there must be like a level of okay, enough’s enough. You’ve been bugging me; I’ve got work to do. You might as well have a consultant fee or something at that point. So does it happen?

B: Oh yeah, it does. There’ll be some weeks when I get that multiple times a week. Then there will be a week when I don’t get anything. It’s been quiet lately this last month or two. Somebody wants to come in and work for free; they want to learn the business. Sometimes they don’t want to work, they just want to come in and watch for a period of time. I honestly don’t have time for that in most cases. It would be great, I wish could, but I can’t. I get lots of lists of questions via emails frequently. Hey, I can’t do it right now but might get back to you in a couple of weeks when I have time, I’ll sit down and go through it. Sometimes it also depends on the person, their attitude and who they are. Sometimes you get people who are kind of pushy about it. Somehow I feel obligated to share advice on the business, as has been shared with me. I have my standard advice such as: Work in the industry. If you can’t work in the industry, go to brewing school. Take your budget, multiple it by 3. Take your timeline, multiple it by 2. What do you want out of it?  Be careful what you wish for. Is this really what you want to do? Why do you want to do it? Things like that. Do you really want me to tell it how it is or do you want the happy story? I’ll give you the real story but I don’t want to deflate your tires or take it the wrong way, personal, be an ass or something. I want to help, but I have got my own stuff going on. I need help! I need to ask some questions, you know. It’s my turn to ask. Great case in point, guys like Dick and other more experienced owners that have been doing this. There are times I reach out to them. Hey I need a little advice here. If you’re willing to offer some, I’m all ears.  I want to hear what do you think. So we’re fortunate, that we do have that. I always try to keep that in mind. I’ve been that guy. I’ve been the guy asking questions. I’ve had people come to me, so pay it forward.

M: And I think that’s the key, that balance and how someone comes at you when asking questions.  So I put in my work, I paid my dues; you need to do things too. But, on to a different track. Where do you see the Founder’s Club/Ravenmaster thing going since it’s going to be coming up on 5 years?

B: Scale of it?

M: Scale and do you see a difference between people like Carmichael and myself that started the first year versus the people that came in 2010 that became the Ravenmaster thing. It’s all called the same stuff anyway. Is it any different?

B: Founders are Founders; it’s only the first year members. Everything past that is Ravenmaster. So there is a distinction in the Ravenmasters and Founders.

M: So is there anything special as a Founder?

B: Actually, I was thinking this year for the 5 year have something extra or something extra special for Founders that have been on the ride the whole time. Yet to be determined.

M: I know one thing I was telling someone else like wishful thinking maybe it’s like 10 years for Founders, but I know what a brewery work shirt means to those workers that work inside of a brewery. Is there anyway to do something similar like that for Founders. 10 years, again, or whatever?

B: I hear you there. Never say never.

M: My little suggestion, cause anywhere you go if you work in a brewery you see the work shirt.

B: I would say that’s not outside of the realm of possibilities.

M: That gives me hope.

B: There’s always hope.

M: My last question is so of all the places around town, who do you like for whatever reason? Do you like the beer, do you like the people, do you like the model? Whatever they’re doing just seems to work for you, who do you like around here?

B: That’s a hard question because I don’t get out that much.

M: Or maybe even breweries that you look up to or were influenced by, maybe that would make it easier, somewhat?

B: Influenced in how they run their business as they grow. Ken Grossman’s Sierra Nevada is one. He is still running his company and doing it right. The facilities, the culture they created, it’s still impressive. I know that’s being done on smaller scales, but to see the large craft brewers keep holding onto what made them successful, that’s cool. New Belgium is another success story of a brewery growing the right way. Industry members usually get expanded tours of their operation from time to time, so you see a little more than what you might see on the public tours. These folks get it; they treat their employee’s right. Stone Brewing is another large brewery that has maintained their culture and still makes special beers and continues to influence the industry and keep their fans coming back for more. We like to make an environment that we want to be in. I want a place that I want to work in. I want a place I want to go drink and I want place I want to work.

