• WisBusiness

WisBusiness: Watch out Wisconsin, here comes Ravinder
10/13/2006

By Brian E. Clark
WisBusiness.com

MONROE – In Ravinder Minhas’ hometown of Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta, some folks like to call him the “beer baron.”

Minhas, 24, laughs at the description. But he doesn’t deny that he has sold more than 300 million cans of the brew in his short career as a beer distributor. Most of it came under the label of Mountain Crest, a lager he helped create.

With last week’s purchase of Monroe’s 161-year-old Joseph Huber Brewery, Minhas hopes to become a player in the Wisconsin brewing scene. And he doesn’t plan to waste any time doing it, either, he said in rapid-fire speech.

"People around here – especially the office staff – are learning about 'the speed of Ravinder.' When I get on something, I don’t let it go," he said.

His first bold move was to change the name of the company to Minhas Craft Brewery.

“I know it shocked some people, but this shows just how devoted I am to this effort that I would put my name on the brewery,” Minhas told WisBusiness editor Brian Clark in a recent interview.

Clark: How did this purchase come about?

Minhas:
I’ve been a contract brewer with Huber for three years. I’ve done my production here, shipping almost all the beer up to Alberta. I had my labels, my designs and my brewmasters come down here to show these guys how to do it and work with them to make our brews and package our material

Clark: How did you find a Monroe brewery?

Minhas:
First, a little background: I started in 1999 when I was 18 years old in the hard liquor business. I started with rum, rye, gin, scotch and brandy, oh, and tequila. By the way, 18 is the legal drinking age in Alberta.

I did well with that and things were rolling. But in 2001, tequila prices went through the roof – in part because of a disease in the blue agave plant, which are used to make tequila. And because the demand was growing. But there was also a cash grab by my competition and they raised their prices. They went from $20 a bottle up to $45. But I kept mine – the Conquistador brand - at $24 a bottle. I saw it as my opportunity to get huge. And it worked because I got 45 percent of the tequila business in Alberta. I even reduced my prices because I am aggressive as hell. That’s where my reputation began.

It was premium tequila, as are all my products. I offer discount prices by keeping low overhead, keeping things in check and passing it on to the consumer. I do a little marketing and a lot of word-of-mouth. We were able to get repeat customers.

Clark: But back to the beer?

Minhas:
My dream had always been to be in the beer business. By formal education, I’m a petroleum engineer. And petroleum engineers are known to drink a fair bit.

Clark: You got your engineering degree while running your liquor business?

Minhas:
Yes, and I worked for about two years – summers included – for Husky Energy, which is about a $1 billion company, to see if I wanted to pursue that. I didn’t. Beer is more fun.

My entrepreneurial career started like this: The summer after I finished high school, my sister Manjit – who was 19 at the time – and I sat down and had a talk. Did we want to work for someone else or our parents – who had owned some big, stand-alone retail liquor stores – or ourselves?

From 13-18, I’d worked for my parents in their business, though my dad is also a petroleum engineer. I liked being in the stores, sitting in on the meetings and all that stuff. But my parents always said, “You should be studying. You need a college degree.” My school was about two minutes from the head office, so I was always there.

But I wanted to stand on my own two feet. So Manjit and I sold the vehicle we shared for $10,000 and that’s how we got started. We also went to a bank to get a loan and they turned us down because we had no collateral. So we did it all with internal cash flow.

Clark: And beer?

Minhas:
Right, my dream was always to do beer. But it was a much bigger hurdle. In Canada, 90 percent of the beer business is owned by Molson and LaBatt. They are almost like one company, a kind of duopoly. I made money off tequila and decided to branch out. I started with Minnesota Brewing Co. in Minneapolis and worked with them. As soon as my first beer hit, with my own recipe for what how I thought a beer should taste, it took off. We couldn’t keep it in stock.

Clark: How would you describe that beer?

Minhas:
Clean and crisp, with a little higher alcohol percentage, but still a smooth finish. It is not a full-bodied, bitter beer that leaves an aftertaste on the back of your tongue. We used a two-row malt instead of six-row. It’s more expensive, but gives a cleaner taste. A lot of craft brewers use two-row. But not the mega brewers. Unfortunately, the Minneapolis brewery we were working with went out of business because they had financial problems. I was just a contract brewer with them. That was in 2002.

Clark: Did that lead you to Wisconsin?

