By: Jeff McCullor
I co-own Erie Ale Works with my buddy Steve Anthony. We’ve been open three and a half years now, never really experiencing a catastrophic failure in our business, until Christmas Day, 2017. The arguably-epic snowfall that hit Erie, PA was the start of a series of related events that really tested our mental fortitude and our ability to operate our business.

We figured we had thought of most everything that could go wrong with our business and planned for it with contingencies, but we were dead wrong. What happened to our brewery would test our personal endurance, but more importantly, our ability to produce beer.

I want to tell you about what happened to our small brewery and how you can prepare yourself and your business to survive some serious craziness that you won’t see coming from a mile away.

Hopefully your business never experiences a critical interruption,
but it probably will. You must be ready to adapt…

Some Background

Erie Ale Works is a 5 barrel, direct-fire brewery located near the center of Erie, Pa. on West 12th Street. Our space is quite industrial with a lot of DIY-inspired elements thrown throughout. We have always put the beer ahead of it all so you won’t find any fancy finishes or woodwork. When you walk in, you’re greeted with exposed ceiling girders, rock music, a walk-in cooler covered in stickers, and a hand built plywood shelving unit behind the bar.

Currently there are two employees, myself and Steve. Steve is the brewer and I handle the marketing and event planning. We have built the place ourselves and most likely are the one serving you your pint when you hang out.

It’s an exciting time for our business, we’re seeing unprecedented revenue growth and are kicking out some killer beers that are drank faster than we can keep up at times. 99% of our business activity happens within our four walls with the assistance of local food truck partners and our proximity to a handful of other local breweries like The Brewerie at Union Station, Lavery Brewing Company, and Voodoo Brewery.

Erie Ale Works Pretty Well, Usually

What Happened

Any brewery contains a series of conical bottom, temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermenters where the liquid we brew is introduced to a specific yeast, fermenting the liquid into beer. A happy fermentation happens at a very particular temperature, just like good French Press coffee is made at PRECISELY 195° F. The tank temperature is controlled by a machine on our rooftop called a ‘glycol chiller,’ which is in effect a giant radiator like the one in your car. The ability to control temperature is critical to producing a quality product and without that ability we simply can’t operate.

We currently have three fermentation tanks situated right next to the brewhouse. Our lack of available exterior space prompted us to mount the chiller to the roof directly above the main production area. It keeps the chilling unit out of our way and didn’t require us to fence it in like other breweries do.

On Christmas Day we encountered some serious snowfall followed by bitter cold temperatures. Mother Nature kicked our chilling unit right in the gut. To keep it not-too-technical, the extreme weather conditions exploited a small puncture in the unit’s receiver tank, a puncture that, unbeknownst to us, seems to have come from the factory.

The compromised chiller ruined two whole batches of beer, destroyed some plumbing and our flow pump. We lost three weeks of production time plus incurred all sorts of repair bills that weren’t in any budget. Suddenly, we had racked up a seriously impressive maintenance expense that made our heads spin. On top of that, the weather was now unfavorable to perform any repairs, you can’t fix plumbing issues when it’s below freezing. Great!

Here’s A Good Way To Relate What Happened

  1. Buy a new motorcycle
  2. Wreck it
  3. Overnight all the parts to fix the motorcycle
  4. Wait for good weather to install the new parts
  5. Finally install the new parts only to find another problem
  6. Wait for good weather again
  7. Cross your fingers
  8. Rework the entire drivetrain that blew out because of the wreck
  9. Test it
  10. Turn the key, let it warm up
  11. Pay the two separate repair shops while waiting on your insurance guy who’s suddenly swamped with an enormous amount of wrecks!

As a business owner, each day’s operation is potentially the most exciting/scariest of your life. This was the scariest problem our company had ever faced. It had the potential to completely cripple us.

No Panicking Allowed

We had been behind on beer production since the middle of fall, and we were selling more pints than we could keep up with (typically a good problem). With this new bump in the road, we were forced to dump two complete batches putting us even further behind. We had to get things moving quickly.

Getting Wasted

With the help of local contractors McCarl’s Services and Motsch Plumbing, repairs were made as quickly as possible. Sometimes, same-day service had to become the norm with the timing issues presented by the weather. Also, our buddies at Lavery Brewing Company brewed a double batch of our blonde ale for us. Our industry affords us a level of cooperation and camaraderie that isn’t usually found in business; as competitors we tend to all get along and help each other when needed.

One Cool Blonde

Both Lavery and The Brewerie at Union Station sold their own beer to us so we could keep our 6 tap lines full of great local options. Numerous customers offered to help in any way they could from helping to run piping to even just sweeping the floors so we could focus on repairs.

In three “short” weeks we were back up and running and Steve and I could finally breathe easier. Our insurance company worked very fast to process our claim. Beer was in the tanks. We’re well into the new year now. Life is back to normal. But if any of the above processes and repair procedures had started to go sideways, or if the damage was worse in any way, or if we hadn’t had so much community support, I’m not sure we would’ve emerged as well as we did. We were lucky and we’re both extremely thankful to have properly assessed the situation with the right people in place to make the best of the situation and get us back up and running. Because DAMN, that sucked!

Keep Moving Forward

From the outside looking in you’ll see mostly positive things taking place at businesses, ours included. It’s quite rare to see an owner’s frustration and lack of sleep when things go sideways. All of us work hard to build the best business we can with what little resources we have at our disposal. Just know it’s not all rainbows and lollipops. There are some hard choices made every day.

This was a learning experience for both Steve and me. We’ve learned a whole lot about commercial refrigeration and how much our small group of customers and friends care about our business’s well-being.

Hopefully your business never experiences a critical interruption, but it probably will. You must be ready to adapt and shift attentions where needed. Maybe it’s not an equipment breakdown like we experienced, maybe you have a challenging employee or a business relationship in need of renegotiating. If running a business was easy everyone would be doing it, right?

The most important thing I can communicate to you is just keep working hard. Put the time and effort in and you’ll be alright. Then enjoy a local beer because you sure as hell earned it.

Celebrate Surviving Another Day