By Efrain Villa
As soon as one call ended, another would immediately come in to fill the momentary lull.
Tony and Kat Ochsner scrambled to fall into the rhythm of ring tones, voicemail notifications, and email pings.
It was the beginning of the pandemic, and business shutdowns had started taking their toll on the economy, so they were both grateful and baffled by the onslaught of orders for brewing equipment and ingredients coming into Micro Homebrew, their shop located in Kenmore, Washington, just outside Seattle.
Looking back at the last year, Tony says he could not be prouder of his staff and customers. The love is mutual, as evidenced by Micro Homebrew winning the American Homebrewers Association’s (AHA) 2021 Homebrew Shop of the Year award.
Although winning the award has been a coveted honor since its inception four years ago, clinching the accolade this year carries an extra bit of weight due to the many challenges small businesses have had to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since grit and community building are intrinsic parts of running a homebrew shop, the lineup of praiseworthy contenders was as impressive this year as ever. To bring the best of the best to the forefront, throughout the spring, AHA members were encouraged to nominate their favorite homebrew shops for the award, sponsored by BSG Handcraft.
The shops with the most nominations were evaluated based on their support for their local homebrew communities, education efforts, customer service and engagement, public promotion of homebrewing, and their commitment to implementing responsible business practices.
In all, 54 shops were nominated. As the winner, Micro Homebrew took home a pallet of BSG’s Rahr 2-Row Malt. Also, John Calhoun, one of the dozen people who nominated the shop, was selected at random to receive a $1,000 gift certificate to spend at Micro Homebrew.
Tony says the award is validation that he is doing things right despite not investing heavily on e-commerce.
“I’m really passionate about hanging out with people who brew, learning from them, and helping people get started,” says Tony. “When I was starting out, I remember going into a homebrew store after I got my Mr. Beer Kit for Christmas and knew I wanted to do more. It was intimidating, and the store wasn’t as helpful as I wished it would be, so when we opened our shop, we wanted it to be a place where people could find answers, not just ingredients. Maybe it’s not too smart of us to focus so much on in-person stuff since when the pandemic happened, the other local stores were selling through online ordering systems. It would have been nice to have a system like that, but we just posted on our Facebook page that we weren’t letting anyone in the store, that they needed to call ahead and come out here when their order was ready. My wife and I did it that way for three or four months before letting anybody in the store. People just kept calling and emailing.”
Despite the Ochsners’ best efforts, the wait time for getting an order filled would sometimes exceed three hours, which is a long time to sit in a parking lot, especially for customers who were used to spending most of their shopping time inside the homebrew shop trading fermentation tips and philosophical takes on brewing.
“Sometimes we’d get behind on orders, and the customers just didn’t care,” recalls Tony. “They kept supporting us. It was great, and their kind words in nominating us have been nothing short of humbling.”
The Ochsners credit the success of their pandemic business experiments on their customers’ loyalty, patience, and flexibility.
The initial pain of having to furlough employees at the beginning of the pandemic has alleviated now that customers are once again dropping in and chatting in-person with advisory team members, the title Tony uses to address his employees.
“When you’re getting started, you need face-to-face contact with somebody who brews,” says Tony. “Stores like ours fill that niche. I think getting people started is a big deal. People who have been doing it for a while, maybe they benefit from online stuff. It saves them a little time, but ultimately, most people who start homebrewing do it because they know someone who does it or they found a shop that takes care of them. Maybe it’s a throwback, to a certain extent, but I think it’s the nature of what we do. Plus, beers are meant to be shared in person anyway. It’s the whole reason we make them.”
Tony and Kat are looking forward to bringing back in-person brewing workshops soon, and plenty of beer sharing is in the forecast.
About the Author
Efraín Villa is a photographer, actor, writer and global wanderer whose endless quest for randomness has taken him to more than 50 countries in five continents. His writing has appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition, the Good Men Project, TravelWorld International Magazine, Zymurgy, as well as Spanish language publications. While not running his consulting firm in Albuquerque, he is busy devouring exotic foods in faraway countries and avoiding adulthood while wearing the least amount of clothes possible. His travel stories dealing with the messiness, humor, and beauty of cultural collisions can be found on AimlessVagabond.com.