Growth Viewpoint: Country Boy Brewing Founders Reflect on Roles at Brewery

All Daniel Harrison and his friend Nate Coppage wanted at one point was to sell 30 beers a day to keep the lights on, some money in their pocket and the chance to buy ingredients for the next batch.

“I’d say it would take a whole lot more than 30 beers now,” said Harrison, referencing the new 24,000 square foot facility that Lexington, Kentucky’s Country Boy Brewing opened north of its original brewery in the Spring of 2017.

Harrison, more commonly known as ‘DH,’ said that the Georgetown, Kentucky production brewery is the first in the state to be build from the ground up and for the sole purpose of brewing beer since the end of Prohibition. The new space will also give Country Boy a chance to expand production threefold to nearly 25,000 barrels along with giving the brew team in Lexington a chance to experiment more at the original home.

“We make more beer in a week here than the entire first year we were open,” Harrison said. “That’s crazy. The reception to the new place is just awesome.”

The birth of Country Boy started on a bar stool in Japan of all places.

Harrison and Coppage were teaching English and lived next door to each other. The two became interested in Japanese beer, even having a dedicated blog, and in their travels they met Brian Baird. Baird, who owns Baird Beer, is from Oxford, Ohio and opened his brewery in Japan in 2000.

“I remember the day I was sitting at his bar and I just became infected with a passion for craft beer,” Harrison recalled. “I wish I had something as passionate as he was.”

The idea was sprung there to open a brewery back in Kentucky one day. The long term goal was to open by 2015. After moving back home and developing a plan with Nate’s brother Evan and fellow co-owner Jeff Beagle, the quartet opened Country Boy on February 10, 2012 on a shoestring budget.

“We started with a glorified homebrew setup,” Harrison said with a laugh, saying most everything was used and sourced locally.

“That’s all we could afford on a budget,” he said. “We had no outside banks or help to open.”

A year later, and 504 barrels to their credit, Harrison and his co-founders saw growth was possible. It’s grown to the new facility with a 50-barrel brewhouse, 25 employees and distribution outside of Kentucky.

“We just want quality products, we don’t chase the trends,” Harrison said. “Brian Baird told me if you have your finger in the air to know where you are going, you are already lost. You have to know the direction that you want to go, you can’t go looking for it, or you have already lost your way. I’m confident that people will follow us.”

The four founders also had a variety of skills, which help lift all aspects of the brewery as well.

“We grew because of the willingness of us four to be specific with what we want to do and we knew what we all wanted to do in various aspects of the business,” Harrison said.

The Science

Evan Coppage is the Head of Brewing Operations where he oversees the sourcing of raw ingredients, along with brewing, fermentation, yeast handling, quality control, sanitation, and the brewery’s ‘Living Proof’ wild and sour program.

In the beginning, he was the lead brewer before growth helped fund a larger brew team.

“We have never used the term “brew master” because I feel that it means that you have nothing else to learn and that is not true for us,” Coppage said. Nathan and Evan brewed together in their driveway and backyard for two years perfecting some of the original recipes for Country Boy’s portfolio, like Lazy Rye IPA, Amos Moses Brown Ale, Jalapeno Smoked Porter, Spruce Brown Ale, and Cliff Jumper IPA.

After obtaining a bachelors in Chemistry and a Masters in Biology, Coppage had a difficult time finding a job in the ecology field before founding the brewery.

“With a scientific background, I am innately inspired and fascinated by fermentation and wished to pursue knowledge based around fermentation,” he said.

Growth has meant going from executing every task by himself to hiring, training and learning to manage employees and teach them the importance of quality and consistent practices.

“The bonds and trust we have with our staff is the reason for our success,” Coppage said. “We never had time to question if we would be successful. My brother and I have been fairly confident that if we work together and dedicate our minds to a cause, failure isn’t an option. It doesn’t hurt that our ownership is very well balanced and talented.”

Currently, Country Boy has what Coppage calls ‘a bare bones lab with some nice equipment.’

“I have a pH probe, Anton Paar DMA-35 for reading Plato values, and a Nexcelom cellometer for yeast cell counts,” he said.

