When Douglas Amport and John La Polla conceived the business now known as Bitter & Esters, they simply wanted to provide space where enthusiastic homebrewers like themselves could produce larger batches of beer than the average apartment in New York City (read: tiny) allows. As the shop nears its second anniversary, Bitter & Esters — with its innovative combination of classroom, retail store, and brewing facility — is happily supported by an engaged and loyal community.
Craft beer has become big business in the United States, thanks to a dramatic increase in the number of craft breweries nationwide: There are currently about 2,300. According to the Brewers Association, the amount of craft beer sold increased by 15 percent in volume and 17 percent in dollars in 2012.
Influenced by this rapid growth, homebrewing has become significantly more popular, too. The American Homebrewers Association — an arm of the Brewers Association — conducts a yearly retail survey to track industry growth. In 2012, hom\ebrew shops saw an average annual revenue increase of 20 percent over 2011.
Tapping Into the Trend
Back in 2010, Amport and La Polla’s initial plan was to build a co-op of sorts, a communal brewing facility where members could make beer, exchange knowledge, and share the fruits of their labor. However, in the process of business planning, they quickly realized that membership dues wouldn’t generate enough revenue to sustain the operation, let alone its founders. Devising solutions to this problem evolved into brainstorming other, related revenue streams. Classes were the first logical addition.
“Homebrewing is really about pursuing mastery,” Amport explains, “and providing classes helps us to advance the experienced brewer and reel in the newbie early on.” Bitter & Esters — which is named for two common flavor elements in beer — now offers a wide selection of classes, ranging from Beer Appreciation and Homebrew 101 for neophytes to advanced brewing techniques for expert homebrewers.
The next piece of the puzzle was to integrate retail, Amport says. “We realized that not only would we need ingredients to brew our own beer, but the best way to monetize a co-op would be to sell things to our members.” Bitter & Esters currently stocks a wide range of ingredients and equipment, suited for brewers of every level. They even sell kegs.
Brewing on the Premises
Ultimately, Amport and La Polla scrapped their co-op plan, but the founders didn’t sacrifice their original aims. In addition to classes and a store, Bitter & Esters also offers a brew-on-premises program, which is billed as “the city’s first do-it-yourself brewery.” Customers pay an all-inclusive fee that covers equipment rental, ingredients, storage, and bottling or kegging. On any given afternoon, it’s not uncommon to see groups of (mostly) men in the back of the store, contemplating a bubbling kettle, beer in hand.
While the three-pronged business model provides significant opportunities for synergies, it’s also an exercise in managing complexity. Because the classes and brew-on-premises program take place in the same area of the store, booking can be a little challenging. The weekends, as the easiest time to schedule classes and book brew-on-premises, are particularly busy.
Luckily though, the owners consider each new challenge as a chance to innovate. They’re toying with the idea of moving their weekend classes to another location in order to relieve some pressure on the schedule. To take advantage of slower weekday hours, they offer corporate classes, specially designed to meet the needs of each group. “When people use our classes as team building exercises, we write recipes specifically for that,” says La Polla. “We make sure that everyone has something to do. One time we held a corporate class that was a competition between two teams, where each had previously come up with a marketing plan. We wrote recipes specifically tailored to each plan and at the end, they voted on the winners.”
Meanwhile, Bitter & Esters’ customers aren’t going anywhere, and both the homebrew business and the industry appear to be trending up.