Husband-and-Wife SHU Graduates Grow Cotton Brewing Co. Into Successful Business Venture
Brett and Krista (First) Cotton have something brewing in Adrian.
The married double Siena Heights University graduates started brewing beer more than five years ago as a hobby. Using their own money – and their Siena Heights degrees—they decided to make it into a business in 2012. And business is booming. Using fairs and craft beer festivals as both a proof-of-concept and a built-in test market, Cotton Brewing Co. is on its way to becoming a full-time venture for the husband-and-wife team.
“We were just trying to be able to sell the beer,” said Krista of the original reason they started the business. “We never intended it to take off and have the demand that we did. It just keeps rolling.”
Brett said he originally got the idea of brewing beer while working in a corporate setting in Washington, D.C.
“Beer brewing was really big out there,” Brett said. “A bunch of friends would go hit up these different breweries every week.”
When his job in D.C. ended, he returned to Michigan and decided to buy a home brewing kit.
“About a year later, I was giving away so much beer, I called liquor control and asked, ‘What is it going to take to get a few bucks for my beer?’ ” he said.
The answer was filling out a piece of paper. But then a whole lot of paperwork followed. That’s where the education part comes in. Krista, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting (2007) and a master’s degree in organizational leadership (2009), handled all the paperwork. Brett, who has a business degree (2006) and a master’s degree in organizational leadership (2008), takes care of most of the logistics and marketing side of the business.
“It’s all done on our own, which helps a lot,” Krista said. “We were able to do it all on our own without anybody else’s input because we had the education.”
“I think having master’s degrees kind of gave us the upper hand, especially when talking to city council,” Brett said. “I think they knew we were pretty serious. If we invested this amount of time in our education to take a business venture on, I think it gave us a little credibility.”
Currently, the Cottons are on the road almost every weekend at festivals and fairs around the region. At the Lenawee County Fair in July, they staged a special one-day event featuring their beer, and had an unexpected response.
“The demand was enormous,” Brett said of the 5,000 or so people who showed up for the event. “It was a lot more than we expected. A lot more. We weren’t prepared.”
Brett said they normally go through 10-15 kegs of beer during a normal festival weekend.
Cotton Brewing is currently located in a small room of a large factory on the industrial side of the city of Adrian. In fact, the company logo on the door is the only evidence of a microbrewery’s existence. That won’t be for long.
The Cottons are in the process of opening a new location in Adrian that will include a tap room. The room will include an ornate, hand-crafted, 24-seat bar made out of hickory. Sixteen taps will flow—all with different kinds of Cotton-brewed beer.
“I want it to be a fun place for people to come and hang out and see the actual beer-making process,” said Brett of the 12,000 square foot facility, which is expected to open by the end of 2015.
The couple said the goal is to operate a full brewery there that would include a bottling, canning and distributing operation. That will allow them to leave their part-time jobs and concentrate on their business full-time.
“Eventually, we’d like to go state-wide, but that’s probably 5 to 7 years away,” Krista said.
Krista, who is considered the “brewer,” said they have created more than 120 types of beer. The fan favorite: maple bacon porter.
“The maple syrup gives you that front sweetness and the bacon dries it out,” Brett said of their best-seller. “It turned out to be a huge hit.”
They said brewing is a very scientific process. And that process is time-consuming, and the equipment expensive.
“Time is probably our biggest challenge,” Krista said.
Brett said there are more than 200 microbreweries in Michigan, and despite being in competition with one another, they collaborate quite a bit.
“We’ve learned that working together, we can be more successful,” he said.
Although neither Brett nor Krista had a background in brewing or bartending, they both credited their Siena Heights education for their business success.
“Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into something that gravitates to your degree,” Krista said. “We did business and accounting and ended up brewing. If you (have) a business degree, it can take you anywhere. You can do anything.”
“I think Siena gave us a pretty good 360-degree view on how to start a business,” Brett said. “Just start. You’re going to try to think everything all the way through to the end. And once you start, it’s going to be totally different. Just take an idea and start with it.”