MicroBrewr 089: Make whiskey from high-quality craft beer with Seven Stills of SF

MicroBrewr 089: Make whiskey from high-quality craft beer

Over a few beers, Tim Obert’s friend from college, Clint, told him that whiskey is actually made from cheap beer. They got to thinking, why not make whiskey from high-quality craft beer? Thus was born Seven Stills of SF, in San Francisco, California.

“I wish I would’ve taken on investment sooner.” [Tweet This]


Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from the fermented mash of usually malted grain, like beer. At first Tim and Clint were homebrewing in the backyard of Clint’s parent’s home, and “distilling that out, not really with the intention of starting a company, but just to see what happens.”

“Distilling,” says Tim, “is a hundred times simpler than brewing.”

To make whiskey from beer, they increase the temperature of beer to evaporate ethanol. The gaseous ethanol is then cooled to condense it back into a liquid. Different temperatures and different points in the process evaporate different material and different quality flavor.

“After a while,” recalls Tim, “Clint and I ended up having 30 different whiskeys and they were totally unique and were all, in my opinion, outstanding.”

“Everything that I had researched said that the base beer doesn’t have an impact on the flavor of the whiskey, which we’ve realized is just completely untrue. We can distill something like a chocolate oatmeal stout for instance, versus and IPA and there is no way that you could not tell the difference,” Tim laughs. “They’re completely different whiskeys.”

RELATED: MicroBrewr 047: A forty-year career at the epicenter of craft beer

Clint contributed the money he had saved for grad school, Tim pitched in a portion of his life savings, and they started Seven Stills of SF. For 2 years, they had a contract brewery make the beer. Then they had a contract distillery use the craft beer to make whiskey.

Seven Stills of SF currently produces about 120 cases of whiskey per month. They’re trying to increase production by 8 times.

They will be able to do it, now that they have their own 15-BBL brewhouse with fermenters and bright tanks. And they recently bought the largest still in San Francisco, a 300-gallon pot still.

They also have an entirely other line of vodka and bitters. Whereas whiskey is made from various grains, vodka is made from corn. Most of their bitters are made from vodka.

“Just for consistency sake, it makes sense to keep the 2 separate,” says Tim. “That’s part of the reason we hired different designers to work on the [labels on the] bottles.”

With so much expansion and growth, Tim says one thing he wishes he would have done differently was taken on investors sooner.

RELATED: MicroBrewr 067: How to find investors for a brewery

“We’ve been trying to grow off of just what we put into the company organically for the last 2 years, and it’s just painfully slow.”

Getting investors urged Seven Stills of SF to:

  • Develop a business plan
  • Calculate budgets
  • Get organized
  • Get something bigger off the ground

Part of having investors is putting together an advisory board. A formal advisory board is a set of people to whom you can seek advice on the business. Tim recommends finding experts in different areas such as:

  • Banking
  • Design
  • Marketing
  • Social media

“I definitely wouldn’t recommend giving up too much equity right off the bat,” advises Tim, “but give them something, and incentive instead of just getting counsel from them.”

“Just kind of building a team you can go and ask questions about when you have something come up. Because, I mean, it’s kind of stupid to keep reinventing the wheel with all this stuff.”

Brewery specs:

Kettle size: 15 BBL.

Size and quantity of fermentation tanks: 2, 15-BBL fermenters.

Size and quantity of bright tanks: 2, 15-BBL bright tanks.

Annual brewing capacity/last year’s production: 3,120 BBL/year of beer. 4,836 gallons/year of whiskey.

Square footage: 4,400 sq. ft.

Years in operation: 2 years (opened August 2013).

Listener question:

From Jimmy Batte: What’s the best advice you have been given or have to give since operating a brewery?

Can’t-go-without tool:

Pallet jack.

Book recommendation:

Check out the entire list of recommended books, click here.

