Michelle Foik and I are sitting at the bar in the Logan Square staple, Lulas Cafe on a slow Friday afternoon. While Chicago still seems to be waking up from its winter slumber, Michelle is bursting with energy, as always.
Michelle was one of the first people in the industry to show me the ropes when, a few weeks after I started my first beer job, we drove two hours to an Illinois Craft Brewers Guild meeting in Rockford. I've sought her guidance many times since then. She's one of those people that genuinely loves helping others and giving them advice about the industry, which she's completely qualified to do seeing as she's been at it for so long... and has seen every corner of the business.
We get into our five questions over Half Acre Galactic Double Daisy Cutters.
What are you drinking?
A Half Acre Galactic Double Daisy Cutter. I honestly like it better than the regular Daisy Cutter. Sometimes Daisy Cutter is a little too hoppy for me. I know this is a galaxy double, but I like when they add malt to it and balance it out. I think this is more balanced. That’s the only thing I don’t like about certain beers -- especially bitter beers and IPAs -- if you don’t have a balanced beer, it’s not my style. I like a malt background with that bitterness in the front.
What’s something we can’t Google about you?
I think that you can’t Google the I own a motorcycle. I don’t think most people know that about me because the bike only worked for six months and then it’s been hiding away for about two years. It’s a Suzuki GS 500, I got it from my friend Tim Sheldon who used to work at Goose Island. He’s promised me to fix it for the last year but… hasn’t. So, I technically ride a motorcycle but I don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen it in like a year.
How do you explain your job to your mother?
My mother knows what I do because she was in hospitality. So it’s not a fair question because my mom gets part of it. What she doesn’t get is how certain companies like Goose Island sent me to do sales in Europe. She said, “I’m sorry, what are you doing? You’re selling alcohol in Europe? And you’re out there just drinking?” I said, “Well, kind of, yeah. But I’m also selling.” And she said, “But you’re drinking? And everything’s happening for free?” So she kind of wishes she had my job back in the day.
It’s not an easy explanation to general people who don’t work in the beer industry because any way you say it, you sound like an alcoholic. I mean, honestly. When they ask what I do I tell them I sell beer. And then they’re like, “Cool, cool, so what does that job entail?” And I tell them, “Well, you have to go to accounts and you sit around and have a beer with them.” “Oh, so this happens at night?” “Well, no sometimes it starts at noon, sometimes it starts at 3 and some nights, I have to stay out until 5 if I’m at an account.” I think it’s really weird because everybody wants my job, but that’s only because of the theory that they get to drink all the time. Nobody really understands that it’s hard work, it’s a lot of hours. I mean, try having a relationship in our industry. It’s really hard.
My day can start at 8 in the morning, answering emails but then sometimes I have to stay up until 2 and then I have to be at it again at 8. It sounds like I’m complaining about something that’s amazing but it takes a toll on you after a while.
What makes the beer industry so special?
I just love the people in it. I love the people I’ve grown up with. I started out in one of the incubators for the industry here: Goose Island. You went there, you trained, you learned, and then you went on to open your own brewery or helped someone else open something. So watching my fellow colleagues grow into opening their own breweries is so cool. I’m so proud of everyone who I’ve worked who's now fulfilling their dreams.
When you start talking about the industry as a whole outside of Chicago, none of us really have that much competition. When you get in a room with a bunch of other brewers or business owners of breweries, we talk about what our strengths and weaknesses are. I think there’s a lot of cutthroat businesses in this world and I don’t think we’re as big as that. We understand what the big boys at Miller and Budweiser do, and we don’t have that cutthroat idea. There’s a difference, a different mentality. We want to help eachother.
What makes the beer industry so frustrating?
There’s too many hobbyists and not enough business-minded people. Without sounding like a jerk, not every homebrewer can create a business in the brewing industry. I think we’ve allowed that to happen and one thing that we have not done is explain to homebrewers that there are so many different facets to it than just making beer. It’s not a hobby, it’s a business. You can make the best beer in the world, but if you don’t understand the numbers and the business behind it, or the marketing or the branding, it won’t succeed. The thing about the industry right now is that everyone’s willing to give you money because they see it booming and they see the profitability. But not everybody understands that it’s a business.
I want to support these people and I don’t think I would ever tell somebody that they should not do it -- because I think you should. But what I want startup breweries to understand is that just because you can brew a beer, doesn’t mean that you understand numbers, marketing, labels, and an image. I also think a lot of new brewers think they can just sell their beers to the wholesaler. And I have to say, the wholesaler is responsible for this too because the wholesaler doesn't stop buying the damn beer. I hear breweries saying, “The wholesaler’s not doing their job, I’m moving to a different wholesaler” I say, “No, you’re not doing your job.” Breweries just assume that they can make the beer and just sell it to the wholesaler and they’ll take care of it. They don’t. You have to support the wholesaler.
I think in the next ten years you’re going to see those with the best quality beer and the best business background really making a stride forward and I think we already know who the leaders are going to be.