Crowdfunding launches new era for Firehall Brewery

firehallBrewmaster Sid Ruhland pours a pint of his craft beer. A new draught system will be the main addition to the beer tasting room he hopes to have ready within a few weeks. Photo by Trevor Nichol

Posted by: Posted date: April 22, 2016 In: Featured, News

When Sid Ruhland, the “brew chief” at Oliver’s Firehall Brewery, needed money to expand the business, he didn’t go to a bank for a loan, or hunt down rich investors; he simply asked the Internet. And the Internet responded.

The brewery’s Kickstarter campaign wrapped up late last week, with the final tally coming in at $16,891. That money will allow Ruhland and his crew to open a brand new tasting room, installing a draught system, fridge and refurbishing with new furniture and decorations.

“The people have spoken,” Ruhland wrote on the Kickstarter web page after reaching the fundraising goal. “We cannot overemphasize our sincerest thanks of deep appreciation to every backer for joining the effort by taking action. We look forward to rewarding you for your belief in our dream.”

That kind of communication, the enthusiastic thanks and frequent public updates, are some of the hallmarks of crowdfunding. As Ruhland pointed out in an interview after the campaign reached its goal, crowdfunding is all about the community.

Crowdfunding works by harnessing the power of the Internet to bring a whole bunch of small donations together in one place. A Kickstarter campaign, for example, will ask backers to pledge a small sum in exchange for a “gift” of appreciation (the Firehall’s gifts ranged from free high-fives for small donations, to designing a beer with the brewmaster for the largest).

If hundreds of people all donate a small amount, it can quickly add up to a significant chunk of change. Typically, crowdfunding is used to collect money for charitable causes or to fund passion projects, but Ruhland also saw it as an opportunity for his for-profit business.

Collecting many small donations from individuals and community members on the Internet is a powerful way to raise money, but it also allows a business to bypass the monolithic organizations that for so long have controlled the flow of money.

“We could have gone to a bank as well, or look for investors, but crowdfunding allowed us to go straight to the people who will use this new beer room,” he said.

“That is part of what the Kickstarter was about, was instead of taking years accumulating the stuff we need and eventually get the doors open down the road … if everybody is willing to chip in 25 bucks, it’s getting a shop open now.”

Ruhland said he sees crowdfunding as part of the “share economy,” which he says “seems like it’s an answer to the capitalism that has been created by past generations.”

“Opening a business, there’s just an incredible amount of organizations that put their fingers in your pocket: every year some of our biggest expense items are licences and dues and fees and permits, and everything like that,” he said, adding that the share economy can be a great way to build a strong local economy with businesses that aren’t’ dependent on big banks.

But Ruhland admitted a Kickstarter campaign is not the same as a typical loan or investment; the money raised is all from donations, and the people who donated naturally feel like they have a stake in the business now.

Ruhland said that is actually a good thing for him, as it will help create more of a sense of ownership and belonging with the new tasting room, but it also means people will expect more.

“I’m sure that if people pledge for the project, and they’re also people in town who would become customers, if we create something they’re not happy with then they’re going to feel not only that it’s not a business they want to spend money at, but also that their investment, so to speak, is not a success,” he said.

To combat any potential ill will, Ruhland said he has spent a lot of time interacting with backers on social media, asking for input on T-shirt designs, the colour of the beer fridge and even some larger operational questions.

There is also a detailed financial plan on display on the campaign’s website outlining exactly what all the donated money will be used for.

Ruhland said they’ve already started ordering equipment, and the new tasting room could be open within a few weeks.

The lion’s share of the money collected will go towards the new draught system, with a little more going to the product fridge and the rest to spruce up the room with new furniture and signage.

Ruhland said the final product will be a retail space that has a pub feel to it, featuring an open space with standing tables and a bar. Customers will be able to come in during the day and evening and drink a pint, listen to a few tunes on the record player and hang out for a while.

There’s more plans for the future, but Ruhland said they will be starting with the most important things first.

“We’re going to start simple: beer.”

Ruhland says the new beer tasting room will feel a little like a cross between a traditional pub and a wine tasting room.

By Trevor Nichols

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