“We. Will. We. Will. Rock you.” The Queen classic streams out of computer speakers on one of a dozen desks at Killswitch Collective. The mod workspace is obscured by an artfully angled lime-green wall, a barrier between Ashland Avenue and the tech-savvy hipsters turning the wheels at this West Town creative agency. A mountain of boots and Converse shoes sits at the entrance, while graphic designers, Web developers and branding gurus run around sock-footed, figuring out a way to deliver “cool” to clients like Puma and MTV. Killswitch CEO Ben Finch, 31, blends in like an indie rocker in a Pitchfork crowd, but when the hoodie-wearing kids behind the computers finish designing their Jackass logo for the day and go home, Finch remains, in constant R&D mode, compiling market statistics for what’s selling and who’s buying it, continuing to grow the $2.5 million company he and co-owner Meredith Martin founded in 2004.
It was that intense focus on market research that birthed Finch’s latest brand: an eponymous beer company hitting the market by mid-April. “The beer came out of my love for developing brands, for developing products,” he says. “I wanted a product that sold itself and I looked at other things, but beer was something that, when I did the research, showed it was a good time market-entry-wise.”
Pretty good, indeed. While U.S. beer sales were down about 3 percent overall in 2010, it was the big boys taking the hit. According to the Brewers Association, an industry leader in tracking statistics, the craft-brewing segment (small, independently owned breweries producing fewer than 6 million barrels a year) grew by 9 percent in 2010, up from 7.2 percent growth in 2009 and 5.9 percent in 2008. Craft brewing accounts for only about $7 billion in an industry worth approximately $100 billion, but it’s the sole portion of the business showing continual growth. And with imported beer sales down by about 10 percent in 2010, there’s a strong sign people are looking to drink local, or at least that’s the hope of new entrants like Finch, whose dad helped finance the beer business.
Finch was a self-described “Stella/Blue Moon drinker” who didn’t know a thing about making the stuff. Thankfully, his head brewer, Richard Grant, did. A love of home brewing led Grant to enroll at Siebel Institute’s World Brewing Academy in Chicago, which led to an assistant-brewer gig at Rock Bottom and then a similar position at Flossmoor Station. “I went online and looked for somebody who had production experience but wasn’t already a head brewer, somebody who was malleable,” Finch says. “I know a lot of these guys get approached with these big ideas of starting a brewery and a lot of it never pans out, but from day one I was like, ‘I’m the business guy and I just need somebody that can be the beer guy.’ ”
“I thought, Okay, I’ve heard that before,” Grant responds. “But the idea that he was willing to get into craft beer and learn about it was encouraging. He knows his branding and I know my brewing, so we decided to go with styles that would be accessible, one that anybody can get into and one a bit more for the craft people.”
The everyman Finch’s beer is the Golden Wing, a medium-bodied blond ale, while the Cut Throat pale ale has a fair amount of hops, aimed at the beer drinkers who appreciate more bite. By May 1, both beers will be rolled out on tap at 30 bars and restaurants (including Beer Bistro and Map Room), a number Finch wants to double within 90 days. By August, the brewery, a production-only warehouse in Mayfair, will debut its cans, tallboys splashed with the bird logo in bright yellow and lime green. Grant convinced Finch that cans were the way to go, challenging him to taste local brewery Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter out of the tap and then from the can. “It was pretty much the same,” Finch says. “And aluminum blocks UV light to keep the beer fresher, it’s fully recyclable, unlike glass, and they’re so much lighter to store.”
Plus, they just might become the vehicle for collaborations with other local upstarts. When Killswitch did some work for T-shirt revolutionary Threadless, Finch and Threadless CEO Tom Ryan hatched a plan to concoct the “Brew No More” IPA (a play on the Threadless tag line “Naked No More”). Initially, Finch’s will hand over kegs of the beer for Threadless to serve at private events. But eventually Finch’s tap handles and beer cans could serve as canvases for the same community-contributed, crowd-sourced artwork Threadless has applied to Griffin iPhone cases and Havaiana flip-flops, sold to the public as a brand builder for both companies. If all goes well, Finch’s will continue with other guest collaborations, which Grant talks about excitedly in the same breath as seasonal releases, a chance to tinker with different beer styles. Finch, on the other hand, says his interest “is that it will help put us on the map and provide feedback from a big tasting group, a good base to find out what people are drinking…. The production beers are the focus, and everything else is underneath that from an importance level. At the end of the day, we are a business.”