A pioneer in Duluth’s craft brewing industry, Tim Nelson is putting more than two decades of experience to use in a new venture – as a brewery consultant. As CEO and development director of recently-formed Bev-Craft, he leads a group of four that has made it their business to help craft brewers.
The 49-year-old entrepreneur is a household name in Minnesota’s brewing scene. He co-founded Fitger’s Brewhouse in 1995, then spearheaded expansions for 20 years by launching Burrito Union, Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery, Redstar Lounge, Zenith Rathskeller and Endion Station Public House. Last year, Brewhouse co-founder Rod Raymond bought out Nelson, who wanted to share his experience with fellow brewers.
In forming a team for his new consulting firm, Nelson brought in three long time colleagues, all of whom have made a mark in the regional brewing industry. They employ a four-pronged approach that encompasses development assistance, brewhouse planning, recipe formulation, ingredient selection, brand creation and sales strategy.
Brewer and longtime collaborator Dave Hoops brings in brewing expertise. Working with Nelson, he was brewmaster at Fitger’s Brewhouse for 17 years and was a founding member of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Hoops studied brewing at both the University of California at Davis and the Siebel Institute in Chicago.
Paul Christensen brings his sales experience to the operation. He has years of experience with marketing and managing food-related businesses in the Twin Ports, for a time as local franchisee for Papa Murphy. Christensen last worked in the brewery at Fitger’s Brewhouse.
Tim’s brother Brad Nelson is the fourth expert. He owns a separate company called Specific Gravity that is Bev-Craft’s brand management arm.
When Nelson entered the industry, it paled in comparison with today. Everyone was on a learning curve, including brewmasters. Consumers were anxious to try new brands, but recipes hadn’t reached their peak potential.
“Nationally, craft beer held about 2 percent of the market in 1995,” he said, and there were only four craft brewing companies in Minnesota.
Back then, craft brewers were a tight knit group that readily shared knowledge and experience with each other.
Today, craft brewers control 12 percent of the market – a portion that keeps growing. It’s estimated they will hold a 20 percent share by the year 2020.
That rapid industry growth has stiffened competition. Although brewers still exchange information, a growing amount of it is becoming proprietary.
“Now that the marketplace is maturing, there isn’t the forgiveness (from beer aficionados) there was in 1995,” Brad Nelson said. Thus, there’s a growing need, particularly by startups, to obtain solid advice from experienced operators.
“For the most part, consumers are educated if they’re drinking craft beer, so it’s got to be good,” Tim Nelson added. “And you’ve got to have the right feeling attached to it. Those kinds of things matter a lot, and that’s where we come in.”
Tim Nelson didn’t invent the concept of selling consulting services to brewers, but most consultants are grouped on the East and West Coasts. He has some Midwest competitors, but he is the first to tap a broad northern region.
“We’re working with some brewers in Northern Wisconsin and some in the top half of Minnesota,” he said, “helping them with business planning, site selection, analyzing the market and sizing them for the market. We’re also advising them about branding, equipment acquisition and recipe development.”
A popular point of entry into the business occurs when a brewing hobbyist wants to take the next step, moving from amateur to professional. Often, those persons need help in deciding how to scale their first commercial operation, Tim Nelson said. Others tend to be small business owners who want to expand into craft brewing. They typically need help in recipe development.
“Unique flavors drive craft brewing,” he said, and new brewers must have them in order to be successful.
Another type of customer is one that has already launched a brewery but is experiencing production or promotion issues.
“Most breweries are succeeding, but some are not succeeding,” Brad Nelson said, and Bev-Craft is available to help them.
“We just try to service what they need,” Tim Nelson said.