MANHATTAN — Jeff Gill, president and founder of Tallgrass Brewing Company, has weathered the ups and downs of starting a new business. He now has a stronger business plan, more qualified employees and a nearly finished $7 million brewing facility on the west edge of Manhattan that will help meet the demand for his craft beers.
The 60,000-square-foot facility is expected to open this spring and solidify Tallgrass Brewing as a player in the national craft beer market.
“We were working through our strategic plan to get to where we wanted to be in 2016, and it became clear we needed a new brewery and to increase the quality and consistency (of our beer) to sell it all over the country,” Gill said.
The facility, which will have a workforce of about 30 people, will be able to produce 100,000 barrels, or 3.1 million gallons, of beer a year, which will be distributed in 13 states.
Gill, who formerly worked as a geologist at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said he became interested in the home-brewing of beer and mead years ago and had purchased the necessary home-brewing equipment.
But it wasn’t until Frank Arnwire, a geologist who was his boss at KDHE and a home-brewer, started talking about the nuances and art of brewing that Gill made his first batch — 48 bottles of beer.
“The first batch was a pale ale, and I really liked it,” he said, adding he, his wife, Tricia, and three other couples finished off the beer in one night. “We had demand problems from the very start.”
Gill, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology at Kansas State University and a master’s degree in geology at the University of Oklahoma, said he enjoyed the science aspect of brewing — exploring new ideas, trying different techniques, testing new products — and the reactions of those drinking his craft beers for the first time.
By 2004, Gill was working as a geologist for a consulting firm in Topeka and had devised a business plan for a brewing company. With the approval of his wife, he quit his job to follow his passion for craft beers.
The Gills moved to Manhattan, where his wife was hired as a physician assistant and he started rounding up investors to build Tallgrass Brewing Company, a 5,000-square-foot brewery on Quail Lane. In August 2007, the facility brewed its first batch: 500 gallons of pub ale.
“In the beginning, it was me and two part-time college students, and it was like that for the first 10 months,” he said.
Throughout the years, the company expanded the facility to 14,000 square feet, refined its product portfolio, changed its distribution plan and started seeing a higher demand.
Gill said two decisions helped boost its profile: In 2009, the company changed its wholesaler network and partnered with Anheuser-Busch Inbev, a multinational beverage and brewing company that was beginning to look at craft beer opportunities; in 2010, Tallgrass switched from bottles to 16-ounce cans.
As his beers began to be shipped to other states, Gill said he “overpromised and underdelivered” and struggled in 2011-12 to meet the demand and maintain the quality and consistency of the beer. He also realized he needed to hire skilled staff with experience working in the area’s food factories.
The improvements paid off, with Tallgrass becoming the largest brewery in Kansas. Its 2013 production exceeded 16,000 barrels, of 365,000 gallons of beer.
About a year later, he made the decision to purchase a former call center on nine acres at the Tech Park west of Manhattan and renovate it into the new brewing facility. The Quail Lane facility will close in early March.
“We saw a dramatic demand for beer in 2014,” he said. “8-Bit Pale Ale, Buffalo Sweat and Ethos IPA — those are our core brands and the demand for them is high. We pushed aside some other brands and necked down our portfolio to satisfy the demand for those beers.”
Early next year, Gill said, the company will open a tasting room and begin offering tours of the new brewing facility. Its staff is already testing new flavors of beer to add to its product line.
In addition to the new brewing facility, the Gills are opening The Tallgrass Taphouse, a 5,900-square-foot brew pub and restaurant at 320 Poyntz Ave. in downtown Manhattan. Gill said the pub-restaurant, which is expected to open by summer and seat about 200, will offer “creative foods” and beers made onsite and at the new brewing facility.