The Brewing Baron: Meet Mark Neumann '99, Owner of Upstate Brewing Company
Mark Neumann '99 graduated from SUNY CCC with an Associate's Degree in Mechanical Technology. Upon graduating from CCC, Mark went on to SUNY Polytechnic Institute to earn his Bachelor's. After a very successful construction career in Los Angeles, Mark returned to the Southern Tier and opened Upstate Brewing Company in 2011.
What can you tell me about your time at SUNY CCC?
I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the proximity, being able to live at home still and go to college. I really liked the courses, all of the instructors; overall, it was a very pleasant experience. I received my degree and was able to leverage that to get a Bachelor’s degree for a lot less money. I would recommend SUNY CCC to anyone; I don’t see why more people don’t attend community college first. I was able to pay off that debt, get jobs and it worked out extraordinarily well. You typically don’t think about it when you’re young, but the cost savings is huge. Looking back on it, I am super stoked I went to CCC instead of a four year school right out of the gate.
What compelled you to start your own business? What do you love about it?
I was the Vice President and General Manager of a construction company in Los Angeles for a number of years. When my wife got a job at Corning Incorporated and we decided to move back here, there was not a job equivalent to my position in Los Angeles. However, I did know how to run a business, deal with subcontractors, do payroll, and work with banks and insurance companies. All of that stuff that most people aren’t familiar with. As for the beer part, I had experience with home brewing since I took a class out in California and had spent time experimenting with that a bit. In October, we decided to open a brewery. On January 1st we submitted the paperwork for Upstate Brewing and we got our LLC established on January 11th, 2011. From there, it was all about securing loans, looking at buildings and buying equipment when I moved back here in March. For the next 6-8 months, it was all about the startup phase then we were off and running.
I had always loved craft beer; it was something I was always passionate about. At the time, in Finger Lakes there were about 100 wineries and about two breweries. I saw an opportunity. When Upstate Brewing got our Federal License, we were brewery number 1,650 in the entire United States. Now, there are over 8,000 breweries. The actual “beer” part of owning a brewery is so small. Most of it is running a business. I enjoy the fact that I am in control of what happens with what beer to make, equipment to buy, or to expand. At the end of the day, it is 99% my decision. Almost every day is different, which I like. I also love working with people, constantly texting about beer orders, being in the taproom, and doing events like a Bachelor Party we have coming in this weekend. Part of it really is a grind, but most of it is enjoyable. I work more than 40 hours a week, but I love it, so it isn’t bad.
Tell us about Upstate Brewing.
Upstate Brewing is myself, two full time employees and four part time employees. We are on our 9th year of business, which is wild. We make a ton of different beer, about 60% we sell at the brewery and 40% we distribute using our three distributors. Upstate Brewing has one distributor in Rochester who covers Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, one in Binghamton and one in Elmira that covers the five county area around here. We get to pick and choose what we distribute and when, and we try to maintain a relationship with the bars and restaurants ourselves, but we really rely on our distributors to get our product into places. It is important to us to give back to the community whenever we can, whether that be attending golf tournaments or donating beer and merchandise to various events. We also have food trucks come through four days a week currently, on Tuesdays, we always have a taco truck, and a rotating lineup Thursday-Saturday. The food trucks are another reason to come by the brewery, there’s always a variety.
Is there something that makes Upstate unique to the area?
We try to stay on the forefront of things. If there’s a new trend or style, we try it out and we don’t rest on our laurels. Yes, we have a few beers that we have done since day one but even those have changed over time. We are never satisfied. We’re always trying to do different and on-trend stuff like hazy IPAs and fruited sours. Any given year, Upstate does around 50 different beers. It is a lot of work, but it keeps people coming in. Our customers want new and different, and that’s what we give them.
Do you have any plans for the future that you can share?
Before COVID-19, we were looking into building a larger facility. Having food, having a bigger taproom and having more outdoor space. We constantly get requests for parties and gatherings that we have to turn down due to space, which is too bad. I would like to have a lot more space, like a pavilion outside where people can hang out. Right now, I like where we are at and in a couple more years, we’ll revisit that idea.
Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Take some math classes, it will come in handy. If you’re talking to a bank about getting a loan, they want to see that you’re able to understand the numbers and talk things through. You’re talking to people about borrowing large sums of money, they want to know that you have a decent handle on things. Even with the work experience I had at the time, local banks were hesitant to give me a loan because of how new a concept breweries were. They felt comfortable with my financial knowledge and me as a person so that is so important. The downside of being your own boss is that you are blazing the trail. So you have to take the good with the bad.
Do you have advice for incoming SUNY CCC students?
Follow your instinct of what you like to do. I went on to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering, because that’s what I liked. Now, when something breaks at the brewery, I can fix it. I wish I would’ve taken more accounting courses, I figured it out because I had to. However, it would’ve been nice to have some more background because that’s what running a business involves. Try to get a well-rounded education whenever you can.
What’s it like to own a brewery in a pandemic?
It has definitely been a learning curve. We went from relying so much on selling beer by the glass, and on March 16 that ended. We ended up dumping a bunch of beer that we had brewed for St. Patrick ’s Day. We hadn’t planned to put the St. Patrick’s Day beer in a can, so it was all in kegs. So we were sitting on a ton of beer that we couldn’t sell, which wasn’t easy. We had gotten into a schedule of canning once a month, and we were still trying to find that sweet spot. When we were shut down, we had to rework our schedule, print more labels and condense our three-month plan to a month and a half. We just had to make the most of it. I wasn’t mentally prepared to think long term about this, which took some getting used to. It was a slow realization that this wasn’t just going to last for a couple of weeks, and Upstate had to fully change how we’re doing things if we wanted to survive. The last three months are the hardest I have worked for the least amount of return, but we are still here, we are still okay and we are still making beer.
How can people try Upstate Brewing?
You can always get beer to go in growlers or cans, and now you can drink on site. We have four tables in the taproom and we have expanded our outdoor space by adding five tents so people are protected from the sun and rain. We’re trying to make it as nice as possible in less than ideal circumstances. Even though it’s not exactly what you’re used to right now, it’s still a comfortable place to hang out. You can buy cans on our website; we are shipping within New York State through July 26. We are always doing preorders, and you can come pick up your order at your leisure at the Brewery.
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