Today’s breweries open with million dollar budgets that fund state-of-the-art equipment, lavish taprooms, and ambitious expansion plans. But the mother-and-son team of Susan and Brian Miller didn’t have access to a family fortune or eager investors with bottomless sacks of cash. Rather, they opened Bold City Brewery, Jacksonville’s first (of the new craft beer wave), in 2008 by taking out a loan against their home mortgage, purchasing used equipment and setting up shop in a neglected bit of warehouse space in an all-but-forgotten section of Riverside. Little did they know at the time that they were on the forefront of a cultural phenomenon that would take the country by storm. We caught up with Susan Miller for this month’s Bold Bevs interview.
When you first opened your doors, did you ever expect the craft beer market would become what it is today?
No, we never imagined things would get to where they are now. We had a business plan, but we didn’t have any specific goals or aspirations. We really focused on doing good business. You just have to be up-front and ethical and treat everybody fairly, no matter what. That’s always been and still is the way we conduct business.
Has your growth been steady over the years or was there a moment when things changed?
The demand was there from day one. For the first five or six years, we couldn’t make enough. Growth stayed pretty linear until about 2017, then all the new breweries opened up and the seltzer phase hit. We had to really grow up as a business and it was hard to adjust. We had to make a decision about who we were going to be. Were we going to chase the next fad or stay true to who we were? We’ve chased a few trends but for the most part, we’ve stayed who we are which is a core brewery. Distribution has always been our strategy so we wanted to make sure we kept Duke’s, Killer Whale, and Mad Manatee in stock.
What about the downtown location? How did that come about and how is it going?
Brian and I had been playing around for a while about opening something else when Jacques Klempf from Cowford Chophouse approached us about taking over the space next door. Planning it was really exciting and we were super happy with the end result. It allowed us to branch out and try new things while still allowing us to focus on the core brands in the main brewery. This April will be five years since it opened. We’re at about 25% of where we were before the pandemic but I keep thinking that things will pick up in the next six months or so when we start getting the sports and the music back downtown.
How have you seen the craft beer customer change over the years?
We’ve always had a real mix of customers. We definitely have more customers now, because back then, especially in the state of Florida, there was nothing when we started and now craft beer is all over. You see Big Beer coming out with “craft” products to try and compete. One thing is, people aren’t afraid of craft beer anymore; that’s probably the biggest difference. Like Duke’s, it’s a great brown ale but so many people were afraid of it because of the color.
What sort of challenges did the pandemic bring for your business and how did you respond?
There’s a can shortage now. During the pandemic, everything went to package. Our sales used to be about 50/50 but now, 75% of what we sell is package. The companies that make printed cans can’t make them fast enough. There’s so much volume in the canning market that they’re having to pick and choose who gets them. You’re going to start seeing a lot of wrapped cans in the market instead of printed ones. We’re expecting a shipment next week, but currently we have no Duke’s or Killer Whale cans in the brewery.
Other than that, it’s been a difficult year, but it’s forced us to become more disciplined as a business. We’ve cut out all the fat and we’re going to stay slim. In that way, it was kind of a blessing in disguise.
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What have you been working on lately?
A light beer, actually. Daily’s approached us about creating a brand for the convenience stores and Daily’s Place. They were interested in carrying something that was lighter so they initiated the creation of this beer, and we called it Duval Light. It took us a while because we wanted it to be super light, but we also wanted to make sure it was made with real ingredients so it took us three or four tries to get something where we both wanted it to be. It’s an ale with 4% alcohol, 2 carbs and 102 calories per 12 ounce. We’re excited about it. I think it will do well. You don’t see a lot of light craft beers out there.
Attention dog lovers, DYK that for each can of Duke’s purchased, Bold City and North Florida Sales make a donation to the Jacksonville Humane Society or the S.A.F.E. Pet Rescue in St. Augustine?
This Bold Bevs feature is part of a special sponsored content partnership with North Florida Sales and originally appeared in Void’s April 2021 issue.