Minhas:
Yes. In fact, I was already starting to produce a different beer with City Brewing in La Crosse. So I went there. But all this time, I’d heard about Joseph Huber in Monroe. And the Augsburger days. And the premium quality beer that came and had come out of here. I thought to myself, “When I get the opportunity, that’s where I want to go.”

Clark: Aha, finally the Monroe connection.

Minhas:
Yes. I called Gary Olson. He was then plant manager, though I have now promoted him to president. I called him out of the blue in 2003 and said, “I make about 2 million cases of beer a year. Can you guys sustain that kind of volume?”

Clark: His reaction?

Minhas:
He fell off his chair and then said, “Is this some kind of a joke?” That’s a very significant volume. I told him the majority of my sales were in cans. We chatted a while and I said, “what would it take to bring my production to you?” I liked this place because they use the two-row process, have small vat sizes and pay attention to detail.

Clark: What happened next?

Minhas:
The only thing they lacked was the packaging equipment I needed. They had a 1950s-era machine. We needed fast machines. So I invested $1 million and brought in the machines in 2003. I hadn’t met anybody here, but I trusted them.

Clark: You brought 2 million cases of production here. How much were they producing before that?

Minhas:
Less than half a million, maybe 250,000. I became 80 percent of their volume. It used to be that they would brew one day and the same people would go bottle the next day. When I came, they got a full brewing crew – plus a full first and second shift.

Clark: Do they still make Berghoff beer here?

Minhas:
Yes. And Huber and Huber Light. Basically, that was it. This place was losing a fair bit of money with that volume when I came in. But the beauty of this place, because it’s been around so long, is that it has a lot of equipment in it because of the high volumes it once did. And that equipment has been maintained well. It was just a matter of packaging. That where I had to invest.

Clark: When did you begin to think about buying the place?

Minhas:
My dream, being a young guy, has always been to own a brewery. My eye was set on this place because it had the history. If you were going to design a brewery to fit my needs, you wouldn’t necessarily do it this way. You would go for bigger vat sizes. But I didn’t want to do it that way. I decided the most economical way to move forward would be to purchase the brewery. So I approached the people who owned it, General Beverage out of Madison. They are big distributors here in Wisconsin. Anyway, I went to them and told them of my interest.

Clark: How long ago was that? And what did they say?

Minhas:
It was five to six months ago. And they said they were reluctant.

Clark: Seems to me the deal came together fast.

Minhas:
People around here – especially the office staff – are learning about “the speed of Ravinder.” When I get on something, I don’t let it go. I take it to the end logical step. They’ve seen that this week. This boardroom furniture is new, the computer is new and we’re about ready to paint the outside. Signs have been ordered, a new network system was put in. From business cards to designs to this to that, it’s happening. We are flying.

Clark: Can you say what you paid for it?

Minhas:
No. That’s part of the purchase agreement. All I can say is that I was lucky and in the end we came to an agreement. I’d worked with them for three years, but they were reluctant in general. They also were worried about the employees and they wanted to be comfortable that they would be taken care of. There are about 70 people working here now. This is a small community and this is one of the larger employers here.

Clark: Did you buy all their brands?

Minhas:
I wanted to, but they kept Berghoff. I own 100 percent of the brewery, but they kept that label and now I will contract brew that for them.

Clark: What other changes will you make here?

Minhas:
I’m going to put in another production line. I’m already selling my Mountain Creek beer in Wisconsin and will expand that to other Midwestern states and Ontario – and Ontario is 35 percent of the Canadian population. I also will introduce a hand-crafted beer that is being brewed right now.

I’m conservative by nature and don’t like putting out numbers. But my goal is to double production out of here to 300,000 barrels a year by introducing my beer to new markets in Canada and other places. Of course, there will be some bottle necks. The aging tanks might be an issue, for example. But I knew I wanted to expand on the packaging side. I want to sell a premium beer here in Wisconsin. We did the first tasting yesterday.

Clark: What will that be called?

Minhas:
We haven’t decided yet. We have a couple of thoughts. The taste is also under wraps. We’re considering two different possibilities. It will be a craft beer.

Clark: Who will it compete with?

Minhas:
The other craft beers out there. I’ve got my eye on a couple of different territories, but I haven’t decided yet. One is a new recipe, the other had has been around here for some time. It did very well in its hey day and was specifically designed for here. We might make some modifications to it.

