Sometimes big breaks come when you least expect them. In the early spring of 2012, Tommy Hester ’11 and Wilson Barr ’11 were in the early stages of launching a beer company. Their product, called Snake Bite, was based off of a pub-mixed combination of beer and hard cider, which they discovered two years earlier while studying abroad in England.
For months, they had dedicated themselves to researching state and federal alcohol regulations, evaluating potential breweries, perfecting their recipe, and assembling a fundraising pitch for initial investors. During a break from filling out one of the seemingly endless forms required to acquire a bottling license, Tommy cold-called Matagrano, the largest and most-highly respected distributor in the Bay Area. “At that point, we had beer and a cider that you could mix, but it wasn’t a final production sample,” Tommy recalls.
To their surprise, one of the head’s of the distribution company agreed to take a meeting. The following week, Tommy and Wilson made the short drive from San Francisco’s Sunset district down California’s Route 101 to an industrial park in South San Francisco in Tommy’s 2005 Mazda CRV. With no final product ready for sampling, Tommy set about mixing beer and cider in the backseat while Wilson went over the talking points of their pitch.
Over two years removed from the experience, Tommy chuckles at the memory: “We both went in thinking that if the meeting lasted longer than ten minutes, we’d be surprised.”
“We also didn’t quite realize how ridiculous it was to be doing that. Ignorance was important. We were just like, ‘well, let’s see how this goes,’” Wilson adds.
Ten minutes turned into thirty and thirty turned into an hour. By the time they left Matagrano that day, some two hours later, they had signed their first distributor. Before they even had a product to sell, they had access to nearly every liquor store in San Francisco and a great selling point to add more distributors. “At the end of the meeting, the head of the company goes, ‘to be honest guys, I was expecting to meet with you for ten minutes and then tell you to get the hell out, but I really like you guys, and I think you’ve got a good idea so let’s do this.’ That was very shocking and very lucky.”
Shortly after signing their deal with Matagrano, Tommy and Wilson closed on their first round of investing – raising $300,000. Soon after that, they traveled to Wisconsin to witness the bottling of their first truckload of product. Now, just over three years removed from their Williams’ graduation, the two are selling Snake Bite all over the Bay Area, in select stores in Arizona, and are even preparing to ship a pallet to Taiwan where a former classmate has recently launched his own brewery.
Over a lunch of Mac and Cheese and six hours traversing the Bay Area to check up with several of their distributors and local merchants, I was able to witness the vitality and up-beat spirit that has allowed two twenty-somethings with little to no business or brewing experience to succeed in the beer world.
Following graduation, Tommy and Wilson initially went their separate ways. While many of his fellow economics majors flocked to high-paying jobs at banks and consulting firms, Tommy resisted that path. “I sort of figured, eventually I might have to work at a consulting firm or something like that because I didn’t know much else out there, but I was pretty sure that I would hate it.” Instead, he used $1,100 in savings to go on a six-month long road trip with his friends from high school, spending lots of time camping in National Parks. While traveling through California, he met back up with Wilson who had returned to his home in Napa Valley following graduation. “I heard that Wilson had this crazy idea he was cooking up. When I stopped at his house on the trip, he told me about Snakebite, and I was in right away.”
Wilson had not forgotten the cider and beers they’d shared during their semester in England. Upon returning home, he had sought the advice of family, friends, and anyone else he could find. He was looking for someone to tell him that he was out of his mind. Instead, he found support everywhere he turned. Enthused by the possibility of turning a dream into reality, he set about convincing Tommy to join the team. “As much as I hate to admit it, he’s a really intelligent kid,” Wilson jokes. “I knew he didn’t have any firm plans or job lined up, and he really likes beer, so I figured it would be a good fit.”
In reality, the vague idea for a beer company was formulated long before graduation. The two became best friends at Williams while serving as pitchers on the baseball team, though, as Tommy was quick to point out, their actual pitching time was minimal. “We had a ton of time on the bench so what were we going to talk about? You get a doubleheader, and you’ve got eight hours to kill, you’ve got to exhaust all your talking points. So yeah, we had talked sort of ‘pie in the sky’ that having our own beer company would be awesome, though we thought it probably wouldn’t happen.” Over their four years in Williamstown, they also made frequent trips to a craft beer store in Bennington and began to brew their own beer in their free time.
When they did link up and begin to formulate their plans for launching an actual business, they found an even better match than they could have imagined during those spring afternoons on Cole Field. Tommy is naturally relaxed and optimistic, which allows him to see the big picture and keep morale high through rough patches. Wilson shares Tommy’s enthusiasm, but worries more about the day-to-day aspects of the company, which allows him to account for the details and keep them on task. Wilson explains the source of his worries, “At the end of the day, it’s yours to either succeed with or mess up. You’re always on so there are things that you think about that you wouldn’t if you clocked out and went home at 5 o’clock.” The differing approaches allow the two to balance each other, keep the company moving forward, and ensure that they are having fun.
The fun aspect to the job is perhaps most critical. Tommy and Wilson are passionate about their work and that shines through in everything they do. From talking to customers at beer festivals to meetings with investors, their biggest selling point is enthusiasm. That enthusiasm has allowed them to make lasting relationships, build trust with mentors, and win over new customers.
It has also allowed them to push through the less desirable aspects of running a small beer company. By most standards, the day I spent driving 200 miles with Tommy from San Francisco to Santa Rosa and Sonoma was not glamorous. We loaded Tommy’s small SUV with over 1000 pounds of Snakebite and delivered it from a distributor in the South to one in the North. Tommy made one two-minute pitch in which he was able to secure a tasting at a store for the following week. Not everyday is filled with beer festivals and store openings. But for Tommy and Wilson, it couldn’t be better.
When asked how they have come to define success, the two did not point to some large payday in the distant future, but rather focused on their contentment with the present. “I think if we’re having fun and not going out of business it’s probably pretty good. We both really like what we’re doing so as long as we have an upward trend, just generally not even necessarily in sales, then we’re going to be happy with it,” remarks Wilson. “Results will follow that mentality. If you keep the focus on doing good work and having fun, the financial piece will fall into place.”
While the two have plans to grow the business, including introducing a new product to their line and opening a new market in the coming year, they are intentional about their growth. “We want to expand – we have a general goal of covering all of Northern California,” says Wilson. “That’s what we focus on more than saying, ‘we want to be in all 50 states by 2016’ because it’s not realistic to think that way.”
That persistent, deliberate style of growth feeds into Wilson’s advice for Williams students: “There are always going to be hard days, but you have to keep going through those. It’s cliché, but it’s true: nothing is built overnight. You see companies like Facebook that have done extraordinarily well, but that’s so rare. It really takes time to build a brand.”
On my last night in San Francisco, I shared my first four-pack of Snake Bite with some of my friends. The taste, which is a refreshing blend of cider and lager that prevents the cider from tasting too sweet, left me with little doubt that the Snake Bite brand will continue to grow for a long time.