How do you start a brewing company without a brewery?
You do it quickly. Phil Cutti, Patrick Horn and Inna Volynskaya launched Headlands Brewing Company in mid-July after just four months of preparation. The only catch is: they don’t exactly have a brewery space.
“We’re a gypsy brewery,” said Horn, who co-founded and then sold Pacific Brewing Laboratory (also a gypsy brewery) before launching Headlands.
Instead, the trio — who all come with extensive beer backgrounds — roam (hence the term “gypsy brewery”) from place to place, renting space to make batches of beer.
There are challenges to this approach, but also benefits.
“It allows us to have a very quick entry into the market, which is very competitive,” said Cutti, giving them the ability to build up their name and prove their model to their investors. The cost of launching is also far less than what’s needed for an actual facility.
But, it means they have to be at the mercy of other breweries’ schedules and ship ingredients all over. And, legally, once they rent the brewing space, they can’t actually touch the equipment, but have to give their recipes to the brewers and be on-hand to oversee the process.
“We’re not physically able to do the brewing process, but we’re there with them when they do it,” said Cutti.
Eventually, they plan to find their own home. But, in the meantime, they’re already getting their beer out there and gaining drinking fans — hopefully, making it easier when they’re ready to go.
“When we open our doors, we’re already on the ground running,” said Horn.
Cutti and Horn teamed up with the idea for a brewery after Cutti decided to “put up or shut up,” he said. Although Cutti now also works as the head brewer at SouthPaw BBQ, until very recently he had another job, a serious, science-y job as an exercise physiologist running the Human Performance Lab at Stanford.
But, he quit his steady position at Stanford last year — something that certainly raised some concerns from his wife — in order to pursue brewing. He had long been a home-brewer, honing his skills and meeting other brewers to learn from them. In fact, that was how Horn and Cutti met, then bonding over swimming and athletic pursuits. Eventually, Cutti decided it was time to go all in on this hobby he’d been working on for nearly ten years. That was when the two of them teamed up.
“We both had kind of a common vision,” said Horn.
Volynskaya joined up with the other two after meeting them at San Francisco Beer Week. Volynskaya came out of Lagunitas Brewing Co. to go to grad school at Presidio, but then opted to come to Headlands after finishing school.
“I felt like I had a lot more room to build something and be creative here,” said Volynskaya.
At a small start-up, everyone has to do everything, but Cutti is primarily the brewer, Horn the marketing and salesperson, and Volynskaya the operations manager.
“We started off with three beers in July,” said Horn — Pt. Bonita Rustic Lager, Groupe G Belgian RyePA, and Hill 88 West Coast IPA. Because they have to brew on the schedule of other breweries, those three were made in large bulk and then poured and handed out and sampled and sold.
This time around, when they brewed new batches, they made those three again and two new beers: the Bay Trip (a Belgian triple with coconut sugar) and Live or Let Die (an imperial smoked black IPA).
But to find one of the signature beers, you’ll have to move fast. They do pour at festivals, including the Bay Area Brew Fest at Fort Mason on Aug. 24, and have sold wholesale to different restaurants and bars, such as Beerworks in Mill Valley. But, mostly, they announce their events and beers on twitter and facebook. Think of it as pop-up brewing.
“We’ve had a great reception in the first 30 days of the company,” said Horn. “We’ve had beer travel all the way to Fresno and all the way up to Eureka [via wholesale contracts].”
The brewery space in the Bay Area is crowded, though. So, what makes their beer different? How are they going to stand out from all the other new, hot breweries?
“First, you have to make great beer. We did that. I think we did that. People think we did that,” said Horn.
Secondly, the trio believes, they have to engage with their customers and communities. The gypsy brewing strategy certainly emphasizes the need for them to connect with their drinkers. If people can’t find them, then they won’t be able to drink the beer.
Besides Meet the Brewer nights, though, they’re also focusing on what they know and what brought them together: the outdoors, sports, recreation. The name Headlands Brewing Company even emphasizes that.
“The headlands is a great playground for a lot of that stuff,” said Horn.
That means they’ll be putting on events like runs or races or trail clean-ups that end with everyone drinking Headlands beer. They’re also working with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, sponsoring the Baykeeper fundraiser swim on Oct. 20 — a swim that goes from the bridge to the Berkeley marina (and a swim Cutti will do), and serving their beer at the Blind Cafe Dinner, which raises money for guide dogs for the blind on Oct. 24.
“We also want to give back a lot,” said Volynskaya.
The next big thing on the horizon is the Great American Beer Festival in Denver Oct. 10-12. And, then, the first competition they’ll be entering is the World Beer Cup, said Cutti. But, if you can find a glass now, you’ll be able to say you drank it first.