Your Free Audio Book

An upcoming beer style:

Craft beer whiskey

Other resources:

You can reach Tim Obert and Seven Stills of SF at:


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MicroBrewr 086: The future of apple cider in America with Wandering Aengus Ciderworks

MicroBrewr 086: The future of apple cider in America

Nick Gunn and his wife were working for her family’s winery. They had the idea to start growing apples for cider. One of the cideries to whom they were selling apples decided to close down and they offered to sell the business to Nick and his wife who moved Wandering Aengus Ciderworks to Salem, Oregon.

“Cider is a really exciting proposition for a lot of investors.” [Tweet This]


Now they have two brands of cider.

Wandering Aengus is the traditional brand of cider. The Wandering Aengus brand has ciders that are more astringent, more bitter, and higher in alcohol content. “For the wine drinkers, it’s something that’s interesting,” says Nick.

Anthem Cider is a lighter style for people who aren’t used to ciders. These are less acidic and have lower alcohol content. This brand is marketed toward to craft beer consumers. “Beer drinkers,” says Nick, “are much more adventurous and willing to try just about anything that’s out there.”

They package Anthem ciders mostly in kegs for sale on draft. The goal is to get the word out for distribution in smaller packaging. “It’s a pretty basic model a lot of people have used,” says Nick.

“Anthem is a little more on the adventurous side,” Nick describes. “And that’s also a part of marketing to people who like craft beer.”

In addition to straight apple cider, Anthem also has pear, cherry and hopped ciders. They’re do some progressive forays like gin and whiskey barrel-aged ciders, as well as ciders fermented with bee pollen.

In contrast, “Wandering Aengus is super traditional,” Nick says, “It’s just those apples fermented without anything else added to them. And those apples are so rare we don’t really want to mess with them in the first place, they kind of speak for themselves.”

Finding good, traditional cider apples is difficult, but Nick is pushing the market.

“Most of the old heirloom apples have been ripped out in favor for Granny Smith and other dessert apples,” he says. “We’re trying to get people to plant some newer [apple trees]. We’re trying to bring back some of the older, better flavored varieties.”

Nick’s favorite apple ciders are blends of sharp apples, bittersweet apples, and aromatic apples.

“You kind of want to blend in a little bit of sharp, a little bit of bitter, a little bit of aromatics,” Nick advises. “That’s a part of the art of cider making, is it’s a blending process. Because there’s not a lot of apples that just make a great cider straight up.”

Some of the high brix, high acidity apple varieties that they use are:

  • Golden Russet
  • Wickson Crab
  • Cox’s Orange Pippin
  • Newtown Pippin
  • Calville Blanc d’Hiver

“These heirloom sharps… is a really [high] sweetness level and acidity is off the charts,” comments Nick.

But these sharp apples don’t have a lot of tannins. Bittersweet apples contribute tannins to the cider.

Some of the bittersweet apples they use for tannins are:

  • Muscat de Bernay
  • Muscadet de Dieppe
  • Yarlington Mill
  • Dabinett
  • Herefordshire Redstreak

“Those apples taste like crap!” exclaims Nick. “They really are horrible, because they have so much bitterness.”

“I’m being evangelical about planting cider apples. That’s really the future of really high quality cider in America.”

While Nick is evangelizing about high-quality, hand-crafted, traditional ciders, a different style of cider is gaining momentum across the country. Large industrial companies are making cider with additives and diluted with water.

While the product sells well on a large scale, it is expanding the overall market and demand for cider. As the larger brands reach into previously untapped markets, they create new spaces for all cider products.

“Their cider is a lot cheaper,” says Nick. “We could never compete on price because we’re using 100% juice. But what we can do is offer a different product. And maybe that’s a graduating step for the consumer.”

RELATED: MicroBrewr 048: Package your beer cheap and easy with mobile canning

“The growth in some of these larger brands has just been astronomical because a lot of the place they’re putting cider there never even existed a cider in the first place.”

“Every single chain store, every 711, every place now has cider. Cider is on the lips of every one. It’s on TV now—it was never on TV before, like, 2 years ago.”

