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Zak Koga – Karben4 Brewing
You have found Authentic Business Adventures, the
business program that brings you
the struggles stories and triumphant
successes of business owners across
the land. Coming to you
from the great Karben4 Brewery.
I’m excited here we have Zach Koga
the co-owner of Karben4.
How are you doing today?
I’m doing well.
Yeah, it’s Monday.
That’s how we owners do it here.
This is a cool space you got here.
So let’s start out with how
long have you been here?
We are in our ninth year.
So we turned, we got eight full years,
technically December 28th of 2020.
So we going into our ninth year here.
Many more to come.
The super cool.
So you was this the first spot?
Or did you relocate?
No, this was our first spot.
We started here.
Ale Asylum was here from about somewhere
in 2006 until late summer,
roughly late summer, fall
Oh wait 2012.
OK, and then we
yeah we moved in, our lease started October
of 2012 and we were open
by the end of the year so that
was almost almost three
full months to get us open.
But that’s pretty fast.
I was gonna say that’s crazy fast.
We, we were working 100 hour weeks.
Just going straight.
Every day, every night
to get open and and we had the benefit
of Ale Asylum being here before us so
a lot of, a lot of infrastructure
things were already here.
Drainage, water, boiler, stuff.
So it was more
rearranging our first equipment setup
mixed with some things we bought from them
versus things we brought in and then in
the tap room,
we, they had a functioning taproom here.
We ended up kind of gutting it.
So we went a little further
than we thought we would.
But but but there was
already half of the bar.
Was here already plumbing things.
A lot of things were here.
So that helped us get to get
to market pretty quickly.
Is that what you end up
choosing this space or were you.
deliberating other spaces.
We, we were yes.
At the end of the day that’s why we
ended up in this space in Madison.
We were talking about how to start
a brewery for a couple of years.
My brother is really what brings
me into the beer business.
I am an engineer by training
and background and
my brother was was brewing beer out
Montana for several years as a family.
We were talking about how to get a brewery
going for ourselves, for him, more and
more focused for him and for his career.
And and then as that discussion got more
real, I was getting kind of more involved,
looking at the business plan with him
and brought in some friends to help us.
and then Ryan
cold called Ale Asylum and just kind
of said, hey,
we’re looking to start up a brewery.
Madison’s definitely on our radar
because I had already lived here.
He was out in Montana.
And it’s a great, great city, great market
for craft beer, especially back then.
Yeah, almost ten years ago.
and we sort of struck a deal to say, hey,
I think there’s certain things that you’re
probably just trying to sell and they’d be
worth more if they stayed
put to both of us.
And so you knew Ale Asylum was leaving?
OK, yeah, we were aware.
So I work for Findorf before
starting the brewery.
And so I was always very aware of
real estate development
and projects and things in town.
So I was I was aware that Ale Asylum was
looking to build a new space at the time.
I knew more about some other early plans
when they were looking at East Washington,
but that fell through before they ended
up out on the other side of the airport.
And and Ryan was really the one that had
the insight to say, hey,
they’re expanding and I bet they’re
going to try to sell some equipment.
And and it’s a lease space.
I know the landlord here and
and we just, you know,
put things together from there.
So when Ryan cold called them were they
just like, well, that’s good timing.
Yeah, I it was luck.
I mean, it it was it was good insight
and foresight by Ryan,
but it was also some luck because
I mean, I think, you know,
we get as a business owner,
you get solicited all day, every day,
24/7, in the mail, on the phone,
employees get harassed,
people pretending that they knew you from
high school and family you’ve never met.
So the fact that Otto,
just like actually took the call was was
lucky, I think,
just to actually get to the office.
And then he listened and it was I think
it was like, wow, that’s good timing.
And was there ever any thought of like, hey,
I don’t want to help out
a competitor or anything like that?
Not not really.
I think there was some concern because we
had we had some conversation about, hey,
you’re going to change this, right?
You’re not just going
to totally rip us off.
And and we said absolutely we we we have
our own ideas about what we want to do
and what our brand is going to be like.
We’re definitely going to make changes.
So there was a little bit of discussion
of like, hey, you’re going to at least
kind of repaint and redecorate
and and make sure it’s not
confusion in the market about it being
an Ale Asylum affiliated company,
but over overwhelmingly, they were
real easy to work with and and friendly
and and we got through,
you know, we got through it. Nice that’s super cool.
Did you end up,
I guess, as far as their landlord goes,
was it complicated or was it easier?
Because you guys are a brewery’s landlord,
you have to get rid
of a bunch of stuff. The landlord
was it was that was
probably the easiest part.
I mean, he’s like, great.
And I don’t have any vacancy.
And at the same purpose.
he he probably did pretty well in the deal
because when Ale Asylum took it over,
I think it was much cheaper space.
It wasn’t really retail space and and so
them turning it into a brewery and having
the tap room put it and put it
in a different category, you know,
as hybrid retail rent instead of more
like East Side warehouse rent.
So I think he did OK on it.
And we certainly paid all
our bills along the way.
So we’ve we have a good relationship.
And it was very simple
to get through that part.
I’m going to pause for a second.
Yes, just like you said.
so as far as the build and stuff like
that goes, I remember being
in Ellis Island and then coming in here
thinking this is just going to be
the same thing and it was way different.