M: How do you make this continually grow, culture, community, customers, guys in the back, people in the front of the house that this is all consuming world that you’re one of the other guys if you happen to be at a beer festival, if you happen to stop by.

B: I get out a little bit, the Eastside and Seattle. We’ll see the Triplehorn guys, give them a hard time. I like messing with those guys, they're fun. Pop into Redhook every once in awhile and get a pretzel and see what’s new on tap. That’s about it as far as going out lately.

I don’t really look at beer reviews. As far as Beer Advocate, UnTapped, social media type things. I know a couple of them because guys have shown me some, but I never look at that stuff. Part of that also is that I just like to do things my way. Make things the way I want them and I don’t want to be pulled by reviews or bias to change how I do things unintentionally, maybe subconsciously. So I typically don’t look at reviews, I don’t really go out and buy a whole bunch of beer at the bottle shop and try it. Probably need to work on that part. There’s a lot of stuff I missed it seems. I kind of keep my head down over here. I don’t make a bunch of noise, don’t jump up and scream and yell. The brewery as a whole, we make a little bit of noise and we get our name and face out there sometimes. Make a little noise here and there. But for the most part, we knuckle down and do our thing and people come to us.

M: That’s very true. I can remember that time you guys went to Beverage Place in the gorilla suits but that fits the let's have fun vibe. Like let’s take a break and make sure that Trickster gets on as the house IPA.

You know what's the deal with the lines at beer festivals and Raven?  You would think it would die down now that you guys have been around a bit.  But nope.  (laughs)

B: I honestly do have a festival strategy.

M: You’re strategy’s working apparently.

B: Seems to be. There’s a lot of thought into the lineup, what it’s gonna be, where we’re pouring, what we’re pouring, what’s going on.

M: I remember one of the earlier years at the Father’s Day Festival at St Edwards, I got a beer and I waited back in your line because I know by the time I get half way up there my pour is already gone. Get a beer from Karen or whoever’s pouring, get back in the line cause the line is 30, 40 deep at least.

B: The hard part of that festival strategy, especially the Summer Brewfest, is to make it work year after year. One of the strategies: when you get to the front of the line and get your beer, you see at least one more beer, maybe even two that you have to come back for. You get up to the front of the line for beer A and then, oh crap, which one do I pick now? Beer B and C sound awesome. I better get back in line! I rarely see beer A, B or C on tap anywhere, this is special.

M: Makes sense.

B: A lot of the breweries and especially the bigger ones are pushing standard offerings or common seasonal beers. I’ve had that every year or I’ve had that every summer or I’ve had that a hundred times, why stand in line for it? The other part of festivals is that lines create lines and we’re fortunate enough to have that work to our advantage. Funny part is, we pour incredibly fast. We’re trying to move the line fast. I hate standing in line as much as anybody else.  I don’t want people to stand there for 15 minutes for my freaking beer.  Let’s move, let’s move, get the line moving. The buzz just feeds on itself. Obviously you have to back it up, you’ve gotta have something that people want. Anybody can make a line, but can you make a line all day long? Can you make the line the next day, can you make the line the year. We’ve been top token count at that festival five years in a row (maybe six since this interview is dated). Everybody told me the second year, "Don’t get used to it". Only the new breweries get top token, you won’t do it again. Did it again, okay now what? It won’t happen again, it happened again. I don’t know. Everything we just discussed, that’s why I guess.

M: All that, part of your strategy, seeing a line, there must be something good over there. The buzz is there.

B: Can you keep people standing in line? That’s the real trick.  You truly have people stand in line because they see a line, they’ll even say it. We will sometimes just walk down the line like, really? Oh, well thank you. How’d you hear about us? Oh I passed by, there’s a line. If there’s a line, it’s got to be good, right?  Kind of funny sometimes.

M: Well, hey, I think that's going to cover it.  Oh no.  Wait, I lied.  What should a new brewer be aware of?

B: It’s a very capital-intensive industry. I think a lot of times, that’s something that anyone new and hasn’t worked in the industry doesn’t get insight to. In my case, I have insight, because I’ve worked in other breweries. I’ve seen their owners running around going argh… but, you never really realize it, until you do it yourself. You could be thinking it won't be that bad and then you get into it and you’re like, man they’re not kidding. No wonder they looked like they were going to take a hostage.

