Manhattan Brewing Company expanded quickly, skillfully
Opened right at the start of a summer lockdown in July of 2020, Manhattan Brewing Company is the latest addition to a swathe of Kansas breweries that have opened in the last five years. Alongside Lawrence Beer Company, Fields and Ivy, Tall Trellis Brew Co., Sandhills Brewing, and others, Manhattan Brewing Company is making its mark on the city in which it resides.
Co-owners Adam Krebsbach, Garrett Paulman, and Jake Voegeli met while working at the late Tallgrass Brewing Company, formerly of Manhattan.
While Krebsbach and Paulman stayed on until Tallgrass suspended operations in mid-2018, Voegeli left in 2016 to work for Standard Beverage and then became the Midwest representative for Durango’s Ska Brewing.
“Garrett and Adam approached me to come to start a brewery with them,” says Voegeli of the brewery’s genesis when we speak by phone. “
And I agreed. I was like, ‘You have to do this.’ I told my boss at Ska, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be leaving to start my own brewery in January of 2020,’ and they were so cool. They let me stay on ’til the end of March. They had to lay people off for Covid. they knew that I would start my own brewery, and they still let me stay on.”
Voegeli is in charge of sales and marketing for Manhattan Brewing Company, while Krebsach and Paulman are the brewers. They opened on July 8, 2020, not an especially opportune time for any business, but especially one such as a brewery that requires people to come in and try the product. It wasn’t by choice, Voegeli explains.
“We were halfway through construction when everything hit,” he continues. We started construction in December of 2019, so everything back then was like–COVID, who knows what it could have been at that point.”
Voegeli and his co-owners were down in Wichita collaborating with Central Standard Brewing when everything started getting canceled. First, it was the Big 12 Tournament, then the NCAA basketball tournament.
“We were like, ‘Oh shit, this might be a real thing,’” Voegeli relates. “But ar that point we were, halfway through and we were like, ‘Well, we can’t just stop it. We have to keep going.’”
And so they did, and ahead of schedule. Manhattan Brewing wasn’t supposed to open until September 2020. Construction was supposed to get done in August, and then they could start brewing. However, because of Covid, construction workers were pulled off other jobs, and in the interest of keeping them working, they were reassigned to other jobs, allowing Manhattan Brewing to open ahead of schedule.
“We ended up getting the keys to this place at the beginning of June and then opening up on July 8,” Voegeli says. “It was nuts, going through opening up when we did, but because of that, we saved a bunch of money during construction doing some stuff ourselves.”
In addition to opening a couple of months earlier than expected, the brewery owners had to pivot in other ways. The first thing they did was purchase a canning line, as they weren’t sure if the business would end up being shut down. This allowed Manhattan Brewing to immediately begin distributing their product within Manhattan.
“Luckily, we never actually got fully shut down,” Voegeli explains with relief. “We were always at like 50% capacity, but because we were already distributing and getting that extra revenue in, we just recently expanded and added three more tanks to distribute a little bit more in Kansas. We opened up Wichita, ’cause it’s a little bit of an easier market for us. I’m from Wichita, and I know everybody there.”
It’s rare for a brewery to immediately begin the distribution of a new product. The usual modus operandi is to start small, selling from your own taproom, allowing the brewery to develop a customer base through tastes and word of mouth, but Manhattan Brewing leapfrogged right past that. Thankfully, it’s been a success, even if it wasn’t in the original launch plans.
“Distribution was so far off for us,” Voegeli laughs. “One, you don’t make as much money on it, so we didn’t want to do the distribution for at least five years. We wanted to get established–get some loyalty in Manhattan from people coming in for football games and basketball games. K-Staters getting that loyalty to Manhattan Brewing.”
As he explains, he and his partners knew that, as a young brewery, they needed to build loyalty before expanding. Still, again–because of the pandemic–they needed to get their beer out the door and into people’s hands. Since they had the capacity for production at that level, they went for it, with a bit of a positive outcome, despite the circumstances which led to it.
“One of the cool things about the pandemic–and there’s not very many–was the loyalty that we wanted out of Manhattan seemed to speed up a little bit more,” Voegeli says. A lot more because people weren’t traveling, and they had nowhere else to go. “They wanted to support local like crazy. They latched onto us immediately and kept us in business.”
From personal experience, it felt like folks were way into the idea of trying new beers during the height of lockdown. If you couldn’t go to the bar, why not spend the $5 you’d drop on a standard draft during a night out on some nice craft brews? Voegeli agrees that worked to the benefit of Manhattan Brewing.
“It helped because a lot of people didn’t wanna come and sit down for a beer, so they were going to the fridge here and just grabbing a four-pack of local stuff,” he continues. “Again, they wanted to support local and try us out, which helped tremendously.”
The brewery started out with five beers: peach wheat, a West Coast IPA, American wheat brewed with Citra hops, a lemon Saison, and an English mild which ended up being as strong as a British strong ale. Since then, they swapped things up a bit, including a recent collaboration with Ska Brewing called 2 Tone IPA, which marks their expansion outside of Manhattan and Wichita to encompass Kansas.
Originally, the plans for the 2 Tone collab weren’t as big of it as it ended up being, with launch parties throughout Kansas. It was just supposed to be a small batch that would be available at the brewery itself.
“The head guys at Ska were like, ‘Why don’t we just make it a bigger batch and sell it throughout Kansas?’” recalls Voegeli. “They asked me if we’d be cool with that and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, that’d be awesome.’”
It is pretty awesome, actually. The collaboration is a tasty, hoppy beer with enough flavor to make it interesting but light enough in both body and ABV to make it one where you’ll want a second one by the time you’re halfway through your first pint.
“Our philosophy on beer and Ska’s philosophy on beer–they align perfectly,” Voegeli says. “They don’t like chasing trends as much. They’re a little slower to trends sometimes, but man, they just want to make good beers that they like to drink, and we’re on the same level here. We make New England IPAs, we make sours–we do that stuff–but our main focus is crisp and clean beers and just good classic beers.”
To drive the point home of just how simpatico the two breweries are, Voegeli says that when they developed the recipe for the 2 Tone IPA, it took all of two emails for them to come up with what they wanted to do.
“We had so much fun doing this beer,” Voegeli says as we wrap up our call.
“The fact that Ska, a company that’s been around for 27 years in September, even thought about collaborating with a small little brewery in Manhattan, Kansas–even though I worked for them–it makes us blush every time. It blew our minds. This whole process has been so cool for us, that we were just so thankful to be a part of it.”