Yeah, but still so cool.
I mean, Ellis Island back
in the day was cool.
And this is a cool place.
It’s interesting because I have
I for esthetic and I like it.
I feel the same way.
We’re we’re not
we’re not interior designers
and decorators by any
stretch of the imagination.
But we certainly developed
a point of view.
I think our approach coming
into the taproom was that we wanted it
to be a canvas that we got
to build the brand out on.
And one of our best friends, Tom,
was an early creative force in the company
and did all the paintings in the brewery.
And we wanted it to be a canvas for
his interpretation on our
beer brands as we were.
So we totally filled up
the space with his paintings.
Every time we would release a beer,
we’d release a painting with it
until we ran out of room, basically.
And so that’s kind of help
bring it to life a little bit when we also
during covid use the opportunity
to repaint and clean some things up.
So right now,
it’s actually kind of a lighter palette
than it was when you first
opened a little darker.
But but that was the concept because
we probably could have done better
at an interior decorating side,
but we did what we could do
and it worked for a while.
Now, do you remember being
really dark in here?
Yeah, I guess I didn’t necessarily
consider that a bad thing.
Yeah, it was.
I mean, it’s a bar taffer.
So that’s cool.
So tell me about how it’s been
working with your brother.
I guess it’s probably a safe place here.
We’re going with family
is going to be tough.
You know it is but not
he and I have not had I think those those
typical cliché family problems all
the time, not at a high level.
you know, you disagree on things or you’re
both tired or both grumpy and you get
into it on whatever the issue is.
But we’ve he and I have
it’s never been like that.
That kind of cliche problem.
That’s like we’re just going to never
talk again and not get over it.
We’ve been able yeah.
We’ve been able to separate
how tired or frustrated or whatever it is
with the problems and with
the issues versus each other.
We’ve we’ve always been able to
to keep those things kind of separate.
It’s definitely evolved our relationship
because we’re working together every day.
And instead of goofing off as brothers,
you know, and and when we go home and be
social, we’re getting
to do that separately.
So, you know, it’s certainly changed,
like how often we might just hang
out because we’re together a time.
But I think we both really value
all the time.
We got to spend together, too,
because we’re we’re just totally in tune
like everything with each other.
You know, we know each other inside out,
up and down at our best and at our worst.
And and we have each other’s back.
You know, we really
unequivocally support each other.
If you get a phone call at 10:00 or
something broke, we’re both
we’re both no questions asked.
We’ll work through the night,
fix it, whatever it is, we be done.
I think I think the way to survive that is
just to to never give up,
you know, on the problems.
And if you don’t do that,
then you’re not ultimately betraying each
other and then you don’t get into those
problems because you’re
both in the fight together.
Yeah, in the fight together.
So I want to back up a step to when he’s
in Montana and you at the time are
in Madison, you’re looking for Findlaw.
Did he reach out to you and say,
hey, let’s start a brewery?
No, no, it wasn’t like that so much.
It was more an evolution.
I don’t say we had gotten a master’s
in and strength and conditioning out
at MSU Billings
and initially started working at a brewery
for a part time job just to pay the bills.
And while he was in school.
Wasn’t a huge beer guy.
Has always been a cheap date, doesn’t
drink a lot of alcohol in general.
But he he was on the bottling line and had
had their black little oatmeal stout like
short, fell off the line with lunch
and had a real moment of clarity about
like, oh my gosh, this is like
totally different than the beer I’ve been
familiar with all growing up and felt
I’ve been lied to about what beer is
and what it should be and what it
could be in all these natural light.
Yeah, this isn’t this
isn’t whatever light.
so he started to get really
passionate about it.
He’s he’s a very sort of passion driven
guy, artistic guy,
but also very technical person.
And and it was a real outlet for him.
It was such a muse that once
he stumbled into this.
Wow, beer could be these other.
hit, he really ran it up pretty quickly,
and by the time he was out of school,
he was he was working his way
towards brewing and ultimately being
the head brewer out
at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company
and being a pretty major person
running the operations there.
And he and he was getting
better at his craft.
He was getting better
at a seasonal program.
He was getting, you know,
out in the community.
And his bright personality was,
you know, creating a following.
And so as as just a family talking about
life along the way,
student debts starting to be due.
And, you know, I want to get
married and start a family.
And it was this question of,
OK, are you going to keep doing this?
You know, how serious are you about this?
I think we should be looking for
opportunities, a little higher ceiling.
it’s always a real evolution.
I mean, all the way up until working
through the business plan,
he was still looking for opportunities
to maybe go back to school or
or get get another job, you know,
associated with his education.
once we stumbled on this being an exact
opportunity in this location with this
timeline, things started
to fall into place faster.
And we got a lot more confident about,
hey, this is a real plan with a real
location, with a real timeline, you know,
and it gave a lot
of foundation to our plan.
And then and then we went
out and pitched an investor
in the first one we met with said yes.
And we were like, oh, wow,
first of all, the first one.
So now he ultimately ended up
not being a partner of ours.
So I still feel like still.
Yeah, but it gave us a ton of confidence
totally to have somebody
say this is the plan.
And I still remember he looked right at us
and he said, So you guys are the guys.
And we said, yes.
And he said, I’m in.
