Entrepreneurs

These drinking buddies traded day jobs for the beer biz

Back when they were in college, best friends John Liegey and Rich Vandenburgh used to talk about opening a brewery one day ... mainly for practical reasons.

"We had this idea that if we owned a brewery, we'd never have to buy another beer again," Vandenburgh said in an interview last year.

Fifteen years later, the two were both living on the north end of Long Island and established in their respective careers: Liegey in advertising, Vandenburgh in law.

Best friends since college, Rich Vandenburgh (left) and John Liegey founded Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in 2009
Source: Rich Vandenburgh
Best friends since college, Rich Vandenburgh (left) and John Liegey founded Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in 2009

But when an old firehouse went up for sale in nearby Greenport, the friends' old brewing fantasy came bubbling back to life. They realized the building's 12-foot ceilings were perfect for large brewery equipment, and they purchased the property in 2008.

With help from family and friends, they refurbished the building in their free time with "a lot of sweat equity," Liegey said. In July 2009, they opened Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. At the time, theirs was one of approximately 60 craft breweries in New York state. By 2015, that number has grown to 240 breweries, according to the New York State Brewers Association.

As summer tourists brought word of the new brewery back to New York City, distributors took notice; within eight months Whole Foods began carrying Greenport's brew. As the duo ramped up production to meet growing demand, Liegey and Vandenburgh realized they needed more space. In 2012, they purchased a three-acre property in Peconic, New York, with space for larger fermenting tanks, a tasting room and a brewpub. That same year, they quit their jobs to brew full time.

"I made the decision to stop putting a tie on," Vandenburgh said.

Greenport Harbor has brewed about 60 styles of beer since launching. At the Peconic location, which opened in 2014, they brew large batches of fan favorites like Otherside IPA, Black Duck Porter, and pumpkin-flavored Leaf Pile Ale. The original firehouse in Greenport is where they experiment with small batches of new flavors. In 2015, Greenport produced nearly 1 million bottles of beer. The pair anticipate production will increase 80 percent this year.

Several years after first opening their doors, Vandenburgh shared what he wish he'd known before getting into the beer biz:

1. The cost of succeeding: "We wish we knew just how large the capital investment on a continuing basis would be. Each growth step triggers a domino effect of additional growth investment steps. More tanks means more kegs, more bottles, more hoses, etc."

2. Networking is key: "Knowing what to expect re: relationship-building has been a learning experience. It requires commitment and staff to support it."

3. Funding growth: "I wish we knew how difficult it would be to secure the type of commercial lending that a rapidly growing business model with a thin margin needs."