The cell counter has been crucial in the brewery’s jump in quality since yeast health in most important for beer quality, Coppage noted.

It’s also helped in scaling up to the much larger system. Coppage and his team has been recording as much raw data on wort as they can.

“We try our best to replicate it as well as replicate yeast health, generation and fermentation profile,” he said. “Quality and consistency is all about staying in control, diagnosing an issue, and having a plan. We have only made two brands so far at the new facility and I am still making constant tweaks.”

Citing University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who Coppage said is a firm believer in “the tweak,” Country Boy will do the same when it comes to its recipes.

“Our Cliff Jumper IPA has probably seen six or seven different hoping combinations as well as several different dry hopping techniques over the course of five years,” Coppage said, “and I think that beer has only benefited from the tweak.”

Although not a huge part of their business, Country Boy has expanded into working on a wild and sour program. When Coppage first pitched Brett strains or bacterial cultures in barrels he never thought about being successful financially. And, although Lexington and other parts of Kentucky may not be completely into the styles yet, it’s a learning process that Coppage wanted to challenge himself with.

“I just wanted to try my hand in making a great complex beer and learning what I could about a new avenue of fermentation,” he said. “The wild and sour beer game is still a niche that can be opened further.”

For now, the brewery generally keeps two brands from the Living Proof program on at both taprooms year round.

“We convert a lot of clean beer drinkers over with complex tropical sours beers low in acidity as well as heavily fruited sour offerings,” Coppage said, saying that although it may not be financially sound, he enjoys the extra work.

“I don’t get paid overtime,” he said. “So it’s cheap labor costs. But we enjoy the work and can stand behind the beer.”

The Brewery

Nathan Coppage is Country Boy’s brewery manager. That means he manages raw material going into hot side production along with the finished product coming out of cold side.

“I’ve done just about everything there is to do at a brewery except bartend,” Coppage said. “I don’t like bartending.

“My job is to do whatever it takes to keep Country Boy on the path that leads to making the best damn beer in America. It’s all about the beer. Lots of people say that but few mean it.”

Before Country Boy, Coppage received a BA in English Literature from Georgetown College then packed his bags to teach in Japan. He began homebrewing on January 8, 2008 and it was the road that led him and DH to start the idea for Country Boy. That included an unlicensed nano-brewery in his basement with his brother Evan.

“Finally, I got a job brewing second shift for the only game in town [Alltech Lexington] and met local home brewing contest winner Jeffrey Beagle,” Coppage said. “The rest is history.”

The four partners found their roles in the brewery fairly seamlessly.

“All of our roles make sense with our background,’ Coppage said, indicating that although a degree in English Literature doesn’t seem to be the best background for his role as a brewery manager and maintenance man, it actually helps a lot.

“I can read for content and retain information pretty well,” he said.”That helps when you have to dig through boring manuals and troubleshoot problems.”

There have definitely been times when he said he wished he had a different background though. “Early on in the brewery, when we had to fab and rebuild equipment, I wished I had taken shop classes in high school. More recently I wished I had paid attention in my college statistics class and learned how to use Excel properly,” he said. “I thrive on being able to do something different everyday and not get burnt out doing the same thing. I like taking things apart and figuring out how they work and what physical problem is causing the malfunction.  And when it all gets too much, I can still zone out with a good book.”

Coppage also has helped the brewery grow through good relationships with vendors.

“You scratch their backs, they’ll scratch yours,” he said. “We like to do business with like-minded companies that offer great service along with their product.”

The main challenge for the new Georgetown facility, he said, will to continue raising the brewery’s level of quality as they expand and add more employees.

“Somehow we have managed to make — in my opinion — the best beer in the state on the worst equipment,” he said. “We are probably it’s fifth or sixth owner, it was scrapped and partially rebuilt at one point, and parts of it are held together with zip ties. It is 100-percent manual and anything that can be broke on it has broken at least twice and we have back ups on the shelf.”

Now, in the Georgetown facility, Country Boy has its first new 50-barrel brewhouse, built by Sprinkman.

“So we have invested in the equipment and our next step will be to keep investing in our employee’s knowledge of fermentation and sensory,” Coppage said.

