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Inside The Tank | Pair O’ Dice Brewing Company

Pair O' Dice
Jose Minaya

Pair O’ Dice Brewing Company quietly produces some of the best beer in Florida while managing to honor everything about the state it calls home. Florida boasts a variety of mainstay attractions and industries that are signature representations of the state. After all, it may be the Sunshine State, but it’s equally well-known for amusement parks, beaches and oranges! You can add Pair O’ Dice Brewing Company to that list as well. Just across the bay from the huge city of Tampa, Pair O’ Dice is taking a focused approach to beer.

Pair O’ Dice was founded by Julia and Ken Rosenthal in 2013. The award-winning duo brings to bear their meticulous engineering background and their passion for beer to the quiet, almost idyllic landscape of Clearwater, Florida. Their precise brewing processes and desire to highlight the best of what Florida has to offer make them a brewery worth the hunt. Located in a light industrial park, visiting Pair O’ Dice gives you the feeling of diving into the processes and surrounding yourself with the essence of craft beer. The heartbeat and life blood of the brewery surrounds you as you enjoy the fruits of the labor of the entire team. Being able to enjoy Pair O’ Dice’s beer just steps away from where it is made in a no-frills, laid back and fun environment speaks to the value of a focused brand that eschews flashy accents. The building prominently lets you know that the focus is on the beer you are tasting.

“Consistency” is their watch word. During my interview with Julia, it came up constantly. You can always bank on the beer you get tasting the same no matter how long ago you last enjoyed it. The sheer difficulty of ensuring that level of consistency in a product as volatile as craft beer speaks only to the dedication Pair O’ Dice has to their product. In other words, the brewery is centered entirely around delivering the best product possible and it shows in every drop of every can.

Pair O'Dice
Photo Credit: Anna DaCosta What was the background and history behind the brewery?

Julia Rosenthal: Ken and I we met at the University of Florida where we were both engineers and were recruited out of college by Anheuser-Busch (AB). This was in the early 2000’s, before In-Bev purchased them. Ken worked at the Jacksonville, FL plant as a brewing supervisor, and I worked in the Baldwinsville, NY plant as an engineer. At the Jacksonville plant, several people were making their own wine or beer at home, and it piqued Ken’s interest. We left AB and took engineering jobs in Austin, TX. That’s where we started homebrewing. We were kind of different homebrewers because we were looking for consistency in our beers right from the beginning. We brewed 20 assorted styles over and over again and perfected them.  We had learned the importance of quality and consistency from our time at AB and that ultimately shaped the future of the brewery. We always wanted to open our own business we just didn’t know what it was going to be. By 2009, we had traveled all over the country visiting our favorite craft breweries and decided that we were going to move back to Florida to open our own brewery. There wasn’t a lot of craft beer in Florida back then, and by 2011 we had sold our house in Texas and moved back home to open Pair O’ Dice.

Was there something important that you learned from your time at AB that helps you in your business now?

Yes! We say it all the time and it’s not sexy marketing terms but, quality and consistency. They hammered that into us at AB. AB had the best QA labs, and consistency was important because they were making Budweiser in 12 different plants across the country. Ken would sit on the brewmasters’ taste panel and taste Budweiser from all the different plants to make sure they all tasted the same. Quality and consistency is what influenced us as homebrewers the most. It’s what we built our business on, and it has always been number one for us. When I hear other brewers say, “Well, it’s craft beer it’s supposed to be different every time,” it frustrates me. If the recipe is the same it should taste the same every time. That’s what our customers have grown to expect from us, and that’s honestly one of the best compliments that we get.

Photo Credit: Anna DaCosta

Two of your beers — Lucky Lucy Strawberry Blonde Ale and Clearwater Honey Cream Ale — just earned the Fresh from Florida Seal from the Florida Agricultural Department just like what you would see on the strawberries from Plant City which go into Lucky Lucy. Is that something you guys wanted from the beginning, or is that something that happened by accident because you naturally gravitate towards local ingredients?

I would say it was always something that was important to Pair O’ Dice.  We always wanted to use local ingredients, and that came from our time in Austin because of their intense support for local and small business. We chose the St. Pete/Clearwater area to open Pair O’ Dice Brewing because we felt that the area could support that same kind of local movement. Local was so important to us, and it was a big part of our business plan. We liked West Coast-style beers, but we wanted them to be infused with Florida ingredients. We developed our Lucky Lucy Strawberry Blonde because of the Plant City Strawberry Festival that I grew up going to every year. I would say it’s something we kind of had in our mind in 2009. It just took a while to come to fruition. We had to fine tune our brewing processes and build relationships with farmers to be able commercially produce our Lucky Lucy Strawberry Blonde. We’ve never used extracts at Pair O’ Dice and earning the Fresh from Florida seal just helps us showcase the true, natural and local ingredients in our beers.

You guys just collaborated with one of the big steakhouses in Tampa, Bern’s Steak House. How did that opportunity come about because they are known to be very wine focused? Hearing them collaborate with you on a beer is very good for the industry.

