The beer guys
How Sanitas Brewing is taking its game (and market) to the next level
It began innocently enough, as some stories go. Two guys, a dream, nights of hashing out a business plan, and owls. Oh, that last part is true. During the evenings when Michael Memsic and Chris Coyne were hustling by day and brewing by night, they kept noticing owls watching over them.
If the story seems like something out of Jordan Peele movie, you may or may not be in the ballpark. Their dream—that liquid Memsic as they refer to it—drove them to create a brand that the people of Boulder, Colorado (the whole state, really) love. Those owls. Well, they adopted their feathered friends’ look, adorned with the Brewer’s Star—a representation of malted barley, grain, hops, water, yeast and the brewer; six elemental ingredients in the frothy beverage we all love—and created Sanitas Brewing.
Pre-pandemic, they built a team of bold, spirited and adventurous individuals working together to deliver a beverage (and tap room) that their Rocky Mountains neighbors love. In the midst of the pandemic, they are still working together on the plan to keep the dream alive—and succeeding, thank you very much.
We sat down with Michael Memsic, co-founder and CEO of Sanitas, to talk about how is branding is making a difference in the Colorado market—pandemic and all—and why branding what you love matters.
What are some of the adjustments you made with/to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?
This ends up being a pretty big topic for us here at Sanitas. I think that in times of crisis, the entrepreneurial spirit really comes alive in individuals, and we have acted fast and aggressively throughout this crazy time. We started by laying off over 50% of our staff and stopping all brewing. During those early weeks, we applied for every federal grant we could find, and were very lucky to get the help to keep us afloat and bring our staff back to 100%. We even added a handful of team members.
During the first weeks of shutdown, we also turned our delivery van into an "adult ice cream truck." We were driving around town, playing ice cream music through our new PA and selling six packs directly to the homes of the people of Boulder. This was a little bit of fun for our community and helped to keep the lights on at the brewery. After we were asked by LED (liquor enforcement division of Colorado) to shut this down, as we were technically violating a grey area rule, we looked to our next opportunity to pivot with a focus on expanding our patio and outdoor serving options.
Understanding that social distancing is a key and being outside is the safest way to interact in public, we wanted to push ourselves to create the best possible environment for simply enjoying a beer with family and friends. We have increased our outdoor seating to safely accommodate close to 200 guests. We also have built an outdoor bar out of a shipping container to better safely serve our customers when they are outside.
In short, we are trying to be creative every day to find ways to keep our business moving forward and contribute to our community in the most positive way possible.
What kind of engagement are you having with your customers?
It has been a challenge to navigate, especially as it feels like doing the right thing in this COVID world is a moving target. In our Tap Room, we are doing our best to pay attention to local and national guidelines and recommendations, and are looking to take an aggressive stance on the safety of our guests and staff above revenue.
We are trying to engage with our customers digitally and through options such as takeout and delivery, and continuing to service as many of our accounts (liquor stores and restaurants) as we can. We are big proponents of masks and handwashing here, and we keep looking for smart ways to continue to contribute to keeping our community safe.
What role should a brand play in being a leader in a distressed market?
This year has demonstrated how crazy and unstable things can become within a very short period of time. I think that brands and companies have an opportunity to step up as leaders within their communities when the stability of society, let alone the market is weakened. As everyone is trying to navigate this ever-changing world, there is a unique opportunity to take a stand and put a stake in the ground for what we believe in.
I am proud of the decisions we have made during the past few months. We have not been perfect, and we have made mistakes along the way, but we are fighting for our brand with a perspective on others. I hope this opportunity will continue to create the change for good that we are seeing around our country right now. When I talk about these changes in stability and opportunities to do better, I am referring to both the handling of COVID and our awareness and contribution to organizations like Black Lives Matter.
What is the best piece of advice you can offer to others in how to deal with these unthinkable times?
Try to keep your head on straight. Take it one step—one thing you can change—at a time. Select a specific focus and be aggressive, and then move on to your next challenge. Throughout it all, give grace to yourself, your team and your community. It is hard for everyone right now. Remembering to be aware of others I believe will help all of us recover as well as possible.
Give us a snapshot of today's craft spirits market from your perspective.
I think craft beer is going to survive this craziness with relative grace. I believe we will see a lot more closures than openings in the coming months for the first time in a very long time, but from an overall numbers perspective, I think we will be alright. Not great, but alright through these times.
What’s likely to happen next?
Closures of some smaller guys. Unfortunately, I think some of the smaller brewers that function very similarly to a bar or restaurant will be hurt by the closures. If you are a Tap Room first company, and you don’t have many options for cans or patio space, I can only imagine what you are up against now.
I think we will see a continuation of consolidation of medium to large brewers. I think we will see groups like Canarchy continue to have success and grow their portfolios, as this seems to be a very strategic and smart way to grow your brand(s). And finally, I think we will continue to see growth of local or even hyper local. We saw a big boom in local coming out of the last recession and I think we will see another boom of this type of decision-making from the consumer moving forward.
