Change is Brewing

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Two Des Moines start-ups aim to modernize the beer industry

Words and photos by Allison Trebacz

Four Midwestern tech gurus walk into a bar.

There’s no punchline—just a modernized craft brewing technology for beer drinkers who want to add a little learning to their lit lifestyles.

Ben McDougal and his co-founders at FliteBrite are the guys.

They’re a group of entrepreneurs working hard to amp up your average flight of beer. A flight of beer is like an array of wedding cake samples for drinkers—typically four small glasses of different beer served at once on a paddle to be tasted. Less frosting, more froth.

Some breweries and brewpubs let customers build their own flights while others have a pre-fixed menu. But if you’re sitting at one of the “make-your-own-flight” places, how do you remember the four beers you’re trying? Brand and brew knowledge can be fleeting (pun intended)—especially if you’ve toasted one too many already.

That’s where FliteBrite steps in. It’s the world’s first electronic flight paddle.

The paddle handle display is entirely interactive with full descriptions and an individual, shareable URL for every flight. “It’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, ‘Geez, I didn’t know this was a problem.’ Until I knew the solution,” said McDougal.

The paddle handle display is entirely interactive with full descriptions and an individual, shareable URL for every flight. “It’s kind of one of those things where it’s like, ‘Geez, I didn’t know this was a problem.’ Until I knew the solution,” said McDougal.

The FliteBrite paddle displays the names and descriptions of the beer on the flight to make remembering easier during an exercise some use to forget. FliteBrite partners with Untappd, a social beer-drinking app, with an ever-expanding database of beers, for its dialed-in beer-centric stats.

“As a consumer, not only can you see which one is which, but if you were to go in and actually click on [a beer] and take a peek at more details of each of the beers, you can learn a little more about it,” McDougal said.

The partnership with Untappd goes beyond data on the paddle. The app has nearly four million users and is host to the most comprehensive database of beers, breweries and reviews (think the Yelp of beer). That’s great for drinkers. But for breweries, there’s an extra layer to the app: the ability to manage what beers are available—and what beers can appear on your flights. To add a new beer to a brewery’s system, it just needs to be available on Untappd—with a few clicks, the description gets loaded from the app into the FliteBrite system. In seconds it’s available to customers.

Every flight receives a unique code that can be shared over social media so you can forever remember your flight. Currently, it only posts to Facebook, but upcoming updates will further integrate with Untappd so you can share it with all of your true, ale-loving friends.

A prototype was first unveiled to consumers and tested at Exile Brewing Company in Des Moines. “He’s averaging about 35 flights per day,” McDougal said. “I can tell you that Oktoberfest is the most popular in the flight, with Jose Saison and Jesus in a Forklift in second.”

“We’re going to be delivering our first round of preorders in November,” said McDougal. Unlike the prototype, the first round of pre-ordered FliteBrites will have smoother graphics, they’ll be water resistant and they’ll look a little more cutting edge.

“We’re going to be delivering our first round of preorders in November,” said McDougal. Unlike the prototype, the first round of pre-ordered FliteBrites will have smoother graphics, they’ll be water resistant and they’ll look a little more cutting edge.

“It is really cool to think that something hot, coming of Des Moines, coming of Iowa, coming out of the Midwest is about to change the game of the entire craft beer industry,” McDougal said.

And FliteBrite isn’t the only company in Des Moines that sees the future of craft brewing in data. While McDougal is working to bring tech to the bar, John Jackovin and his team at Brewd are working to take some of the extra number crunching out of the administrative process.

Brewd designed software that streamlines the administrative processes involved with self-distributing breweries. It’s like a large-scale Excel formula condensed into one program, centered around the thing that brings many together: beer brewing.

Brewing is as much an art as it is a science, so we have to accommodate for that.”

-John Jackovin

“We have a really strong focus on that process that allows everybody within the brewery to see inventory levels,” Jackovin said. “They can search all deliveries, they can route those deliveries and then everything just integrates back into [the accounting program] QuickBooks.”

So far, it’s worked. Brewd software has already been implemented by several Des Moines breweries and they’ve expanded business into several other states, including Hawaii.

“Brewing is as much an art as it is a science, so we have to accommodate for that,” Jackovin said. Brewd has figured out a way to make sure brewers get to spend more time brewing and less time pouring over paper, Google docs or fixing accounting errors in QuickBooks. “So now it’s not one person who has to enter all of the information.”

While Brewd is still starting out, there are plenty of early adopters like Eric Selander of Confluence Brewing Company in Des Moines. “The nice thing about Brewd is that it’s going to put everything in one location,” Selander said.

Selander helped with the development and continues to assist Brewd in developing other functions for the software. “This section of it that’s been fully released mostly caters to self-distributing breweries, which is most breweries when they’re starting up. Keg tracking software is coming soon.” And it works because Confluence Brewing is in Brewd’s target market of distributing breweries—they distribute for others, distribute for themselves and they produce.

That would be a lot of spreadsheets to keep track of.

Since 2012, the number of breweries in the U.S. has nearly doubled, and catering to self-distributing breweries is just the beginning for these Iowa companies. FliteBrite and Brewd have already impacted brewing in Iowa. McDougal and Jackovin believe they’ll improve craft brewing on a national level when both of their companies make their official debut at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., next April.

Until then, they will continue to do market research—one pint at a time.

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