And we’re we’re like,
wow, what what to say.
Are you sure what just happened us?
I still owe that guy a bottle of scotch or
something, I think because we
I don’t know if we ever we didn’t really
talk much after that because plans started
accelerating in another direction.
but it gave us tons of confidence
not to say we’re doing this.
This isn’t an F thing.
This is a one thing.
and we we accelerated from there
and and and got it going.
So it wasn’t so much
him calling and saying, let’s do this.
It was more of just this ongoing
discussion, you know, what are we doing?
Are you going to do this?
And then it really wasn’t my focus
But just as time kept going on,
I got more involved in helping
structure the business plan.
Ryan had this
real brilliant friend out in Montana
that was helping to helping him just
kind of get the business plan organized.
And and we started working with our
friend Alex, who brought him in to
to help as well.
He was in between things and had some
some more time to throw into it to help
make sure we stayed aggressive
on making it happen.
Did your brother ever have to sell you
on it, like, dude, this is
really happening kind of thing?
Or was there ever like you were
at the time working at Finau, so.
Yeah, decent job.
Yeah, I was really busy,
I, I was really busy in my job.
If enough was going very well,
I, I it’s a great company.
I mean my plan was to,
to try to be an owner there you know.
I had, I had kind of big dreams no matter
where they were before all of that.
I wanted to play professional baseball.
Then I as I switched away from that,
I was like, oh,
I’m going to be an engineer and I want
to own the construction firm or
developer and on the buildings.
And I always had that kind of edge to to
be in control of my destiny a little bit.
So that was going really well.
But I, I was having a bit of a quarterlife
crisis that I, I was I was managing a big,
big project in Milwaukee.
I had to have been about the youngest guy
running a high rise project
in an urban city in the country.
And and and I, I had this just sort
of quarterlife crisis moment of like,
is this it, you know, is this
I’m just going to chase the same sort of
thing for the next 20 years or two years.
And it freaked me out a little bit.
And I was getting more and more of an itch
to do something entrepreneurial.
So the brewery really gave me an outlet
because I didn’t really know what it
would be if I did something else.
I just knew that I could bring project
management and business
and engineering skills to something.
and the brewery was was the outlet
for me at the time.
And it sounds like a lot
of stars aligned really well.
It very much because because it wasn’t
Ryan’s big master plan, you know,
when he went out to Montana either.
a lot of things had to come together.
And at the end of the day,
it’s just willpower.
I think that’s that’s
that’s the secret to all of life.
You know, ideas are a dime a dozen.
I think a lot of people overvalue ideas.
It’s execution and willpower.
This is the guy he’s like,
I’m an idea man, like everyone tonight,
everybody has an idea we
could sit here together.
I was listening to somebody make a comment
you know, if we sat down for an hour,
we could probably chart out everything
that’s going to happen over
the next 50 to 100 years.
Sure, you can talk about AVR,
all the electrical stuff and digital
things and and the way crypto is going
and left is not that hard to see where all
of these things are going
and what our life could be like.
I mean, it’s right.
There’s really not.
Yeah, you don’t need
to wait around for ideas.
You just need to do things
and turn it into a business.
And it’s really hard.
It’s still very hard for us today.
I mean, just to stay relevant,
to stay in business.
Really, I still feel very much like
a startup, I don’t feel like we
figured out after nine years.
Oh yeah, I don’t feel like we’ve
hardly ever gotten started.
Yeah, I can tell my business
is nine years as well.
And I can say that their day is
this day, too.
Like we we learned nothing.
We’ve learned nothing.
We there’s so many things
that we do wrong or not.
Not as well as I’d like to and
I talk with a lot of people
have the same dream I did.
You know, if I was in charge
I would just do all of these things.
It would be like there would be utopia and
and then you start doing it and realize,
oh, no, it’s messy and complicated.
And really the whole magic is can you
operate it and not do you have ideas
or have dreams or utopian visions?
It’s more like,
can you grind it day in and day out
and you can you make small steps
forward and make more of them
forward and backward?
are you willing to.
Are you willing to.
And is your family willing
to go along for that ride?
I mean, great Segway because
there was no question.
How are you married or were
you married at the time?
I saw the year we opened, I, I opened
that high rise building in Milwaukee.
I got married and we opened the brewery
within three months of each other.
I saw I didn’t sleep
for about three months.
You know, it
was a great year.
So I’m married.
I have three daughters now.
My wife Laura and I live out monarchy now.
We have three little girls,
at the time she was I forgot to add,
she was getting her doctorate nursing
that year as well.
She she’d gone back to school.
So she was on our end in school to get
her doctorate to be a nurse practitioner.
I was just killing myself,
driving and walking back every day,
running that project open.
The brewery got married.
And then when we had our first daughter
about a year and a half later,
that was the moment that I knew
I had to quit my day job at ten.
OK, so it was going to ask you when you
when you walked into that office and said,
hey, that was the hardest thing that
I that was
I don’t know if it’s the hardest thing,
but like one of the hardest things
in my life, I’ll never forget.
I, I was absolutely dreading
having that discussion because like I
said, I was really working my tail off.
There was a great company.
I was treated well.
I felt like I was on the right path
to to be in a leadership position there.
And I was I was overseeing a handful
of pretty large projects that were
kind of coming down the pipeline.
