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Brewer’s Library: Brewing Up a Business by Sam Calagione

February 16, 2011 2 comments

You’ve heard of Sam Calagione. He is well on his way to being the most recognizable brewer in America. He founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, who are among the top 25 craft breweries by sales volume and have collaborated with the likes of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co., and the Beer Advocate brothers. He has published several books on brewing and business. At the end of 2010 the Discovery Channel gave him his own TV show. Yeah, that guy.

Brewing Up a Business by Sam CalagioneBrewing Up a Business should be required reading for anyone working in a small craft brewery — or any small business, for that matter. Calagione has put together a lively, informative guide that covers the lifespan of a company from the original innovative idea to end-game strategies for gracefully exiting a successful entrepreneurial venture. Along the way he shares a number of entertaining stories from Dogfish Head’s unusual history that are the centerpiece responsible for this work’s accessibility.

Rather than being a nuts-and-bolts guide to business ownership, this work is really the transmission of one man’s business — and life — philosophy. Some of the key themes are as follows: everything you do should reflect your core values; you get the most from others when you communicate with openness, trust and respect; getting away from work can be the key to success both away from and at the office; etc, etc. These sorts of things can seem cliché when tersely spouted off by someone in a forum such as this, but when seriously ruminated upon they reflect real insight and are the heart of this book.

One of the greatest successes of Brewing Up a Business is that Calagione doesn’t torpedo his book’s readability when he does choose to focus on more tangible aspects of running a  business. In one notable departure he strays from business philosophies to talk about the difference between income statements and balance sheets. This is a subject that could easily put even the most interested young brewer to sleep. Yet, in the context that Calagione has created the subject becomes surprising and powerful. Having made it through two thirds of the book by this point, the reader trusts that if Calagione is taking the time to expound upon these supposedly crucial financial documents then it’s time to pay attention.

If the book has any downfalls the most egregious would be the author’s glamorization of business ownership. He mentions some of the hardships of the early days, such as getting years of little-to-no money and even less sleep, but only in a passing, light-hearted manner. It seems likely, given the success that has followed that era, that he simply views it all with the same amount of joy. After all, he couldn’t have gotten to where he is today without those tumultuous initial years. I recently spoke to another small craft brewer whose business is not yet out of that stage and he echoed Calagione’s realistic yet rosy view of the situation. Faced with a full-time position’s worth of brewery work on top of a normal day job, most of his life savings sunk into the business and with no certainty that the venture will ever turn profitable, he said that even if it were to go under tomorrow it will have been 100% worth it.

The reason that everyone working at a small-scale, for-profit business should invest their time into this book is high valuation of empathy. Calagione cites the ability to empathize as a fundamental characteristic of both good salespeople and good managers. He’s right on the money, except that I’d like to up the stakes and claim that it’s the fundamental skill for being a good human being. Understanding the entire life-cycle of a small business will help any employee improve the quality of their work. If you have an inkling of what the other owners and long-term employees went through early on and deal with on a day-to-day basis, you will better relate to those people. The ability to think holistically is an asset no matter what you find yourself doing, and Brewing Up a Business enthusiastically promotes that type of thought.

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