I like to share as much as I can, but at the same time, I don’t want to stress myself out about it. I wake up at night going argh sometimes. This scares the hell out of me more than maybe it should. But on days like today, you walk out here and people are here, people are buying, buying half the limited release stock. What happens is a lot of times, we get caught up and people get caught up with the romantic side of it. Again, seeing it from right here, this looks like play and have fun. We are, we are having a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of work and a lot of investment. Okay, you open a place and you get it going, now where’s your money coming from? You can only do so much with cash flow. We do as much as we can with cash flow but we might go into more debt.  So you open your brewery and you’re successful, now what do you do? Do you have access to capital?  Do you have a good relationship with the bank? Do you have outside investors?  Do you have existing investors, which may not lend you more money?   What do you do then? That’s another thing that could catch you off guard. Oh I have a $700,000 budget. I opened for $680,000. Yay! How are you going to get the next $600,000?

M: That sounds a lot like when you’re renovating a house. That your budget, whatever it is, should be multiplied by 3 to be safe because there’s always going to be surprises when you’re digging through something, you didn’t budget in. Oh now, I’ve got another $20 thousand I’ve got to pay for this. This pipe system’s got to come out, not I’ve got to pay for that. Things that are incidentals.

B: It’s going to happen and there’s no way you’re really going to know until you get into those projects. We had a lot of those surprises internally just in this facility. Oh crap, we’ve got to pull more power from down at the electrical room. We thought we had it, but we didn’t have as much as we thought. So you’ve got to pull more power. Well there’s another $10 -$15,000. This, that or the other, engineering work for placing tanks. Other codes that just come out of the woodwork but you have to meet them. Well, you’ve got to get an engineer; you’ve got to get blah, blah, blah. There goes $5000, there goes $8000. You weren’t really planning on it, but you have to do it and you want to do it, because you want to do it right. You know, sometimes you get caught off guard. Yeah, access to capital.

M: Staying with that theme then, when you were starting off, how did you develop a business plan? Did you and Kat hire outside business people or did just the two of you put your brains together?

B: We had some conversations of bringing other people in on it. It gets complicated, the more people in the ownership equation, the more potential for people having their own vision and agenda. Is everybody going to stay on the same page or are we going to fracture and have issues with different visions, different views of what the business is going to be. I’ve seen other breweries, other businesses before where the multiple partnerships, ownership is great in that you can spread the workload around. Then you get more experience from various people. Everybody has a different experience and skill set to bring to the table, so that’s kind of nice. But people are people and especially when you have a lot of money on the line true colors come out. And pressure, pressure can cause problems. Small, expanding business has a lot of pressures. How do people handle it?  Sometimes not well. We decided to go slower and a little less risky, if you will, by keeping it two, then getting more people involved maybe someday.  I think that worked out pretty good. The cost of that though, again, well that was just us two. She works full-time somewhere else and it’s just limited to what we can pull together as far as money goes. Monthly business is doing well, so we can get loans now from the bank, but we couldn’t get loans for the first 2 years. So, what do you do?  Slowly grow and plan for the next step. Okay, one day we’ll be able to get a loan from the bank. Now, we’re in a position where we did that and we’re able to get a loan to pay for this expansion we’re in right now. and we used every drop of it. Yeah, we have a good relationship now with the bank. We did that commercial, I don’t know if you saw the link last summer. We did it for one of their web properties for Bank of America. They did a little mini-documentary, about two and a half minute long mini-documentary for small business web-sites. It’s like a local marketing campaign. They came in with a full camera crew, interviews, and documentary-style kind of approach, commercial/documentary if you will for both parties. Ultimately for the bank but it worked out well for us. They gave us all the footage, all the rights. We have a link to on the Facebook page to it somewhere. It’s kind of cool. If you haven’t seen it, I would check it out.

M: No I’ve never seen it, I’ll find it.

