Wall Street guy's path to happiness: Less banking, more beer

Happiness came after switching to beer from banking
Happiness came after switching to beer from banking

Michael Kane fell in love with beer in college, though not in a frat party sort of way.

In 1997, while backpacking through Europe before his sophomore year, Kane found himself drawn to the pilsners and ales of Germany and the Netherlands. He liked the beer, of course, but also appreciated the social, family-friendly culture of the beer gardens.

When he returned to Fairfield University in Connecticut, Kane spent weekends visiting New England's craft breweries — companies like Magic Hat and Long Trail, which were just start-ups at the time. Most of the owners had started as homebrewers.

Source: Kane Brewing Co.

Inspired, Kane bought a book and a brew kit. It was love at first pint, and he knew instantly that he wanted to start his own brewery. But he also knew that at age 22, he lacked the experience and capital to be successful. So after graduation, he used his business degree to get a job as a litigation consultant in New York City. But he never lost the beer bug; on business trips, he would make detours to visit breweries. He continued to brew at home, and even made the beer that was served at his wedding.

Later, while working for an MBA at Notre Dame, every business proposal he wrote was for a brewery or distillery, "just to get an understanding of how the industry worked," he told CNBC in a 2014 interview. An internship at the Hague in 2004 sent him back to the Netherlands, where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions — and lagers.

Best friends since college, Rich Vandenburgh (left) and John Liegey founded Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in 2009
These drinking buddies traded day jobs for the beer biz

Kane returned to New York to work as an investment banker, but he still had beer on the brain. After 4½ years, he had his "now-or-never" moment. In 2010, with his wife's blessing, he quit his Wall Street job and signed a lease on a 7,500-square-foot building in Ocean Township, New Jersey.

Self-funding the brewery allowed Kane to brew the American- and Belgian-style recipes he'd been honing for the past six years, without the influence of outside investors.

"I had a vision for what I wanted, and I wanted to make sure we could execute that and not have any outside interruption," he said.

He and his wife spent a year transforming his brewery, and when the first kegs of beer were ready for distribution, he enlisted a childhood friend, Glenn Lewis, to help him with deliveries. He and Lewis, who is now vice president of sales, went door-to-door to local bars and restaurants, hawking the new brew.

I'm more concerned about making really good, interesting beer than getting it out.
Michael Kane
Founder, Kane Brewing Co.

Nip-N-Tuck Bar & Grill in Long Branch, New Jersey, gave the brewery its first big break in August 2011 when it put Kane's brew on tap. Each year, Kane Brewing Co. celebrates the company's anniversary there.

Another big break came in 2012, when a change in New Jersey law allowed for on-site beer consumption at microbreweries. The new legislation meant Kane could serve customers at the brewery instead of just distributing. He started hosting twice-weekly tastings and tours and hired additional staff to manage the hundreds of locals who turn up for them.

The number of breweries in New Jersey has more than doubled in the past five years, according to the Brewers Association. Today, more than 50 New Jersey breweries produce 80,000 barrels of craft beer each year.

Kane Brewing has been part of that growth, brewing 5,000 barrels in 2015. Kane brews are on draft at 350 bars across the state, and Kane plans to expand into the New York City and Philadelphia markets.

Since CNBC's initial visit to Kane in 2014, the brewery has doubled the size of its production facility and added bottling and canning capabilities. But as production increases, Michael Kane envisions slow, managed growth for his brewery.

"I'm more concerned about making really good interesting beer than getting it out," Kane told CNBC in an email last week.

Kane also shared his top tips for the best brew:

1. Temperature matters ... a lot: "Fermentation is the key to a great beer. Temperature control of fermentation is something beginners overlook."

2. Drink with friends: "The craft beer industry is a collection of great people willing to share information. Talking to professional brewers, visiting breweries or joining a homebrew club are great ways to improve your brewing and learn more about the industry."

3. Keep it clean: "Brewing is mostly cleaning."