There was no question that Jacob McKean would open San Diego's Modern Times Beer. Equipment was purchased, employees hired, and recipes formulated. However, the million-plus dollars he'd raised left little for look and feel. "We wanted to pimp out the tasting room," says McKean.
So in spring 2013 he turned to KickStarter, offering quirky awards like picnics and black-velvet portraits of donors. The successful campaign netted Modern Times $65,471, letting the brewery install a wall of comics, a bar made from old books, and a colossal Post-It note mosaic of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. "Being able to say you were able to make this whole thing happen is so cool," McKean says.
Comic book walls aside, opening breweries is expensive, with costs easily topping $1 million before a single beer is brewed. To dampen the financial blow, hundreds of breweries ranging from start-ups like Maine's Tributary and Pennsylvania's The Brew Gentlemen to Stone Brewing, the biggest beer maker in San Diego, have turned to crowdfunding sites such as KickStarter, CrowdBrewed, and IndieGoGo. While raising money may be the main objective, increasing awareness is equally important. "People have a lot of stuff on their mind, and a little farmhouse brewery is not on top of the list," says beer journalist and author Christian DeBenedetti, who is currently working to open the Portland-area Wolves & People on his childhood farmstead. "Our campaign helps to get people talking about the brewery."
There's plenty of chatter about Wolves & People. The brewery already has a national distribution arrangement, and Jordan Keeper, former head brewer at Austin's well-regarded Jester King, will help brew the saisons, wild beers, and experimental ales. But buzz doesn't equal solvency. "One piece of equipment came in yesterday with a $25,000 price tag," says DeBenedetti, whose brewery is located in a barn on the National Historic Registry. That means more logistical, and monetary, hurdles.
But why should beer drinkers underwrite a brewery's build-out? To some, crowdfunding campaigns may seem like digital panhandling, with deep-pocketed Stone's receiving serious backlash to its pre-sales IndieGoGo campaign. (Despite that, the Southern Californians still sold more than $2.5 million.) And KickStarter is littered with the sad husks of failed brewery fundraisers. DeBenedetti understands that it's a fine line to tiptoe. "For me, it's a realization of 20 years of writing and homebrewing and dreaming," he says. "It's not a cash grab for a project that may or may not succeed."
As with Modern Times, Wolves & People will open even if the campaign (which ends on November 30) misses the mark. Money is nice, but so is forging bonds with drinkers, attaching a place and a face to a bottle of beer. "Crowd funding is a legitimate way to connect with beer lovers," says DeBenedetti.