And and I’d have to walk in.
And I know just really, you know,
ruin the day for my boss to be like,
sorry, I have to go.
And there’s all this stuff I’m
dealing with for you and I’m gone.
There’s a stack of headache.
it was it was pretty tough.
A guy I really admire, Jim, really.
He’s now the president CEO and ah,
that’s why I want to talk to
I had my box all packed up in case they
just had to walk me out because I respect
that, you know, sometimes
you have to just do that.
But since I was changing industries,
I was a little easier to say.
Let’s just transition you out over like
a two week period and help I can help you
with the transition and help them figure
out how to reallocate the workload.
so very difficult decision.
But it was
the most clarity I’ve ever felt
in my life, I think was like
the moment my daughter son was born.
It was just it was a very weird kind
of out of body experience
for a lot of reasons.
I think maybe a lot of parents
could could relate to.
But for me in particular,
just going crazy about what should I do?
Should I leave my job?
It was just it was immediate.
I cannot take the risk of missing
more time with this girl.
Your priorities change.
Oh, just changed.
It was just not even close.
You don’t even get a choice.
It’s not like it just wasn’t a problem.
You know, I can always work.
I can’t you know, this is my daughter.
They’re only young ones.
Yeah, that’s fair.
So how long were you with Findlaw?
About seven years, six or seven years,
I enter, I started interning pretty full
time, interning in college, and then
just transitioned out of college.
So summer like 07, somewhere in 07,
six or seven to April of 14.
OK, six, six, seven years.
then. It’s the time when you get
in the car after you have
that conversation, correct?
Yeah, it was.
it was liberating because it just to make
a decision and move forward, but it was.
It was pretty horrifying because I just I
felt like I really let Jim down and I
and my coworkers there,
that that they wouldn’t understand I’m
leaving, you know,
because we’re all these, like,
I don’t know, self abusing engineer types
in the construction industry like Jerry.
Dutiful work really hard.
You know, there’s nothing
better than building projects.
We love projects.
And I I am that person.
I love that.
But to leave and start a brewery,
it was kind of like, wow,
you know, what are you doing?
So that’s it.
But they were cool about it.
They’re very cool about it.
I still work.
They do small, they do small
projects for us around the brewery.
Still there’s guys just up the road at the
Europeans building that they just built.
The project team comes down to get
beers after work sometimes.
so no bad blood.
None at all.
None at all.
If it’s all about choices, it’s just that.
Yeah, it’s just a beer in my path,
you know, great company.
No bad blood at all.
I interviewed Chandler Fandor.
Really great guy.
That’s cool company.
Very much interesting.
It’s overwhelming some
of the projects they do but yeah.
Talk about overwhelming.
Let’s shift into employees.
you start this brewery, you get the space,
you’re all building out now
you got to hire people.
How did that go.
Initially it was exciting and great and
kind of easy because it’s a small group.
You know, it really just
Alex was your day to day and our friend
Tom, the artist was was behind the bar
like a bar manager right away for us.
So our small group of of guys that were
Ryan could do all the production we needed
to do by himself because we were just
taking beer at the time and most
of the backspace was empty.
So it’s a pretty small group.
We had a couple of extra people
helping bartend and cook
and that that team started to grow.
And over the next six to 12 months
and a lot of those early headaches Alex
dealt with, it wasn’t me
dealing with nice and.
You know, but it it pretty quickly becomes
clear, you know, how important your people
are and it’s you know,
you can’t we early on we were here
every weekend, you know, Saturday.
So we would be close Sundays just
to give ourselves a day away.
you know, once you start to realize, like,
hey, we really got to figure out how
to have people around
helping us get this done.
And we’re never going to make it.
We’re never going to grow.
We’re going to burn out.
So, yeah, but it’s people’s really
the whole thing, I think in the end.
You have a job.
It takes a lot of time.
And speaking of feeling,
right when it’s just you,
there’s only so many hours in a day so
you start adding people you can raise it.
It’s the whole game.
It’s, it’s that execution.
I mention that really most of that is just
can you find a way to write
to bring together a group of people to
do something, whatever it is,
get organized and do it.
So I know that when I first started
the employee thing was something that I
did not know was such a headache.
I learned the hard way.
So did you know from project
and stuff like that,
the employees could be a challenge?
So when I would manage teams it was each
little project was like its own little
mini company in general contracting.
So like the last project that I completed
Moderne over Milwaukee,
we had like a project management team,
I don’t know, about a half a dozen people.
you know, at peak we probably had four
or five hundred people on the job site.
And I think overall worked two or three
thousand, you know,
different people touching the job.
And and, you know,
you have all the foremen
and the superintendent and the project
managers of all those other
being in a team environment was
never that was not a shock at all.
That probably the the bigger thing I was,
to be honest, that was a much better
manager in that life than I am here,
because it it’s people.
But it’s not just it’s not just people.
It’s the fact that you’re
Every part of that.
Payroll, H.R., the health insurance,
the unemployment issues, the the
everything issues that all of that.
And then and then career development
and morale and direction and.
Yeah, the whole.
Yeah, and then in this business,
it’s real dynamic, because you have
you have different things going on.
You have your manufacturing staff
versus your you know,
versus your tap room in front of house
staff and even in the front of house.
