Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
The craft brewing industry is no longer in its toddler stage. The digital solutions company Craftpeak aims to help guide that industry towards adulthood.
An Asheville company can turn your computer into a concierge of brew, telling you what beers you might like and where you can find them. The company is called Craftpeak, and it functions in a unique niche: It works exclusively—exclusively—with craft breweries. “There are 72 hundred breweries in the United States,” says Craftpeak CEO, John Kelley. He explained the rationale of concentrating in such a specialized niche. “One of the coolest things for us is that there are so many opportunities—because this is a growing market.” In less than three years, Craftpeak has established a roster of more than 70 clients across the United States and in Great Britain. Their geographic scope illustrates the limitless nature of the digital world. Craftpeak works in cyberspace, and John sells in cyberspace; the world is their market. And that remote element of the business has another, more immediate, application: John and his two partners all work from their homes.
The trio—John refers to them as a “three-legged stool”—each brings a different specialty to the mix. As CEO, John is the main salesman and the idea man. Indeed, it was his idea to launch a beer-centered digital firm. Julien Melissas does the nuts-and-bolts construction of websites, and Corey Bullman designs the finished product. Their contributions overlap, but in general terms, Julien makes it run, and Corey makes it pretty.
The collaboration dates back to 2012 when John was working for a company that needed a more sophisticated web presence. They interviewed several candidates for the project, and John says the choice was easy: “Julien and Corey stood out.” Julien “was a 19-year-old kid, and even at that young age he was one of the most brilliant developers I’d ever seen,” John says. “Corey is an extremely creative designer who also knows how to build a site. So, these guys were the perfect team to help us with our development problem.”
It wasn’t until two years later that the brewery angle began to germinate. Wicked Weed approached John to build a website, and he enlisted Julien and Corey. “I looked at what they were doing with Wicked Weed and I said, ‘You know, the custom tools that you’re building into this site are the same thing that every other brewer is going to need. Let’s build this thing into a multi-site product, let’s introduce ourselves to our favorite breweries, and let’s go take a shot at it.’”
Corey recalls that they met in a coffee shop, where John made the pitch to work exclusively with breweries. “I was into it from the first conversation,” he says, noting that both he and Julien “were already in the mindset of looking for a change and didn’t know what it was. It took someone like John to come in with a fresh perspective.”
Julien’s initial reaction was a bit less enthusiastic. “I was originally opposed to the idea, not because I had any objection to doing beer, but because I love working on different things. I love building something new. But then, the more I was on sales calls, the more I realized that we’re uniquely qualified to do what we do because of the knowledge of our team.”
Each of the partners brings different experience and skills to their joint endeavor, and each of them is equally different in their personal lives.
John started out with an engineering degree from Ohio State and worked for a while with a consulting firm. He soon tired of the suit-and-tie routine, and his inner entrepreneur began calling. He made his way to Florida, where he became involved in real-estate development, and eventually a project brought him to Western North Carolina.
“I came here to develop 45 acres at the Wolf Ridge ski resort in Mars Hill. I was managing partner for my company. We put in a private air strip and were building a mountaintop community.” The project ran into trouble, and before it could recover, the 2008 financial collapse took down his company.
John looks back at a rough patch in his career. Through a benevolent connection, he found a job with a cabinet company in Hendersonville, where he says he did everything from sweep the floors to build the company’s digital presence. In 2009 he moved back to Asheville, where he helped start another technology company called Galaxy Digital. “The company,” he says, “built an online solution for nonprofits to manage their volunteers.”
Galaxy Digital quickly took off, presenting John with a pleasant dilemma: “We had 100,000 users, and we had to figure out how to make the platform mobile responsive without disrupting the user experience. We went looking for designers and developers. We interviewed a lot of guys, and finally found Julien and Corey.”
John and his wife, Julie, live in a vintage Montford home, where a front room serves as his office, his gym, and a space to relax. A comfortable couch wraps around one corner opposite his desk, which sits next to a stationary bike across from a clutter of hand weights.
“I belong to a gym,” he says, “but if I want to loosen up before a bike ride or do a short workout, I use this.” The bike ride is a staple of John’s recreation. He and Julie ride the local mountains regularly, and he has a kind of “bike shop” behind the house, where he builds and repairs bikes for friends. A small bicycle sculpture sits on a shelf above his desk, and a bicycle poster covers a nearby wall.
At age 26, Julien Melissas’ history is much shorter, but no less dramatic than John’s. He displayed the traits of a digital prodigy in high school. “I was definitely a geek,” he says. One of his teachers recognized his potential and recommended him for a job with a programmer.
