Justin Brown never thought his degrees in electrical technology and computer engineering technology would lead him to a career in…beer.
But thanks to his training as an engineer, he’s an owner of a rapidly growing craft brewery in the hippest neighborhood in Indianapolis.
Fountain Square Brewing Company’s birth was “serendipity,” says Brown. It grew out of a conversation in the summer of 2010 with neighbor Bill Webster, a microbiologist, and Webster’s longtime friend Jeff Gibson, a chemist. The pair wanted to start a craft brewery as a sideline business, using their science backgrounds to create beers of consistent quality with a long shelf life.
Webster and Gibson knew that Brown, who holds a B.S. degree in computer engineering technology and an A.B. in electrical engineering technology from Purdue University, had the perfect skill set to round out their team. And it was just the career move Brown had been looking for. He was attracted by the opportunity to combine his passion for building machines with his dream of owning a business.
“It was never my dream to open a brewery,” he says, but “the idea of owning my own business and building my own factory…sounded like a pretty good thing.”
After graduating from Purdue in 1998, Brown wasn’t sure how he wanted to use his dual degrees in a career. “I didn’t want to be an engineer,” he says. So he teamed up with some friends to go back-country skiing in Colorado, where, among other things, he used a machine called an Avalauncher to help prevent avalanches on ski slopes. He also taught guitar lessons and worked construction jobs. He applied for and won a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create a solar power company, but learned that starting a solo business was “harder than I thought.”
After a few years out West, he returned home to join Electrical Controls Technology (ECT), an electrical contracting business founded by his father, Harold. But he was still dreaming of forging his own path – and that’s when his neighbors came calling.
He says the trio’s journey to build a successful brewing operation has been filled with “a lot of serendipity and hard work, and a lot of green lights.”
As befits their science training, the trio did extensive research before deciding on a business model for the brewery. They found that brewpubs are 80 percent more likely to fail than craft breweries, which led them to their decision to open a tasting room while focusing on distribution to restaurants and liquor stores. That strategy, along with the timely opportunities to purchase equipment from a defunct downtown brewpub and to lease a rundown auto-repair building in Fountain Square, enabled them to break even in the first few months of business.
They used their own brains and brawn to reduce costs, spending an entire year building the brewery themselves – for about one-eighth of the average start-up expense.
Today, when Brown’s not using engineering expertise to install machinery for such large industries as Pepsi in his position at ECT, he’s at the brewery, where he has designed and built its entire automation system. He’s grateful that “working for my dad has given me the chance to develop the real-world skills made possible by my education,” noting that his father loves the fact that his son is building a brewing company.
Brown has created an automated system that crushes barley and delivers it to the mash tuns, a touch-screen control panel that regulates temperature in the brewing vats, a panel to run the centrifuge that filters the beer, and a control panel that operates a 1957 bottling machine rebuilt by the partners.
Brown says this automation is unique for a small brewery, and to build it, he used “a lot of what I learned at Purdue.” But he adds, “The experience that I got from Sycamore really was the basis for everything. It was the level of education – when I got into high school I felt like I was way ahead of the other kids.”
In addition to the engineering and computer work, Brown also oversees construction and maintenance, as well as the brewing schedule and deliveries.
He says the time he spent in Colorado, where craft brewing is a huge business, has helped him immensely. “Being able to see what’s going on out there and bring that here is pretty valuable.”
Fountain Square Brewing Company produces 3,000 gallons of porter, IPA, pilsner, pale and amber ales each week, and is well on its way to reaching its goal of becoming a regional brewery, distributing its product to Indiana and surrounding states. Its beers are sold throughout Indiana, and the market is rapidly growing. Craft brews make up only seven percent of the one million barrels of beer sold in Indiana each year, but that percentage has nearly doubled in just one year.
The Fountain Square Brewing Company trio continues to reinvest profits to expand the brewing operation, so his ECT job remains the main source of income for Brown and his family, which includes his wife, Amanda, and their two young sons, Nolan, two-and-a-half, and Jacob, nine months. Brown says Amanda, who has an accounting background, helps to “keep me organized.” That’s important, since Brown often commutes from their Indianapolis home to ECT projects in Richmond, Indiana while working at the brewery in the evenings and on weekends.
The amount of work involved is staggering, but Brown is philosophical and driven by his desire to run a successful business. “It’s been a very full period of life,” he says with a smile. “I’ve tried to embrace it.”
Brown credits his parents with helping him to succeed. His mother, Betty, was a preschool teacher who enrolled him in the first class of first-graders at Sycamore, where he remembers his teachers as “top-notch.” He says his Sycamore class was like “a family.” “We were competitive with each other, and Sycamore was responsible for creating that good competitiveness.” He still keeps in touch with members of his class, and remains good friends with classmate Brian Hartz, a Fountain Square resident.
What’s next? Brown is keeping his options open while moving full-steam ahead.
“It’s a crazy adventure,” he says.
Want to learn where Fountain Square Brewing Company’s products are available? Check out its website at www.fountainsquarebrewery.com, or download its free iPhone app from the iTunes store.
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