Clark: You’ve been working with Wisconsin breweries now for three-plus years, are there any that are doing a good job?

Minhas:
Some of the competition has done an excellent job. The one I admire the most is New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado. They have done some amazing things. They make the “Fat Tire Beer.”

Clark: The New Glarus Brewery is just up the road from you. What do you think of it? And Capital Brewery in Madison?

Minhas:
They have done a good job. I will be challenging them. It is my nature to challenge everyone. We are an aggressive company. We will come out with premium lagers. The competition will have to have their “A” game. They haven’t met someone like me before. I’m a risk-taker.

Clark: Were you born in Alberta?

Minhas:
Yes. My father came from India at the age of 20 and did his engineering degree at the University of Calgary. I come from a family of engineers. And my mom was raised on Vancouver Island.

Clark: Do you want to be known as a beer baron in Wisconsin?

Minhas:
Absolutely. That is my goal. I continue to do hard liquor in Alberta. And I will probably bring my tequila here. It’s called Minhas Tequila and it should be here by this time next year – which is what I consider “long term.” But beer is where it’s at for me. I want to be known for beer and that is where the majority of my sales have been.

Clark: What would be a comparable beer to your Mountain Creek?

Minhas:
It is clean and crisp and 5.5 percent alcohol. It has the same kind of finish as Miller, though ours is more premium.

Clark: Do you make any craft beers at this point?

Minhas:
Myself, no. But we have done the Berghoff and Huber and Huber Light here. Those are sold mostly in Wisconsin and Illinois. They have been around for a long time. I want to refresh what we are doing.

Clark: You have been around Monroe now for three years, so it’s not like you just swept in from Canada and bought the place. Still, how have you been received?

Minhas:
I was a little worried about that, but the reception has been great. I came here for Cheese Days about a month or so ago before the announcement to [meet] the employees. Fortunately, they knew me because I’d been working with them for three years and the majority of them are employed because of my volume. They know a lot about what I’ve done because most of the beer made here goes up to Canada.

Clark: How did the name change go over?

Minhas:
That was a big shock, to be honest. But I think the bigger concerns were how the change in ownership would affect their jobs and benefits. I told them those would stay the same and that we would probably grow. As for the name, Huber has been around for a long time. I said I think the brewery needs a fresh start.

I presented this at a reception and several of them said “what are you going to do with ‘our’ name?” I told them I wanted to go with “Minhas Craft Brewery” because I am very proud of this place and I want to affix my name to it to show how devoted I am to it and the world-class beer I want to brew here.

When I put up the new logo with the Monroe Courthouse on it, I got a big round of applause. And we’ve been well received by the whole community, not just the workers. I’ve been to the restaurants and cafes and bars. It’s been good. They are excited about the new things that are happening.

Clark: Are you going to move here?

Minhas:
I am going to buy a house here, or build one, and I figure that I will be here at least a week a month. This will be my home away from home in Calgary.

Clark: Did your sister stay in the hard liquor and beer business?

Minhas:
She did and she produces a beer out of City Brewing in La Crosse. But we are in different markets.

Clark: What do your parents think of what you have done?

Minhas:
They are proud of it, though they are happy we both got our engineering degrees. My mom always said, “Finish your degree, then you can do whatever you want.” There is something to be said for that. A formal education is a good thing. You never know where you will be tomorrow.

Clark: Do you have your eye on any other breweries in Wisconsin?

Minhas:
No. This is my dream. I think I have fulfilled it and now I want to make it fly. My goal is to make this an amazing brewery.

Clark: You’re headed back to Canada now?

Minhas:
Yes. I’ve been nominated for the Ernst and Young entrepreneur of the year for western Canada – in part because of my age. If I win that, I’ll be up for entrepreneur of the year for all of Canada. All I know is they asked me to come to the gala and have a victory speech ready. So we’ll see.

Clark: How big is your company now?

Minhas:
Our annual sales are $40 million. And I own it all.

Clark: Any thoughts of taking it public down the road?

Minhas:
That’s not my area of expertise. But I don’t want to give up control to a board of directors. I don’t want to concentrate on pleasing shareholders. I want to build a brewery. I don’t always have rational thoughts, but I just want to answer to myself. I don’t want partners. I want to go with my gut and see where it takes me. I just hope I will be right more than I’m wrong. I’ve done pretty well so far.


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