B: It came out in September or October 2013. It’s kind of buried in their site. It’s hard to get to. Surprises the hell out of me cause it turned out really good. I’m biased but it turned out really good. And it’s an interesting subject matter because people are interested in breweries and they spent a lot of money on it. It was awesome. They had a full crew here, between camera, sound, lighting, make-up, still photography; they had an RV out there. They had this all turned into, basically a studio. They had probably a crew of 20 something people working it. They spent some money on it.

M: Can you think of any and you don’t have to go into details, but can you think of business decisions you made since the beginning to now that you’re like, oh shit…

B: Nothing really major. The only "oh shits" would be knowing we kind of underestimated.   I think we were a little too conservative on our projections. I don’t think that hurt us though. I think it was more of an asset, maybe in hindsight, we could have done this a little better and not have some of these minor issues we’ve kind of had to deal with. The bar layout drives me crazy. I hate having two bars. And they’re not even visually connected, so it’s really hard, but they’ve got it all dialed in. Two bars running at the same time, it gets a little confusing for guests, harder for the staff to work it, just little stupid things like that. Just minor tweaks I would do different. I would have laid out the brewery just slightly different, but not by much, because at the time we didn’t know which way we would expand the building, if at all.  We ended up having to redo it anyway but that’s a good thing. Ultimately redoing it cause we need to make more beer. So it’s going in the right direction. It’s been a learning experience. Learning how to keep a level head and try to make the right decisions and multi-task.

M: You run into any issues like Diamond Knot did in Mountlake Terrace with their grain silo. I was just thinking about that with yours out here in the back.

B: Nothing like they have, but we had a couple issues in the first 2 years. We hadn’t quite figured Redmond out and they hadn’t figured out us out yet so there were some restrictions that I thought were really goofy and stupid. There were some things I thought were a little overkill, but in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that bad. Overall, I’d say we’ve had a really good experience with the City of Redmond. The only thing I would ever complain about is that it takes too damn long to get things done.  They’ve been, overall, pretty easy to work with. I didn’t say that the first year, but now they’ve figured us out and we’ve figured them out and what they want. So we’ve got a pretty good working relationship with them. There’s still one or two things I think they made us do, which I don’t agree with, but overall nothing like what those guys are doing with that situation, that’s ridiculous. Regarding our silo, they had two things to say. One, we had to get the engineering done, which is fine because I expected that. The other is that the color needs to match the building. That’s easy, no problem.

M: I read that article online about Diamond Knot and all that. I live close to that area, so I’m like, what the hell are they talking about. Especially, that area. It actually kind of fits the vibe they have out there. It’s going to create jobs on top of it. They need jobs in that area. I swear people try to find a reason to complain about something just so they can.

B: Sometimes there’s another agenda going on, but you never know. Maybe there’s someone who doesn’t drink and they’re against it. It’s like you said, sometimes people just like to complain about stuff. Okay. I think it probably backfired because it really just made the city look bad. Overall, it’s not a nice welcome to the neighborhood.  (Again - this was back in late 2013 - editor).

M: Yeah, and they’re taking over a spot, I can’t remember how long it’s been vacant, but I know Double DD meats is next to it and it’s been empty forever. So you’re bringing in money, capital, all the right stuff.

