Brewing business success. Beer crafters turn hobby into profession

This article originally ran in Navarre Press | Thursday, July 12, 2018

By Jamie Gentry

From hipsters posting Instagram pics of the newest IPA at their local pub to military veterans brewing in their backyards, the United States loves its beer.

And with that love has come an infatuation with homegrown breweries, known as microbreweries. But is it really profitable to brew your bread and butter?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

Michael Kee cofounded Props, a successful microbrewery in Okaloosa County, with Nate Vannatter. Kee said they opened the business due to a mutual love of brew.

“When you see someone drinking your beer and see people enjoy the beer that your brewing or the food that you made, it is great. To sit back and see what you built is rewarding,” Kee said.

His business partner pointed out that getting free beer is also a great benefit.

Props has grown from a single location with a cobbled-together brewing setup to three full-size locations including a full restaurant and successful tap room.

Kee said keeping tap rooms going means keeping the beer flowing. He said his operation and many other area breweries, such as Pensacola Bay Brewery, have been turning a profit for years.

Larry Rollins, co-founder of pub Ye Olde Brothers Brewery, talks about beer like religion. Ye Olde Brothers is Navarre’s first microbrewery.

But rather than trying to bring people to church, Rollins wants to see more folks “convert” to good beer.

“People want real beer, not chemically manufactured stuff,” he said.

Rollins said the high concentration of military personnel and veterans in the area, especially those who have been to the pubs and microbreweries of Europe, are more likely to drink the “real” stuff.

“When they have been overseas drinking real beer, they don’t want to drink the Bud, Bud Light, Coors stuff,” he said.

He said the appeal is in the quality and the support of local commerce.

“Citizens realize that if they are buying from a craft brewery they are supporting a local business. We are creating our own product and putting it out to the public. There is this passion with brewers to create this great product,” he said.   

Hoppy history
The success of these inebriating entrepreneurs can be tracked back more than 40 years.

Following the end of Prohibition, federal laws were put in place heavily regulating the beer brewing industry. With plenty of lobbying money to throw around, the larger companies had no trouble blocking the small fry from entering the market, Rollins said.

Then President Jimmy Carter came to the rescue. According to The Atlantic, Carter signed HR 1337 into law in 1978. In that bill an amendment put forward by California Sen. Alan Cranston lifted the restraints on small breweries.

From less than 100 U.S. breweries in 1978, the industry has ballooned to 6,372 microbreweries, regional brewers and brew pubs last year, according to the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers.

They spread like wildfire after the law changed and continued to grow in the following decades.

Locally, Panhandle residents have been making local brew for at least 84 years.  The area’s rich, hoppy history starts in 1935 in downtown Pensacola. The Spearman Brewing Company was reportedly a haunt for military folks during World War II and served up the stuff under the slogan “the pure water does it” until it closed in 1964.

Since then, 15 breweries have open their doors from Escambia to Okaloosa County, but currently Santa Rosa lays claim to only two of them.

The Brewers Association found that of those breweries that opened in the last eight years, roughly 91 percent are still in business. That success rate dwarfs the common success rate for businesses in general. Only about half of those enterprises survive past their first five years.  

Max Fisher, journalist for The Wire and The Atlantic, wrote of the craft beer boom that while “emerging small scale, distributed production can compete against an installed large-scale infrastructure base.”

But enough about economics. Back to the beer.

The art of the brew
Running a brewery is an art form, said Navarre homebrewer Michael Bares.

“We are like artisans,” he said.

Like many in the brewing business, Bares started out as a hobbyist, honing the craft for a few family members and friends on the weekends. Over time, his friends started urging him to take his craft out of the garage and into the open market.

He and his wife, Paula, have decided to oblige. St. Michael’s Brewing Company, a brewery and tap room, is set to begin construction in the coming months. Its website already boasts pictures of cream ales, dark Irish stout and several “coming soon” brews.

Bares said he appreciates the fine-tuning it takes to make a quality draft, a passion shared by Rollins.

Rollins said it takes “someone that is a chemist and a janitor. They have to understand water. If you don’t have the water right, you will never have the beer right.”

But the payoff, they said, is worth it.

“Personally, I think the greatest feeling for me is being able to take the ingredients, the grains and the hops, and make something that tastes wonderful,” Bares said.

It’s not easy
But doing is businesses is never just about the passion. There needs to be capital to back the project.

Rollins said beer making is often a more expensive endeavor than folks realize.

Bares, who has invested his retirement savings into making his business a reality, ran into difficulties quickly. He said the lack of existing commercial buildings in Navarre ready for purchase left them having to buy vacant property and construct the building themselves.

“The budget has increased significantly. We started believing it would cost $120,000. Now it is more than $1 million,” he said. “We didn’t realize how expensive it was really going to be.”

The business will be requesting an exception to the county’s Heart of Navarre zoning code to allow for metal siding on the structure. Bares said that exception request is solely for the sake of saving on construction costs.

Kee said the cost of equipment can also be a huge expense. Bares agreed.

“We could spend nearly a half million on equipment alone,” he said.

But Bares is getting some help. Rollins said he has offered a hand to the up-and-coming business.

Speaking of small brewery owners as more a brotherhood than a competitive marketplace, Kee points out that the breweries often compare notes. They share ingredients. They work together to perfect the craft.

“It is a very giving and sharing culture,” he said.

Rollins said he welcomes more brewing culture to come to Navarre.

“If we have two breweries, that is just more reason for folks who like beer to come here,” Rollins said of St. Michael’s. “Our competition is not the other breweries. Our competition is the big guys with the lobby money trying to put us out of business.”


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