Beer at a large trade show – seems about right. And when that trade show is Hannover Messe in Germany, there is more than enough good German beer on hand to slake the thirst of over 200,000 attendees. But when attendees came to a number of U.S.-related events, they were able to order a beer from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, made in Charlotte, N.C., and their German partners likely found it just what the brewmaster ordered.
Olde Mecklenburg beers being served in Hannover brings full circle owner John Marrino’s path toward becoming a craft brewer. A couple years after graduating from college, he went to work for a German company and moved to Germany from 1993-97. He soon fell in love with German beer produced by the many local breweries. “It’s high-quality beer and it’s pure beer,” Marrino says admiringly. When he returned home, he was frustrated that he couldn’t find the same style of beer.
“I could get German-style beer but it was old and skunky in the grocery store,” he recalls with a laugh.
Marrino was working in the water treatment industry. When his company was acquired by ITT, he decided corporate life wasn’t for him and quit his job in 2007. He loaded his family into an RV for a vacation to Montana. While on the road, he read an article in The Wall Street Journal about an effort by investors to reinvigorate the Naragansett beer brand, which had once been New England’s leading beer but had fallen on hard times. Marrino realized that Charlotte didn’t have a craft brewery and decided to start one. Thus was born Old Mecklenburg Brewery.
It took Marrino a year and a half to open his brewery. Like most entrepreneurs, he faced his share of hurdles, including a Charlotte city government that had no experience with determining zoning for a brewery and relegated his “alcohol manufacturing” business to the least desirable commercial area.
Marrino’s background in water treatment served him well as he went about planning his new business.
“I’m an engineer. I spent 17 years in the water treatment industry, so my business was water chemistry. Because water treatment equipment deals with pumps, pipes, valves, pressure, temperature, flow, tanks, it’s exactly the same as the beer-making business. I had a great background for it,” he said.
But of course, there was much more to it than the plumbing. Marrino converted his garage into a test brewery, “bought every book known to man on brewing,” started testing recipes and went about the business of learning how to make beer as he wrote his business plan.
To help him make the leap from a garage brewery, Marrino traveled to Germany and hired a brewmaster consultant to help him. “That’s running a factory that makes beer and that’s a whole different ballgame to making it in your garage,” he said. Hiring that expertise, he says, “saved us a lot of time and a lot of money that we would have spent on quality control issues.”
In brewing his beers, Marrino follows the same practices as in Germany. That means, he says, that his trademark alt beer has exactly the same character as the alt beer served in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Brewing beer may seem utterly unlike your manufacturing business, but Marrino follows patterns of product development and then production familiar to any manufacturer. When he is developing a new beer, there is always a period of tinkering until the beer meets his expectations. He likens the process to developing a recipe when cooking and says he won’t sell a beer until it is perfect.
For example, when he went through a recent increase in production volume, there was a problem with the yeast as the company moved from 15 barrel to 60 barrel batches. “I threw 900 barrels down the drain,” he recalls of the effort to get the process correct. “It was a big hit.”
In the production phase of brewing, says Marrino, consistency is the key.
“The whole challenge of beer is it should taste the same every week. Once a customer says they like a beer, they want it to taste the same every time they drink it. That’s a challenge, because all the raw materials vary. There are a lot of variables involved in making the beer and we need to deliver the same output every time,” says Marrino. “Inconsistency kills breweries.”
In that pursuit of consistency, Marrino says he employs the lessons of continuous improvement he learned during his water treatment career. “We operate a pull system for the beer. We let the pull drive our production,” he says. “We’re always looking for ways to improve quality and efficiency.”
Olde Mecklenburg’s business is thriving. In 2014,Marrino expanded to a new brewery on an 8.5 acre site in the heart of Charlotte. The wooded site had a 30,000-square-foot building that once had been a crankshaft factory.
“It was perfect. With the eight and a half acres and the huge old trees, I was able to create a Munich-style beer garden, as well as the brewery and a restaurant,” he says. The $8 million investment has paid off. In 2015, the business grew 80%. Part of that growth, he says, is due to the large number of German companies that have established operations in the corridor between Charlotte and Atlanta. “A lot of expats live in the area and frequent our brewery and they love our beer,” says Marrino.
In case German visitors to Hannover Messe wonder about the quality of Olde Mecklenburg, this should put their minds at ease. Last November in Nuremburg, the brewery’s Oktoberfest beer won a gold medal at the prestigious European Beer Star competition.
Marrino says he gets a different kind of approval every day when he stops into his tap room and has a beer.
“I’ll stop at the bar and have one or two beers, and look around the room. People are smiling,” he says. “it’s a smile business.”