Good Beer Hunting

Sightlines — Former Penrose Co-Founder Moves to Local Competitor Solemn Oath Brewery

We recently reported the surprising news that Penrose Co-Founder Eric Hobbs, who led the brewery’s sales, marketing, and operational efforts alongside co-founder and brewer Tom Korder, left the brewery amidst differing visions with the company’s primary investors—the latter of which own a commercial printing business in the area.

Prior to founding Penrose, Hobbs was the High-End Regional Manager for Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Market Manager and Key Account Manager for Goose Island. Almost instantly, Hobbs had numerous offers on the table from a variety of breweries, and has now chosen his next role, as Vice President at Solemn Oath Brewery, just 13 miles from Penrose. Long seen as leaders and comrades in Chicago’s suburban brewery scene, the two breweries now share one of its most important people after a partner split. 

We’ve been reporting on a lot of leadership changes at the top level of craft lately, including Ballast Point (twice) and Duvel. But as the entire craft segment gears up for a competitive phase that’s likely to be the new norm, every level of the industry is experiencing relatively big moves. And while this news is hyper-relevant to Chicago’s scene, it contains relevance for the larger industry as well. With well more than 4,000 breweries, many reaching their awkward/anxiety-inducing growth years, retaining talent, experience, and in many cases, the vision of the original founders is proving challenging across the board. And with so many roles now in flux and in-demand (and not just brewers, either), the musical chairs of influential talent has begun.

While Penrose struggled to sell their Belgian-inspired beers early, gradually adapting to more American-style beers, they also hit a few snags with packaging quality and two recalls. Now keg-only with a promising sour program, the brewery has more wood fermentation capacity that steel, according to Korder. Meanwhile Solemn Oath, also somewhat-Belgian-Inspired, took an aggressive American angle out of the gate, has recently entered the market with six-pack cans after a lengthy expansion, and is gearing up for state-wide distribution. The two breweries could not have charted more differing paths from a somewhat similar starting point, and the switching of sides for Hobbs seems to highlight the future relevance of his skillset at Solemn Oath as opposed to Penrose.

According to Solemn Oath co-founder, John Barley, “My goal has always been to build a team with the most talented people I possibly can. I've been able to watch Eric over the last few years and being able to see how he operated, how innovative and progressive of a thinker he is, and speed at which he works. Eric is deliberate. And when he became available, In my mind him joining SOB is a natural progression. His addition puts us in a strong position for the future and with him on board we're going to do some awesome things."

So, who owns and operates your favorite brewery? Not only are partnerships and financiers becoming more obscure to the average craft beer drinker. But with so many leadership changes taking place throughout the category, LinkedIn might become the most efficient way of keep track of who’s who. Competitive and adaptable breweries are quietly building strong sales and marketing teams behind their beer in order to compete in the marketplace, and most drinkers are either ignorant of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business, or their interests in supporting local, small, independent producers likely don’t extend that far into the day-to-day. Rather, you may start to notice the tap handles at your local bar and the shelf sets at your retailer slowly evolving toward quality beer from the better competitors in your area.

And perhaps that’s a good thing. For craft beer to continue its growth nationwide, and defend itself brewery-by-brewery in a local market, we’ll need people who care just as much about the business as they do the beer. After all, the two ideas aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, they might be more aligned than passionate drinkers want to admit. 

— Michael Kiser

SOB Appoints Eric Hobbs Vice President [Solemn Oath's blog]