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August 2010
Prost for Olde Meck!
By Clay Whittaker

     John Marrino is installing two new lager tanks on this day. We sit down to talk in the rustic taproom, built in the image of his favorite place to drink in Germany. Through a few large windows several large stainless steel tanks, predominant in of the brewing operation at The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, are visible, like an open kitchen.

     The taproom is cool, but when a door into the brewery opens, a hint of the bready, warm malt smell wafts across the room in shallow waves.

     Marrino says once the new tanks are up and running, it will bring his capacity to 3,900 barrels of beer a year, which will almost quadruple what he started with just a year ago.

     It’s an impressive amount of growth for just one year. The 43-year-old engineer and brewer says they have almost 150 bar and restaurant customers, and are averaging two new ones a week.

     He’s currently working on the seasonal offerings for his second winter in the business. Marrino developed an Excel spreadsheet program to help him build his different beer recipes. Using a few criteria, he plugs in what he wants the beer to be, and out comes a recipe.

     He’ll spend a few weeks tweaking it on paper, and then the beer will go straight into production without so much as a test batch. And it works. “It’s more of a thought process than anything,” he says modestly.

     Marrino plays with color, sweetness, bitterness, and knows what a good beer looks like on paper. It’s the kind of foresight and cleverness that is now carrying Olde Mecklenburg around town. And it’s the same set of characteristics that got the master brewer to beer from unusual beginnings in the water treatment industry.


Business is Brewing

     Marrino graduated from Tulane University in 1988 with a degree in engineering and business management.

     He entered the water treatment industry in 1989, working as a sales engineer for a small German company selling ultraviolet disinfection and ozone oxidation technologies for water purification. They had very good technology, says Marrino, and the company began to grow very fast.

     In 1993, the company moved Marrino to Germany to run the international sales department. Then, they sent him to  setup and run a joint venture in the U.K. In 1997, they bought a struggling New Jersey company, and brought him back to the U.S. to run North American operations.

     After successfully turning the company around, Marrino ended up in Charlotte to build a new factory to accommodate its growth.

     Marrino says the arrangement was good for a young graduate: “I asked for a lot of opportunities, and I got a lot of opportunities. I was young, I was single, so for me it was a fantastic experience. I traveled around the world, sold water treatment systems everywhere from South Africa to Taiwan, and was exposed to many different management challenges in my 20s and 30s.”

     In 2004, when the German parent company was sold to a conglomerate, Marrino declined a leadership position with the new company, opting for a management position within their sales operations. But after a couple of years, he became disenchanted.

     “I’ve always been a man of action, I guess,” Marrino offers, “and it’s important to me to be able to get things done—make things happen.”

     It was time for a change. “I had been running like crazy for the last 10 years…and suddenly I felt stagnant. I said to my wife, ‘Look, I have to do something different.”

     Marrino resigned with two years left on his contract. He and his wife then rented a motor home and drove around the country for three months with their 18-month-old daughter. He was taking a break to reassess things, and looking for an idea.

     One day, he stopped off at a Barnes and Noble in Montana and picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal. Sitting next to his campfire later that evening, Marrino read a story about a man who was rebuilding a New England beer brand.

     That’s when it clicked; Marrino saw an opportunity—he’d build his own beer brand. He pined for the fresh, balanced beer he remembered from his days in Germany, and Charlotte needed a hometown brewery.

     Immediately, Marrino converted his garage and began experimenting with home brewing, making plans to eventually open a microbrewery here in Charlotte. He traveled the region tasting other beers and touring breweries to see what worked and what didn’t.

     At each step, Marrino continued to look at his plan, and marveled that no one else was doing it; “I felt like there was a need not being met.”


The First Batch

     The craft-brewing segment of the beer industry has experienced growth over the last few years despite an overall industry downturn. But as more microbreweries open every year, the struggle they face is differentiating themselves from one another.

     “There’s sort of the theme currently in the craft brewing industry: everybody’s trying to out-different, out-extreme the next guy,” he says. Marrino decided to stay away from extreme brewing, and just stick with what he thought was good.

     Never mind the crazy styles, high alcohol levels, or exotic flavors that target the most adventurous drinker; Marrino wanted to give the average drinker something perfect.

     Marrino also saw the hometown market as an untapped opportunity. “This is a tremendous beer market,” says Marrino, who estimates that two million kegs of beer are consumed in Charlotte every year.

     He decided to brew a set of balanced German beers, with taste profiles that were simple and refreshing. And unlike many other craft brewers, Marrino decided to produce lagers instead of ales.

