BUILT FROM THE GROUND UP
A lot of brewery owners say they built their business from the ground up. Very few mean it in the same way as Jackrabbit Brewing Company co-owner Chris Powell.
“We were all doing everything, all the time,” Powell says and he’s not kidding. “Once we actually got our permits and could build stuff, we were here late at night after work, jack hammering out the concrete to put in the trench drain and stuff. We started assembling the equipment. We got a welder and I taught myself to weld.”
Jack hammering? Welding? Not exactly the skills you’d expect to need when you decide to open a brewery. But by mid-2011 Powell, along with co-owners Kevin Hull and two others had picked up these new skills and a whole lot more, essentially working two jobs, “70-80 hours a week… well maybe more than that actually.”
IT BEGINS WITH A BEER
So how did Powell, an attorney by day, find himself living as a brewery owning steel worker by night? Would you believe it all started over a beer?
“(I said), ‘why don’t we start a brewery?’ on New Year’s Eve while we were drinking and this was like 2011 and (Kevin) said ‘yeah let’s do it!’ ” Powell says with a laugh. “Sixteen year olds start a band, 35 year olds start a brewery I guess.”
Kevin is also an attorney. He was also Chris’s best friend at law school and like many college friends they shared many nights filled with beer. In their case though, it was beer they’d made themselves.
“We started having brewfests, little parties where we’d brew a crap load of beer and invite a bunch of people and have a good time,” Powell reflects.
But going from home brewing in college, to brewery owners with full-time jobs is a leap that seemed crazy. As it turns out the internet agrees says Powell, “if you read online about whether or not it was a good idea, most people were telling you ‘Don’t do it. It’s a terrible idea. You’re going to lose all your money.’ We didn’t listen to any of that advice.”
BREWERY ON A BUDGET
Instead, they began an experiment of opening a brewery on a budget. They found the cheapest space they could, which landed them tucked away in an industrial area in West Sacramento. Powell says they couldn’t afford fancy machinery, instead opting to get old dairy equipment and customizing it to meet the breweries needs.
“Which is like the old-fashioned approach that people did 30 or 40 years ago when they were trying to start microbrews in America,” Powell says. “We did it really low-budget.”
Welding and jack hammering, soon gave way to brewing and fermenting. The beer was flowing but only to bars and restaurants, the Jackrabbit crew choosing to forego opening a taproom.
Powell admits, it was a miscalculation of the market, “in hindsight, maybe just starting a taproom first would have been a quicker start because we didn’t understand how popular that was going to be.”
TAPPING INTO THE TAPROOM
“I didn’t expect it to be this successful.” Powell says the taproom offered a connection to the public Jackrabbit didn’t have before, “we got to have a lot of one-on-one interaction with customers and see what they like, what they don’t like, hear from them directly.”
Operating the taproom meant hiring more employees (they have 10 now) which actually helped reduce Powell’s workload. He says he’s now able to mostly avoid those 80-hour work weeks that took up so much of his time just a few years ago.
“We really built everything with our hands, which is something that I’m proud of,” Powell says. “No one is getting rich doing this right now, but it’s rewarding just to see a place that we created from an idea (turn) into a real thing; people making their living working here, making good beer.”
CARVING A BEER NICHE
Jackrabbit (named for the rabbits that can be found just about everywhere in the area) distinguishes itself from many of the other Sacramento-area breweries by focusing on English and Belgium style beers. It was a decision that was made after carefully considering the market, and of course buying a bunch of beer.
“Probably a month after (deciding to open a brewery), we had our first meeting of the people who were going to do it and we went to BevMo and we bought like $100 in beer,” Powell explains. “We went to Kevin’s house and had a sip of this and spat it out and a sip of that and spat it out and took notes, ‘I like this, I don’t like that’ and just talked about what we wanted to do.”
Powell says early on it became clear early on they wanted their beers to stand out from the craft beer scene that is growing more crowded by the day. “We thought we didn’t want to be what everyone else was doing. We wanted to clear our own niche in the market.” That niche includes beers like their English-style Pub Ale and Greybeard Old Ale, Order of the Rabbit (a Belgian-style dubbel), a Golden Strong, and at any given time a variety of Saisons.
Powell says he’d like to expand the Jackrabbit brand within the region reaching to the Bay Area and Tahoe. Eventually, he’d like to see their beer sold in Nevada. For the time being though, he just wants Jackrabbit to continue to make good beer, and come up with new and interesting brews.
“We’re in the middle of a renaissance of American beer and it’s really cool be a part of America awakening and rediscovering its love of flavorful beer.”