“She asked me if I wanted to hook up with this guy who could teach me how to build a website, and I just went gangbusters on it. That’s why I didn’t go to college, because I was offered a decent job. I just never saw myself as being a Google or IBM employee. Because of the ladder climbing you have to go through in a tech company like that, it’s toxic. I didn’t want to be in that.”
Julien thrives in an atmosphere where he can work on his own. “I’m not a very good employee,” he says, preferring to work through the night and early morning hours when he’s programming a website. His “office” is a room in the house he shares with his girlfriend, two cats, and a dog named Wilbur who smothers visitors in energetic displays of canine affection.
A couple of guitars stand in a corner, while his two-level stand-up work surface—it’s not really a desk—is crowded with his keyboard, monitor, laptop showing his music library, and iPad with his “to-do” list. A map of United States breweries is tacked to the wall. A completed Rubik’s Cube, each surface showing a single color, completes his work space. The Rubik’s Cube is “something I do during meetings. It’s muscle memory,” he says.
It’s not a stretch to say Julien’s technological aptitude is in his genes. “My great-grandfather helped invent the bazooka. He was part of the teams that invented Doppler radar and the radon detector. My grandpa, his son, was a programmer for Apple. He’s a little weird. Some programmers are hard to talk to; my grandpa talks to programmers all day.”
And Julien’s path to beer websites was all but preordained. “My dad’s a brewmaster at the Wedge. I grew up around beer since I was eight, and Dad started home-brewing.”
When he’s not programming a brewery website, Julien is likely in the kitchen, cooking up an exotic recipe. “I cook all the time,” he says, and allows that someday he might like to work in the kitchen of a restaurant. He’s also an avid off-road motorcyclist. He is happy to show a helmet cam video he took cruising along a remote trail in Tennessee.
Corey Bullman came to the partnership with a third distinct background. Whereas John went to Ohio State, and Julien skipped college, Corey attended no fewer than three colleges. He attended UNC-Asheville for two years until he “got more involved in music—I went to the Atlanta Institute of Music.” He soon found work playing guitar, bass, lap steel guitar, and keyboards. “I fronted bands, playing in that happy place between rock ‘n’ roll and soul. I had a pretty steady gig with a touring band playing top 40 covers. We kept busy, playing four hours a night, five nights a week.”
Corey played on the road for about five years, returning to Asheville on many weekends to teach guitar. Meanwhile, he was also developing an interest in computers.
“Musicians have tons of time on the road,” he says. “I usually had a book and my computer with me, and pretty soon I started to dabble in code.” He found ample opportunity to practice his new skills. “Whenever somebody needed a poster, a CD cover, or website, I’d put it together for them. It eventually got to the point where I was ready for a change from touring. I came home and enrolled at A-B Tech in their digital media design program.”
When he completed the program, he got a job as the online content director for Asheville’s Clear Channel radio. “I was doing content for five Clear-Channel stations,” he says. He wanted to go out on his own, but says that while he felt relatively confident, he “wasn’t confident enough to go out and start charging people.” That’s when, by chance, he met Julien, and they eventually became partners: “We’ve been a good pair since Day One.”
In 2009 Corey was fronting his own band, called Fifth House, when one night he filled in for the lead guitarist in Leigh Glass’ band, the Hazards. Soon Corey and Leigh were writing songs together, and their collaboration led them in two directions: They created a new band, Devils in Dust, which is the two of them plus a drummer, and play a combination of rock ‘n’ roll, Americana, country, and blues. They produced an album, also called Devils in Dust, but with the growth of Craftpeak, Corey has had less time for music.
And that other direction that grew out of their collaboration? Corey and Leigh got married, and now they live in Fairview with a Great Dane named Ava and a house full of guitars.
The three Craftpeak partners launched their business in 2015, and their first challenge was to find some clients. “We didn’t know it was going to work,” John admits, “but everybody was excited enough to give it a try.”
John’s recollection of the company’s early days could be a chapter in a textbook about startups.
“Our biggest challenge was proving to brewers that they needed a digital presence,” he says. “You think about the classic brewer story. A home brewer did it as a passion, he opened a tap room, his taproom became successful, and then, he says, ‘I’ve got this thriving brewery around me, what do we do next?’ He decides to open a production facility and starts to distribute. Having a website wasn’t part of his plan.”