There’s this dynamic between when we used
to have our kitchen open and
the front of house back a house
in a retail component that you just have
these very different little
subcultures within one business.
That and and then to deal with all
of these issues that really made me
appreciate when I was at Findlaw
how much stuff was being handled for us
to run jobs, all of the administrative
and accounting in H.R. and the training
and the the other stuff,
I think people would be
really kind of surprised.
Shocked at how much?
Bad news comes to you as the owner
of the company pretty much in the bad news
business or the fire owner putting out if
it’s bad, if it’s really bad,
that’s like everything we get.
And it’s always really bad when it’s a bad
thing with a person, whether they have
like a family member pass away or dealing
with covid and trying to keep keep us
moving forward, but without
taking undue risk and
trying to make sure you take serious you
know, your role is as the person
taking responsibility for their job.
Without being taken advantage of because
firings really difficult
time is really difficult.
Oh, yeah, it’s crazy.
The team dynamic wasn’t a shock,
but all of those other things
is still it can be very overwhelming.
I imagine a place like this,
just the culture alone is probably
tough to manage
because you want especially I don’t know
what it’s like now, but a year and a half
ago when unemployment was so low,
you’re tough to find people
very difficult, very difficult.
And you would have there’s always
a certain amount of people that
that are sort of professional gaming
the system, not at applying or maybe
applying so that they can still justify
getting employment or they have
to show up for maybe one shift.
And just extend their hours unemployment
benefits so that they can
keep staying on that.
And they did.
They bail out on us.
And now that’s that’s
more of the exception.
But it is a it is a dynamic
really of the of the industry and
though, people are out here doing a great
job and they’re not trying to take
advantage of anything, they’re really
trying to help grow the brand.
They’re excited about beer.
They’re excited about
the fun branding that we have.
We we try to keep
we try to keep in balance
some chaos because I think a lot of people
are in the beer industry because they want
it to be a little bit more wild,
a little bit less structured,
a little more creative,
a little more of like riding the
riding the dragon here of creativity
and whatever our brand gets to be.
that can be an interesting balance of
trying to bring less formality
into a business structure and allow
for more a little more chaos without
it being a total mess right now.
That’s a balance that we ran.
And I’ve talked about a lot of what we
don’t want to have too many policies
and things because we want people
to they’re here for a reason.
If they wanted a bunch of structure,
they’d go sell insurance or something
and probably make more money.
But they’re here because they
don’t want to be miserable.
They want to
feel a little bit more alive and in it.
But it’s a real balance.
It’s a real balance.
It’s interesting dynamic, I guess,
that you stayed out there, because in my
industry rules, the society’s everything.
I’m like, there’s there’s something
to be said about what you got going on.
I’m going to learn something here.
Yeah, I feel you
engineering’s the same way.
I was all about how efficiently can we
build a building more cheaply, how
inexpensively, I should say,
and how cheaply, inexpensively, fast.
I guess it comes everything
with speed and efficiency and lean.
And right here it’s OK.
We have that stuff we need we do need
procedure and process to repeatably make
it easier to do a lot of things right.
But we have to be real careful not
to steal the soul because the whole
business is based on totally.
I can see if you’re building a building,
there’s certain there’s rules that you
want to follow if you want
the building to stay up.
With beer there’s probably more,
there’s somewhat of an art and also
a lot of customer service.
Which there are guidelines but they
don’t necessarily have to be
Or something like that.
There’s there can be
no hostility in there.
It requires personality,
it requires authenticity and and
authenticity requires people to be
to inject themselves into the solutions in
the service and to be real with people.
But we, you know, we fail
all the time at that stuff.
It’s a really it’s a really
kind of wild balance of
enough guidance so that people aren’t
totally confused or feel like they’re
floating through space with what we’re
trying to do, which which honestly,
we you know, we fill it all the time.
But but I think we we tend to slightly
air on that that loose script side.
To try to keep
because at the end of the day,
we also think that the most talented
people will find ways to shine.
If there’s a little control,
We might find that person
that could just change the game.
That is a thousand times over and over.
Agree with that.
Tell me about the name.
Where did the name Carbon-Carbon are?
That was six months of discussion,
of long discussion of we probably spent
more time talking about what our
name should be than anything else.
And that that pre planning stage,
that was the battle that.
Well, it was it was it was more of this
discovery than it was like total battle.
I think we were all a little bit confused
on what what did we really want?
Because to take it back,
we we had discovered the space.
And this this exact plan
at the end of 2011 was when Ryan had
called, I think when we came to meet
with asylum in the landlord
was Halloween of 2011.
OK, so by I think about March of twenty
twelve, we we had financing and we signed
and everything figured out what we had
from March 2012 until October to move in.
And they were here.
So there’s nothing we could do.
It’s just talking the waiting game.
We spent those six, seven months just
totally focused on what’s our branding.
I mean there were certainly equipments
and things that we were
also putting together.
Ryan was shopping for and stuff.
But a lot of what we were talking
about were what’s our brand?
What’s it going to whatever what’s it
going to be look like, feel like,
sound like, what’s our approach?
What’s our strategic approach?
And, you know, Bier’s,
we’re going to bring out what’s
going to be our first line up.
How are we going to do seasonals and
the the brand?
