After I first heard that brothers Robert and John Klick had founded competing craft breweries on Lake Minnetonka, the headline more or less wrote itself: “Battle Brewing Between Brothers.”
This story turned out to be far less dramatic. There is no battle. The brothers insist there never will be. As a condition for even talking about the brewery and taproom he’s just opened in downtown Wayzata, Robert Klick said he wouldn’t help anyone spread the notion that he doesn’t get along well with his younger brother John.
Not because it’s an uncomfortable situation, he said. Any talk of conflict is just not accurate, even as he prepares for the formal grand opening of Wayzata Brew Works, just a five-mile-or-so boat ride from the lakeside village of Excelsior and John Klick’s competing Excelsior Brewing Co.
“There are breweries in another state started by twin brothers who don’t get along, Evil Twin Brewing or something like that,” John Klick said. “We are not those guys.”
Actually in that famous case, of brothers from Denmark, even a whole country wasn’t big enough for both of them. One fled to Brooklyn, N.Y., to run his Evil Twin Brewing from there.
So while there’s not quite the Biblical Cain-and-Abel story here, the Klicks still make for an interesting business story. These are two very different brothers with two very different plans for winning in the increasingly competitive niche of craft brewing.
John, the CEO of Excelsior Brewing, sounds like a brand builder. In a conversation this week there was more than a hint of business school thinking in him, as he talked about establishing new distribution in the Alexandria and Mankato areas and trying to build sustainable value in the Excelsior Brewing brand.
In the much longer conversation and tour last week with Robert, he came across as a guy who just can’t get over how he’s going to be able to serve his neighbors great beer this weekend on a patio overlooking one of the state’s premier lakes. He called it “bringing posh to the people.”
Robert’s title on his business card simply reads “Idea Guy,” and he was full of them last week on what else he could do to grow his business, even though he’s only been open a couple of weeks with the business plan he has right now.
John Klick, now in his mid-40s, got into the business first, and his story goes back at least five years before Excelsior opened in 2012.
John got introduced to brewing working as a partner at a firm called Innovative Marketing Consultants that sold a lot of advertising specialties and other marketing materials to beverage makers. He found himself talking to brewers and aspiring brewers while attending the increasingly popular trade shows for craft beer-makers.
Once he decided to plunge ahead with his own brewery, finding a site, lining up the investors and building Excelsior Brewing took John years.
Meanwhile, 51-year-old Robert has an entrepreneurial background as varied as any, from toy inventor to kiosk jewelry retailer to lingerie store owner to frontman of an Austin Powers tribute band called Shagagogo.
As Robert described it, he got persuaded by John over the Thanksgiving weekend to help hang Sheetrock in the Excelsior Brewing space. While this sounds like the typical kind of unpaid help you provide your little brother, Robert decided to stay and work for Excelsior Brewing as a contractor. He was there the day it opened, in July 2012.
Robert later got asked to explore establishing a brewery in a Wayzata industrial building that once housed a local dairy; he found it far too large for the modest beer operation he thought he could build. Later he was shown space on the Wayzata waterfront in what’s called the Boatworks building.
He had the construction skills to do a lot of the work on a small facility himself, so he was still thinking small. Then his prospective landlord, the technology entrepreneur Rick Born, gave him a “go big or stay home” pep talk about the potential of a destination taproom on the Wayzata lakefront. If Klick didn’t build big, a competitor would.
Robert decided Born made a good argument and made plans to proceed with a 20-barrel brewing system rather than five, and in a far bigger space. He also had to let John know he was planning to jump into the beer-making business.
“He was taken aback at first,” Robert said. Starting a craft brewery “was his dream much more than it ever was mine. The opportunity was here, and he saw that.”
From time to time he would seek the advice of other craft brewing operators, but he made a point not to pester his brother, although John pointed out he was always happy to help.
“That’s what really attracted me to this business in the first place,” John said. “The cooperative-competition nature of it. Most of the brewers like each other and help each other.”
Along with partners, John Klick since 2012 expanded both his taproom and the brewing operation. Last year Excelsior Brewing sold the equivalent of about 5,200 barrels of beer, John said, about 1,000 in the taproom and the rest either as bottled beer or through kegs at bars and restaurants.
He called selling outside of his taproom “production brewing,” a market segment he suspects will soon be competitive enough for a shakeout. Brewing upstarts hoping to sell beyond their own taproom are competing for limited space on shelves and on the tap handles of bars and restaurants. That’s why John is pressing ahead to firmly establish his Excelsior brand regionally, adding that his greatest fear after adding more distributors is “running out of beer.”
Robert, on the other hand, has a business plan focused on the taproom, not bottling. He said that selling 90 percent of the beer brewed at the Brew Works right in his taproom and patio “would be fantastic.” Many of the plans occupying his thinking are designed to keep the beer taps flowing, including collaboration with Excelsior Brewing that could even include running a boat between Excelsior and his place in Wayzata.
“Yeah, he wants to do all kinds of stuff,” John said, when asked about plans for boat service. “One thing the Klick family isn’t short on is lofty ideas. I kept telling him, ‘Just get your taproom open, Buddy.’ ”