Brewing up Leadership
Warcloud Brewing Company: Ray what’s up hermano? Tell us what it’s taken to get to where you’re at right now with Norwalk Brewhouse? Books? Skills? Hours of studying? Learning? Brewing?Explain it all!
Ray Ricky Rivera: Norwalk Brew House is a business I’ve been working on for a few years. I started building brand presence in the local homebrew scene through my work with the SoCal Cerveceros homebrew club. What initially began as an idea to open a bar & grill with a curated lineup of CA craft beer, turned into a dream of opening up a brewpub. I started homebrewing back in 2014 to learn the ins and outs about beer. Back then I didn’t have any intentions of becoming a commercial brewer. It was done purely as a hobby and a way for me to develop my palate. Six years later I’ve managed to build a large network of people in and around the beer industry. Those connections and relationships have taught me so much and continue to be a great resource of knowledge. I’m also a partner in the beverage company, Mundial Beverages. In 2019 we launched our first beer brand and this week we brought our first coffee to market. I’ve learned so much from my short time spent working in the commercial craft beer industry. I’ve been looking closely at costs, margins and all the moving parts involved with manufacturing and distributing beer. It’s a tough industry and with the current pandemic it just became an incredibly difficult time for the entire food and beverage industry. Taprooms are empty and we’re seeing breweries closing every day. Right before this entire shift happened I had already started reworking my business plan for Norwalk Brew House. Norwalk is finally getting its first brewery with La Jara Brewing Company, and they’re really great at making beer. So, I started thinking about ways we could team up and really build a culture of craft in Norwalk. That led me to develop a business plan to open something that’s more communal and focused on educating the local market of what else is available. NBH will be a hybrid of a café and tap house. I’ll still offer NBH branded beer that will be brewed locally, but I’ll also be able to offer tap space to the small breweries I support. I’ve been scouting potential locations and talking to the city about my plans. It’s in motion and I’m really taking my time. Especially now, given the Covid-19 closures. It’s an unfortunate time for many, but also a great time for those of us looking to get started.
Warcloud Brewing Company: You’re the president of one of the largest home brewing clubs in the nation. It takes due diligence in beer, how do you monitor the performance of the club? How do you make sure they’re brewing the best beer possible?
RRR: It’s really been amazing to see how the SoCal Cerveceros has grown. We just turned five! The club is so diverse with brewers of all levels. Some members are just getting started, brewing one gallon batches. While others are seasoned pros running commercial operations. We have members who are Cicerone certified, BJCP judges, many multi-award winning homebrewers, and last year two commercial breweries were opened with a third member opening a brewery this summer. As president I just really try and make sure the club continues to grow. When I took on the official title of president, membership was less than 100. We are now well over the 200 mark. We’ve seen some crazy growth in a short amount of time. A lot of that has to do with the exposure and media coverage we’ve been fortunate to have. Some of it is also a result of us launching successful beer festivals. In 2018 we launched Coldxela. It’s the largest Latino/POC homebrew festival in the country. We also helped launch Cerveceros Y Cocineros (CYC Fest) - another beer fest that’s a slightly smaller version of the mega, Coldxela. Our festivals consistently sell out and new people learn about our club every event we have. We gain new members from those events as well.
Our newly implemented Board of Directors has been doing a great job with helping to grow the club. We’ve made a big effort to focus on more brewing education for our members. We now host workshops to study grain, yeast and various brewing techniques. We host club brew days where members get an opportunity to learn from each other. We also bring in speakers to walk us through lessons. For example, this month we have White Labs founder, Chris White, sitting in on a virtual club meeting to talk to us about yeast.
Warcloud Brewing Company: Dope... let’s talk about mindset, what fuels your drive to lead? How long have you been at it?
That’s a great question. If I look back to elementary school, I’ve always got involved. I was the kid running for student council, addressing the school during Monday assemblies. I was the 6th grade president, and in middle school I was the 8th grade president. In high school I was the president of the M.e.Ch.A club. Hahaha! I just find myself in the mix in everything I do. I’m not sure where that comes from actually. As a kid I was super shy, especially around new people. I was really quiet and timid. Before I graduated high school I joined a band and that experience really helped fuel that drive to be a leader. I was the front man for an 11 piece band. I completely immersed myself and went from being the emcee with a couple of raps in a song or two, to being the main songwriter and de facto band leader. That led me to managing the group and overseeing the band business. From there I ran a record label, founded my own artist management company and just did everything I couldn’t afford to outsource. A lot of that need to “lead” or be in charge probably stems from my creative side. I have a lot of ideas and I’m always trying to figure out how to connect the dots. I’m sure along the way I learned that if I bring the most value, I can’t be kicked out. Or if you kick me out there’s going to be a huge gap to fill when I’m gone. I think I create those scenarios on purpose, maybe even subconsciously. Maybe not because I just explained it! I do remember being young, about 17 or 18 and trying to find my place in a band of skilled musicians and I overheard someone say, “we don’t need him, he’s just a rapper, we can get rid of him.” I probably have had a chip on my shoulder ever since. And the ironic thing is the guy who said that eventually got replaced. So, to answer your question… I guess I been at it all my life!
Warcloud Brewing Company: Most people step up into a position of leadership and some take it. We’re known for doing both for fun. How did you take your responsibilities for over 100 homebrewers, some turned pro brewers.. Are you able to delegate responsibilities efficiently?
