Persevering to brew up a bright future

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By David Holthaus dholthaus@enquirer.com April 23, 2010

The youngest beer-brewing venture in town, Rivertown Brewing, is technically
considered a micro-brewery, but in reality it's more of a nano-brewery.




With a mere 1,500 barrels to be brewed this year, Rivertown, tucked away in an
office/industrial park in Lockland, is just a notch above a home brewer.

And with only three employees, and one out because he got hit by an exploding
keg cork, founder and owner Jason Roeper is doing whatever it takes to keep the
operation running. That includes laboring deep inside a 36-foot semi-trailer on
an unseasonably warm day recently, unloading a shipment of 100,000 bottles, one
pallet at a time.

This must be how beer barons get started.

The 31-year-old's microbrewery landed a mega-deal this month when Cincinnati
grocery giant Kroger agreed to carry three Rivertown beers at its Greater
Cincinnati stores. That was followed shortly by a deal with bigg's, which owns
10 stores around town. They wanted all five flavors, from Helles Lager to
Oatmeal Stout, which retail for $8.99 a six-pack.

Those two deals, along with keg sales to dozens of bars and restaurants, were a
big step for a new brewer who just bottled his first batch in January.

"We came to market with five year-round beers," Roeper said. "We're selling out
of every one."

Roeper's initial success in the marketplace didn't happen overnight. It started
more than two years ago and offers a glimpse into what it takes to start a
business, particularly in the highly regulated world of making and selling
alcohol.

Federal and state licenses were required and their documentation demanded
background checks, fingerprinting, a detailed business plan, inspections and a
file folder full of paperwork.

In the midst of the worst banking crisis in decades, finding a lender to finance
the venture and lend $250,000 to someone with no experience running a business
was nearly insurmountable. "I probably went to 80 banks," Roeper said. His
original concept - a brewpub that served food and made beer onsite - was a
nonstarter; no one wanted to back a restaurant.

He changed his plan to a traditional brewery, but each lending committee he met
with had a reason not to lend. He constantly refined his plan to answer their
objections and his persistence paid off. "I just kept humping," he said. "It's
something I wanted to do."

Huntington Bank finally agreed to the loan. That, along with help from family
friends and other small investors, including a doctor, brought him the $325,000
needed to get started.

He networked and scoured the online classifieds to buy some of the kettles and
tanks he needed, scoring a good deal from BJ's Restaurants when the
California-based brewpub chain closed some operations.

He leased an office and a couple of high-bay garages at a non-descript office
park in Lockland and began brewing, using his home brewing set-up as a pilot
plant to test recipes. In the office, 55-pound bags of malt from Germany are
stacked in the corners, where the walls are decorated with ribbons awarded from
the American Homebrew Association.

It was a homebrew competition sponsored by Samuel Adams beers that catapulted
Roeper and business partner Randy Schiltz into the commercial brewing business.
An unblended lambic (a strong, sour-tasting style of beer originally from
Belgium) that Roeper made was one of four winners of the 2009 Longshot American
Homebrew contest, sponsored by Samuel Adams owner Boston Beer, out of more than
1,000 beersentered.

Undoubtedly, Roeper would like to replicate the success of Boston Beer's
founder, Cincinnatian Jim Koch. Descended from a long line of home brewers, Koch
used a family recipe as the basis for the first batch of Samuel Adams Boston
Lager, which was made in his kitchen. Starting by delivering kegs in his car,
going bar to bar in Boston, Koch eventually built a $400 million business whose
shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Koch caught the early wave of the interest in craft beers, a trend that's still
growing. Even as beer sales overall fell in 2009, sales of craft beer grew 10
percent, says the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group. More than
100 breweries opened last year, said Julia Herz, the association's program
director.

"Despite the economic challenges, there's interest in locally produced beers,"
she said.

Herz called Rivertown's Kroger and bigg's deals "an incredible success story for
a young brewery."

Roper credits Erlanger-based Stagnaro Distributing for helping him land Kroger.
Mike Stagnaro approached him early on about distributing his beer, but Roeper
declined, not wanting a cut of his revenue going to a middleman. But Stagnaro
convinced him he could provide access to big retailers. Rivertown beers are now
available as far east as Athens, Ohio, north to Manchester and south to
Louisville.


http://nky.cincinnati.com/article/AB/20100423/BIZ01/4240331/Persevering-to-brew

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