Wisconsin Roots, New York State of Mind: Good Words with Sixpoint’s Justin Miller

JMiller

Twelve years ago, a group of Wisconsin guys took their brewing dreams out to New York, New York and began Sixpoint. Just as Frank Sinatra once famously sang “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” Sixpoint made it in The Big Apple and now they’re making it just about everywhere: 30 states in the U.S., six continents on Earth.

I met with Sixpoint’s Data and Analytics Manager, Justin Miller, up at Acadia Cafe to pick his brain a little. We discussed the industrial overlap between craft beer and marijuana, the age at which he had his first Blatz, and dealing with a metro area with an entire state’s worth of people.

We begin with campaigns …

Justin Miller: One of the things we’ve done is bring people in from other industries to give us insight into the craft beer world, how to approach challenges with the kind of solutions other industries are using, where we could find overlap.

WITH WHAT INDUSTRY DO YOU SEE THE MOST OVERLAP?
JM: I think one thing there’s a lot of interest in right now, and a lot of overlap, is the proliferation of recreational/medical marijuana. We’re seeing a giant change in the attitude of the public toward this; and, in these places where now it’s become recreationally legal, craft beer is unsurprisingly something [the marijuana industry is] taking a sort of direction from and approaching a similar customer base in a lot of ways.

It’s an industry that’s not dominated by large producers, very similar to what we’re seeing in craft beer. Obviously, in beer, it’s an industry dominated by macro-beer producers; but the craft beer industry almost exists in its own world in that respect. It’s really just cannibalizing those [macro beer] drinkers. It’s much more controlled by the market forces in its own sphere. It’s kind of similar to what we’re seeing in marijuana.

FH: I’ve never heard anyone talk about it like that before, but that makes a lot of sense: how often does someone walk into a liquor store and say ‘Am I buying Bengali or am I buying Bud Light?’

JM: That’s the key point there, and the key signifier of how independent the industry is. It’s a one-way street: while a macro-to-micro conversion happens, micro-to-macro does not. That’s virtually non-existent.

GIVEN BEER’S LEGAL HISTORY (PROHIBITION, STATE LAWS, ETC.), DOES THE MARIJUANA INDUSTRY HAVE SOMETHING TO LEARN FROM THAT INDUSTRY?
JM: It’s interesting you say that. We have this three-tier system in the U.S., a system that is wholly unrecognizable anywhere outside the United States. If the emerging marijuana industry has anything to learn, it’s how to avoid that.

WHY’D YOU GUYS MOVE OUT TO NEW YORK RATHER THAN JUST STAY IN WISCONSIN?
JM: I get that question a lot. It’s not that we really left Wisconsin. When we first started packaging and selling beer outside of the NYC area, Wisconsin was the first state we went to because we wanted to connect to where we came from. Ultimately, Shane went and started in a city with 10 million people and 25 million people in the metro area.

I think, by making that decision, by going out there, we knew the beer would speak for itself. An audience of 25 million people can create a platform, and we can launch to many more people in a quicker time period. This has given us the ability to be in over half the states in the country, almost a dozen other countries outside the US, and we’re on most continents now. We’re not in Antarctica —

FH: Yet.

JM: — yet, but there is a UW research facility there. If our beer has made it there, I would not be surprised. I think, if we had one photo of a Sixpoiont down there, that would count.

Sixpoints

WHAT’S THE MEANING BEHIND THE SIXPOINT NAME?
JM: The logo (a six-pointed star) was the logo of the old Brewers’ Guild. If you were a brewer back in the day in Europe, you had this star over the shop to indicate you were a member of the guild.

‘Beer is Culture’ is our motto. The history of beer is congruent with the history of culture. The first beers were produced at almost the same time as the first writing was produced. It came about as a part of our nature as humans to start acting in collective ways. Both affected the other; beer helped shape culture, and culture is what allowed us to make beer.

EVERY REGION HAS THEIR UNIQUE CHALLENGES WHEN IT COMES TO MAKING BEER. WHAT’S NEW YORK’S?
JM: New York doesn’t have much in the way of odd rules. What it has is odd practices. For instance, where off-premise sales have eclipsed on-premise sales for most breweries in most markets, the reverse is true for a lot of breweries [in New York]. It also drinks vastly different ratios of brands than other places do. For instance, it consumes double IPAs at a much lower rate than anywhere else.

