This Market Type is What Wild Heaven’s Eric Johnson Wants Breweries to Explore More

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.

Eric Johnson​,​ Brewmaster/​c​o-​owner​, Wild Heaven​ Beer — Avondale Estates, Georgia

​BREWER: Why did you enter the craft beer industry and what makes you love being a part of it and staying in it?
​JOHNSON: ​I’ve been a homebrewer since I was 18 and just fell in love with the whole process. Initially it was just the thrill of making my own beer and it blossomed into a culinary exploration of exploring every possible flavor that I could imagine using in a beer. That’s what I love about designing beers — there are no limitations to the creative process. If there is a combination of flavors that intrigues you it is most likely possible to incorporate it into a beer. For my part I like integrating unique secondary flavors into well​-​made traditional styles. I feel that when the adjunct becomes the star of the show you have simply brewed a gimmick instead of a beer that should be taken seriously. It’s this path of exploration that keeps me excited about the future of the industry.

​BREWER: What do you feel have been new challenges in your position that have helped push you and make you better at your job?
​JOHNSON: ​The most recent challenges have been simply finding quality people to fill the many expanding roles in our operation. Our industry can only grow as fast as we are able to staff it. There are many wonderful new people that we have brought into our organization in the past few years but it definitely feels like human resources is becoming much more of a front burner issue.

​BREWER: How has the definition of growth for your company evolved and how have you adjusted to be successful in that new definition?
JOHNSON: We launched Wild Heaven at a time where direct-to-​consumer sales were illegal and our only customer was our distributor. That set us on a trajectory of significant growth and expansion as volume was the only way to outrun terribly slim margins. That dynamic changed in 2017 and opened up a pathway for us to engage directly with our customers. I feel like this is when we really started to blossom creatively. Our second location was built around a much smaller ​seven-barrel system that allowed us to launch a new beer every week. Not only did this allow us to mitigate the risk of discovery but also made all of our core beers better as we were able to experiment with subtle adjustments on a small scale and translate the improvements to beers we’d been brewing for years.

​BREWER: What strategic growth opportunity do you feel is still “out there” for your brand and how are you working on capitalizing on it this year?
JOHNSON: I feel like there are tremendous opportunities for breweries to focus on underserved markets with smaller community​-​focused breweries. This type of expansion allows the brewery more control of their own destiny and more contact with their customer. It further improves aspects of quality control as the product rarely leaves the brewery.

​BREWER: If you had one business strategy that you could implement to better the brewing industry, what would it be?
JOHNSON: I would say that one of the greatest threats to the brewing industry right now is poor quality and a general lack of accountability when it comes to producing quality beer. How we achieve that is part of a much, much longer conversation but it must receive more than lip service if our industry is going to be able to maintain the trust of the public. The creative spirit of the craft beer industry and the low barriers to entry are certainly things that make it an exciting, dynamic, free-spirited environment to operate in. We must, however, find ways to protect the integrity of the customer’s experience with our craft by bringing people along and providing the training and feedback required to help the next generation of brewers thrive and produce the highest quality beer possible.

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