Chris Spinelli, the cofounder of Roc Brewing in Rochester, New York, was all set to open his small brewery and taproom in 2011, when he realized it had a built-in buzzkill. To expand his reach, Spinelli planned to contract with bigger brewers who could fill kegs with his recipes that he’d sell to local bars. The place could indeed fill his kegs, but not wash them. So Spinelli needed to invest in an industrial keg washing system—fast.
So Spinelli applied to Sam Adam’s Brewing The American Dream program, which partners with the small business lender Accion to offer loans up to $50,000 for emerging food and beverage companies. “It was pretty big for us in the sense that right away we could get open and produce enough beer to keep our taproom and taps around town going,” Spinelli says.
Roc Brewing has since expanded into a full-fledged microbrewery that does everything in-house, distributing to bars in five cities and producing its own line of cans. Even better, one of their beers, dubbed ThreeNinety Bock, just went national: This month, Sam Adams released its first Brewing The American Dream Collaboration Pack, a 12-bottle variety pack with offerings from five independent brewers that the program has helped support. The others include Bosque Brewing in Albuquerque, New Mexico; ChuckAlex Independent Brewers in Ramona, California; Woods Beer Co. in San Francisco; and Brewery Rickoli in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Each gets two bottles per 12-er, leaving just enough room for a couple Samuel Adams Boston Lagers for good measure.
Sam Adams has borrowed recipes from each place to do the brewing and bottling at their own plants. That’s good considering Roc doesn’t actually have the ability to bottle anything yet, let alone handle the logistics and costs of a national release.
For Sam Adams, it’s a way to keep things flowing: All of the proceeds will go toward supporting Accion’s loan program. Brewing The American Dream started in 2008 as a way for Sam Adams founder Jim Koch to support others in the food, beverage, and craft industry trying to build something from scratch. “We’ve had a lot of fun collaborating with these creative and passionate brewers in a way that allows us to continue to pay it forward, and encourage continued growth and creativity in the craft community.” he writes in an email to Fast Company.
The program has made 1,300 loans worth $17.7 million total since it started. That includes about $1 million for 40 small independent craft brewers. According to that the Brewers Association, indie craft brewers generally make less than 6 million barrels a year with the brewery owning at least 75% of its own operations. All Brewing The American Dream recipients fit under that umbrella, with the majority having less than $500,000 in revenue. The average loan amount is $10,000, a sum that, if used wisely, often spurs job creation. Once you create a keg wash system, say, you need a person to run it. As production increases, the demand for delivery drivers and sales staff might grow. (Sam Adams estimates that each infusion ultimately leads to three to four more employees.)
Business owners who join the loan program receive that cash and often hands-on coaching to ensure they continue growing smartly. (Clever branding alert: It’s called an “Experienceship.”) Some eventually take out second and third loans as they expand. Over half of the first-timers see an income increase within a year after accepting funds, no small feat in a business with huge up front costs. Interest rates start at 7.99% and go up to 21.99% depending on business location, amount requested, loan type, how the business is doing already, and credit score. Overall, 97% of participants repay their loans.
Koch has publicly rallied against craft beer industry consolidation: MillerCoors, InBev, and other light beer giants tend to buyout littler craft breweries to expand their portfolios. To that end, his goal isn’t to groom future acquisition targets, but to diversify the market, encourage more experimentation and find more ways to bring light beer drinkers into the craft fold.
“We don’t have any plans to acquire those businesses we have provided guidance to, and don’t plan to in the future either—that would be contrary to the goal of this program which is to support other small business owners in their quest to wake up every day and do something that they love,” he adds. “Here at Sam Adams we believe that when we all support each other, the craft community becomes stronger. We either grow together or not at all.”