If you think “craft beer” means Van Dyke-bearded hipsters fussing over trendy blends in special glassware, you’re not alone. But you might be missing the bigger picture. Locally brewed beers made with exacting care are a real economic force. In fact, the Brewers Association, the industry’s main trade organization, reported that craft breweries contributed 424,000 jobs and almost $56 billion to the American economy in 2014.
Surprisingly, New Jersey is not out in front on this one. In the state’s relatively nascent craft beer industry, there are few players of note. One, however, is Chris Walsh, co-owner of River Horse Brewing Co. at 2 Graphics Drive in Ewing (www.riverhorse.com). A longtime investment banker, Walsh and his business partner, Glen Bernabeo, found themselves in exactly the right place at the right time to get in on an industry that, while often mocked for its penchant for trendy flavors and special-edition seasonal brews, is enjoying a growth spurt not unlike video stores and mobile phones had some years ago.
The secret ingredient to Walsh’s success with River Horse might just be that he never had a lifelong passion to be a brewer of fine craft beers. Or it might be that Walsh is not among those looking to create a hip new flavor or cash in on trends. His approach to craft beer and smaller-scale brewing is, in fact, rather classical — make a great product and stick to your principles.
Walsh will discuss his journey from finance to fine brew as the keynoter at the Princeton Chamber’s Young Professionals Summit on Friday, November 13, from 8 a.m. until noon at the Conference Center at Mercer County Community College. Other speakers and panelists include Bobbie Foedisch of All About Leverage; Alicia Talish of Bristol-Myers Squibb; Nicole Lyons of WithumSmith+Brown; Michael Donahue of Stark & Stark; Joseph Tredinnick of TD Bank; and David Trapani of Sandler Training. Cost: $75. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Walsh grew up in Buffalo and moved to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, at age 12, when his father was relocated for his job at DuPont. He went to UMass for a while, but finished his bachelor’s in marketing at the University of Delaware in 1990. In 1994 he earned his MBA in accounting from Widener and set off for a career in finance.
Walsh began as a credit analyst at First Fidelity and then found what turned out to be an ideal job for him at GE Capital. There he got into risk management and running businesses that operated under the GE umbrella. This, he says, put him in “five different jobs in leadership. I was a certified job hopper.” One of the jobs was working in Ireland, leasing airliners to African aviation companies.
Back in the states by 2000 with his wife and two sons (now 18 and 21 and attending Temple and Drexel, respectively), Walsh got into investment banking for Berwind and SSG. In his travels, he met Bernabeo and the two decided to look for a good business in which to invest.
By 2007 River Horse, which was originally founded in Lambertville by two brothers, was on the market and not doing so well. But the brewery offered a few things Walsh and Bernabeo were looking for. There was a solid product, an in-place business with some name recognition, and it was a manufacturing concern.
“We wanted to manufacture something,” Walsh says. “Those kinds of things need to come back. And we like saying that we’re a domestic manufacturer of a product.”
Timing couldn’t have been better. A decade ago was about the time when small breweries started popping up in noticeable numbers everywhere, and the taste for locally made brews as good as any fine Belgian (or even West Coast) imports was starting to take hold. And local beer is one of the few products that can’t be manufactured overseas.
So Walsh and Bernabeo bought the flagging brewery and moved it to Ewing, where it is now second only to Flying Fish in terms of successful New Jersey breweries.
Common mistakes. Because Walsh and Bernabeo did not set out to be craft beer guys, but rather to run a manufacturing business, they were smart enough to hire the right people to make the beers delicious. A lot of companies, however, don’t invest in the right minds and talents for the right jobs, and they end up on the radars of guys like the one Walsh used to be — someone who sought and identified distressed businesses.
Another common mistake Walsh has seen is the urge to make products that do not go with the brand at all. Dare we even mention examples like Colgate’s foray into frozen entree dinners or Smith & Wesson’s attempt to sell bicycles? Clarity of brand, Walsh says, is key. And so is sticking with what your brand represents.
Related to that, Walsh opts for brewing a few top-tier beers, rather than chasing the trendy flavors that earn the craft beer industry its mocks. For one thing, brewers are cranking out specialty flavors faster than bars and restaurants can install taps.
“The industry can’t handle the number of beers that are being put out there,” Walsh says. There’s only so much a bar can sell, and it’s better to have a few solid options than to overwhelm establishments with yet another unusual flavor that won’t last a month on the shelves.
The beer experience. What separates craft brews from their mainstream, Super Bowl-ad counterparts is that craft beers are actually a lifestyle. People who prefer craft brews want a larger experience than just cracking open a bottle with the game on. They want to embrace breweries and beers, which is why, despite Walsh’s own surprise at the continuing number of sell-outs he gets for them, River Horse regularly offers tours to groups of 20. Visitors see the product made, end-to-end, and get some samples, and come to identify with what makes the beer so special.
The challenge is that it’s a lifestyle largely embraced by Millennials, which means it can be hard to pin down. “Millennials are a moving target,” he says. But enough is known to keep River Horse making what works best and to keep the brewery focused on its ultimate goal to be the New Jersey brewery of choice.
Stick to the mission, but be flexible. With the temptation so strong to capitalize on trends, it takes strong guidance to stick with the mission. But Walsh says that River Horse isn’t looking to be fancy, just liked for what it does.
This doesn’t mean being rigid. In fact, a common mistake for business owners in general is to try to adhere to the business plan as if it were bible rather than blueprint. Learn to go with what the larger trends tell you, Walsh says, not the fads. And always be willing to learn new things.
Walsh says he has learned more in the eight years he has run River Horse than he did in all his business experience in finance. With good reason — as a brewer, he needs to know how to talk to all kinds of people, from customers who visit to chemists who make the brews to sales reps to bar managers. All of them are different, but all together make a brewery successful.
Besides, all these people are better company anyway. “I like to say I’m in a business that’s 99 percent jerk-free, when I used to be in a business that was 99 percent jerks,” he says. “If you’re a jerk in this business, you’ll get found out.”