Often one career leads to the next, and in the end they braid into an intricate professional path. Such is the case for Brian Thompson, an editor turned stock analyst turned brewer. He says his passion project never would have been possible without the experience and education that came before it.
Originally from Phoenix, Thompson moved to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley, where he earned an English degree. An avid reader, Thompson said he has always been a follower of 20th-century American literature. Post graduation, he worked as a managing editor for a San Francisco-based technology trade magazine. Looking back, he credits that job with teaching him to bring a product in on budget and on schedule with the help of a team.
Thompson later decided he needed some finance experience, so he attended Cornell University for a master’s degree in business administration. That led to an intense but short-lived career on Wall Street as a technology stock analyst. While he made good money and loved the energy of Manhattan, Thompson said he knew the 80-hour workweeks and daily grind of spreadsheets and performance reports were not where he belonged.
“I felt like a small cog in a big wheel,” he said. “I prefer to be in a small organization where I can make difference.”
During his days at UC Berkeley, Thompson joined the fleet of students experimenting with home brewing beer. He continued the hobby when he moved back east, and after resigning from his job on Wall Street, he decided to start over with what he loved: brewing beer.
He approached every brewery in New York and volunteered to work for free. Greenpoint Beer Works in Brooklyn gave him a break and hired Thompson at $10 an hour to clean kegs. For six months, the Cornell MBA did that day in and day out, all the while gleaning everything he could about the daily operations, customer service and business practices.
Eighteen months later, after learning the business from the inside, many of Thompson’s fears were allayed. Although he had no science background, he understood key elements to making any venture successful: follow through, strategic planning and communication.
Through contacts he made on Wall Street, Thompson lined up financing to start Telegraph Brewing Co. in Santa Barbara in 2006. The brewing industry has significant fixed costs, including fermenting tanks, forklifts, copper clad brew houses and walk-in coolers, not to mention ingredients, staff and facility charges. Thompson fine-tuned a business plan that has proven to be a road map to success.
Thompson said he chose Santa Barbara for several reasons: Custom brewed beer requires an affluent audience that can afford it; easy access to major markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco for distribution; Santa Barbara has a food and beverage culture and supports local producers; it needed a hometown brewery the way San Francisco has Anchor Steam or Boston has Samuel Adams Beers; the significant tourist population can help spread the word as they enjoy the product and bring it home.
Thompson says Santa Barbara provides brand equity to Telegraph’s product. While the company was started on the eve of a recession, he has seen steady annual growth.
“Beer is an affordable luxury, so people will still indulge,” Thompson said. “In fact, we have seen a trend in wine lovers leaving behind their pricey bottles to try beer.”
Traditionally, Telegraph has done better at higher-end establishments such as Wine Cask, Hungry Cat and Café Luck. Its products are also available at retailers such as Tri-County Produce, Lazy Acres, Bev-Mo and Whole Foods (statewide).
Thompson said he doesn’t see high returns through traditional advertising. Rather, his marketing strategy has largely been to pour the beer at various nonprofit events where he can interact with the public and get feedback from customers. He also donates to a host of organizations locally, such as CycleMAYnia, the American Cancer Society, the Police Activities League and Pacific Pride Foundation.
Telegraphs’ top-selling beers are the California and white ales. The tasting room is open Thursday through Saturday. Click here for more information.