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How A Brewery Founder Went From Cleaning Kegs To Calling The Shots

Revolution Brewing Founder Josh Deth’s dream of running his own brewery may have been sidelined a few times over the years, but his persistence took him the distance.

How A Brewery Founder Went From Cleaning Kegs To Calling The Shots
[Image: Flickr user emilee rader]

College students are notorious beer fans, but not many of them were as committed as Josh Deth, a homebrewer before it became cool to be one.

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His first job was as an assistant at Golden Prairie Brewing when he was 20-years-old. Back then, “you could count the number of good craft beers on two hands,” the then self-described “low man on the totem pole” says. That fall, he returned to the University of Michigan and worked at a brewpub in Ann Arbor. After college, Deth worked at Goose Island’s production brewery in Chicago. It was there he had the idea to start Revolution Brewery.

Sizing Down the Dream

In 2000, Deth left Goose Island to open Revolution Brewery with a few friends as investors, but the effort failed. “We didn’t have enough experience, money, or business acumen,” Deth reflects. “I had to size down the dream a few times, early on,” he says.

Deth took a job at a non-profit specializing in affordable housing and entered the master’s degree program for urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but the thought of running his own brewery was never far from his mind. “[Chicago is] one of the biggest beer consumption cities in the country. We deserve at least a medium-sized brewpub,” Deth says.

In 2003, he opened Handlebar, a vegetarian bar and grill. “I worked at a pizza place and sub shop – all of a sudden, I’m running a kitchen,” he says. There were definitely challenges early on. For example, Deth recalls wanting to add brunch to the restaurant’s offerings, but the kids working in the kitchen would get drunk and not show up on time to prepare the food. Deth, having recently become a parent, stepped in as brunch cook. “I was up anyway,” he remembers.

With Handlebar up and running, Deth became the Executive Director of the local chamber of commerce. Part of his job was to search for properties in the neighborhood that would be good for business. In 2007, he found a century-old building with a tin ceiling that had previously housed a newspaper and sign shop, and knew he’d found the location for Revolution Brewing.

Persistence pays off

Financing the project was difficult–it was the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, and banks weren’t exactly lining up to finance a startup restaurant/brewery. This time around, with restaurant experience and a master’s degree in urban planning under his belt, Deth was better prepared. He went to twelve banks before getting a yes.

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Securing the permits took two and a half years, 18 months to close on the building, and construction lasted more than a year. With all the headaches, Deth remained undeterred. His investors were committed to seeing the neighborhood grow, and his involvement in Logan Square was readily apparent.

The latest iteration of Revolution Brewing opened in 2010, and its production brewery opened two years later. In that time, Revolution Brewing has taken the top prize for two of its craft beers at the 2012 World Beer Cup (Cross of Gold, its English-style summer ale, and Rise American Stout), won awards at the Great American Beer Festival, and was prominently featured in the movie, Drinking Buddies.

Revolution Brewing has 140 employees and offers nearly 50 beer styles each year. “We’re one of the fastest growing breweries in the country,” Deth notes. While most entrepreneurs start their own businesses to be in control and be the boss, at some point, Deth says, “you create an animal, and eventually it becomes bigger than you… You get into it because you think it’ll be fun. Keep it fun. If it starts to not be fun, then [you’re] getting bored quickly.”

Bottom Line: His career path was varied, but, Deth acknowledges, there are many paths to success. He teaches the next generation of homebrewers at Siebel Institute of Technology’s “Start Your Own Brewery” class and advises would-be entrepreneurs to build confidence in themselves, and be willing to take “low on the totem pole” jobs to build their skills. “People want to invest in people they believe in,” he says. They’re investing in you, not necessarily the business plan.

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About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in Entrepreneur.com, Reuters.com, Today.com, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, BlogHer.com and Fox Business.

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