     Lagers have a reputation for being much harder to brew, requiring more exacting standards of quality. But Marrino doesn’t see much of a difference in the long run: “If you want to be sloppy, lagers are going to be pretty tough, but I think that goes for any beer. Beer’s something that requires attention to detail.”

     In the process of planning the brewery, Marrino also courted some investors. Six partners in total hold a stake in The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, among them Marrino and his father (together holding a majority stake), two neighbors, an old college buddy, and his former boss from his water treatment days.

     Marrino opened Olde Mecklenburg last spring, and his brewery is fitting the role of Charlotte’s hometown brewery perfectly.


Fermenting, Renewal and Reuse

     But The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery does more than fill a gap in Charlotte’s cultural identity. Marrino is committed to energy efficiency, and eventually making Olde Meck a green operation.

     Marrino was fortunate when he started the brewery; most of startup equipment was purchased from Southend Brewery, which went out of business about eight years before Marrino came on the market.

     “There’s a very strong secondary market for beer brewing equipment,” he explains, noting that there are breweries opening and closing every year. “The tanks from Southend are stainless steel, which means they don’t really wear out—they are perfect candidates for a second owner.”

     Another of Marrino’s green innovations is the growler program. Growlers are the large two-liter glass bottles that Olde Mecklenburg sells out of its onsite Tap Room and distributes to a number of specialty beverage retailers in the region. In lieu of traditional six-packs, Marrino chose the larger bottles because they can be brought in and exchanged for full ones more easily.

     “We’re reusing the bottles. It’s not all one-way,” says Marrino. “Less inventory, less waste.”

     The brewing process requires a lot of energy, and produces waste, but Marrino has found some ways of remedying that as well.

     “We recover the heat from our boil,” Marrino points out, explaining that it’s a fairly common practice among brewers and distillers to capture and reuse that energy. But he also wants to substantially reduce his natural gas use in the next few years by installing a solar thermal water heating system on his roof.

     There’s even a way to reuse the spent grain solids that are left over from the brew. Marrino gives the grain to a couple of local farmers, who come each week and pick it up to feed their animals. He says it can’t act as the sole food source, but for animals like pigs and cows it’s a sweet tasting, nutritious addition to their regular feed.


One Tap at a Time

     The brewery has been equity-financed for the most part, though they’ve recently opened a small credit line to finance new equipment needs driven by increased demand.

     As for profits, Marrino speculates that the brewery is still a couple of years away from making a net profit. He says they’re quickly closing the gap on becoming operating cash flow positive, however.

     In his first nine months, he brewed 1,045 barrels of beer. Driven by demand and with the help of the new tanks about to come online, he estimates this year’s production will be about 250 percent of the first. And he estimates next year even higher.

     But Marrino’s aspirations aren’t that much bigger than his tanks. He doesn’t think he can expand indefinitely, nor does he want to. Marrino wants his beer to be enjoyed fresh, and for him that means not having to ship it too far or make it sit for too long.

     He explains that beer is like bread, and that it’s best right out of the tanks. He doesn’t stock more than he thinks will be consumed in two weeks, and his beer doesn’t sit in the brewery for more than seven days.

     “We’re not even sure what the total practical limit is here in Charlotte. We currently have only about 0.1 percent of the local market, if my numbers are correct. Getting to 0.2 percent doubles our business. Someday, maybe we’ll get to 1 percent,” he says.

     Marrino says he’s content to concentrate on the Charlotte region for now. Olde Meck is already number 12 in production for the state of North Carolina (out of 24 microbreweries), and Marrino expects to be firmly in the top ten this year. He wants Olde Meck to reach into South Carolina, and perhaps one day go to Georgia.

     So what’s next for Olde Meck? Marrino considers one option: “We’re talking about bottling in 2011.” Initially Marrino refrained from traditional bottling because he worried about flooding shelves before there was a demand for his beer.

     Like with everything else, Marrino was concerned about freshness. “I didn’t want to get the cart before the horse, he says. “I wanted to introduce our beer to people on draft, which is the right way to meet a new beer.” He also couldn’t guarantee that it would move off the shelves quickly enough.

     But he’s feeling confident about the future. “I think by next year,” he starts, “if we bottle our beer and put it in the grocery stores, there’ll be a demand for it.”

     It’s been a bit of a battle getting bars and restaurants in the area to accept him, but with good beer and dedication, he’s managed to squeeze in between Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. And he’s starting to win drinkers over too, one pint at a time.

Clay Whittaker is a Charlotte based freelance writer.
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