What Does It Really Take To Start A Brewery With Some Friends?

Owning a brewery is the promised land for aficionados who obsess over malt and fixate on hops. From coast-to-coast, they plot in garages and over Pliny pints: Aspiring to hang a shingle, design a logo, and tap kegs. The dream seems cool and sexy and fun in the way that few jobs do in our ultra-automated age. Plus there’s money to be made; people are going to drink, no matter what the economy does. No wonder the beer-loving public sees craft brewing as the embodiment of their sudsy, half-buzzed dreams (perfectly skewered in this sketch).

For a certain (relatively sizeable) segment of the population, there’s only one thing better than building a brewery from scratch: Building a brewery from scratch with your best friends. And that, if you simplify things, is the story of Docent Brewing in San Juan Capistrano (CA). It’s the culmination of a decades-long dream and such a clear representation of the brewing fantasy that you can’t help but ask, “How the hell did you pull this off? What’s the secret?”

Which is exactly what I decided to do, visiting the Docent team to chat about what it took to spin their whispered beer fantasy into a brick and mortar reality. Their story, I quickly discovered over a flight of beers, was circuitous and even trying, but it feels well worth it now — with the taps pouring pints for friends, family, and fellow beer heads.

“I was just patting myself on the back last night,” Docent Brewing co-founder Scott Cortellessa told me, smiling over the rim of his pint glass. “My wife came in and said, ‘Why are you so happy?’ and I said, ‘Honey, we own a brewery!’ it’s so cool to think about.”

BALDEMAR FIERRO

Docent was originally dreamed up by Cortellessa, his brother-in-law Brian Hendon, and their close friend Joe Wilshire. The trio scratched logos on napkins and texted name ideas back and forth. Like so many breweries, the whole project might have remained firmly in the “one day, maybe” realm — spoken about late at night, while making beers in the garage or sessioning at the local brewpub. But Cortellessa, Hendon, and Wilshire are men of action and their concept eventually morphed into something very real.

“This brewery thing has been a thought of mine for a decade and a half,” Hendon said, sipping an IPA. “Then one day I turned to Scott and Joe, and said ‘I really want to do this and now is the time.’ And it was like ‘Boom!’”

He paused, then started to laugh.

“Of course, that was 2012… so it wasn’t exactly ‘Boom!’, the decision was ‘Boom!’ but the rest was hard work and permitting and things we didn’t understand.”

Hendon and Cortellessa had already grown a business together, and Wilshire owns his own business too — but they quickly learned that launching a brewery is a whole new beast. There are complicated rules on the books about brewing and serving beer. From a sheer paperwork standpoint, would-be brewpub owners are essentially starting a business, launching a restaurant (Docent also cooks up an incredible Cuban sandwich), and opening a chem lab.

“The TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] licensing process took 265 days,” Hendon says. “And that’s non-stop. It’s constantly filing applications and having inspections and trying to make sure everything is set. We literally didn’t know if we’d get it done in time for our planned launch date.”

Still, Hendon, Cortellessa, and Wilshire pushed forward. To keep themselves motivated, they alternated between the hard work of permitting, finding a building, and chasing down investors, with making time to toss names around and actually try potential beers. The highlight of the whole process was connecting with brewer Bryan Giesen.

“We met Bryan through Joe’s son, Stewart,” Cortellessa explained, as I sipped on a fruity beer they call ‘Peel Top.’ “It was a great connection for us and we found that we liked everything he made. Then he talked about his background, why he brews a beer, and instantly we knew we were aligned. He was the right fit.”

The gig was a huge jump for Giesen, who went from winning homebrewing competitions at the County Fair, to being the head man at a brewery, virtually overnight. In order to prep for making beer at scale, he apprenticed with friends at other craft breweries while Cortellessa, Hendon, and Wilshire took care of the business details.

“Ultimately, we liked him as much as we liked the beer,” Cortellessa said, as we moved on to malty stout called ‘Grandpappy.’

“It was a chemistry fit,” Hendon added. “Joe, Scott, and I are really close. That’s a serious friendship. So you bring someone into that mix and it’s less about ‘he’s good for the job’ and more about ‘this guy connects with us.’”

Once Giesen was on board, the fun work of picking beers really started. The brewer had a notebook full of ideas and recipes and the founders of Docent poured through these pages together. Listening to Cortellessa and Hendon speak, it’s clear that this was the realization of a dream for the entire crew.

“Joe, Brian, or I might say, ‘We want something like this,’” Cortellessa said. “Then Bryan would flip to a recipe, start his homebrew process, and weeks later we’re actually sipping a beer.”

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Finding a philosophical fit felt huge for Hendon, Cortellessa and Wilshire. Breweries all across the country are trying to build names for themselves by adding hops to the point of silliness, or cranking up the ABV, but Docent doesn’t toy with gimmicks.

“We’re not stunt-y at all,” Hendon said. “We want to represent modern classics; we want to be approachable and drinkable.”

“Balanced,” Cortellessa added, as I moved down the tasting flight to my next beer. “From the beginning, that was what Joe, Brian, and I talked about. Bryan was on the same page. We want to make a full spectrum of solid beers that we would love.”

The desire to offer a broad range of flavors and help beer-lovers cultivate their tastes is embedded in all of Docent’s branding and logo materials. Their name is a reference to park docents, who guide and enhance the experiences of guests. Their logo — created by renowned SoCal design firm Hoodzpah — is meant to remind people of visiting a National Park.

“We had a name that we thought would take us to the finish line,” Cortellessa told me. “Top Dead Center. We were down this rabbit hole of vintage signs and old cars and it fit with that. Then we kind of evolved and didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves.”

Eventually, the team pivoted away from cars and struck Docent. Looking back, it feels like the only suitable fit for their aesthetic and goals. They designed the brewery to feel like an experience — complete with flight cards that allow guests to scribble tasting notes. It’s a nice touch by a team that aces all the small details.

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A few months after opening, Docent is thriving as a true micro brewery. Regulars drop by often and Wilshire, Cortellessa, Hendon, and Giesen are almost always on site. Accolades are coming in and the media has taken notice. The company hopes to make a thousand barrels of beer this year and they’re shooting to expand that to two or three thousand in the years to come. For now, the team is having fun sharing their vision with anyone who walks through the door. During my visit, they guided me through a full tasting and helped me recognize the flavors I liked the most. In the end, I picked a pint with balanced hops and lots of fruit — a fun summer session beer called ‘Tiny Umbrellas.’

As I finished my tasting, Hendon looked over at his brother-in-law, then turned back to me with a smile.

“At the end of the day, we’re just a group of friends trying to do something that we’re proud of, together,” he said. “We believe that if we can do that, then we’ll find our audience.”

That Zen approach epitomizes the whole company. They’re living the dream, and you can’t help but be happy for them.