B: Yeah the city should be super happy about it.  We’ve been pretty lucky, we can’t complain too much. We did have some zoning restrictions on our hours in Redmond, but we knew that going in. Since then, they’ve actually changed that requirement of having to close by 10PM. They expanded that in 2013, the city council approved and allow manufacturing business parks to have those hours. The taproom is secondary to the brewery. It’s the only way we could have the taproom. We couldn’t just open a bar here. The only reason this is allowed is because this is secondary to the primary use. Primary use is manufacturing beer; secondary we can have our retail presence. Two years ago, this came up for review.  I went down and said my little bit in the city council meeting, hey we’re a new business and we have the demand to be open a little later. It didn’t go anywhere. The city council was more concerned of how we ever got approved, why do you have a bar over there?  We don’t just have a bar over here. I went to the city planning dept before we even started and said here’s what we want to be. What zoning works?  They said the best zoning for us is manufacturing park zoning, that’s what this is because the retail is secondary to manufacturing. Well you guys should be down in the core, downtown area. I told them that we’re not a brewpub. I agree, if you’re a brewpub, yeah you should probably be downtown. We’re not and we are not trying to be one, we’re a manufacturing facility that has a retail taproom. Well, we still think you should be downtown! I know its legal, that’s what the planning people told us. There was a period of time they were trying to push us to go downtown and I think they realize that’s not the right answer. Be careful what you wish for, because now you’re going to have a noisy, aromatic business downtown. Then you’re going to start complaining about that. That’s not going to work. Trucks, traffic and all that kind of stuff. I think they finally realized who are we, what they are looking for, what kind of citizens of Redmond are we as a business.

M: That really kind of makes sense. Like you said in the beginning, you’re trying to feel each other out. They don’t know, you don’t know them, so once you guys get through the kinks, over the hiccups and the bumps in the road. Okay we know what you guys are doing and how you’re doing it how it’s benefitting our city and vice versa so maybe we could maybe back off a few things, or maybe not be as silly as we were in 2009.

B: Be a little more accommodating. So that’s been helpful. Do you know about Derby Days, the annual event they do in Redmond? Since 2009 or 2010, we’re now the exclusive brewery supplier for the beer garden at this City of Redmond annual event. The organizer loves us, we love working with her. She had us take the whole thing over a few years ago. You guys want to do the whole thing? Yeah, I’ll do it, but don’t make us have other beer on tap. We don’t want to have to put on Miller, Bud or Coors. It’s all Black Raven or I don’t want to do it. So now we do that every year, which is really cool. It’s basically the Black Raven beer garden.  It’s things like that that does well for the city and for us.  They’re doing more money in the beer garden now than they’ve ever done for any event. Guess who’s coming to your beer garden? The mayor, city council, those guys and gals. They get to see that we are an asset to the city and realize we are good business citizens.

M: You were talking earlier about possible expansion into Woodinville and you retracted that or it fell through, etc. Were you looking at Woodinville, because supposedly, at least for me, on the surface they seem so alcohol-friendly? Wine, spirits and beer?

B: Definitely, that’s a big attraction. Just really seeing what’s been done and what they wanted to do ultimately for at least some people.  They’ve been developing that into more of a wine and now some breweries and distilleries tourism.  We were going to do a larger production facility there with a retail component. We would keep this location going, it would turn into a specialty brewery. We had a really hard time with the city. That was unfortunate because I had a really good spot located. I had a start on all the architectural drawings, the landlord 100% on board, the price was right, the terms were right and the spot was right. We had some serious roadblocks with the city building department. We weren’t the first people to run into problems with this either. The potential landlord had their architect working with the city, their lawyer working with the city, we had our architect working with the city and we just couldn’t get past the red tape. Unrealistic demands were placed on the project, it just killed the budget. It was all unnecessary (they admit now). Finally I just said, we are done, now let’s start working on this expansion instead (here in Redmond). It all happens for a reason. We'll make it work no matter what. I’d really like to be in Woodinville at some point, on some level.

M: So if that person retires…

B: I don’t know. Maybe, he’s fired or retired by now…

M: Switching gears what’s something that people that don’t know you outside of the area, don’t know about you. Interest things, like what you’re good at.  Like when I talked with Dick (Cantwell), I didn’t know he had an acting background at one point, and writing, that’s why he writes all of the press releases or Elysian. What about you?  What do you do when you’re not here 6 or 7 days a week?

B: I like to scuba dive. I haven’t dove in a couple of years now. I was getting into scuba diving, underwater photography. I haven’t done it in a long time either, but someday when I have time I enjoy woodworking. I used to build clocks and small furniture. Traveling, going on vacation, just going around places checking stuff out. That’s about it. Kind of boring really.

M: Do you have any kind of like talents? Do you play guitar, you’re a hunter, you’re an amazing chess player.

