How Sean Dunbar transformed a failed beer business into a million-dollar juggernaut
It wasn’t quite noon and Sean Dunbar was already trying to fix a flagpole near the front steps of Fredericton’s city hall, where he had just met with the city’s development planner. For a brewer-turnedentrepreneur who has worked as a bar manager, lawyer and mall watch salesman, it wasn’t surprising to see him, in dark jeans and a crisp dress shirt rolled to his forearms, straining skyward as he tried to reconnect the pulley system. It was clearly futile, but he kept reaching.
In Fredericton, few people are as recognizable, and as frequently recognized, as Dunbar, the president and owner of Northampton Brewing Company, which produces Picaroons Traditional Ales. In five minutes of walking downtown, he said hello to nearly 20 people on the street, including one man in a huge black pickup truck who nearly ran him over. “Sorry Sean. Hi Sean,” the man yelled, waving apologetically. Dunbar, a stocky man with thick black hair silvering at the sides, lifted his hand in a noworries gesture and continued walking. It makes sense that most people in this city know who he is: his beer is a juggernaut.
Brewed using a traditional technique of open fermentation, a pint of Picaroons is complex but immensely drinkable, running the gamut from its light, citrusy Dooryard wheat ale to the dark, molassestoned Winter Warmer. The company, which was named brewer of the year at the 2011 Canadian Brewing Awards, currently employs 29 people and produces about 900,000 litres of beer annually (60 per cent bottled, the rest in kegs) that can be found in taps across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Ten years ago, annual revenues were about $50,000; this year they’re between $4 million and $5 million.
Back in his downtown office, Dunbar faces a self-prescribed motto that’s scrawled on a wall-sized whiteboard above multiple to-do lists: “Make the world a better place, one beer at a time.” It’s a simple business proposition, he says. “We think that if New Brunswick is a better place, then people are going to drink more beer. I get a lot of instant satisfaction out of watching someone drink a beer, but on a grander scale, if you wake up in the morning and think you’re saving the freaking province, it’s a lot easier to motivate yourself.”
As he meets with the architects responsible for designing his new brewery, a multi-million-dollar brewery construction project in a heritage railway roundhouse on the city’s north side, his hands are constantly moving, tossing a balled-up napkin back and forth and later toying with an elastic band. “It’s a little bold,” he says, raising his bushy eyebrows at a tagline the architects have chosen for the venture: “The beer that made a province.” While he currently has five major expansions on the go, including planned ventures in Saint John and Moncton, the future hasn’t always been so sunny.
In 1994, Dunbar, a newly-minted law graduate from the University of New Brunswick, along with law school friends Andy Hashey and Cameron Gunn (who now puts his degree to work as a provincial crown prosecutor) planned a brewery that fed beer directly into the taps of a neighbouring bar. When it came time to build, Gunn bowed out but two other investors were brought on board, and they were in business. Customers loved the beer but the purchase agreement with the bar quickly fell apart over a pricing dispute, and the group found themselves in the position of having a popular product but nowhere to sell it.
Scrambling, they secured a storefront, a liquor license and some “begged, borrowed and not-quite-stolen” furniture, and got to Montreal’s Mondial de la bière festival by the seat of their pants. “We had zero money, and we didn’t have enough money to get to Montréal where we could make money [by selling beer],” says Dunbar. “The tap room wasn’t ready for opening, really,” he adds with a laugh. “But we made $800 in that first weekend.”
For five hard and busy years they kept operations going, primarily by selling kegs. “We were paying ourselves $300 per week in a good week, and putting any extra charges on our personal credit cards. It was massively inefficient,” says Dunbar. They’d stay up all hours of the night, bottling their distinctive 650ml bottles by hand, rubbing on labels with a used biology textbook. In 1999, in the midst of a major expansion, everything fell apart. “The whole business crashed,” says Dunbar.
Back then, the provincial government agreed to give the company $250,000 if they matched that amount with bank financing and hired 25 people, which they did. While sales were steadily increasing, the project was a maelstrom of errors: bottling equipment broke, delays meant they missed the summer beer boom, and they simply didn’t have enough cash to keep things running. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, and that didn’t help,” says Dunbar. Their landlord changed the locks, the bank seized their brewing equipment, and Hashey and Dunbar were eventually thrown into personal bankruptcies.
Throughout this public failure, Dunbar was adamant it “wasn’t the beer’s fault,” his common refrain as he explained the collapse. In fact, he says, they received more support from New Brunswick bigwigs after their crash-and-burn than ever before. “We got more calls from people in the business community after we went out of business than before, saying, ‘You know boys, congratulations, you took it all the way. You’re the real deal.’” Over the winter, Dunbar made ends meet by managing two $10 watch carts in shopping malls in Saint John and Fredericton.
In 2001, when he decided to start brewing again, Dunbar swore he would never expand. He assembled a set of used tanks in a 1,000-square-foot garage with no drainage, which meant he was scooping water off the floor with a grain shovel and dumping it down his one sink. In the initial venture, despite being the one with restaurant experience, Dunbar had assumed an operations role. This time around, he needed to learn how to actually turn grain, hops, yeast and water into beer. While his former business partner Hashey volunteered to walk him through the process, things looked dark for a while. “I remember sitting over there and almost crying one night,” says Dunbar. “I couldn’t get the liquid to move from this tank to that tank and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Eventually he got the hang of it, and was back in the beer business. The next year he hired a summer student to help with operations, and sales were again increasing year over year. When asked about growth in those first few years, he says he has no idea. “That first year I paid myself $12,000 and I was happy with that. Our annual revenue was $39,000,” he says. “There was no long-term plan, no strategic plan. I just wanted to brew beer.” In 2006 he was later offered a better space and bought some used higher-capacity brewing equipment at a great price. Despite his deep reservations, Picaroons was growing again.
Throughout this crash and resurgence, the one thing Dunbar took for granted was his ability to brew good beer. The “secret psychological basis” of their English-style ales is that they are, from batch to batch, slightly inconsistent. “It keeps people’s brains engaged, but I don’t want people to know that,” he says with a smile. “One of the keys that makes our beer is that it’s different.” His head brewer, Andrew Estabrooks, or “Esty” as he’s known around town, keeps tabs on 15 hectolitre batches (a hectorlitre is 1,500 litres). At one point a few years ago, demand for their beer was so high they ran out completely, which was a clear sign they needed to grow.
“There’s not a single province where we haven’t had a request for our beer,” says Dunbar, who has also fielded interest from distributors and bars in the United States. “We’re going to outgrow the New Brunswick market. We are definitely dancing with capacity.” As he scrambles to meet demand, he is ruing his initial reluctance to expand, which he says he probably should have done five years ago.
“We’ve done enough thinking, now we need more doing,” says Dunbar, as he strides around the dusty, abandoned interior of the former railway roundhouse. He’s aiming to be brewing here by next fall, and expects he’ll need to hire a dozen or so new employees. Other plans aside, Picaroons will be brewing twice as much beer, which means that, for the first time in years, the company will be able to meet demand. “I’m tired of saying no to people,” he says. “It’s about time.” •