Jun. 1—In this episode of the UnCapped podcast, host Chris Sands talks with Old Ox Brewery cofounder Chris Burns and Silver Branch Brewing Co. cofounder Brett Robison about how they merged their breweries. Here is an edited excerpt of their talk.
UnCapped: What were you doing before you opened Old Ox?
Chris Burns: I was doing IT contract management for federal government clients, so it was a natural transition into brewing, of course.
UnCapped: There are a lot of people who have made that transition. I worked at a large government contracting company for a while, and it sucks.
Burns: I really loved the people I worked with, but I was sick of commuting into the city, one and a half hours each way; it gives you a lot of time to think about what you'd rather be doing with yourself; and brewing was top of mind. My dad introduced me to home brewing about seven years before we got started in the business planning process. We used it as a way to keep the family together, because with home brewing especially, there's a lot of down time.
UnCapped: Yeah, there's only about one hour total of doing stuff.
Burns: Exactly. So, we used that time to catch up and keep the family together.
UnCapped: I commuted close to an hour, but thankfully, I only had to hop on the MARC and ride down to Silver Branch.
Burns: Oh yeah. I was using the commuter bus, which allowed me time to write my business plan.
UnCapped: That was very convenient.
Burns: Rewrite it, actually, several times.
UnCapped: Was it through home brewing that you grew a passion for beer.
Burns: Yeah, absolutely. My dad actually dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the hobby. He'd learned how to home brew from an old college buddy of his. He called me up one day and said, "Hey, I'm brewing an IPA. Why don't you come over and help me?" And I was like, "I don't think so, Dad. That doesn't really sound like my thing." But he convinced me, and I was drawn immediately to that hobby on that first brew day, because you could see that you could be as analytical and scientific-minded as you had the aptitude to be, and you could be as creative and artistically-minded as you wanted to be. I thought that was really cool, that you could find one hobby that satisfied bath halves of your brain. I was hooked, from day one.
After about five years, we were making more beer than we could drink. We were giving it away to our neighbors, our garage looked like "Breaking Bad" out there — the neighbors would slow down when they passed by, wondering what we were doing. We eventually got sick of giving away our beer for free and thought, you know, might as well give this a go.
UnCapped: Several breweries I've talked to, that's how they started. The hobby just sort of got out of control. ... What was the first beer on tap when you opened?
Burns: We opened with two: Golden Ox, our Belgium-inspired golden ale, and Alpha Ox, which, at the time, was our session IPA.
UnCapped: It was [recently] announced that Silver Branch and Old Ox would be merging. How did that come about? Who approached who? What was your courtship like?
Burns: We've actually known each other since before Silver Branch got started. We shared a mutual friend who ended up being our banking partner for both breweries, and he introduced us during Silver Branch's startup process. We would talk during their startup journey, and I gave a lot of worthless, free advice.
It's funny because our networks kept getting more similar. We ended up having the same accountant, and most recently, we ended up with the same distribution partner in Maryland. I had to drop of a keg to our mutual distribution partner, and he said, "Why don't we meet at Silver Branch?" I said, "Yeah, I haven't been over there in a long time." So we go over there, we do business, and then Brett and Christian [Layke, Silver Branch cofounder] and I start talking, and they say they're looking to expand. We had recently expanded into our Middleburg location, so they were just kind of picking my brain on what that experience was like, any advice. It was a great conversation.
Then I started thinking to myself. These guys are looking to expand, and trying to open a second location at this particular point in time would be really difficult because there's very little availability. Second of all, there's a high shortage of building supplies. It would take 18 months to two years to get something off the ground at this point. We have a production brewery that we're looking to expand also, and at the same time, my business partners, my parents, are looking to work toward retirements. I wonder if there's a way to work this out.
Brett Robison: Just to kind of build on it from the Silver Branch side, we were still in the throes of the pandemic, but it looked pretty clear that Silver Branch was on a positive trajectory. It looked like when all the dust settled, we would be in a pretty good position to take on some opportunities, and so we were actively searching for a bunch of different places to build a second home for Silver Branch. We explored several different commercial projects and developments.
Chris had reached out, and we grabbed a beer in Ashburn, and then I went back and talked to Christian about it, and we were like, I don't know. When you have a craft brewery, so much of your personal identity ends up in that brand. I think we could all say this. I think everyone feels very deeply connected to the ideas, what the logo means — everything. There's no way of doing this business from startup without putting your whole entire soul into it. So we were like, how would that work? What would that look like? After we got through that initial phase of seeing the ability to support more than one identity and embrace Old Ox and have Old Ox embrace us, we were like, actually, there's a massive opportunity here ... to showcase all of the best of each of the respective businesses.