Columbian's home-brewing business has humble roots

January 13, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

If ever there was a classic setting for a business to be born on the humble ground floor, it may be the dank, dimly-lighted basement of Don Breton's Columbia home.

It's here that he launched Maryland Homebrew, a mail-order home beer brewing supplies business, and here that he drafted plans to open a Columbia store to cater to the booming trade in the Baltimore-Washington region.

"The whole home brewing industry is a grass-roots thing," says Mr. Breton. "It's a revolt. People are tired of the Miller Lites and Budweisers. They want a beer with character -- with taste!"

It's a revolt cooked up in a lot of kitchens -- or musty basements -- say industry observers.

Crammed on a dusty, makeshift desk next to the Breton family washer and dryer is the personal computer Mr. Breton uses for Maryland Homebrew's accounting and inventory tracking. Stacked on shelving made of badly bowed plywood and concrete blocks is the colorful array of canisters containing kits for brewing custom lagers, pilsners, stouts and ales. A phone and answering machine lie hidden among a sampling of books and guides on the hobby.

After starting his mail-order business in September 1992, Mr. Breton, who owned and operated two seafood stores he sold in the mid-1970s, felt he had the necessary background to launch a retail operation.

Mr. Breton finally made a commitment to pursue opening a store last year after a brother who lives in Philadelphia told him about a home brewery supplies shop that had opened near his home. The shop was jumping with clients.

Mr. Breton plans by Saturday to shift his operations out of the basement that has served him so well for the past year to a storefront in the Kelly Building on Mendenhall Court, located just off Dobbin Road in Columbia.

He decided to take a cautious business approach, signing a sub-lease for a conservative 300 square feet of space. For business and accounting advice, he's turned to his father, Leon Breton, who has corporate managerial experience.

He plans to be aggressive, stocking a deep inventory and being creative with marketing and offering customers services and inventory items that might not be found in the other home brewery supply stores in the region.

Mr. Breton enters the retail home brewing supplies trade with a smattering of new and old competition in the region. There are home brewing shops in Catonsville, Rockville, Bel Air, Arnold, downtown Baltimore and Ellicott City.

Among the ideas Mr. Breton plans to make his operation competitive: launching a computer billboard that can be dialed by home brewing hobbyists. The billboard will list recipes, brewing tips and advice, and, of course, mail order access to Maryland Homebrew.

"If there is any trend I've noticed in this industry, it's that a lot of the people into home brewing are computer techies. They are really into it and would love and use a billboard," says Mr. Breton.

He plans to stock a line of his own custom mixed ingredient kits. The first kit will be called Pacific Pale, a blend of malts, hops and yeasts grown in the Pacific Northwest. The region Mr. Breton says has earned a national reputation for its grains used in beer brewing.

To stir interest in his store opening, Mr. Breton sent out announcements to the 600 home brewery enthusiasts on a mailing list he maintains for a newsletter and mail-order catalog.

"I'm nervous and excited at the same time," says Mr. Breton. "It's hard enough starting your own business, but it's even harder starting a new business while trying to keep another one going."

Mr. Breton is excited about his new venture, which he has spent about eight months planning, because he expects it will be well received by his mail-order customers.

One thing he doesn't fret too much about is the competition he faces from the already established home brewing supplies stores in the region.

"This industry is growing so fast that I really think there will plenty enough business to go around," says Mr. Breton.

The American Homebrewers Association, an industry trade group in Boulder, Colo., estimates the industry has been growing at about 30 percent annually since a 1978 federal law allowed a brewing of up to 200 gallons of beer or ale a year at home. There are about 1.25 million Americans brewing their own beer, says the association.

"There's a beer renaissance in the United States right now," says Lori Tullberg Kelly, a spokeswoman for the association.

The home brewing trade has been growing for the same reasons small, specialized breweries and micro-breweries have been flourishing throughout the United States recently, says Mrs. Tullberg-Kelly.

Curiosity, a growing sophistication in tastes among U.S. beer drinkers, advances in beer brewing equipment, and the relatively low cost of getting involved with the hobby are driving the growth, says Mrs. Tullberg-Kelly.

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