B: Nope, just a good ol’ boy from Mississippi. All my energy, my creativity, it all happens here at Black Raven. That’s actually something I’m kind of like picky about. It’s been five years and at some point I’m starting to do things for myself again. Shit, what am I going to do?  Start diving again?  Find new hobbies?  Find something else to pursue?  I don’t know the answer yet. I’m in that in environment, makes you better at what you do. I don’t climb mountains or have a submarine or anything. I’m just a pretty normal dude.

M: This is totally wishful thinking 30 years down the road, but let’s say everything that you want from Black Raven really goes the way you want it to go for the most part, and you’re in the position where you can kind of sit back where you’re traveling to other breweries or whatever you need to do for business, ever see yourself opening something back in Mississippi.

B: Probably not. I thought that in the beginning, when I moved to Seattle from Mississippi. I want to get into the business, I want to learn it, I want to do my own thing someday and maybe come back to Mississippi. Not anymore, for a couple of reasons:  one being the market.  It’s made great progress since when I lived there; great progress means it was so bad, anything’s great progress. Been there, done that. I’d go somewhere else, I don’t know where. Somewhere warm maybe, although it’s warm there. Actually, it’s kind of a funny answer in a round about way, not necessarily geographically. I opened the place I wanted to open in the beginning, my little tinker around brewery but it has quickly evolved. Maybe someday, somewhere fairly small and quiet and it would only be open a couple of days a week. And if you didn’t like it I’d have some sort of broken old man sign telling you where to go. It would probably be a small brewery; no distribution, on-site, not very big and I’d probably have one person helping me in the brewery.  Yeah, it’d actually go the other way and open a smaller brewery.

M: What would, like I’ve never been anywhere near Mississippi, like when you went from there and you were in CA and you went back, then you came up here, what was it like coming up to Seattle? Was it like being in culture shock for you or was it like I can totally fit right in.

B: Not at all. I lived in CA and had gone back and forth for years because we would go back to Mississippi visiting relatives every year. Even though I didn’t live there, I was there every year, when I lived in CA. That’s about as much contrast as you can get. Deep south Mississippi and the bay area of CA. I mean, you’ve covered all ends of the spectrum. So Seattle to me was basically a smaller version of the bay area of San Francisco. I have an aunt and uncle that moved up here in '99, so we had visited them right about that time right before I moved up here. I knew the area a little bit having been here a couple of times.  I’m not a big fan of California. It’s a little crazy down there. I like it much better up here.

M: There’s something I didn’t even think to ask you, where’d the name come from for the brewery?

B: It just kind of kept floating up to the top. I had about 10, 20, 30 names on the list and I kept playing with them in my head. Little concepts, ideas based on some of the names. Some of them were crossed off cause they conflicted with other potential businesses or breweries or something else that didn’t make sense or just didn’t stick. We kept looking at it, thinking about it. It just kept floating to the top and I like ravens, they’re really interesting animals. They’re extremely crafty, very smart, very interesting birds. There’s something I like about them. And they show up in culture in various ways, art, mythology, literature, and customs. The raven means something to people everywhere. It just worked. As silly as it sounds, animals sell. People like animals and animal names sell. Also, it’s got the word black in it, so that’s awesome. I can spin off with so many beer names, based on this as a theme. Naming opportunities for beers, stories and stuff just seems to tie in very well. I do like to go camping a lot and going camping up in the Cascades, you see the ravens up there. You don’t see many down here; you only really see the fat crows. Up there you hear the ravens making sounds and flying around, they’re really cool birds. Also, it looks good. Sometimes it’s something as simple and stupid as that, how the name looks on paper or on a sign.

M: Was there a runner-up that was really close?

B: It was almost Flying Squirrel. I like squirrels and I like flying squirrels. I don’t know why, I just do. I had kind of a little theme built around that, kind of an idea what I was going do with that. There were some issues. One of the issues was there’s a trademark with the name. A brewery, a chain back East, I don’t think they even exist anymore. Hops Brewing Company, brewpub chain back in FL had a flying squirrel nut-brown ale. So I didn’t want to get into that battle. And then, just talking to people, everybody kept thinking Rocky and Bullwinkle. Everybody was identifying it with Rocky the Flying Squirrel. I don’t want to be associated with a cartoon character. Everybody’s mind just went there. Oh, you mean like…oh…it’s not a cartoon. So between those two names, I ditched that. You know we’re not going to be the flying squirrel. There’s a flying squirrel pizza company now in Seattle. That works for them better than for me.

