Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lonerider CEO: Entrepreneurs are Outlaws

Sumit Vohra thinks he may have re-written the business plan for Lonerider Brewing Company about a million times.

He's speaking in hyperbole, of course, but I get his meaning - a significant amount of thought and hard work went into the business before anyone had laid a brick, installed the plumbing, or even asked an expert in craft brewing how their beer compared to their competition.

Vohra is the CEO and chief drinking officer of Lonerider Brewing Company, a Triangle-based brewery that received a 2011 North Carolina Companies to Watch award for their rapid growth and dedication to hiring and retaining a high-quality staff (the company currently employs 21 full-time staff members).

Vohra isn't your typical CED entrepreneur, in that his product is based on the precise combination of malt, barley, American hops, and brewer's yeast. Nevertheless, Vohra understands the entrepreneurial culture here in the Triangle. In fact, it's one of his fundamental assumptions in starting his business.

I caught up with Vohra to discuss craft brewing, entrepreneurship in the Triangle, and the fifth-annual Brew It Forward contest, which will occur in conjunction with the March 23rd Lonerider Showdown event in Downtown Raleigh's Moore Square.

CED: I imagine that there is a hefty amount of regulation within the alcoholic beverage industry – what was the hardest component of setting up the brewery for production?

Vohra: There is quite a bit of regulation in the industry. Navigating it is not easy but the answers are available if you ask around. The hardest component of setting up the brewery was making the strategic decision on what our focus would be when we opened.

CED: And what did you and your co-founders decide?

Vohra: Our focus was on building a company for distribution, rather than building a brew pub.

CED: An important distinction, for sure. There's been significant activity in installing new microbreweries in the Triangle – what are you seeing as trends? What, in your opinion, is driving the interest in craft beers and/or brew pubs?

Vohra: There are several reasons for the growth of craft beer in the Triangle area. The legislative environment in the Triangle and North Carolina has been positive towards home brewing and craft breweries. The Triangle is a technology & biotechnology hub - this attracts an abundance of educated talent to the area. This talent is often interested in craft brewing. And, finally, I wish to emphasize the great role that entrepreneurs play in the Triangle - the Triangle is a great place for entrepreneurship and that ties very well with enjoying a high-quality beer. Aren't entrepreneurs Outlaws?

CED: Do you have a stance on craft liquor? Top of the Hill recently began distilling at their facility in Chapel Hill, and Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Co. is blending a locally-produced liqueur in Durham. Is this the “next” craft brewing trend?

Vohra: I have a lot of respect for Scott and what he has created at Top Of The Hill. He has a great idea with the distillery. Similarly, I respect the work that Rim Vilgalys is doing in Durham. Craft distilling will gain more popularity in North Carolina as the legislative situation becomes more understood. Both Scott and Rim have taken the first steps, and there will likely be follow up to that.

CED: Each year, you run a “Brew It Forward” event, where the winner of a homebrew recipe contest is rewarded by the brewery producing a limited run of their beer (editor's note: this year is the fifth-annual Brew It Forward). What can you tell us about it?

Vohra: My co-founders and I began as beer geeks and home brewers, and we always wanted to give back to the community. Is there a better way than to invite a talented home brewer to be a part of our crew for a day?

CED: Seems like a great idea. How'd the first event come to be?

Vohra: The idea came out of a meeting with Bill Dubas and Kevin Thorngren four years ago, and with their help Brew It Forward has continued to flourish. We brew the winning beer on our system with the winner, and divide the proceeds post-sales equally between the winner, the North Carolina Brewers Guild, and a local non-profit.

Lonerider recently expanded their distribution network to Atlanta, and Vohra reports that the expansion is progressing nicely, though there is still a lot of room to grow in both regions. Vohra also invites CED Members to visit Lonerider, tours are available through their website for up to 15 guests at a time.

A disclaimer: Lonerider Brewing Company is the beer sponsor for After Hours, a monthly networking event for entrepreneurs in the Triangle. We alternate locations between the American Underground and HUB Raleigh on the second Tuesday of every month. 

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