Behind the Beer: Three Friends Turn Their Hobby Into A Thriving Business
BY: RYAN LOMBARDI
Pursuing your dream is no easy task, especially when it requires decisions like quitting your full-time job. Just ask Jared Herman, Luke McKelvy and Erich Walls of Levity Brewing, all family men from the Indiana, PA area who left behind the security of full-time work to find their happiness in owning and managing a brewery. We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with them to uncover what it’s really like to set out and chase a dream not everyone sees in the same light as you. We uncover answers to questions such as, managing a new business, the number one piece of advice you could give any entrepreneur just starting out, how to deal with stress and competition and much more.
Jared, Luke and Erich are all devoted family men and loving husbands. Originally from Eastern Pennsylvania, Jared and his wife both moved to Indiana years after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and currently reside there with their four children. Jay’s background is in biology education, which eventually lead to a teaching job in Pittsburgh, the job he eventually left to begin Levity Brewing. Luke, also a graduate of IUP, grew up in Indiana and still lives there with his wife and five children. He left a job in finance at the bank to pursue his brewery dream. Last but certainly not least is Erich. His background includes ten and a half years in the U.S. Army and eventually pharmaceutical sales, where he spent the majority of his career. The corporate culture left a bad taste in his mouth, which eventually lead him to help build Levity Brewing. Erich resides with his wife and three kids in Indiana.
Pictured from left to right: Jared Herman, Luke McKelvy, Erich Walls
For the three of them, brewing beer started as a hobby, constantly tinkering and experimenting with different recipes. Between Jared, Luke, and Erich they have a combined 23 years of home brewing experience. Entrepreneurial ideas have always flowed through their conversation, but Luke came up with the idea to take this hobby to the next level and open a brewery. It was after this decision that they started taking their hobby seriously. The year before Levity was opened Jared, alone, brewed 600 gallons of beer.
This eventually lead them to enter into their first beer competition at a beer-fest in Maryland, where they learned a different side of brewing. It was this weekend the three guys sat down, crunched numbers, and formed ideas in their hotel room. It was in that moment Levity Brewing was born. They got back from their trip and began their journey to Indiana’s first ever brewery since 1939.
How did they decide to quit the safety of their full-time jobs?
After planning out the brewery and crunching the numbers, the guys studied other breweries that weren’t successful over recent years. They came to the realization that most owners didn’t devote enough of their time into the business and because of this neglect; they failed. Jared, Luke, and Erich knew in order to be successful they had to have faith in the idea and give Levity Brewing all of their attention. After this, it was a no brainer on what they had to do.
Was there concern with family and friends when you said you’re leaving your full-time job to start Levity Brewing?
“My wife fully supported the decision”, said Jay, “but there was some concern with other family and friends. Some people even still say this was a bold move.” Just like any idea or business, success comes to those willing to take chances others won’t. As they showed the steps and processes they’re going through to make their dream a reality, doubts faded. “For the rest of your life you might always question whether it was the right decision or not, it’s not like we just won the lottery or something like that. We work harder than we did and still make less money than we walked away from and the hope is that won’t last forever. At the same time, you’re still plugging away believing you’re taking steps into the right direction.”
In the beginning, it never really dawned on Jay how big of a step this was. The reality was Jared, Luke and Erich were risking everything for a business that may or may not work. When starting, that’s not how they looked at it. Instead of seeing everything that could go wrong, they saw the opportunity and all that could go right.
There are a lot of things you don’t know going into business, how did you learn all these things?
Podcasts, books, articles, magazines, the internet, pretty much anything they could get their hands on and learn. “What really helped us out is a lot of other brewers in the industry. Everyone within the brewing industry is happy to share their knowledge and help you out.” There was so much to learn, like going from a home brew kit to a ten barrel brewing system.
“Most people are like ‘Ya! I want to learn’ but learning is hard, and it’s hard because people learn the most from their mistakes and no one sets out to make mistakes. Learning is difficult for most because you have to own up to the fact you’ve made a mistake.”, said Jared. Sometime you really just don’t have a clue, and you have to be self aware enough to realize this. “Admitting you don’t know something and asking, honestly i think that’s the hardest for people.”
“Most people are like ‘Ya! I want to learn’ but learning is hard, and it’s hard because people learn the most from their mistakes and no one sets out to make mistakes.”
If somebody was just starting and making the transition from a steady job into Entrepreneurship, what’s one solid piece of advice you would give them?
Make sure you are comfortable working harder, and for longer hours and for some time probably making less money if any. Don’t be naive and prepare yourself for the long haul that that’s probably going to be several years. Erich says, “Be objective and honest with yourself. Talk with a lot of people within the industry you want to be in and network. That’s how you learn.” Most importantly, “Don’t jump blindly,” a statement they all agreed was most important.
When starting a business, do you pay yourself first or last?
Both, in the beginning pay yourself because without that the lights go out and so does the business. Once the business is started you pay yourself last because it’s the employees and workers keeping everything buzzing. Without them you have nothing.
Do you worry about competition?
Trust your plan and keep doing what’s right and producing a great product. “We always keep our foot on the gas, and just like driving, if you look too much in the rear view or side view mirrors it becomes dangerous and your eyes get directed off the forward goal. Every now and then you need to check those mirrors, but at the same time keep your eyes forward and drive on.” Every business owner or entrepreneur feels some sort of stress or worry about things that may or may not be. You can feel it, but don’t let it cripple you. “Worry, complacency, and ignorance are traits that have no place in an entrepreneur’s character.” said Jared. “Create the best possible product you can and always try to be making it better. Don’t sacrifice quality, ever.”
“Don’t sacrifice quality, ever.”
What is one thing you learned since starting a business?
“It’s really important to get the right people at the right job.” says Erich. How you manage your employees is crucial for your business. “Managing people is way harder than managing something like inventory.” Jared said with a smile. “You need to make sure everyone is taken care of and growing with you and your business.” Every night after the Taproom closes, the guys always try and sit down over a beer with their employees and just talk and learn about their lives and connect with them. “We’re fortunate to have amazing employees who work like they own the business and we are very grateful for it.”
“We’re fortunate to have amazing employees who work like they own the business and we are very grateful for it.”
Aside from their Taproom, Levity Brewing has been in 80 different locations on tap as well as currently starting with a distributer in four counties: Bedford, Somerset, Cambria, and Blair. To learn more about the guys or Levity Brewing visit levitybrewing.com.
About the Author
Ryan is the founder of MuscleMan Media. A normal guy who just so happens to know a thing or two about digital marketing and social media. When not working, there is a good chance you’ll find him at the gym.
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