RRR: It took us a long time to get our infrastructure in place. We were a casual club for the first couple years for sure. Back then I was doing whatever I could to help keep things going. But I’ve never been the only one. There’s always been people helping and for awhile I did carry a big load. But mostly because I just ended up taking on a bunch of things like I typically do. It’s work I‘m happy to do. I like to be of service any way I can. I definitely like to be in control of things, but it comes from a place of service. I gladly take on that responsibility. Today, we have a Board of Directors made up of 8 officers. Everyone has their duties to handle. I try not to step on toes and let the Board members do their thing. So far it’s been working well and we get better as we go along. I really like the team that’s in place right now. Everyone has great ideas and they’re always ready to work. It’s always best to collaborate and work with a team. Being a leader is cool, but it’s never a one-man show. It can’t be.
Warcloud Brewing Company: How would you describe your leadership style?
RRR: Honestly, I don’t really know. I can say I hope that I’ve managed to develop some decent leardship skills over the years, but that might be a better question for people who see me as a leader. I prefer to be a team player if I can. I just come with a lot of different skills. I know I’m a good problem solver. I guess it depends on the setting. If I’m a coach on the court I want to be Phil Jackson. Hahaha! No timeouts, you can figure it out in real time while the clock keeps running. I believe in you!
Warcloud Brewing Company: What can you do to motivate a team? How do you keep those 100 members and unique brewing attitudes and personalities?
RRR: A homebrew club isn’t like managing a staff. It’s more like corralling a bunch of cousins who are excited to hang out on Christmas. You just need to make sure there’s a working bathroom and plenty of parking. They bring beer and it’s always a great time. That’s all the motivation you need. Homebrewers are special like that.
Warcloud Brewing Company: Are you able to collaborate with others and accept new ideas? I know we did a beer before, got some rave reviews. But how often do you collaborate?
RRR: On the homebrew level I haven’t really collaborated with too many people. I’ve done many club brew days where a bunch of us get together and brew a big batch, but that’s not a true collaboration in my opinion. I see a collab as an idea where two people (or a group) develop something from start to finish. When I homebrew I always brew alone. Part of that is because I work from home and I usually brew on a weekday morning. Most of my friends brew on the weekends or after a long day at work. Brewing is sort of therapeutic for me. It’s relaxing so I enjoy doing it alone. The collab we did was fun. I enjoyed hanging out and watching you guys go through your process. That’s always a cool thing to watch because even though every beer is made the same way, everyone still has their own techniques and tricks they use. I like watching that and comparing it to how I do things. I unfortunately didn’t get to try our Jimi Hazedrix IPA, but several of our friends told me it was really good. It would be amazing to see that idea released as a commercial beer. Make that happen guys! I’ve done one commercial collab for Cerveceria Mundial. We made a blonde ale with our friends at Liberation Brewing Company in Long Beach. I really like brewing blondes and I’ve dialed in a couple versions of what I call, “Bidi Bidi Blonde Blonde,” which will be my flagship beer once I open Norwalk Brew House. I shared the base recipe with the CM team and the brewer at Liberation and everyone was on board. Eric over at Liberation made some tweaks and scaled it up to a 5 bbl recipe. He went with Galaxy for a short dry hop and gave it some nice dank that not’s really typical for the style. We were really happy with that collaboration. Collaborating like that was a lot of fun. I look forward to doing more of that.
Warcloud Brewing Company: Take us thru how to throw a show? Start to finish!
RRR: Man, that’s a loaded question. I’ve been producing events since the early 2000’s and there’s so many different ways to get things done. It really depends what you’re trying to accomplish. I started off small like most event producers do, booking bands in small bars and clubs. You pretty much book the talent, promote the show and hope the bar makes enough money to break you off with some change. Now I’m producing a hybrid of events where beer tasting is the emphasis, but live music plays a major role too. When you start scaling up you have more moving parts to oversee. Take Coldxela for example: we have sponsors to help with budgets, an entire production crew for live entertainment, over 50 brewers that need booths, ice, and a staff. We have to hire graphic designers for our marketing, publicists for media coverage, a security team, ticketing service, insurance and we have to coordinate a variety of vendors. If I’m the one in charge I like to work backwards. I first like to figure out what it is the event is trying to be. Figure out its identity and then add everything that is in line with that. With Coldxela we reach a wide, diverse audience of beer fans including people who are experiencing their first beer fest. We have to make sure whatever we do appeals to both those palates. Live music is a great way to bring it all together. Programming the live stage is a great opportunity to give guests an unforgettable experience. It really helps take things to the next level. So, first figure out what exactly you want the event to be. Then, work backwards from there. If you’re lucky enough to have a working budget, that’s a great spot to be in. Otherwise you’ll need to be resourceful and know how to solve problems quickly. Again, that’s a loaded question and I could write an entire article just about that.
Warcloud Brewing Company: What’s your favorite beer style? How often do you brew?
RRR: I’ve come to really enjoy Belgian beers. By no means am I an expert on the style. But the Belgian stuff is always so interesting and complex. Something about the spice of Belgian yeast really speaks to my palate. Belgium’s beer history is fascinating too. I love the imagery of monastic monks brewing beer. That fact can be a fun conversation starter when hanging out with people bad mouthing beer. It’s a holy drink, damn it! I don’t really brew too often. I’m the only person who drinks beer in my household so a five gallon batch lasts awhile for me. I brewed the other day and it was about two months between batches.
Warcloud Brewing Company: How do you measure your own performance at shows or by consumption?
RRR: Do you mean my beers performance at festivals? Beer is kind of like music or art, it’s subjective. There’s times where I think I’ve made a great beer and some people aren’t too crazy about it. Everyone has different palates. When I pour at festivals I usually tap out whatever I bring. But that doesn’t really mean much. It just means a bunch of people tried your beer. I don’t put too much value on that really. It’s not a way to truly gauge if you make good beer or not. I’m satisfied if I brew a beer I enjoy drinking.