New York City is constantly referred to as our sales manager as ‘its own beast. To say ‘New York is this, New York is that’ is painting far too broad a brush because Queens is much different than Brooklyn is very different from Manhattan and so on. You almost have to treat them as their own states. 

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU GUYS TO FIGURE OUT THAT BEAST?
JM: We’re still figuring it out! We’ll be figuring it out for the rest of our lives. We’ve been around long enough now that we’ve probably got our head around it better than most, but having your head around it means we know we’ll never really have our heads around it.

WHO TAUGHT YOU HOW TO DRINK?
JM: Wisconsin was one of the last states where your legal guardian can purchase you a beer at any age you want, so I had my first beer — I believe it was a Blatz — at age five. My dad taught me how to drink Blatz at age five.

In Wisconsin, the craft beer explosion took a little longer to take hold. I think the reason for that is, Wisconsin was the last bastion of the regional brewery. When everybody else had one or two choices, Wisconsin still had Special Ex, they still had Blatz, they still had Point, PBR. They were all crap, but when craft beer came in and said ‘Now you have choice, choice is a new thing for you,’ choice wasn’t a new thing in Wisconsin.

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JM: We’re seeing an incredible change in the market. We’re seeing consolidation, we’re seeing venture capitalists coming in and buying up everything they can. We’re seeing Anheuser-Busch and the big boys say, ‘If you can’t beat ’em buy ’em.’ I think this is probably the most important aspect in my own regard: we talk about craft, but what I really think we’re going to see over the next few years is independent becoming the new craft.

Craft is a great term, but we didn’t do a good enough job of defining it when we needed to and it’s been co-opted. It can still be craft if it’s bought by AB, as long as we consider that the barrelage of the company AB bought is craft. It’s bullshit. It’s bought by AB. It’s producing billions of barrels, not thousands. It’s not craft anymore.

If you know anything about Sixpoint, we don’t take any money, we haven’t taken any money, we’re vehemently independent, and I think this is what’s going to be the difference-maker in the future. Right now, is that a smart financial decision? No! Right now, we should sell out to the dozens of offers, millions of dollars people are throwing out at craft brewers all the time.

We take the long view. We took the long view with cans. We were one of the first breweries to can. We’ve never done bottles. People thought we were crazy when we started. Now, it’s a serious market advantage to be canning.

FH: I’d have said you were crazy, too, actually.

JM: Absolutely, and Shane’s a visionary. This dedication to remaining independent is another aspect of our visionary approach. It defines us now, and I think it’s going to be one of the things that maintains us and gives us sustainability.

IF THE ‘INDEPENDENT’ CATEGORIZATION STICKS, DO YOU THINK WE’LL SEE LESS BREWERIES SELLING?
JM: I think, if the market forces optimize independence, that’ll drive the market. Right now it’s not, and customers are suffering for it because we don’t demand independent brewers. Everybody’s taking the money, but everybody’s still selling their beer.

The fact of the matter is, if you’re brewing beer out of your brand new $200M brewhouse, that’s great. You can spike the football on that all you want, but you are not you. You are the venture capitalist firm that bought you, you are are the guys sitting on your board telling you ‘No, you don’t get to brew that lager you want to brew, you have to brew this.’ We will never be that way. No one’s ever going to tell us what we want to brew.

I think that’s more important in the end. You can have the best facility they want. Budweiser makes a very predictable product. It is the most predictable product in the market. They’ve got the best facilities, they’ve got the most money, and their beer is going to turn out exactly the way they want it every single time. Great. It’s made with rice and tastes like crap. I would rather have someone who cares about beer deciding what they brew.

WHAT’S NEXT FROM SIXPOINT?
JM: We’re re-releasing Tesla. It’s a hoppy lager, re-worked with an entirely new can design this year that is just beautiful — one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever produced. It’s something that we’ve loved making. I’m excited to see how Tesla does this year. It did well even before hoppy lagers were the fad, but now hoppy lagers are the fad.

Lagers and pilsners are the beers that the brewers are the most proud of because they’re the most difficult to make. They’re the hardest to hide your mistakes with. They take twice as long, so it’s a labor of love to some degree but it’s a great beer.

STILL GOT TIME? Check out the interview I had with Grant Pauly of 3 Sheeps.