“Even if [cider] gets to 5 percent of the market, we will be gigantic,” Nick predicts. “Over in England, cider is around 20 percent of alcohol consumption. France is about 17 percent. So we have a long ways to go in America. We were just at 0.3 percent about 3 years ago and we’ve gotten to one percent now. So the climb now is just inevitable.”

There hasn’t been a lot of quality at quantity. And now that that is exists, distributors are staring to notice, buyers are noticing, the whole market place takes note.”

As overall demand for cider increases, and a wider variety of cider products becomes more popular, the cider companies are able make larger quantities at lower prices.

Nick’s strategy is to have meaningful impact in the markets where craft beer is already growing rapidly.

They are reaching to key cities such as:

  • Denver
  • Philadelphia
  • New York
  • Los Angeles
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Portland

“You’re starting from ground zero, you can explode easily,” says Nick.

Yet, cider producers are finding that the industry needs to mature. Particularly, there is a need for more education in cider sales.

“Finding a distributor that understands cider is really difficult,” says Nick.

At the next CiderCON, the conference for the commercial cider industry to be held in February in Portland, Oregon, the United States Association of Cider Makers will unveil the first ever cider accreditation program. The multi-level program is designed to educate “distributors, servers and others who are interested in becoming trained experts on all things cider.”

As the cider market in America evolves, the industry adapts.

“It originally started out as sweet and fruity,” recalls Nick. “I like to call it ‘cheap and cheerful.’”

Now “cider varietals are being recognized, and the quality of cider they make.”

Nick foresees an increasing appreciation of drier ciders, and even higher quality cider apples. More cider will be made from heirloom sharps, cider will be fermented drier with higher alcohol content. There will be more barrel aged ciders, and ciders with more tannins. Ultimately terroir of cider will be recognized and appreciated.

Listener question:

From Daniel Frey: What accounting system do you use or do you recommend?

Can’t-go-without tool:

Cross-Flow filter, Pall Corporation.

Book recommendation:

Check out the entire list of recommended books, click here.

Your Free Audio Book

An upcoming beer style:

North American Heirloom Cider

Other resources:

You can reach Nick Gunn and Wandering Aengus Ciderworks at:

You can reach Anthem Cider at:



Download a free audiobook.

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MicroBrewr 084: A healthy alcoholic beverage: hard cider with 101 Cider House.

MicroBrewr 084: A healthy alcoholic beverage: hard cider

As soon as Mark McTavish could acknowledge alcohol, he gravitated toward hard cider. Later, he attended beverage management school and opened a craft beer bar in Toronto, Canada. Now in the U.S., Mark owns a cider distribution company and 101 Cider House in Los Angeles, California.

“As a cider maker, you’re not really making anything. You’re more of a custodian to the beverage.” [Tweet This]


Mark had a long career in the fitness business, selling exercise equipment and helping gyms get started. He is very health conscious and this comes through in his hard cider.

101 Cider House focuses on a “healthy” alcoholic beverage. All of 101 Cider products are: raw, living, and probiotic.

Some attributes of what Mark calls a healthy hard cider:

  • Wild fermented
  • A living beverage, don’t kill the juice in the process
  • Not filtered
  • No added sulfites

The hard cider market is absolutely exploding, with 500% growth in the last 3 years. Besides the general growth, Mark is tapping the health foods sector.

“From step one,” reflects Mark, “I always wanted to make a healthy alcohol.”

“Here in Los Angeles,” he says, “people are very interested in their health foods. When it comes to alcohol, a lot of people tend to check their standards at the door.”

“We have to show our ingredients in our cider,” Mark says of the labels on the bottles. “Our biggest marketing tool is to show people that we are using 100% raw fruit and doing the natural process like we do.”

They don’t add any unnecessary or unexpected ingredients to the cider, not even yeast.

