First Key Celebrates 30 Years of Supporting the Global Growth of Beer

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When Jim Clarke co-founded one of North America’s first craft breweries over three decades ago, he expected to be in the beer business for the rest of his career.  He was right, but not in the way he imagined.  “Shortly after we got started the phones started to ring off the hook,” Clarke said recently.  “So I told myself ‘We’re on the leading edge of something. People are genuinely interested in what we are doing. There’s a consulting business in there somewhere.’”

Acting on those instincts, Clarke founded First Key Consulting.  They must have been good instincts, because this year (2015), the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and the brewery he started remains in operation today.

Clarke decided early on that First Key’s values would reflect the collaborative spirit of the craft beer community.  “Long term positive relationships are a primary objective of First Key. We aim to grow the relationship through meeting commitments and solving project issues.”

The early months and years at First Key offered challenges.  “It was fast out of the gate at first, and then it got very quiet.  I had some real moments where I wondered: am I doing the right thing? I had many long conversations with my wife. But we stuck with it, and we kept pushing.  We really believed we could help people understand the beer industry and get into the business.”

The first clients to come calling weren’t in fact craft brewers, but some of the major global players who wanted to look at the potential for small breweries in developing markets.  Working with these companies helped the business get traction across the globe. “But while we were building with them craft beer was building up, too,” Clarke said.  “So we have always worked for breweries of all sizes.”

Today, First Key consultants take on projects all over the world for clients ranging in size from global players to small local craft breweries and brewpubs.  These include investment banking and private equity firms who rely on First Key’s independence and objectivity for due diligence.  But Clarke adds “The smaller side is always interesting to us.  No project is too small.”  One client stated: “As a craft brewery, we needed a QMS that took into account our small size, modest budget, level of complexity, and capability… I was most impressed with First Key’s ability to comprehend smaller-scale operations.”  The company even conducted some recent work in the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan. Another client has a background that many people are familiar with, the Von Trapp family from the widely famous movie The Sound of Music, working together to build a destination brewery in Stowe, Vermont.

Clarke speaks with evident pride of First Key’s growth, “with project experience and representatives in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, First Key is well positioned to help clients add value and move forward with their projects anywhere in the world. Our people speak many languages and are academically and professionally qualified in their areas of expertise and on average have 20 years ‘hands-on’ experience working in breweries of all sizes”. Speaking many languages became especially important when First Key was moving a 2 million hectoliter brewery from the UK to China. When transferring a convoy of tanks from the port to the site in China they had an unexpected visit from the US embassy who had spotted the movement of the tanks from their satellite. After a little inspection revealed that the tanks weren’t weapons the project continued forward.

To better manage growth, in 2009 First Key established business units headed by managing directors: agribusiness, craft breweries, commercial strategy, financial services, supply-chain and technical services. The company continues to innovate.  Five years ago First Key introduced, an online job board that also provides recruiting services for senior positions in the industry.  Qualified candidates who wish to be considered for project work with First Key can also post their resumes.

More recently First Key introduced Beat the Brewmaster (, a game app that also serves as a sales tool for breweries.  Beer drinkers play it to test their sensory skills by comparing their ratings to those of the brewmaster who actually created the beer.  However, the real value for breweries that sign up is the ability to create on-premise Beat the Brewmaster nights and other events to drive sales.

According to Clarke, the future for beer is bright.  His son Chris, who has taken an active role in development of both and Beat the Brewmaster, is now a Vice President with First Key, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada. The company is a major sponsor of the World Beer Cup along with Krones, Ball, Barth-Haas, MicroStar, Sahm and Siemens, and it supports many of the major brewing schools and product development labs around the world.



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