Bennewitz Bucks Convention at Weeping Radish

​It’s been 30-plus years now for Uli​ ​B​ennewitz​, and he’s still content with reinventing what a craft beer brewery can be.​ Being ahead of the curve is pretty typical for the Weeping Radish Brewery, located near the Outer Banks region in Grandy, North Carolina.
In 1986, the German-born founder opened a brewpub, complete with German-style beers and German food in what is very much a tourist area with locals who were engrained to drink macro lagers. He followed that up in 2000 by changing up the menu and have a farm and butchery brewery. The concept of “farm to table” is fairly common now. But not nearly 20 years ago. Now, as the brewery enters its fourth decade, distilling is on Bennewitz’s mind.
​He’s always staying ahead of the game, even if it’s not the best for business. But what he does makes him happy and he continues to find his own route.
“We don’t have the customer base here to justify a microbrewery,” he admits, even looking back to when he started. “If I wrote a business plan, I would have never started it.
​“The market share for this county is probably less than 3 percent. It’s a rural county so we are completely relying on tourism. Which is fine in the summer months, but in the winter time it’s slim pickings around here.
​“​It was stressful because, sure​,​ we made a ton of money in the summertime but we lost our tail in the winter. Because you can’t fire everybody​, you have to keep your staff on and serve the odd straggler now and then.​“​
Never one to outgrow themselves, Weeping Radish has stayed primarily close to home when it comes to its beers. Bennewitz felt that freshness mattered most and being unpasteurized meant not shipping his beer off to a distributor in other parts of the state, or across state lines.
“You have to separate the industries,” he said. “There are brewpubs and there is microbrewing. The distribution side of it is oversaturated already. That’s why I’ve never gone into distribution. It makes no sense. What the hell would I be doing putting my beer in Ohio? They have their own beers there.
“I keep telling our local restaurants: if they want a keg filled to order, there is only one place you can go. That’s your local brewery that does self distribution. Every other keg has been sitting in a warehouse somewhere and you really don’t know how long.”
He said he is “very comfortable” having shrunk their scope down to where they don’t distribute and just focus on where their beer is.
“We have a Beer Finder on our webpage and it shows everyplace that carries our beer and that’s it,” Bennewitz said. “If we distribute beer as a small brewery and we send it off to a distributor in Richmond, Virginia, we just lost control. We have no clue if our beer is in Richmond, when they sent it to a retail account, what temperature it was held at, when it’s being opened … we don’t have a clue.”
When it came to economics of brewing, Bennewitz pointed out how flawed a craft brewer’s setup is and how it’s made to fail. Yet it doesn’t.
“We have the worst labor costs in the world, the worst ingredient costs because we use real ingredients … distribution costs, almost as bad as farmers markets because we use little trucks and deliver locally,” he said. “But somehow the business model works, which is completely different to what their textbook says.
“Now we are swinging back with less chemicals, and being more local. It’s more expensive.”
It’s the young generation driving this boat, Bennewitz said when it comes to where craft is going.
“Go to a brewing conference, those kids on fire are under 30,” he said. “I’ve been to a Budweiser plant — for God’s sake your average age is 58. They talk about unions and retirement. They have no drive, no interest, no nothing in beer. It’s just a union job.
“Then you look at microbrewing. Passion is the word. I’ve never been at a brewing conference talking about unions or retirement. Everybody is passionate in what they do and it’s the young generation, not the old generation.”
Every brewing conference Bennewitz said he goes to, he likes to wander around and take in the optimism and excitement and the risk taking.
“These people buy stainless steel like it’s damn chewing gum,” he said. “People say this next generation doesn’t take risks. Really, go look at a microbrewery. Every damn time they get a dime in, they spent two dimes to add to their growth.”
​He admits he really is a very anti-’old white men’ guy.
“The old white men that I know all bitch about America in general and about the young generation in particular,” he said. “Really? Whatever is wrong with America? It’s our generation’s fault. We ran this damn country for the last 30 years. So get out of the way these young kids get on with it.”

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