Even though Country Boy sells nearly 70 percent of everything they make in Central Kentucky, Coppage still thinks that Kentucky is worth penetrating more.

“We have only dipped our toes into the Louisville market,” he said. “And West Virginia is hungry for more. We did 9,200 BBLS last year without a marketing team or any sales reps. We are just gonna continue on our “Best Damn Beer in America, Brewed in Kentucky” approach and see where it goes.”

The Business

Beagle is the brewery’s Operations Manager. He deals with what he calls the “non-glamorous things” in the back of the house like licensing, distributor relations and agreements, legal issues all while overseeing financials.

His background was in engineering and software development since the early 90s. He even ran a development team for an Internet company before the Internet bubble burst and he ran his own software company, with software still installed worldwide.

Beagle homebrewed with friend Bill Caldwell several times, but he never did get into himself until 2007 when he and his wife Debbie traveled to Oktoberfest in Munich.

“I was hooked,” he said “Once we returned I purchased a homebrew kit and did my first stove top brew. Then I graduated to larger equipment and moved to the garage.”

In 2010 he won a ProAm competition that Alltech sponsored, where he met Nathan Coppage. The beer was brewed on a commercial system and available throughout Kentucky. It also came with a trip to 2010 Great American Beer Fest.

“That was probably the trip that convinced me that Lexington was ready for an expansion of the craft beer scene,” Beagle said. “Shortly after we opened we all split off into the different aspects of the business that best fit our backgrounds.”

With his business background, Beagle was the natural fit for Operations Manager. After spending the last two year planning, designing and working on the financing and construction of the new Georgetown facility, Beagle suspects that the brewery will look at more expansion. Personally, he sees his role continuing until he moves from the corner office to a corner of the bar in retirement.

The Branding

Harrison is the brewery’s mouthpiece and brand manager.

“I do a lot of drinking and hanging out and making sure the language we are speaking and the message we have is consistent with the values of the brewery and the people that work for us with family in general,” Harrison surmised.

A talker and bartender by trade, Harrison said the job chose him. And he’s thankful he has the genes to be able to do what he wants to do.

“That’s what ‘they’ say all the time and it’s true for me,” he said. “I’ve been involved in marketing in the past, but for us I get the easiest job — to be myself as the Brand Manager and celebrate all things that is Country Boy.”

So what is that?

“Well we are just down-home country boys that are proud of what we do and we try to show how we are craftsmen and proud of our work,” he said.

Harrison said that he’s always wanted to sell beer on the moon one day.

“I want to keep growing, but with that mentality you have to see it as if you aren’t moving somewhere you aren’t moving at all,” he said. “Sometimes just moving is the most important, forward or backward. You can learn both ways.”

Harrison, who is the vice president of the Kentucky Guild of Brewer and on the legislative committee, would like to be more involved with the beer world of Kentucky and find ways to move the whole industry forward, not just Country Boy.

“Did I think we could make a go of it? Yes,” he said. “We wanted to do something great for the Lexington beer community and us as well, but did I expect for us to be where we are today? Absolutely not. I would like to think the best stories start out that way.”

From the days that Nathan Coppage and DH sat in a Japanese brewery dreaming of making beer to what has become quick growth for them and their fellow partners, Country Boy still wants to keep its roots.

“We have changed what we look like, but idealistically we have the mentality of what it takes to make the best beer and put the highest quality out there and that’s what we are going to do,” Harrison said. “At the end of the day we don’t want to lose quality.”

Keeping the downtown facility to work on new projects was important as well. It can push creativity and small-batch projects that can complement the flagship styles that Country Boy has for its market.

“That will always be home,” Harrison said of the 4,000 square foot downtown facility with a 400 square foot taproom. “That postage stamp can keep us grounded.”

Harrison said he wasn’t trying to go all Disney movie, but when people come to the founders to talk about how great the new brewery facility is for Georgetown and Central Kentucky, they thank them.

“That’s when I get goosebumps,” Harrison said. “For us we are just some idiots from Kentucky trying to make the best damn beer in America. If people think it’s more than that, it’s been really neat. Seeing other people excited about this, that’s the best feeling.”

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