John tried to convince brewers that they needed better business tools; they needed to evaluate their goals and strategies. “Part of our bet getting into this was that there are a lot of breweries out there, they’re going to need to differentiate, they’re going to need business tools that are built for the specific needs of breweries.” He began to make sales.
Corey recalls the early challenges, saying, “The nuances of the industry were so different than we anticipated. Our biggest challenge was gaining trust with clients. Our strong suit was being so specialized.” That quality became a bigger factor as they began to grow.
“When we talk to a new brewery now, we’ll be the only specialist,” he says. “We can back up our story with our track record of working with other clients. We now have clients coming to us and saying, ‘Give us your best advice.’”
But there was another complication that remains even now. “There’s a lot of free website options out there, and that’s still a hurdle we have to get through.” John says competition is fierce, from general-interest web development companies to “the brewer’s brother-in-law who will do the job for a couple of beers.”
Once they’re working with a client, they have to make sure the client knows how to use their technology.
“The time we spend with a client depends on that client,” John explains. “Our goal is that we develop the technology that allows them to easily create the content. We are the web experts, so we’re working with clients on a regular basis to support them in a technological capacity.”
He adds that another continuing challenge is in trying to measure results.
“We send out weekly reports to all our customers that show everything that’s happening on the Google analytic side, but the difficulty of measuring response is ultimately the biggest challenge. We know there’s a relationship there, but how do you measure that relationship? Nobody has figured out return on investment.”
In addition to building functioning and attractive websites, Craftpeak has developed some interactive features to help the consumer identify what beers they may prefer and where to find them.
Their “virtual bartender” lists all the beers available from the host brewer, and adds a series of graphic beer glasses, some of them empty, others filled to various levels. Each is labeled with a taste characteristic: hops, sharp, malts, fruity, sour. John describes it as “basically a catalog of all the beers a brewery has ever made. But it’s more than just a list. People want to explore beers. If you have a database with all the characteristics and attributes of those beers, now what you can do is filter and sort by flavor preferences to find the beers that you like.”
Once the consumer has decided what beer they want, they can turn to the Beer Finder. Next key in their address and beer preference, and the Beer Finder will display a map of the local area showing the outlets that carry that particular flavor.
Craftpeak websites also let the consumer filter through different brewery events. “A brewery might have trivia night a couple of nights a week. Then they might have a music event only once a month. They might be doing a big collaboration with another brewery that happens less frequently. Maybe they’re doing a big festival. Listing all these on a calendar, it’s beginning to get really cluttered so we decided to create an interactive way to help the customer sort through the events.”
It is Julien’s job to turn those ideas into functioning computer pages. In his home office, he pointed to a monitor that displayed 16 lines of color-coded gibberish, which he explained are the tools of his craft.
“These lines are all files,” he says. “I probably have over half a million files, easily, and I’ve probably spent a little bit of time in all of them. Cars have less parts than this.”
The lines on the screen begin with the letters, ILAB, and they continue with notes like AWS -S3 access key. Or ILAB – Media. Warming to the challenge of educating a technophobe, Julien expanded on the meaning of the lines and the cyber mechanics of the web for me.
“Our platform holds a common code base that powers all our websites. I’ve built an engine that fits all those 70 websites. And I built it to empower our users, so they can add something or make changes to their website, but we limit the scope of what they can screw up.”
As he talked, he was absently switching screens to different displays of encoded data. In a casual aside, he offered a revealing insight into the complexity of his task. “I like to focus on one screen, but I might have half a million windows open.” Half a million windows.
“We also have backups. I had to come up with a disaster recovery plan. What happens if all of our stuff goes down because the East Coast has a flood or a hurricane where our stuff is saved? I’ve got to have a plan to put it somewhere else.”
When they’re building a website, Julien says he and Corey talk 20 to 30 times a day. They use an online communications website called Slack, which bills itself as “A single place for messaging, tools, and files.”
Julien sums up his collaboration with Corey. “My job is to give him the tools and the instruction manual, and then he takes off.”
Corey uses the tools to build a website that works for both the brewer and his customers. His process begins with learning what the brewer wants from the website. “Our clients are fantastic people,” says Corey. “I love working with them. A project begins with our sitting down and talking to them about their business—where they are, where they want to go, what they hope we can do for them, what do they want to tell their customers. Once we know those things, we start framing the design. I have a concept that I know works, but I don’t try to squeeze the client into our vision. At the end of the day, I want him to feel ownership of it.”
