Alex Dittmar laughed as he stretched out his arms, reaching to tinker with a cable box sitting on a ledge above his head.
“Chances are pretty good that, whenever you find me here, I’m not doing anything involving beer,” joked Dittmar, founder and head brewer of Kent’s Airways Brewing Company. “Like fixing cable or replacing a lightbulb in the fridge, fixing this, fixing that. That’s, I think, 80 percent of what I do.”
Not that the other 20 percent – the part involving the actual brewing – doesn’t bear mentioning. In the exploding marketplace of craft beers, business has been good for Airways Brewing, Dittmar reported. Airways is projected to brew about 500 barrels this year – about 150 percent more than last year, according to Dittmar, and 10 times the figure from three years ago. The company hired its first salesperson in January; previously, Dittmar had been in charge of sales “in (his) spare time.”
Part of Airways’ growth has been due to its decision to bottle and can its brews and move them to retailers all over western Washington. Airways revamped its brewery system a year and a half ago, adding a pair of tanks (growing from three tanks to five) for more brewing capacity. Previously reliant on selling draft beer at its two Kent locations and to establishments around the Seattle-Tacoma metro area, Airways then began bottling its beers and distributing to retailers almost a year ago. Cans were added to the company’s repertoire in March to celebrate Airways’ third anniversary.
“The decision to bottle was twofold,” Dittmar said. “Number one, economically for a brewery of our size, the profit margin for bottles is higher than on draft beer.”
There’s not a lot of money in draft beer, Dittmar explained, when you account for everything from the cost of the keg itself (typically $100 to $130) to the delivery and pickup of the keg to the amount of time the keg is parked a particular location – realistically anywhere between two days and a month – during which the brewery doesn’t make any more money. Those costs are compounded given that Airways needs three kegs for each account: the actual keg in use at the time, a backup and the dirty one that gets swapped out after each use.
“If we have to deliver a keg to North Seattle, let’s say Greenwood,” said Dittmar, “we’re looking at an hour and a half travel time for $125. Well, when you take into account gas and paying the sales guy who’s driving that van, we’re really only making $5 to $10 on that keg.”
Bottling through a mobile bottler, on the other hand, offers several advantages, including less capital cost and increased brand awareness.
“There’s nothing like fresh draft beer, but you have something that somebody’s taking into their home,” said Dittmar. “They have your brand in their home now. People can send it to friends in markets that we’re not even in. People can take it to dinner in another part of the city, and someone else can like it go, ‘Oh, where can I find that?'”
The increased portability with bottles and cans has increased Airways’ range, as well.
“We’re in Bellingham now with bottles,” Dittmar said. “(The retailer will) come down and pick them up. We don’t ever have to drive to Bellingham ourselves.”
Since Airways has added bottles and cans to its product line, the company has expanded its reach as far north as Bellingham and Whidbey Island and south to Vancouver. Previously, Airways’ product didn’t go north of Lynnwood and south of Tacoma.
“We’re sticking with western Washington for now,” Dittmar said. “I think there would be a larger market for our cans and bottles even out into Snohomish county if we chose to go there, but for a brewery of our size right now, that doesn’t make sense. … We were actually approached by a distributor in the Midwest, from the Michigan area, I think. But it’s just not right for us right now. It has to make sense for us.”
While the company is taking a cautious approach with regard to geographic expansion, Dittmar said that Airways is being bold when it comes to cultivating its product line.
“We just rolled out a batch of our Coconut Stout,” he said. “That goes on sale on Thursday, four-packs of 16-ounce Coconut Stout cans. That’s seasonal. It’ll run through March. We also have our Final Departure beer for the end of the year, which we did last year for the first time.
“Last year, it was called our ‘Beer for the End of the World,’ but the world didn’t end. At least, as far as I know,” he laughed. “We’re scheduled to brew that next week. It’ll go into bottles like we did last year.”
The Final Departure stout already has a loyal customer base, having won a silver medal at the Washington Beer Awards in June. Another beer with a following – the popular Loud Lady India Pale Ale – returns in January.
“I think it’s critical for us – and for any brewery, really – to keep this rotation of beers going,” Dittmar explained. “Especially younger craft beer drinkers want different things. People want their standbys that they know they love and will always be there for them, but they also want their variety. We actually scrapped a lot of our beer last year that was kind of marginal, much to the detriment of some of our regulars. But we picked just three regular beers, and the rest are all rotators or seasonals. … I don’t think you can be afraid as a brewery to cut stuff that doesn’t work.”
Not, of course, that Airways isn’t happy to heed the discerning palates of its customers.
“We actually just brought one back from the dead due to customer demand,” Dittmar said. “The ESB (extra special bitter), which was one of the beers we started with. Since we brewed a big batch, it’s probably been at least a year.”
Dittmar said that, in such a crowded market, it’s vital to listen not only to the demands of your local client base, but also to keep up with the daily pulse of the industry as a whole.
“It’s crucial,” Dittmar said. “Tastes – in beer, especially – are so weird and volatile that you have to be on top of the trends every day. They’re always changing.
“IPA style, for example, has changed and is changing. IPAs are in high demand right now, but the types of IPAs that people like, it’s different today versus even when we moved into this building three years ago. People now want fruitier, with newer hop varieties. They want fruity, more aromatic IPAs versus the more bitter, piney IPA. More citrusy. I think you could still brew the other type, but if you want something wildly successful, you need to watch what people are responding to.”
So with a growing reach and a keen eye on the marketplace, where does Airways go from here?
Key choices loom, according to Dittmar, including the question of space.
“The leases at both of our places are up at the same time, in two and a half years,” Dittmar said. “The big question will be what to do at that point. We’re going to have to grow. We’re squashed in here with no room to move. We need to be in a larger space.
“That is the biggest challenge, finding a new place. Breweries are not easy places to locate. There are utility requirements. They are very tough on places. There are people who don’t want the smell of a brewery in their space. For us to continue to grow like we have, it’s a crucial decision.”
Before crossing that bridge, though, Dittmar said that Airways is preparing to address questions of a much broader scope.
“I think the real big question is, ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?'” Dittmar said, laughing. “We’re at a point where we’re maturing, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. What markets do we want to reach? Do we want to expand? I don’t have the answers to those questions today, but decisions we make in the next six months will answer those questions.”