MobCraft survives “Shark Tank” and lives to brew again

Some entrepreneurs would see an appearance on Shark Tank, the wildly popular ABC program that pits business startups against a panel of seasoned investors, as a feeding frenzy of economic opportunity.

In Henry Schwartz’s case, the sharks didn’t take the bait. By the end of his 13-minute pitch, the president and cofounder of Madison-brewed MobCraft Beer found himself sleeping with the fishes.

None of the five sharks on the March 11 episode’s panel found MobCraft’s unique crowdsourced approach to craft brewing appealing enough to commit $400,000 for a 16 percent share of the three-year-old company.

Wisconsinites feel differently. The company is growing in popularity statewide, and Schwartz is on the brink of completing MobCraft’s first physical brewery in Milwaukee, set to open this summer.

MobCraft’s approach is simple, yet innovative: On its website, MobCraft solicits ingredient and style ideas from beer fans and home brewers. Once an idea is approved, it goes up on the site, and subscribers can vote for the beer of their choice by pre-ordering it on the site. The most popular recipe in a given month gets brewed, and only those who requested that beer will be charged for it.

Once the beer is brewed, the recipe (if submitted in full) and brand become the property of MobCraft, Schwartz says. The brewery sells former months’ winners online while supplies are in stock, and Schwartz also plans to offer flagship lines of sour beers and more powerful imperial-style ales. “Those are the beers that we like to make,” he says.

Past winners have included Vanilla Wafer Porter, a rich beer featuring cocoa nibs; Aloha Danke Schön, a witbier brewed with cocoa, coffee and coconut; and the ever popular Batshit Crazy, a brown ale made with coffee. Coming up is Dat Dark Sour, a whiskey barrel-aged sour porter Schwartz says will be ready for distribution by the end of March, and Helles Gingerbock, an imperial Helles-style beer brewed with ginger.

“I am most intrigued right now by Mystique,” says Schwartz of the bourbon barrel-aged double IPA that won voting in December. “Hoppy beer usually isn’t barrel-aged because of what the barrel does to mute the hops’ flavors, but this beer has been dry-hopped after the aging process.”

The resulting flavor finds bright citrus and piney hops flavors blending with malt and bourbon’s overall sweetness for a dynamic balance, and a higher alcohol content.

MobCraft’s beers are understandably diverse, which became a bit of a problem during the Shark Tank episode Schwartz was featured on.

Some of the Sharks didn’t even like the beer. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban simply referred to the brewery’s Sour Safari red ale as “Horrible!” More admiring was inventor/entrepreneur/”Queen of QVC” Lori Greiner, who said she “loved” the Vanilla Wafer Porter.

During the episode, Schwartz told them and the other three Sharks that he was looking for $400,000 in funds to finish his Milwaukee brewery and begin competing for retail accounts nationwide. But the Sharks didn’t bite.

Schwartz cited the need for greater quality control as a driving reason for building his own brewery. Canadian financier Kevin O’Leary, who admired the original MobCraft model, challenged the entrepreneur’s growth strategy.

“Are you out of your mind?” O’Leary exclaimed. “You have such a cool model and now you want to get dragged into the toilet, build out a factory to go into the retail market? I want to spank you like a baby seal!”

O’Leary was the final shark to speak, making the rejection of Schwartz’s proposal unanimous. The nascent brewer left the show no richer, but certainly a little wiser in his approach to the ever-expanding craft beer market.

“Intense,” is the word Schwartz used to described his Shark Tank experience. “I had pitched the idea to other groups as well and saw this as a great opportunity, although doing it on national TV was a little unusual.”

Lack of interest by the sharks has not dampened MobCraft’s progress or the enthusiasm of Schwartz and business partner and head brewer Andrew Gierczak. Although Schwartz was unable to discuss when the March 11 segment was actually filmed due confidentiality agreements with the network, he noted in a separate interview that that brewery construction was not only well underway, but nearing completion.

The pair began construction on MobCraft’s first brewery, located in a former warehouse space at 505 S. Fifth St. in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, in November. Prior to that, MobCraft beers have been contract brewed at the House of Brews on Madison’s east side.

Through a combination of funds from 49 investors and a $150,000 SBA loan, MobCraft had the capital needed to finish the $2.6 million brewery in January. Schwartz and Gierczak expect to be open for business in late June or early July.

“We’ll be really excited to have our own taproom and to be able to give tours,” Schwartz says.

The pair plans to solicit ideas for new beers and taproom features from visitors who have been to other breweries. There also will be a “live barrel” beer, consisting of beer aging with live yeasts in a wooden barrel in a room adjacent to the taproom that will be poured for thirsty fans of sour beers.

All put together, it’s a plan that should kick MobCraft into the next level of its brewing legacy.