It really is great for the industry, and it was a huge honor. Bern’s called us. The director of spirits called and asked me if I had ever heard of Bern’s which made me laugh because of course I had heard of Bern’s. They had done the Legacy series with Cigar City and JDubs Brewing, and it was a huge honor to have them ask us to be Legacy 4. They heard of Pair O’ Dice from their own staff because they spoke very highly about our beer. We focus so much on the quality and consistency of our product, but as engineers, sales and marketing has been the hard part of this business for us. We are good at doing things the right way and putting out a great product, but there is obviously a branding and marketing element to craft beer. That’s been our challenge and we have had to grow sustainably through word of mouth and the quality of our product. So for that word of mouth to make it to Bern’s and for them to ask Pair O’ Dice be part of the Legacy series that was incredible to us. It was pretty cool to get a call from Bern’s.

Photo Credit: Anna DaCosta

What would you say is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone looking to start a brewery, or what would you have done differently in your journey to owning a brewery knowing what you know today?

Times have changed and so fast. I’m going to start with what would I do differently knowing what I know now. Mostly because the industry has moved so fast, and by the time you write your business plan and secure your funding the landscape will have already changed. Pair O’ Dice Brewing is a West Coast-inspired, distribution-focused brewery. We opened in a light industrial warehouse like what we saw other breweries do all over California. I think that our location is the biggest thing that I would change because our cash flow has been hindered because our location is not ideal for a tap room. Selling most of our product through distribution has been a big challenge for us because the margins are so much smaller when you sell through a wholesaler. Our growth has been slower for us as a result of those lower margins. Cash is king. That is certainly a principal any business should be aware of when they first open. Whether it’s a brewery or anything else, margins are tremendously important. So in hindsight, if we were to do it again, instead of being in a warehouse that’s easy for trucks to make deliveries and pick up beer from we would choose a location in the downtown sector with a smaller foot print and more foot traffic.  We encourage breweries now to be the neighborhood brewery, start small and maybe in a few years distribute. Focus on your tap room because that’s where you are going to make your initial cash to grow your brand.

What advice do you have for someone looking to get into the industry as a brewer or in sales or even just trying to get in as a keg washer? What are you looking for as an owner when you are trying to fill a role in your brewery?

I try to hire people smarter than me. We are a small team, and I am looking for someone with a skill set I don’t have. In our case, a salesperson is a big part of that. Ken and I are engineers, and we could go out and sell our beer, but hiring a sales rep was very important for us. Sales reps are born with it — the gift of gab — and they’ve never met a stranger in their life. I’m an introvert, so sales is way outside my comfort zone. When it comes to sales, I look for someone who has experience in outside sales. I want someone who loves and knows about craft beer, of course, but I am looking for someone who has experience hitting the pavement selling widgets no matter what that widget is. I can teach you about beer, but I cannot teach you to be a sales person.

With brewers, obviously it’s a little harder to find someone with a brewing skill set that’s new to the industry. I am looking for a strong work ethic and a mechanical aptitude. Maybe someone who likes to fix cars or likes to build or make things, a Mr. Fix it so to speak. I need someone that is able to understand how and why things work. I think brewing schools give people a false sense of knowledge. Until you put your hands on a piece of brewing equipment and work with chemicals, it’s all theoretical. I’d like to see more intern- or apprenticeships at breweries. Hands on experience is key to any successful program in my opinion.

As far as getting your foot in the door, usually the way in at Pair O’ Dice is a part time job in the bar or on the canning line. Making beer is a labor of love. It can be monotonous, and attention to detail is key. Running a canning line is no fun at all, but packaging is where most people start. We have a joke in our brewery that everyone wants to be a brewer until they have to do brewer stuff. It sounds great until you get to the inglorious, tedious cleaning which is 95% of the job and the most important. I am hard on people when they come to the industry at first because I want to find out if they have what it takes to work in this industry. Ask yourself what skill set or attribute do you have that’s going to help make my business successful? If you can’t answer that then why should I hire you?

Photo Credit: Anna DaCosta

Most breweries usually have colorful employees and equally colorful stories that go with those employees what’s your most memorable employee story?

I don’t have a great answer for you because it’s a lot of little stories that create who Pair O’ Dice is and the little things add up. We are four years in and have had to work really hard to get to where we are. The most recent story I have goes back to making the Legacy beer for Bern’s. When we released the beer all the employees go to be VIPs at the restaurant and we got to share the beer with them and the bourbon that came out of the barrel that we aged the beer in. It was great because we know how hard they work and it was nice to be able to share that experience with them.

We are not a big party brewery.  We all have to get up and go to work the next day. A brewery is a business and a big one at that. The scale of it is absolutely incredible. You manufacture a product, you distribute a product and you have onsite retail site as well. To run that with six people like we do is incredible. There are breweries that party, don’t get me wrong, but they must not get as hungover as I do.

Featured Image Credit: Anna DaCosta

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