We knew that we wanted something scalable,
that we didn’t want to be
painted into a corner with like
a thematic brand.
I think the joke is that we always said
we don’t want, like a Disney ride brand.
Oh, sure enough, it’s like
cottage brewing company.
And then everything’s like
canoe paddle and paddle.
And it’s like all these things.
Well, we didn’t want to do that.
We don’t want to be painted
into a corner because we didn’t.
Who are we going to be in five, ten years?
You know, we want.
Something that’ll grow with us
and who to our customers say we are,
because the brand, the the sort of spirit
of our brand and who we were going to be
as a company was going to be defined
by our employees and by our
customers and by us all together.
We’re trying stuff, you know,
failing that could evolve.
Yeah, it has to.
Yeah, we really wanted to.
So we needed a point of view and it needed
to be us, but it needed to be something
that would grow and scale
and wouldn’t pigeonhole us.
And so that led us to kind of want
to and sort of invent a word, you know,
or find a brand that didn’t
feel like it meant anything.
And except for us
and this idea of elemental carbon being
the foundation of our physical existence
and and then beer being
the foundation of civilization,
was this this idea that it was very
elemental, that it was very,
I like to say principled,
but not traditional, so very
even the very principle fundamentals.
So elemental carbon was there was
an idea that was captured by that.
But we didn’t want to sound like a biotech
company and it just
didn’t look right to us.
The regular, you know, Kabalan,
we’re both maybe in engineering,
being like premed, Occam, you know,
very technical with with
chemistry and biology.
We just didn’t feel like a brewery.
And our friend Tom wrote,
we had this long list of ideas
and he had he had written carbon 12 one
time, all lowercase carbon,
but spelt it carbon.
And then one, two.
And it was like it was on the list,
but it wasn’t a real serious contender.
But I think we all sort of secretly had
our eye on it because
all of a sudden it came back to the top
and was like, you know,
this really captures this idea.
We keep talking about this very,
like, limitless potential idea.
and but but we wanted
to change the number.
And and so we started debating
the finer points of that.
But I think we were sitting at Salata
in Fair Oaks having an awesome meal
and a few beers and and we just agreed
for like it’s carved for we’re just doing
it, you know, we like
we like the spelling.
We like the way it sounds and looks.
And we like we like K4 shortened and nice.
And we felt like it could be
it wouldn’t bring any preconceived
bias or notion to to itself.
You just kind of say, what what’s that.
So it’s one of those like it can only mean
it can only be one thing because
it’s a little bit strange.
And carbon four could be carbon
for brewing, could be
carbon for distilling it.
You know, we could we could
we could really grow with it.
it’s really just meant to be a thing
that we like pushed away from the dock
and we’ll see where it goes.
But but that’s some
of the inspiration for it.
So I have to apologize
because I’m not a chemist.
So the is that representative of anything?
I mean, yes and no.
At the end of the day,
from a brand strategy standpoint,
no, it means nothing.
OK, I think a lot of people oh,
there must be four of you or there are
four valence electrons in carbon.
And that’s part of why it bonds the way
it does and why it’s so foundational.
So probably the closest inspiration
is the valence electrons and carbon.
But it’s not meant to be literal.
It’s meant to be a brand.
And we like the way it looked
in the angularity with the K and.
And the sound.
So it’s just a name don’t read.
It’s really just a name.
It’s meant to be its own thing.
I you know, we can be a little grumpy
about that sometimes because it always
gets misspelled that you if there’s
a space between carbon
and four, we hate it.
But together we loved it.
So we really didn’t pick
a great brand for a lot of those little,
like nuisance reasons.
And when we explain it to people,
usually they kind of stare at us blankly
and it’s like some other four of you.
It’s like now one more time.
But but yeah, it’s meant
to be its own thing.
All right, cool.
Let’s talk about the beer.
So you guys start out by mentioning your
brother had some ideas for flavors.
Oh, styles of beer.
So how was that figured out?
This source batches.
Ryan was the lead on that all the way.
He he had a whole bunch of different beers
that that he knew he wanted to make.
And and we we deliberated over
what would be sort of our early attempt
at flagship versus some seasonal program.
So what we did is we brought out
I believe we brought out five flagged
that they deal was the first five.
We’re going to be flagship type beers.
And it was our night call.
our our Tokyo sauna was a report
or I’m sorry, samurai or IPA.
Later we evolved to Tokyo Sonna,
Undercover Session Ale, Lady Luck,
Imperial Red Corvette and Irish.
At that point and block party amber ale,
so we wanted a spectrum of of.
Like, just good,
well executed staple beers,
and then we we knew IPAs were really
important back then, but we didn’t
want to just be stuck with one.
We we wanted to bring it
out as a regular rotator.
So our plan was that we were going to have
like a slot in the calendar,
but have a change seasonally.
And our second IP in that lineup
was Fantasy Factory.
Oh, it’s the big one.
And yeah, the world would not
let us stop making that beer.
So that’s that’s a good problem.
Today it’s seventy five
percent of our business.
We try and we’re still trying to work
to diversify a little better, but it
just took off and never turned back.
So make other stuff we have to make
to hundreds of other beers,
but that’s overwhelmingly the big volume.
It might be the label.
Yeah, might be.