M: Switching gears again I was thinking about something I’d asked Dick (Cantwell).  Do you have anonymity as the head brewer that you could be in here and maybe more than half the people don’t know that you’re the head guy?  Some people like being anonymous and others like the little spotlight.

B: I don’t really care about that kind of stuff. I don’t walk around looking for attention but at the same time, it’s fun to engage customers and be that guy.

M: Be yourself and do your thing.

B: We like to be approachable, but we don’t like to get in people’s faces. We all get so wrapped up back there in the brewery. If we’re slow back there, usually myself or one of the guys will come up and grab a beer at the bar and spend some time talking to the guests. That is the fun part unless you are having a bad day, then it isn’t what you want to do. I would rather go home than to go up to the taproom grumpy.

M: I can think of one situation, not for you guys but for another brewery during an old Seattle Beer Week. Malt and Vine’s got their thing going on, everyone’s got their thing going on and they had a brewery there, this was like during the day around 2 o clock and maybe a dozen of us in there  They’re giving away prizes and stuff and no one including myself knew the guys from the brewery cause they were hiding out in the corner of the shop. I understand if that’s your brewery, but if it's a brewers event, ya gotta talk to the people. It's part of the gig, regardless of your personality.  They wanted nothing to do with anyone.

B: Some breweries have that approach on their brewer nights. We have kind of the opposite. That’s when we do get a little more badgering on the brew nights because that’s built into the production, why we’re there. They’re there (customer) because they want to hear about who you are, come to your table and blabber about beer. They want to hear it, that’s why they’re at the brewers night. Not all folks are, so you have to read the guest a bit sometimes.

M: That’s exactly what I saw, and I’m not the biggest beer geek, but I’m not the guy down here that doesn’t know anything either. I went up there and wanted to talk to them and even me approaching them was kind of like, they gave me the cold shoulder, I don’t know anything about your brewery I think you took over part of a brewery over on the Eastside of the mountains, can you tell me more about that? Oh yeah, we did this that and we did that.  See you later, okay I’ll go back to my table, sorry I didn’t mean to bother you. I can understand if someone’s being forward or a jerk or an ass or drunk or whatever. But I was being polite about it.

B: There are some brewers out there, not many of them, that don’t like doing that stuff. Just leave me alone back here, I don’t want to talk to anybody, I don’t want to see anybody. There are definitely guys like that. That’s just personalities. But most guys, you can’t get them to shut up. That’s what I tell them when we go do a brewers night, you might have to tell us to tone it down. Possibly annoying the customers. No that’s why they’re here. All right, all bets are off, we’re going for it. Ham it up a little bit and have a good time with it.

M: Seems like those guys I met are very much the exception. That almost everybody else, they’re regular guys. They want to talk about their product. They’re happy to talk about anything. And if you don’t want to hear that, then you go on to the next person. I can think of several beer festivals that are like that, or someone’s taproom and they find out you want to ask any question about their beer, they’re more than happy to answer.

B: It’s all about reading the guest, getting a feel for what they want to talk about or if they even want to talk.

Beaux and his team at Raven continued to expand their brand in 2014 and beyond.  Trickster made it to stores in bombers for the first time.  Every time I went into the taproom, it was busy as always - like standing room only busy.  The Founder's Club members got a designation on their club glassware-growlers that said "Charter Member" for those that wanted to know what they did for the 5 years when this interview took place.

Much thanks to Beaux for talking to me that December, for making amazing beers, and for putting up with such a fucking time lapse between when this interview was conducted and when it was published. 

I think for the hardcore beer fan, you now know a lot more about Beaux and Black Raven.  At least I hope so.  That was always the goal.