“Cider is like wine,” he says. “You can press the fruit naturally, let juices sit their and do its own thing with its indigenous yeasts, and it will tell you what it’s going to do with itself.

“And if you wait long enough, it will make something great.”

Brewery specs:

Kettle size: n/a.

Size and quantity of fermentation tanks: 8, 2000-gal (64-BBL) poly tanks; 6, 275-gal (9-BBL) poly tanks; 50, 55-gal (1.75-BBL) oak barrels.

Size and quantity of bright tanks: 0. Not required as we bottle-condition and keg-condition all product.

Annual brewing capacity/last year’s production: 50,000-gal capacity.

Square footage: 7000 sq. ft.

Years in operation: 10 months years (opened December 2014).

Listener question:

From Rob Lightner: Has your brewery turned out the way you thought it would? And if not, how is it different?

Can’t-go-without tool:


Book recommendation:

Check out the entire list of recommended books, click here.

Your Free Audio Book

An upcoming beer style:

Hopped cider

Other resources:

You can reach Mark McTavish and 101 Cider House at:


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MicroBrewr 083: Market branding for a cider company with Common Cider Company.

MicroBrewr 083: Market branding for a cider company

Fran Toves’ son challenged her to enter cider into the homebrew competition. After her 3 entries made it to the top 10, she figured it time to take the product to market and started Common Cider Company in Drytown, California.

“There is no need to start a cider company with a million dollars.” [Tweet This]


Cider is not brewed the way beer is made, but similar fermentation tanks and bright tanks are used for making cider as making beer. After the initial attention at the homebrew competition, Common Cider Company started with a 400-gallon (13-BBL) test batch that got picked up by a distributor. They grew to 30,000-gallon (1,000-BBL) batches within a couple years.

Whereas a cidery or a cider house presses the fruit themselves to make juice, a cider company buys the juice pre-squeezed. A cider usually has a base of apple juice, but it can start with other fruits. A perry is made from pear juice.

“Cider as a base,” says Fran, “is a great platform to be able to introduce new flavors.”

Fran’s background in product development for the organic food industry is helping her with Common Cider Company. She emphasizes the importance of branding.

Fran says a small company can easily spend $50,000 to $100,000 on high-quality branding design for all promotional materials. With such a significant investment, it is very important to consider your message and what your company is about. If you want to take more time to learn about your customers and find your voice in the market place, just get simple logo at first. Then budget up to $100,000 for a re-branding.

That’s the route Fran planned for Common Cider Company. “I wanted to spend some time with our customers an just spend some time in the marketplace,” she says. “before investing in the brand.”

Sample Cider Packaging

Common Cider Company packaging cans Common Cider Company packaging cans 4-pack Common Cider Company packaging bottle Common Cider Company packaging bottle

They’re keeping a logo element from the original design scheme and hiring a branding firm to re-design their message. The results have been spectacular and you can expect to see more on store shelves soon!

Fran also has tips for the today’s listener question about budgeting and profit projections:

  • Decide where you are and where you want to be.
  • Put a budget for every core area including, branding, legal fees, sales staff, materials, and all other details.
  • Decide what you can spend on each category of your budget.
  • Use checklists so you don’t miss details.

“Your suppliers will give you pretty good information as far as what your cost of juice is and your yeast and any other adjuncts that you want to add to your product,” Fran suggests. “And that goes from your raw material to your packaging.”

As for projecting profits, Fran always advises starting with small batches. She suggests 500-gallon batches or 1,000-gallon batches at the most. Any larger, and you’ll have too much money tied up in product and it will take too long to sell.

After you sell a few batches to earn some money and build demand, then you start doing larger batches.

“It’s important to start small,” Fran advises. “Just like any business, you’ve gotta kind of walk before you can run.”

Listener question:

From Texas Rüegg: Where  do you find real accurate numbers to estimate cost of operation? I keep building spreadsheets with hundreds of calculations, but at best they are just guesses. I want to be conservative with my numbers and be sure that even the worst case will actually make money. So where do you find real data?