It has become harder and harder to make noise and remain relevant in this fast-paced industry. So many of the consumers are looking for the "flavor of the week," so to speak, and there is a lot less loyalty today than five to 10 years ago.
What trends are defining the space?
Other than Seltzer, Slushy and one-off beers are at least getting a lot of attention. I am ready for beer-flavored beer to come back with a vengeance.
What is your brand story?
Sanitas Brewing is a Tap Room first brewery with a focus on IPAs, sours and lagers. We believe in our community and the power of good beer to bring people together. We want to contribute to making Boulder and Colorado a better place to live and visit, all while having a great time. Sanitas came into existence thanks to personal passion, a community of people coming together, and a lot of hustle.
Boulder is full of dreamers who are putting in the hard work to achieve their dreams—whether that is on the mountain bike, a startup, in a kitchen, on skis, or beyond. The hustle and passion of this community are what gave us the courage to create Sanitas in the first place, and continues to sustain us every day.
We strive to give back to the community by supporting others in their pursuit of dreams and passions. Whether it is hosting bike groups every week after their ride, yoga in the brewhouse, Boulder Startup week events, or just providing the location for important planning/plotting meetings over a beer and tacos, we want to be a place and a brand that supports everyone in their hustle and efforts to pursue their passions.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
The biggest component of our branding is our logo of the Owl. We decided early on that we wanted to use an owl. Chris— (Coyne) my business partner, co-founder and head of brewing operations—and I both had owls living close to our homes. Before working on the business plan for Sanitas, neither of us was aware of these owls.
During the many days, weeks and months of working on the plan, we spent a lot of late nights sitting outside dreaming of the future. And we always seemed to have an owl or two nearby. Because of these experiences, we knew we had to have an owl as part of our business. We selected the Athenian Owl, traditional of ancient Greece, as our logo because we loved the look and feel and how it tied our business plan days to the future.
Today, we make sure this image is present on everything we do. We want the owl to be large and present on our cans and in all of our marketing materials. We have many other extensions on our branding that include bright-eye popping colors and a connection with the outdoors, but the Owl remains the centerpiece of our branding.
What's the biggest issue today related to the marketing/sales side of your business?
It is the sheer number of breweries. It has become harder and harder to make noise and remain relevant in this fast-paced industry. So many of the consumers are looking for the "flavor of the week," so to speak, and there is a lot less loyalty today than five to 10 years ago. Most of these challenges fall within the off-premise buying environment.
From a marketing perspective, the fast paced changes with social media, and how customers interact with apps and websites continues to be a challenge to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of. I tip my hat to the companies executing this side of their business, as in my opinion, they deserve a ton of credit.
What is the secret to creating a branding story consumers can buy into?
I know that "authenticity" gets thrown around a lot in branding, but it really has been our guiding principle. We have plenty of real stories and inspirations—whether it is from the ingredients in our beer, the styles we are making, or from our team, we have plenty to work with. It just requires the time and patience to do the digging and tell the real story.
What is the one thing every craft beer brand should be doing in the way of marketing?
Try something new as often as possible. At least have the emotional openness to shake it up every few months. I no longer believe in the concept of, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." I believe, especially with marketing, that if it isn't broke, it might be very soon.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
Continuing to expand our patio and give our customers a great experience outside in a safe manner. I believe this COVID era will come to an end at some point, but I believe it has made an impact on how we will live and behave in public for years to come. We believe we have created a space that will remain relevant for that future consumer.
What's the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
Getting everyone on our team rowing in the same direction. We have some new faces and are making some new big hires in the [future]. That change is always a lot of fun, but getting everyone on the same page quickly is never as easy as it looks.
What is the first thing your brand plans to do when we get back to some sense of normalcy?
Throw a party. Drink beers with our community to celebrate that we are all strong and can handle the shit show that has been 2020.
Sitting down with …
Michael Memsic co-founder and CEO of Sanitas
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
People and community. I got into this industry in 2002 because I had fallen in love with a liquid. I committed the next 10-plus years to learning everything I could before opening Sanitas out of a pure love for a liquid and the industry that liquid created.
Today, it is community. I think about the micro community of our employees, investors and ex-employees. I then think about our super fans and regulars who keep the lights on every day. Finally, I think about the craft makers, not just brewers, and the people of the town of Boulder and the state of Colorado. I feel so fortunate and proud to be a contributor to these communities.
What was the best advice you ever received?
Don't forget to have fun. Like all businesses, things get tricky, numbers get daunting, and it can get really serious, so I do my best to remember that this is fun. This is my dream. And it is beer, not brain surgery or cancer research.
What's the best thing a customer ever said to you?
Are you accepting investors?
What is your favorite brand story?
Patagonia. I believe in the product and the company. I feel they are a leader within their industry, politics, the environment and the world. They are a company that takes risks and puts their values before all else. They take a stand on matters and that is something I aspire to emulate.