It’s a fantastic label.
So is is your brother the one that chooses
this stuff or is it deliberate throughout
the employees or customers at this point.
It’s a it’s it comes
from all over the place.
There’s inspiration, tons of inspiration
from the team internally.
There’s collaborative projects, you know,
or people outside that that have ideas.
I mean, I guess at the end of the day,
it’s mostly Ryan and I talking about
what do we want to make versus what’s
going on in the world around us.
What have we already made, you know,
and make sure that whatever we’re bringing
out is kind of in context of
where does it fit in our program?
How do we want to bring it
and what do we want to call it?
Sometimes we have real clear direction
on a name and a and a style of beer.
Other times we
we know we really want a certain style
and we struggle a bit for the name.
it’s a free flowing process constantly.
And now we’re we’re stretched way beyond
beer, where there’s this whole beyond
beer category that hard seltzer’s and.
Oh sure, higher alcohol seltzer’s.
And at some point in the future,
cannabis infused products
of certain types, Kampuchea
You know, there’s all these beyond beer
things that we’re really excited about.
I’d say our plan right now is to find
the right way to sort of narrowing our
focus on our beer schedule
and and make sure we just really love
every every beer that’s sticking around
on our calendar and make sure there’s no
filler space and then also grow these some
of these other segments alongside of it.
So that’s cool.
They always seem to be
coming up the constant.
Yeah, it’s always some
change that the pace of innovation
and change and craft is unbelievable.
When we first started,
there were eighteen hundred breweries
in the country that are now approaching
10000 and over the course of ten years.
And then the amount of different beers
that those breweries are
making has also grown.
Ten times at a minimum, I mean, maybe 50
times, I mean, when we first started,
we had, you know,
five to seven beers that we might be
offering and we had initially
just fantasy factory and package.
And then we had just one more
block party or lady luck.
Now we could put 40 or 50 different
beers in a package a year every year.
And their breweries that put out like
anywhere from two to four a week.
And they and they make
just a tiny amount of it.
And then they scatter it to the wind and.
And they do that twice a week to try to
reverse engineer some volume.
So it’s a very different game.
Than it used to be.
And it it’s almost well,
it’s basically impossible to actually find
something truly unique as a producer if
you make something I mean,
every every fruit combination.
And and this combination is pretty much
been tried a hundred times at this point.
So I think I think we’re getting to a
place in craft where we really have to.
Like, make sure you narrow in on your
point of view and the things
that you’re best at.
And make sure to build that that’s solid
core business and then
so that you don’t lose the soul of chaos
element of before, like really
designing your seasonal program.
In context of all this stuff going on,
what’s your niche.
Kind of thing.
Tell me I want to shift into marketing.
So you first started your business,
you had to get known and you had to say,
hey, we’re not
here to say we’re new on the block.
Like how did you go about marketing
and getting the name out there, both
retail wise and on store shelves
It was it was kind of early days
of Facebook and starting to put out some
video content, like on a Facebook page and
did a little bit a little bit of a
paid direction just to make sure that,
hey, this new page on Facebook exists.
And so so definitely bought a few clicks
early on just to sort of put us
on people’s shouldn’t think there was even
a news feed back then,
put us on whatever that was.
I can’t remember 10 years ago,
but to help to say, hey, we’re here.
So there was a little bit of that, the
sort of like genuine social media stuff.
And and then the rest of it
was just community outreach.
we we hooked up with the Madison Hombres
and Tasters Guild are the people that put
on great taste and got on their radar
early to get into the great taste.
Our first year we worked,
we got into the Atmosphere and
Cheese Festival on our grand opening day.
So we had just opened.
But but Alex back channel with us to get
us into that festival so that we
could be at the festival.
So getting out to festivals and tastings
of every kind we could and it would be us
behind the behind the stand serving beer,
talking about the beer till
we were blue in the face.
So it was a lot of that grassroots kind
of guerrilla style,
just sampling people and then trying
to create, you know,
bearly stuff here in the tap room where
we had a soft opening December 28th.
And then every week for the next five
weeks, we had a beer release leading up
to our grand opening in a beer release.
So try to create buzz around new
beers and a new taproom in town and
worked with the oh, my gosh,
what was their name?
It was it was a club or I don’t
know if they’d call it a guild.
I can’t remember what it was called now,
but it was like a mustache and beard guild
or something, really,
that we that we did a big party with here
because we undercover our beer was
like mustache themed and funny.
So we threw this big party and all these
guys with crazy beards and mustaches came
in and did like a big
sort of like beauty competition standing
on the bar, you know,
raiding their beards and stuff.
So it was just dumb stuff like that.
Guerilla marketing stuff.
And then we knew that we wanted to
first try to focus on getting people
into the taproom so that we could
personally meet people across the bar,
see at that first person interaction.
So you had your lowest ceiling revenue
in the taproom by fire,
by far the highest margin.
And then you have your first person
brand interaction with everybody.
Introduce ourselves right over the bar.
Then it was self distribution keg only
in the Madison area where Alex and Tom
would go out and sell and deliver
beer to the bars directly.
So from from the brewery.
Yeah, but now it’s now it’s the brewery
guys talking to the bar buyers,
the bartenders and things at bars
and restaurants in Madison.