Can’t-go-without tool:


Book recommendation:

Check out the entire list of recommended books, click here.

Your Free Audio Book

An upcoming beer style:

Dry ciders

Other resources:

You can reach Fran Toves and Common Cider Company at:



Download a free audiobook.

Audible. Download a free audiobook.

Support MicroBrewr

Help keep MicroBrewr on the air. CLICK HERE for ways you can help.

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MicroBrewr 082: Gluten free beer for a large market with Bard's Tale Beer Company.

MicroBrewr 082: Gluten free beer for a large market

Brian Kovalchuck has a background in finance and marketing and came to beer late in his career. After he helped with the turnaround of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Brian became CEO of the gluten free Bard’s Tale Beer Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“I wish I had been in the beer business a long time. It’s a great business to be in.” [Tweet This]


In the U.S. there are approximately 2 million people with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the intestine from eating gluten. There are approximately another 6 times that number of people who are gluten-intolerant or voluntarily exclude gluten from their diet.

“Gluten is a protein found in most common grains,” explains Brian, “wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats gets thrown into that because of cross-contamination.”

The founders or Bard’s Tale Beer Company experimented for 2 years before they settled on a recipe and a method. Their secret is malted sorghum. Sorghum is a grain that does not have gluten. It is commonly used to make gluten-free beers, but it is not commonly malted like other grains used in brewing.

Bard’s is the only brewery that uses malted sorghum to brew gluten free beer. Brian won’t say whether Bard’s malts their own sorghum or has it made for them, but he did say it’s their own.

Bard’s uses a contract brewer to make “Bard’s Gold,” currently their only product.

Brian’s advice for finding a contract brewer is use a brewer that:

  • Has a good reputation
  • Makes high-quality products
  • Has a lab that can ensure consistency
  • Is happy to work with you
  • Has the capacity to grow with you

Other contract breweries—or breweries that got their start as a contract brewery—on MicroBrewr Podcast:

Alamo Beer Company

HenHouse Brewing

21st Amendment Brewery

Backshore Brewing Co.

Two Birds Brewing

Craft Artisan Ales

Noble Brewer

If you’re using a contract brewer to make gluten-free beer, you’ll need to take special care to ensure there is no cross-contamination from the other beers brewed at the facility. Bard’s beer is always the first batch brewed after the brewery is cleaned. They test at several points along the process to ensure there is no gluten in the beer.

“The gluten free market around your brewery is too small to support a brewery,” says Brian. “There’s just not enough gluten-intolerant people to support a stand-alone gluten free brewery in one location.”

So Bard’s model depends on very wide distribution. And working with distributors can be tricky.

“The way the laws are written,” says Brian, “once a distributor gets a beer brand, it’s very difficult to get that beer brand back from the distributor. So if you make a mistake, it’s really hard to fix that problem.”

Brian’s tips for picking a distributor:

  • Talk to contacts you already know.
  • Differentiate yourself from the others.
  • Work with the distributor to drive the business.
  • Find a distributor that is eager to work with you.
  • Coordinate marketing across all 3 tiers.

Brewery specs:

Kettle size: 500-BBL batches.

Size and quantity of fermentation tanks:

Size and quantity of bright tanks:

Annual brewing capacity/last year’s production:

Square footage:

Years in operation: 9 years (opened 2006).

Listener question:

From Melissa Bess Reed: How do I make quality gluten-free beer that always has the same delicious flavor profile that I can count on?

Can’t-go-without tool:

The Brewmaster.

Book recommendation:

Check out the entire list of recommended books, click here.

Your Free Audio Book

An upcoming beer style:

Session beer

Other resources:

You can reach Brian Kovalchuck and Bard’s Tale Beer Company at:



Support MicroBrewr

Help keep MicroBrewr on the air. CLICK HERE for ways you can help.

Subscribe on iTunes             Listen to Stitcher