Funkytown Brewery - A Story of Community, Culture, Friendship, and Craft Beer
A Grassroots Entry in to Craft Brewing
by Craig Chapman
After seeing Funkytown Brewery’s winning pitch at the 2021 Brewbound Pitch Slam Competition, I immediately made a mental note, “Reach out and write a story about Funkytown Brewery.” Their story was super exciting to me. Three childhood friends (Richard Bloomfield, Zachary Day and Gregory Williams), come together and decide to take a chance and pursue their shared love of craft beer and start and their own brand. I love the DIY entrepreneurial spirit.
Sure that story has played out time and time again, but what was different about Funkytown Brewery was their approach. Their ‘by any means necessary’ organic, slow build was actualized by an opportunity to first scale and produce their beer at Pilot Project Brewing, a brewery incubator located in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. Pilot Project Brewing is ‘a collaborative and artistically curious space to help support talented brewers in an industry with exceptionally high barriers’, perfect for three friends looking for a grassroots entry in to craft brewing.
Their story was so inspiring to me because I saw a reflection of my ‘punk rock kid’ self in them; a do it yourself passion to create a forward thinking brand that embodies a culture, community, and lifestyle that is an inherent part of your life. Did I mention DIY? Passion? Let me say it again and emphasize that these are all great things that encapsulate the potential for success.
I recently had a chance to send over a few questions to Funkytown Brewery to find out more about where they’ve been, where they are, where they’re going next and why they love beer so much.
Funkytown Brewery Founders (l to r): Richard Bloomfield, Zachary Day, and Gregory Williams
Give us a little background on Funkytown Brewery, yourselves, and why you decided to start the business.
Funkytown Brewery was started by three lifelong friends who have known each since grade school. We all attended middle school, high school and college at Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana. We’ve been drinking beer since college, consistently upping our beer quality moving on from malt liquors to the nationally distributed brands to the locally produced craft brew. We picked beers by the coolest or funniest label but noticed we didn’t see anything that looked like it came from us or was meant to engage the Black community.
So back in 2017, we all had our professional jobs but still had the desire to work for ourselves and achieve financial independence on our own terms. I think we just reached a point where we thought, “are we going to create our own business or just never try?” We just started thinking about what we like, what we do, and what can we bring to market where we can create a competitive advantage. We were probably drinking beer when these conversations were happening, so it was an instant link. At that time, we still didn’t know our beer styles or flavor profiles well. We just knew that we wanted to make some delicious beer with creative and hilarious labels that would introduce more Black people, women and other underserved minority groups to drink the good stuff. Once we decided we were going to open a brewery, we searched for the equipment we would need to homebrew, identified a local brew supply store, put some money together and bought about $1400 worth of supplies and equipment. From there, we started to brew, learn, and grow.
How did you end up at Pilot Project Brewing? Can you tell me a little about that relationship and why it was a good fit for Funkytown Brewery?
We learned about contract brewing after attending Freshfest Beerfest, in Pittsburgh PA in 2019. It was the only Black craft beer festival in the nation at the time, and we learned a lot from the brewers, folks in other craft beer industry positions and the guests. We learned the term and definition of “contract brewing” at the event and from there, through various internet searches we saw an article about a new thing called “brewery incubators”, and then came across Pilot Project right here in Chicago. They opened about two months before we discovered them. We reached out immediately, learned about their business model, provided some of our homebrew samples and kept in touch. We loved their business model and saw this as our best entry point into the market, with all the additional support they provide outside of just brewing up our homebrew recipes in larger quantities. When the opportunity to audition with Pilot Project came up in June 2021, we were ready. Since we introduced ourselves to them in 2019, we developed our business plan and strategy to complement Pilot Project’s services and take advantage of the resources they provide.
It’s just a great fit because they removed the largest obstacle for entering the industry, a large amount of capital investment! They already have existing relationships with retailers throughout the city that they can pitch your beer to on day one. They have a sales team and distribution team, they offer consultation on scaling up our beer recipes and product allocation, they have a PR team that shops the brands story, and they share all of their experience in the industry to allow us to make our best decisions. It kind of feels like the only realistic way for us to get into the industry and launch the beers we want in the timeframe we did (six beers in six months). Also, we still all hold our full-time jobs, so Pilot Project enables us to do that as well.
Are you currently working towards opening your own taproom? Why did you end up deciding this and what are some of the pros and cons between nomad brewing and owning your own spot?
Yes, the whole goal is for us to open our own brewpub eventually. The brewpub will finalize the vision where we can create a space that is unique and striking visually that also plays generations of hip-hop, R&B, 70’s soul, reggae and more. A spot that advances the Funkytown identity through the art on the walls, the food prepared in the establishment and the company culture.
The pros of nomad brewing are very low overhead as you pay to use the infrastructure, not purchase, or maintain it. You can run that business with less employees and really gain a better understanding of the demand in the market for your product. This allows you to build an accurate valuation of your company before taking the next steps, rather than guessing how the market will receive you and purchasing equipment based on assumptions rather than your own data.
Having your own spot gives you full control of everything, and that is simply the best situation to be in. But you need to crawl before you walk and brewing through Pilot Project is building up the market demand and building the competence of the founders in different practices that will allow us to hit the ground running when we take next steps.
Do you think going the nomad brewing route at Pilot Project helped set you up to better succeed once you open your own place?
Absolutely! We can gather market data, feedback and impressions long before we open our own doors. This allows us to refine strategy and execute it well once we head into the next steps of getting our own place.
Most importantly tell me about your beer? What are some beer types you are currently focused on and why?
We focus on a range of palatable styles. We’ve brewed an American Pale Ale, American Amber Ale, Irish Red Ale, Belgian Pale Ale an Oatmeal Milk Stout and an Imperial Stout. All styles were brewed in a way to introduce a foundational style but brewed to have low bitterness and astringency to invite beginner craft beer drinkers. Most of our styles also fall into the 5% alcohol by volume range so that you can enjoy a few. The craft beer aficionado will appreciate the nuance and complexity along with the availability of the different styles in an IPA heavy beer market.
What’s the secret sauce for Funkytown Brewery? How are you planning to do things differently than most breweries?
We’re offering an entirely different world to people within our culture and on the other, we are offering an entirely different culture in the beer world. We plan on expanding the industry consumer base which will bring in more ideas, more innovation and make the overall culture more dynamic and inclusive.
What is your current big focus right now for Funkytown?
We’re currently focused on keeping up with the demand as Chicagoland has been very receptive to our beer, and investigating subjects, absorbing information that will allow us to make informed decisions when it comes to next steps.
Are there any other Chicago area makers you have partnered up with on collaborations? Why are community partnerships like this so important?
We partnered with the three other Black owned breweries and beer brands in February for Black History month which brought us a lot of awareness and highlighted the need for diversity in the industry. We look to partner with local non-profits for activations because there is an alignment in our mission. We are all for corporate social responsibility and giving back to the Chicago community in various ways. We’ve worked with The Simple Good, True Chicago and The Gray Matter Experience non-profits based in Chicago so far with panel discussions and donations of beer proceeds. We plan on expanding our relationship with these non-profits in the future.
What’s the best way for people to learn more about Funkytown Brewery?