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Tapping beer tastes: how Rick Hoeschen founded a brewery.

Rick Hoeschen, president of Fort Garry Brewing Company Inc., says he isn't about to battle Canada's major beer makers for market share, but he does believe there is a niche for his tasty dark beer. Hoeschen's grandfather once owned and ran Fort Garry Brewery which brewed the well-known label "Frontier." Now, the grandson who once studied microbilogy is brewing his own career.

"Winnipeg is one of the last places in North America that doesn't have its own local breweries," says Hoeschen. "Everybody has them. Calgary has half-a-dozen brew pubs where they make the beer right there for consumption on the premises."

Hoeschen's Fort Garry Brewing Company Inc., is located, where else, but in suburban Fort Garry and is the only micro-brewery in Manitoba.

"It's that David versus Goliath thing, everybody likes that," says Hoeschen of his first foray into the draft beer market.

"The little guy going up against the big guy." That's why Hoeschen is convinced his micro-brewery will do just fine against Molson and Labatt and the conglomerate Associated Beer Distributors.

Fort Garry's very first 60-keg batch of dark ale disappeared down the throats of patrons at half-a-dozen Winnipeg pubs two weeks before his second batch was ready. Hoeschen had not expected the response to be that good. He planned on staggering his capacity for 60 kegs at a time, a couple of weeks apart. It takes four-and-a-half weeks to brew a batch. That way, he thought, he would be assuring a steady supply. He goofed. "OK, it was a very conservative business plan. But who knew?" admits Hoeschen.

He hadn't built a supply backlog, so in his first month of business, he was cooling his heels, tending the new batch.

"Every boy wants his own brewery," says Hoeschen. That's why he spent seven years working towards one for himself. First, it was three years in Victoria, B.C., learning brewing at the Vancouver Island Brewing Company, the on-the-job learning complemented by a three-week course in California. Then, it was back home to Winnipeg, to tap on the shoulders of local businessmen, "people I knew a little, or people my parents knew," to get advice on running a business. "Some of them even set up appointments with their accountants for me," says Hoeschen.

He readily admits that initially he didn't know how to run business. His first attempt at rising money through a share offering failed dismally. "The price was just too high per chunk at over $30,000," he says. So he went back, re-figured, and eventually attracted enough friends and associates (about 20) with investments ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 each, to mist $250,000. That done, he obtained a loan under a federal small business program from the CIBC for a matching $250,000.

He found the physical plant after setting his needs - 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, high ceilings, cement floor and loading dock.

The equipment for the brewing process came from all over the world. Buying and importing the equipment ate up most of his initial investment. On a Friday afternoon, adding hops while he talks, he's nettled at the provincial government for charging him provincial retail sales tax on the capital purchases. He intends to fight the ruling. "That's $21,000 of my working capital they want!"

But on the up side, Fort Garry's draft beer is selling faster than he can make it. Hoeschen says people get a kick out of drinking something different, something local, something they can feel connected with just a little.

Hoeschen believes the major breweries will eventually phase down operations in Manitoba - not because of him, but because beer-drinking tastes are becoming more cosmopolitan and more particular. He is convinced the time is perfect for small-batch, unique beers. He doesn't believe he'll siphon major beer brand sales, but he thinks there might be a piece of the imported market there for the taking, largely because his boer is cheaper and matches some of the imported dark ales for flavor.

He has one full-time employee besides himself, a retired beer company marketer works part time selling for him, and he has hired a distributor on contract to deal with the delivery side of the business. He doesn't advertise. He relies on public relations and media attention.

And if you want a mug of the Fort Garry brew, you'll have to go to the pubs where it's served fresh out of the keg. Hoeschen intends to keep it that way. There will be no bottles for his dark ale.

Judy Waytiuk is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg.
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Author:Waytiuk, Judy
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:May 1, 1995
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