Craftpeak recently launched a new website for its earliest client, Wicked Weed, and the brewer’s communications director, Alanna Nappi, cites those early conversations as what sets Craftpeak apart.
“I think the way it works best is if the outside company feels like an extension of your company, and we’ve always felt that way with them,” says Nappi. “They feel like an extension of us. They come in at a really high level when they’re talking to you about what your website needs are and your goals and where you’re going as a company, which is really helpful. They know us, and they know who we are. It feels like we’re a team.”
One of Craftpeak’s newest clients adds a different factor. Steven Anan, head brewer at Archetype Beer, sees a strong interactive website as a necessary component of his business.
“They’re helping us tell our story. The website gives us a unique identity and makes that interactive experience easier for anyone searching out a brewery.”
“Seven years ago, when I started in this industry, I would say probably not,” Anan says. “But nowadays, it’s a huge part of your brand. Because of the increasing number of breweries in America and here locally, I think the easiest way to tell your story, besides a taproom, is on the internet. Especially with people coming to Beer City USA, they’re probably going to do some research before they get here. And keeping them on your website longer is key to bringing them in to your taproom.”
The clients I met speak highly of Craftpeak, and Craftpeak returns the compliments.
“There’s a million beers that have already been made,” says Julien. “And a beer guy says, ‘I can create something different.’” He grins broadly. “Our clients are creative, collaborative, hard-working people. Now that I’m doing it for a while, I’m really passionate about them. I don’t want to work with anybody else anymore.”
John adds his own assessment.
“One of the coolest things about this industry is that it’s so collaborative,” he says. “Brewers that are in direct competition with one another are collaborating together. It’s like no other market I’ve ever seen.
You’ve got a lot of first-time entrepreneurs. You’ve got a lot of people doing this from a place of passion. It’s kind of the mindset that you get these artists, creative people, and folks who probably never expected to be successful in anything, they’re becoming successful doing something that they love.”
Websites are the cornerstone of Craftpeak, but the company also produces a full range of tech products. “The website has to sit at the center of your ecosystem,” John says, “And you use Instagram, Facebook, a newsletter, blogs, to get the story out that you’re trying to communicate. But ultimately it all comes back to your website.”
Another important facet of the Craftpeak operation is e-commerce.
John explains the mechanics of their ecommerce platform as a vehicle to sell beer online, and how it can produce a windfall for the brewer.
“If you’re going to make a capital investment in a production facility and start to distribute, when you sign up with a distributor, you’re giving up 30 to 60 percent of your margin to that distributor and the ultimate retailer. We said, ‘That’s crazy.’ What you need to do is leverage your technology to sell more of your beer at a high margin.” Eliminate the middlemen.
He says they developed two vehicles to make direct sales from the brewer to the retail customer.
“Those are our beer release presale and our membership club technology. We didn’t necessarily invent the concept, but brewers would come to us and say, ‘We’re trying to sell our beer at an online store, but it keeps crashing because everybody tries to go online as soon as a new beer is released.’
“So, we built a technology that can scale for high load, and then we developed a lot of other tools designed for people to come and pick up their beer. All of those are things we have designed.”
They announce a new beer about a month before the release date and send out reminders to their followers on social media as the release date draws closer, and wait for the orders to pour in.
“The other way is membership programs, where you pay a fee to become a member of a particular brewery. Members can get in, but the public can’t. You’ve got this release that people are super excited about. Those paid members will get first chance to order it.”
Tapping in to this particular aspect of consumer demand has blossomed into big business.
“On a big day, we’ll get hammered,” Corey says. “A new release will go on sale at 10AM and 500 cases are gone in 20 minutes. That’s a pretty normal response. Last year we processed close to three million dollars in sales, and we’re on track to do more than that this year. We built the technology to make it run smoothly.”
And to the partner who assembles the nuts and bolts, the prospect of eliminating the distributor and retailer is an unexpected reward. “I love the e-commerce aspect of our projects. The exciting thing to me is destroying the three-tier distribution system. The client logs in and starts selling beers and thinks, ‘Why would I go through a distributor?’ That’s what I’m really excited about: building solutions. We’re building something for those breweries that they don’t realize they need yet.”
Craftpeak began with the three principals, and the company recently hired its first employee, Yvonne McKenna. John speculates that they will add a couple more in coming months, and Julien wonders if the additions won’t require a real-world workspace as opposed to their current arrangement. Craftpeak is definitely growing, and Corey sums up their status after three years working together.
“From last year to this year, it started to shape up. We’ve already made it past the startup statistics. Now let’s get going.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…