Step inside a brewpub in California, and it’s likely you’ll see a beloved local brand called Figueroa Mountain on tap. Based in the wine-country town of Buellton (made famous in the movie Sideways), the brewery’s IPA and pilsners are best-sellers. But years before Figueroa Mountain was launched, in 2010, cofounder Jaime Dietenhofer was in business school at UC Santa Barbara and was the kind of beer geek who would play beer pong with craft brews.
Then he nearly blew up his dorm room while homebrewing beer.
On the phone, Dietenhofer’s cofounder–his father, Jim–told me the accident occurred in a fermentation tank. “That’s when we realized neither of us could ever be a brewer,” said Jim. However, they did want to someday go into business together running a brewery.
Years later, Jaime launched a successful business called Garage Envy that sold garage organization products to the consumer market. But he wanted to bring his children closer to where he grew up in central California, and he wanted to go into business with his dad running a brewery. Jim was retired from day-to-day work at a gold and silver recycling business he still owns, which extracts precious metal from medical imaging equipment and electronic waste.
“I realized the business would succeed because my son had a sales and marketing knack,” Jim said. “This hit me when he managed to take his old man in retirement and convince him to work his ass off. I learned every aspect of it–even cleaning the lines! But the dream part of it for me was seeing your son who you grew up with repeating what you showed him earlier in life. . . . Jesus, that’s a great thing.”
The first thing the company did, thanks to that early dorm room incident, was hire a brewmaster. “We interviewed 140 brewmasters when we were getting started, and we had that luxury because we had other businesses bringing in cash flow. It was really industrial research.”
But the emerging company faced one big challenge. They launched at the height of the economic slowdown, in a very capital-intensive manufacturing business. The equipment required to brew beer on an industrial scale isn’t cheap. “We rolled the dice a lot,” Jaime told me. He credits making it through their early years to their strong business plans. But not everything was planned. For example, beer tourists started to pull up unannounced in their brewery parking lot, so eventually the duo started operating taprooms in collaboration with local restaurants.
The Dietenhofers had the luxury of bootstrapping their new company thanks to their previous businesses, but they had contemplated looking for investors. They ended up deciding, at least at that early juncture of their business, to self-fund instead.
“And with investors, you don’t just take their money–you take on their dreams and directions as well when you take their money. It’s mixed,” explained Jaime.
These days, the Dietenhofers have a fledgling business empire. Although Figueroa Mountain doesn’t have extensive national distribution, their beers are fixtures in microbrew-oriented bars from San Francisco to San Diego. The company employs approximately 100 people, runs four taprooms along the well-traveled tourist route between the college town of San Luis Obispo and the suburbs of Los Angeles, and is working on opening a brewery in Germany’s Bavaria region. Jaime told me the taprooms are intended to work as “advertising” for the brand by offering the beer on tap in a controlled environment to tourists.
Meanwhile, Figueroa Mountain’s beers are pretty damn good. The next time you’re in California, I’d recommend trying the Danish Red Lager or the Lizard’s Mouth IPA.