Elliott Eckland is co-owner of the Pensacola Bay Brewery, which will celebrate its first anniversary next month. He sat down with me to discuss how he got into the beer business, PBB’s future expansion plans, and why he likes what he does.
What inspired you to start a brewery?
Well, my partner Mark Robertson and I, we both belong to the Escambia Bay Home Brewers Association, and we’ve both been brewing beers for quite a few years. Mark was going to retire in, I think, less than two years, and I was kind of ready to start a brewery. I just wanted to do something on my own, not work for someone else, and I knew how to make beer and wine. I asked a few people if they wanted to go in business with me, and Mark was one of them that I chose — we chose each other, I guess — so Mark and I started this venture. I put a business plan together, and we just started capitalizing it out of my retirement.
What did you do before, if you don’t mind my asking?
I was a national sales manager for a food and pharmaceutical broker, worldwide food broker, to military commissaries and exchanges worldwide. I worked in that industry for 22 years. After that I decided to get out and do my own thing.
So you’re getting close to one year in operation…
Have there been any unexpected problems or pleasant surprises in your first year?
Yeah, growing pains, you know. The business definitely is doing well. It takes a lot more to make it work than anybody would have ever imagined. Financial, labor, you name it. But we’ve reached our goals, our two year goals, within like four months. So we’re way beyond projections. And we started increasing the brewery capacity. We’ve already doubled the size of it now, and we’re adding more tanks December/January, and that’ll make us two and a half times as big as what we do now.
What is your current capacity?
We do… let me do the math real quick. We do about 1,800 gallons every two weeks. So now, with the two new tanks, we’ll do close to 3,600. Once we get the last couple in, we’ll be up to almost 5,000, or 10,000 a month. And then the goal is, as we need more capacity, we just start swapping out the smaller tanks for bigger tanks.
I remember there was a question of whether or not you could stay at this location as your capacity grew. Do you still plan to stay here, or would you need to expand to another location?
That depends on a few factors. First of all, we lease this building. It’s actually a state-owned building. It is leased and managed through West Florida Historic Preservation. I have a five-year lease on the building, and if they renew us for another five years, then more than likely we’ll stay here. We are definitely cramped. I don’t have room for really any expansion. We have already two coolers in this building for holding capacity, so we’re already bulging at the seams. But the idea is to open up a bigger facility, state of the art, with a bottling line, canning line, and also be a production facility to contract other people’s beers. I’m not sure where I’ll open that up at, whether it’s Pensacola or another state. It just depends on a lot of factors.
I hope you stay in Pensacola, for my part.
Well, PBB will stay here. I mean, if we don’t get the building renewed, we’ll just move it somewhere else. And then there’s other dynamics. If we have to move, then it just makes sense to get a big enough building and have a bottling line and everything else. But my plan is to open up another facility once we can’t reach demand from this place.
You had experience in making beer and wine. How did you formulate your recipes, if that’s the right word?
Trial and error, like anybody. There’s a standard formula, you know — malt, water, hops, yeast — and you just kind of make a recipe. You know you want certain flavors in a beer. If you want a type of color, like a red ale, you use a certain type of grain. If you’re trying to make a darker beer you use chocolate malts and coffee malts, different types of malts and roasted malts. So it’s just like a chef; a chef just goes “let me try a pinch of this, a pinch of that,” and try it. And if it’s good, hey, that worked.
So you do small batches?
Oh yeah. You do small, 10-gallon… Mark and I both, my partner, he’s been brewing beer for over 25 years. I’ve been brewing beer for about 12. We both have experimented and made recipes.
Have any of your mainstay beers changed since you first started, or are they basically the same?
Well, for the most part they’re the same. Like with any new system, you figure out ways to improve things, so I would say most of our beers are probably a little bit better now than the day we first opened up, the first time around, because we have learned how to use our new brewing system a little better. It’s just like anything. Riding your bike, you’re not very great at it when you first start, but within a few weeks you’re pretty much proficient on it.
You guys have already won some awards, taken your beers to some festivals…
Yeah, we entered six beers last year in the Florida Beer Championship, and we walked away with seven medals. We have three golds, three silvers, and one of our golds took the third best beer in the state of Florida. And that’s pretty remarkable considering browns are not very popular, and for a brown to take third is very very commendable. We were real pleased with it.
Tell me about your distribution.
Currently we’re using Lewis Bear. Fantastic distributor. They distribute the Anheuser-Busch products, and they have a warehouse in Pensacola, a warehouse in Ebro City, which is right outside Panama City. So they distribute our beers from the Alabama-Florida line, all the way down to Apalachicola. And then I have Tri-Eagle, which takes us from there down basically to I-75. And I’m in the process of getting into the rest of the state of Florida. We’re working the deals right now with the distributors.
So right now, where is the furthest that people can order a Pensacola Bay Brewery beer?
On the far side of Panama City, Apalachicola. Well, furthest away would be Tallahassee, but out of the distributor here it’d be Apalachicola. We’re currently in over 100 locations. We’ve gotten in a lot of places. The local community has really embraced us and supported us, and we’re very grateful for that. The local community and also the local business owners that have picked us up. So it’s been a great ride.
It’s been great having you in town. It’s a source of pride for the community to have our own brewery.
Yeah, it adds some nostalgia to the town. Beer’s been around for hundreds of years, and Pensacola doesn’t have a production facility. We used to have one called Spearman, and they sold to another company, and they stayed in business for one year — the name of it was Victory — and they closed in 1972 from what I’ve read. So we haven’t had a brewery here in 38 years, 39 years.
What is the most popular beer that you guys make?
Well that’s a difficult question. It depends on where and who you ask it. Because in the taproom, it’s our IPA. But it depends. If you’re going to a restaurant, it’d be more like the wheat beers or our amber. If you go to beer bars, it’s bigger beers. It just depends. All the beers are doing really, really well. Our number one seller during the summertime was our amber and our wheat — to the distributors, by far. Lighter beers, you know. But the amber is a pretty big beer, though.
And which is your favorite beer?
My favorite beer is the ESB. We brought that out when we first opened up, and we kept it on tap for about three months. But at the current time, we didn’t have enough tanks to make seven beers, to keep demand going, so we had to take one of them out. So we brought that back as a winter beer now, because now we have more tanks, so it’s all good.
What’s been the best thing about operating the brewery this past year?
What’s really cool for me is, being from Pensacola — I’ve lived here most of my life, went to grade school, college here, graduated from UWF; my partner has lived here many, many years — and what’s nice is being able to give back to the community. We brought something very unique to Pensacola, we’re able to employ people, and I like that. I like to be able to add some value to this town. That’s my personal take on it.