Brewer Magazine Q&A: East Brother Beer’s Rob Lightener Stuck to His Guns with this Style … and Succeeded

This is a part of a continuing series of Q&As with members of the brewing community from across the U.S.
Brewer Magazine will share business and personal insights from Brewmasters, Head Brewers, Brewing Managers, Sales Directors, QCQA Managers and others each weekend to help you get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.

Rob Lightener​, co-founder, East Brother Beer Co. — Richmond, California​

BREWER: How has your business strategy evolved to help grow and stay competitive?
LIGHTENER: ​Honestly it hasn’t changed that much! The ​business plan we wrote back in 2013 described our belief that there’s space in the market for classic styles, and that’s exactly what we continue to brew today. The recent interest in ​Lagers — the class of beer that the craft industry initially resisted — is an illustration of this. Our feeling is that within the realm of existing styles, there’s still plenty of places to explore; for every style like Pilsner which everyone knows at this point, there’s something like Maibock — very different from light ​Lager, offering depth and complexity not typically associated with ​Lagers.

BREWER: Who is your mentor in the industry and why? What have you learned from them?
LIGHTENER: We started this business with a combination of our own savings and small business loans, so we don’t have investors, and therefore no advisory board​ —​​ so we don’t have a mentor in that sense. That said, the person who helped us articulate and build our brand — Michael Kiser of Good Beer Hunting — is someone who’s helped us immensely, not only on topics related to our brand, but to product development, taproom initiatives, and generally being an amazing sounding board and font of industry knowledge ​and​ guidance. Among the things that Michael reminds us of — during those times when we’re looking at big picture initiatives — is to “stick to your guns​.”​ That is, we’ve been successful in carving out a niche with fans of balanced, easy-drinking beers​, ​so why go away from that? It’s something one needs to be reminded about from time to time.

BREWER: What idea did you or your team come up with lately that has been a big benefit to how your brewery functions?
LIGHTENER: Given the global pandemic we’re facing it would be hard to avoid this topic in answering this question. Without a doubt the thing that’s been incredibly valuable to us was pivoting to a curbside pickup program once we had to shut down the taproom. It required a ton of work from the whole team —​ to build an online store, initiate contactless payment, find new vendors, create the marketing communications program — but we pulled it off in less than a week, and have been doing so since late March. Seeing our taproom customers and the broader Richmond community come out to support us​,​ week after week​,​ fills us with gratitude and gives us a jolt of positive energy, galvanizing the team and showing us that we’ll all get through this together.

BREWER: If you had one business strategy that you could implement to better the brewing industry, what would it be?
LIGHTENER: There are many challenges that small breweries face, and one of the most acute, particularly for growing breweries, is the difficulty in leveraging efficiencies while scaling up — specifically, bringing down ​Cost ​O​f Goods quickly. Whether it’s grains or cans or something else, it often costs a ton to move to the next level (i.e., from bags to supersacks or silos of grain, or from sleeved cans to printed cans)​,​ upfront costs can be prohibitive. I know that there are some “collectives” out there (we’re a member of one) that buy in bulk, and charge a membership fee in return for passing those saving on to members, but it would be nice if these collectives could join forces to create one large body that benefits small brewers, broadening the scope of goods ​and​ services available, thus lowering the bar for success for more breweries out there.

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