Captain Courageous

Scott Vaccaro on the business of brew



 

Photograpy by Gus Cantavero

The man who changed Westchester's beer tastes: Scott Vaccaro of  Captain Lawrence Brewery

Unlike other young entrepreneurs armed with a business plan and a wad of investment capital, Captain Lawrence’s Scott Vaccaro was not concerned with looking “money.“ Five and a half years ago, when Vaccaro was 27 and launching his Pleasantville brewery, he lived in his parents’ house and slept in the twin bed of his South Salem youth. Even when a pint of Captain Lawrence beer could be bought at Gramercy Tavern, Vaccaro was still sleeping under his parents’ roof.

   Worse, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company was seeded with the kind of loans for which there is no debt relief: Vaccaro borrowed the bulk of his startup capital—$330,000—from his family. “It was seventy-five-percent family, twenty-five-percent bank,” he says. And, even by doing much of the electrical work himself, Vaccaro’s loan wasn’t enough to build the brewery. “It took us four months to build. In those four months, I aged ten years thinking, ‘What did I just get myself into?’”

    Nearly six years since opening Captain Lawrence, Vaccaro, 33, is still youthful, though the weight of owning his business has etched a line or two around his eyes. He is fluent in post-grad Dude-Speak, polished through years of bar and brewery conversations, but, today, he sits at a desk piled with invoices, looking like a harried businessman. Often, Vaccaro’s eyes flick toward a vibrating cellphone.

    Captain Lawrence’s website is a good measure of Vaccaro’s success. It uses foamy beer-mug icons imposed over a map to show where Vaccaro’s beer is sold. As one scrolls over the narrow slip of Manhattan, the borough blackens with stacked beer mugs. The names announced by each mug sound like an eater’s hit parade: DBGB Kitchen and Bar, Blue Ribbon, Whole Foods Market, Union Square Café, The Breslin. Pan up to the wedge of Westchester, and you’ll see mugs over Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Crabtree’s Kittle House, Tarry Lodge, and Birdsall House.

    Vaccaro bailed midstream from an accountancy program at Villanova to finish the beer-geek Fermentation Science degree at UC Davis. He paired that with a couple of brewery internships and a couple of great, post-grad brewery jobs, but it’s a huge jump to owning $300,000-plus of debt and a working factory at age 27. His strategy was simple.

    “My salesman was my cousin, Joe. While I was building the brewery, he was knocking on doors, trying to figure out who was interested in talking about a local beer. Which restaurants wanted to support the idea before even tasting the beer? We went from town to town, cataloguing each one. The day the beer was ready, we knew exactly where to go.”

    Their first pitch was to Lexington Square Café in Mount Kisco. Though Vaccaro eventually landed the account (“and they’ve given me amazing support since”), the visit was a disaster. “We walked in and poured samples and they said, ‘We’re going to pass.’ I walked out ready to throw up.” He heard something he'd recently been told echo in his head: "Westchester is a beer wasteland.”

    So, how did he eventually make it work? He credits his tasting room. “Without it, we would have been bankrupt,” he says. Captain Lawrence's tasting room opened on Super Bowl Saturday in 2006, and “there were three hundred people in the tasting room that day,” Vaccaro recalls. “We were selling growlers, cash, retail sales. Monday rolled around and we could pay bills.”

    Growlers, the trendy half-gallon jugs filled at taps, were Vaccaro’s biggest marketing success. ”People would bring a growler to a dinner party and then the host would return to the brewery to refill his growler.” Once there, he would learn about Captain Lawrence and inevitably join what Vaccaro affectionately calls the “Captain’s Army.” Growler beer, much cheaper than 12-ounce bottles, doesn’t last long once it’s inside: you need to drink it. Vaccaro smiles with the barest hint of shrewdness. “Growlers bring people back to the brewery.”

    I ask if Vaccaro’s plan serviced his debts with Westchester sales, which represent—at best—only a keg and a half per week (which, in 2006, sold for $110). “The plan was heavy on growing our distribution business in-house by adding salesmen and trucks. I quickly found that my initial plan wasn’t going to work; the further you get from your base, the harder it is to do a good job.”