So you had that second person interaction,
people drinking our beer.
And but you have a little bit higher
little higher volume, little lower profit
and and then assigned a distributor so
that they would take over that sales role.
So you get into that more third person
interaction with the brand,
but you create some more scale.
And then we wanted that to play out
for a little while before we put beer
in package because we really wanted
to make sure that we focused on Hindraf
business meeting people as directly as we
could before we before we have this,
like I’d call it,
fourth person interaction
of a package sitting on the shelf.
Who knows, you know,
people picking it up may or may not
know who we are, where we are from,
and and allow more development to come
along, you know, in our in our story
before putting stuff in package and then
and then buy us time to find our
Firebreather Unicorn and package to
At the end of the day, that really
watched the growth of our business.
So we really hunker down for about
a year and a half to do that.
That’s smaller scale direct
stuff with Keg’s.
And then once we put that fire breathing
unicorn on a package and got package out
of the shelves, we really
just we’re off to the races.
I love that you built upon
your success like the.
That is awesome.
Um, what is the biggest challenge that
you’ve had to overcome through all this?
You’re talking nine plus years.
I don’t know, I I think
going from two thousand breweries to ten
and from 10 Skewes to 100 Skewes a year,
wow, that that rapid pace of evolution,
you know, on the shelf
and just in the space has been
a pretty difficult regular pressure
to to overcome and to stay in front of
you know, I think we grow as as
individuals total wait a bit.
So just growing and turning from this,
you know, even though we still you know,
like I said, I feel like we’re infants,
like just getting going.
But the reality is we have gone from it’s
it’s just us to more of a company.
And we have anywhere from,
I don’t know, twenty five
to forty people on payroll.
Shourie covid we add more like 40.
Now we’ve been kind of trying to build
back some of those numbers, but
we do have a lot of people
involved in process involves.
So just evolving as structurally,
you know, how should we
best manage our selves and.
and that that balance of of of leadership
and guidance and allowing
for growth in the company.
so I think,
yeah, there there’s the competition side,
the evolving side, just the people issues,
even as owners, the three of us,
the dynamics change quite a bit.
And I’d mention our friend
Alex a couple of times.
He’s he’s no longer
involved in the company.
So there’s a, you know,
evolving through that sort of stuff.
and now I think focus
is the big challenge.
That’s why I I heard I
think it was Jack Dorsey.
There was a reference in a podcast
or a book or something.
But Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO,
he I think it was him that is he refers
to himself as the chief editing officer,
that it really his job is to edit,
you know, we should be, you know,
the things that we have to say
no to as my job as a leader.
And that was a real like
that was a real light in my brain.
And, oh, my gosh, I need to stop throwing
out so many ideas and start taking away
ideas so that we can write
flourish with more focus.
So, Christine, I liked it.
Yeah, that’s clever.
Twitter seems to be doing OK.
We need to cash up to and square.
I think it’s him.
So he’s a pretty smart guy.
He’s in square.
He’s definitely doing OK.
And there’s money
and credit card processing.
And crypto cash selling.
Well this has been super awesome.
Where can people find you.
Well we’re here but yeah.
The taproom here is on the east side
of Madison at thirty six ninety eight.
Kinsman Boulevard where Kitty corner
from the McDonald’s on fifty one.
The DMV is across the road there too.
So the taproom here open seven days a week
on the shelf are available all over
the state and a little bit of Minneapolis
and Rochester, Minnesota, and maybe some
other Midwest states over time here.
But primarily we’re focused on Wisconsin
and we’re we’re available
in every corner of the state,
all the all the big chains.
Wal-Mart’s really been a great partner
here over the last two years,
expanding our distribution festivals,
being a great partner,
other other independent shops
like the the Centex and the
now going to start leaving people out.
The Mac has been great, just tons of
but most mostly most places you can buy
beer in the state or
find something from us.
And Sulzer, I think that alone is
going to be an accomplishment.
Yeah, well, it’s a lot of work stories
of other breweries that are trying to
get in places and stuff like that.
Yeah, it’s a lot of work,
but I hit the ground, so it’s cool.
You guys have a website?
We do Karben4.com.
Karben4. K-A-R-B-E-N, the number 4 .com is
our website, we’re on Facebook,
Twitter, Instagram, all that stuff.
Can people I don’t know what
the laws are with alcohol.
Can they order it online.
Unfortunately, they cannot.
I really, really wish one of my big
developmental things is finding
a way to figure out e-commerce.
And it’s a big topic in Kraft right now
because there are some states you
can mail to, but not in Wisconsin.
If we ever can, we will for sure.
But for now, you have to buy it here or
at one of our our customers locations.
So fair enough.
So currently in Madison, Wisconsin,
ready to take over the world.
As soon as the laws allow
Yeah, it’s nothing less.
Well, thank you, Zach.
This is super cool.
This has been
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I’d like to thank you out wonderful
listeners, as well as our guest,
Zach Koga, the co-owner
of Karben4 Brewing.
Zach, this is cool.
Yeah, thanks for coming in.
I’m excited all of a sudden very thirsty,
so I love coming to breweries.
This is so cool.
Um, can you tell us
the website one more time?
Thank you guys for this.
We’ll see you next week.
I want you to stay awesome.
And if you do nothing else,
enjoy your business.