The operations of Honkavuori Brewery started for a simple, but all the more important reason: the desire to make good beer.
But how to expand the making of good beer from experiments done at home to brewery scale? And what does entrepreneurship feel like for the two doctors of philosophy?
The entrepreneurs behind Honkavuori Brewery Jani Honkanen and Ville Vuorio originally met at the University of Joensuu Department of Biology in the 1990s. One evening in 2009, the study mates were having a merry time and listening to drinking songs at Jokela pub, which has since been closed, when suddenly Jani made a suggestion to Ville. “Do you want to set up a brewery together?”
The two men shook hands, and the decision was made. From that time onwards, the two men strived towards the realisation of their idea, sometimes in a more determined manner, sometimes less. At first, the duo searched for academic literature, which was a natural move, considering their doctoral background. In their doctoral dissertations, Jani specialised in ecotoxicology and contaminants in fish, and Ville, in turn, focused on the conservation biology of a very rare newt.
They started to experiment at home. The men developed over one hundred different beers, which they offered to friends and acquaintances to try, but they did not breathe a word about the idea of setting up a brewery. The development was carried out alongside their own work: at the time, Jani worked as an official at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, and Ville had a position at a university. Finally, in 2015, the time was ripe for the next step.
– At least I felt an urge to do something else after my years as a public official. At the beginning of 2015, we started to investigate how the idea could be taken further: we visited different equipment manufacturers in China and travelled to Italy to study bottling machines. My employment contract stated that I was not allowed to run a business alongside my work. Finally, when the company was officially established in autumn 2015, we both left everything behind and became brewery entrepreneurs, Jani explains.
This duo, who had jumped into entrepreneurship from civil service and the academic world, did not have much knowledge about practical matters related to running a business, so there was plenty of work to do. Jani and Ville felt that at the initial stage, it was quite easy to get help from, for example, the Finnish Enterprise Agency, which helped them with the business plan and different calculations. But then they were faced with a sort of black hole, as it was difficult to find concrete support on how to materialise their idea.
– It was somewhat difficult to get a full understanding of the different services, as there were so many operators: the Finnish Enterprise Agency, the former JOSEK, Business Incubator, the Employment and Economic Development Office (the TE Office), ELY Centres, the bank, and what have you. At this stage it was easy to do unnecessary work. Maybe a flowchart could be developed to visualise the order in which you should do these things, Ville comments.
Used to the ‘mangling’ and critical commenting of the academic world, Jani and Ville also missed having their ideas and calculations challenged properly.
– As doctors, we sure know how to write and prepare documents and calculations, but nobody really disputed our ideas in the initial phase. When we started at the Business Incubator in the autumn 2015, we welcomed the challenge provided by Timo Ruohio, who unravelled matters through, for example, logistics. We showed him our ambitious sales plans and he examined them with a critical eye and enquired whether we would be able to provide a certain amount within a certain time frame, Jani explains.
In early 2016, beer production started in the current brewery facilities. Already in its second year of operation, the company received first prize in a beer competition: Valo was nominated as the best Finnish wheat beer in 2017. Thereafter, Honkavuori Brewery has offered around 25 different types of beer to beer lovers all across Finland, at an annual pace of 4 or 5 novelties. A familiar graphic designer designed the identifiable labels as a side job.
– The brand was built when we were ourselves, out of sheer passion. We did not give it too much thought, apart from the fact that we wanted to invest in the labels and make them top quality.
At the beginning, we both did a bit of everything, but soon we adopted different roles – and this division has worked well. Now Ville takes care of the manufacturing, and Jani dreams and manages the office, in other words, takes care of marketing and sales. One employee has also been hired for beer production. The pay subsidy was crucial in the hiring of the first employee, and based on experience, the men think it was easy to apply for. In addition, occasional trainees help out at the brewery, and their queue is reportedly long.
Much has changed in Jani’s and Ville’s life compared to their academic years.
– Entrepreneurship is not difficult not per se, but there is simply a lot to learn. You can manage with addition and subtraction, although sometimes a bit of multiplication and division may be required. I was used to getting everything done during office hours, but at the beginning, we also worked in the evenings, and in the summer, we spent the weekends touring around beer festivals, Jani says.
But, unlike in the academic world, it is easy to receive feedback for beer.
– We did not think that people would be able to recognise us. During the first beer festival, we received more positive feedback for our beer than in our previous career in total. Positive feedback has been a great thing, and we are grateful, Ville says with a smile.
Of course, a self-employed person carries a lot of far-reaching responsibility.
– In this work, responsibility is greater and more comprehensive than before. You are responsible for ensuring that the beer as good as promised, the business is rolling, and customers in shops and restaurants remain satisfied. Customer satisfaction requires all of the pieces to fall in place, all the time, from ordering ingredients to keeping stock records, Ville comments.
Yet when the men are asked how they dared to jump into entrepreneurship, the answer is clear.
– Neither of us thought that this was a matter of daring, even if the risks are big and there is a lot at stake. We wanted to make good beer and knew that we could do it. Of course we are aware of the fact that the company can crash quickly, if things go really wrong. We do not assume that this will continue until we retire, but we take care of matters and challenges the way they should be handled, Jani summarises.