    As the subject of distributors is broached, Vaccaro shifts in his chair and shows a flash of anger. When a brewery signs with a distributor—in lifetime contracts that are expensive to break—that brewery relies on the distributor to place its beers in bars. If a distributor collects smaller breweries (just to be the distributor holding the most brands), there is no guarantee that the distributor will promote the smaller brands in its portfolio. Vaccaro has had to extricate himself from such a situation.

    Yet, as a business owner, Vaccaro was forced to yield. “I quickly learned that I needed them. I was pretty good with my projections, but I wasn’t good at projecting my expenses. We needed to expand outside of Westchester.”

    The opportunity for Vaccaro’s expansion was the craft-beer trend detonating in Brooklyn. “In May of the first year, Joe Marino of American Beer [Distributing Company, Inc.] in Brooklyn wanted to distribute our beer in Brooklyn and Manhattan. At first, I dismissed it. But then I met a woman who worked at Dogfish who said, ‘Oh yeah, I know Joe. You should call him back.‘” In the highest echelons of the craft-beer world, the name Dogfish Head bears weight. “I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot,’” Vaccaro says. It was probably the smartest thing I ever did.”

    He called and told American Beer, ”I have these fifty kegs of Smoked Porter that no one in Westchester wants.” He sent them down to Brooklyn and, Vaccaro says, Joe Marino was done with ’em in a couple of weeks. He said, ‘Well, what’s next?' I thought, ‘Holy crap.’”

    According to Vaccaro, an excellent account in Westchester sells a keg and a half per week, while a good one in Brooklyn sells four kegs per week. Signing Danny Meyer’s Manhattan restaurants—Union Square Café, Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, and others—was another coup. “We presented in front of their managers' meeting. You’re either approved in all of his restaurants or none.“ Captain Lawrence was approved.

    “I tell people that if you have a mortgage or kids in college, don't open a brewery. I mean, I still don’t own a home. I rent a one-bedroom apartment down the street.”

    Within two years of opening, demand for Vaccaro’s beer stressed his capacity. He returned to Chase for help in purchasing another $15,000 tank and 100 more kegs at $75 to $120 each. “The kegs were the big cost in the beginning. That was another thing I’d underestimated.”

    Vaccaro’s strategy was to brew broad-appeal beers (to “hopefully, pay the bills”) but promote his brand with more esoteric brews. “That’s the fun of being a small brewer.“ But Vaccaro is not merely indulging his whims; these are the beers that snag media attention —and the drinkers who follow it.

    Captain Lawrence’s Rosso e Marrone, a brown ale aged with red wine grapes in wine barrels, won Vaccaro raves in Wine Enthusiast and the gold medal at 2009’s Great American Beer Festival. “Captain Lawrence has a reputation for quality," says Joshua M. Bernstein, who has written about craft beer for New York magazine and the New York Times (and whose book on the subject, Brewed Awakening, is due out this fall). "His craft beers sell out. They’re really hard to get.” Vaccaro’s new releases are so anticipated that he relies on a ticketing system to handle demand. Speaking of an upcoming release, Vaccaro twinkles. “We’ll have three hundred people in the parking lot—it’s a trip!”

    So what’s next for Captain Lawrence? “We’re not looking nationally. There are enough people in the tri-state area for us to grow for a long time.” Vaccaro’s Castleton Street brewery is bursting with his growth. In 2006, he brewed 650 barrels of beer. This year, he anticipates he’ll brew 8,000 barrels.

    Since our conversation, Vaccaro announced plans to move his brewery to Elmsford. The point of the move is to enable the production of 12-ounce bottles—a move Bernstein applauds. “Twelve-ounce bottles just make the beer more drinkable,” he says. “Plus, it means that there’s a higher chance that I might find it at my local bodega.”

    Another investment. Another expansion. “That’s why I don’t own a house!” Vaccaro says, adding, “I’m not saying I’d trade this for anything. I’m having a blast."

Food writer Julia Sexton blogs for Westchester Magazine.

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