Consultant Greg Stroh visits Post Brewing’s downtown Boulder location. Dallas Heltzell / for BizWest

‘Battle wounds’ help Stroh keep Post Brewing healthy

BOULDER — Businesses typically hire a consultant to teach them what to do. For Big Red F Restaurant Group founder Dave Query, hiring Greg Stroh as a consultant for his Post Brewing Co. was almost as much about learning what not to do.

“What I tell people is not to grow too fast,” said Stroh, who represents the fifth generation of the dynasty that founded the Stroh Brewery Co. in Detroit in 1850. “My family had a strong regional brewery, but then, within one year, they bought Schlitz and used that infrastructure to take Stroh’s national. There were outstanding results for the first year — but it didn’t stick.”

Query recalled fishing trips in which “Stroh’s beer was part of the life on the lakes of Michigan.” And after the acquisition in the 1980s, Stroh’s became the nation’s third-largest brewery. Its television mascot, “Alex” the shelter dog, even pawed his way into rapper Tone Loc’s hip-hop hit “Funky Cold Medina.”

But Stroh’s growth beyond its roots eventually led to its decline and fall. Between price wars, battles for the attention of distributors and a heavy debt load, the company couldn’t survive. By 1999, its brands had been sold to Miller and Pabst.

“Pabst owns our namesake,” said Stroh. “It makes me a little sad. It’s hard for me, and it’s hard on all our relatives.

“I’ve made plenty of mistakes with my own startups, too, growing too quickly,” he said. “I’ve seen that with a lot of the microbreweries who expanded too quickly. But then you look at Coors and New Belgium. They both went very slowly in their expansion, and they’re still here to talk about it.

“The lesson is that once you’ve flipped every rock in your home market, then let’s go to the next one. But first, let’s do well here and do a good job.”

That’s one of the lessons Stroh, who founded Stroh Consulting last year, brings to Post Brewing Co., which made its name with fried chicken but is building its beer identity.

“Greg’s helping us with strategy,” Query said. “We’re first and foremost restaurant people, and he knows beer.”

He does indeed. While in high school, Stroh took summer jobs in his family’s brewery, mostly working in sales and marketing. During his senior year at the University of Colorado Boulder, he landed an internship at a distributor that sold Stroh’s beer. After graduation, he moved back to Detroit, took a job at a distributor, then joined the sales department at the Stroh Brewery — just in time to be swept along in the company’s downfall.

“I have a lot of battle wounds,” Stroh said.

After the sale in 1999, Stroh worked a year for an Anheuser Busch distributor in St. Louis, then returned to Boulder and, along with business partner Todd Woloson, founded Izze soda in 2002. Izze, a sparkling, fruit-flavored beverage, hearkened back to the Sundance Natural Juice Sparklers that Stroh’s Brewery had produced.

When they tried to market Izze in Boulder, Stroh recalled, “three-fourths of this town said no to us. But Zolo Grill was the first restaurant to take Izze on, and that’s how I met Dave Query.”

Query recalled Stroh as “the ultimate salesman, personable and passionate.”

A chef with a long food history in Boulder, Query had founded Big Red F Restaurant Group in 1994. Today that group runs Zolo Southwestern Grill and Centro Mexican Kitchen in Boulder; Post Brewing Co., with a brewery in Lafayette and locations in Boulder, Longmont and south Denver; Lola Coastal Mexican in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood; and Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar locations in Boulder, Fort Collins, Lower Downtown Denver, Glendale and Kansas City, Missouri.

Stroh sold Izze to Pepsi in 2006, then started producing an enhanced protein shake called Mix1 — eventually acquired by Hershey — and a nutrient-dense powder supplement called Healthy Skoop.

“The theme there was doing startups, from concept to getting them into the market,” Stroh said. “It was a lot of work. So by last year, the concept was, do I do another startup or try to take a breath and use a lot of my battle wounds from being an entrepreneur as a consultant to help companies’ planning.”

All the while, he stayed in touch with Query.

“We sat on a couple different boards and got to know each other,” Stroh said. “He asked if I’d take a look at Post Brewing, and I gave him what I thought would be a good route-to-market plan. He’s asked me to stay on and potentially help the team with implementing it. I’ve been working with them since May.”

Although Stroh felt great about returning to the beer industry after 20 years, he realized that a lot had changed.

“My daughters are sick of hearing me say this, but last time I was in the beer business there were 150 breweries in the country. Now there are 8,000.

“I’m still learning. It’s a different world. Last time I was in it, Bud was very dominant, followed by the usual suspects — the Millers and Coors of the world. Obviously, things have shifted quite a bit. It’s interesting seeing how the buying habits of people have changed in 20 years – just really interesting to try to find kind of our position and where we fit. The majority of the beer consumed is in the lager and pilsner arena, but all the growth has been more of the craft IPA categories. Millennials are drinking spirits now; I’m in my 50s, and when I was 20 nobody did.”

Possibly the biggest change, he said, is that “people are drinking less. That’s for the better, to be honest. As far as the health side of things, that makes me happy. It makes the business harder, but people are being more responsible.”

Another change he likes is that “craft brewers have done a good job of educating people about the goodness of fresh beer vs. old beer. Beer is like liquid bread. We all like to have fresh bread, and craft beer has done that.

“There have been 60,000 IPAs launched in the last couple of years. Imagine being a bar owner. What do you carry?”

The advice he has brought to Post Brewing, he said, is, “in general, just being very focused. Do one thing and do it well. Really try to stay focused on our home market and continue to build relationships at retail and with our distributor,” Denver-based Breakthru Beverages.

While the brewing process has its natural, hereditary allure for Stroh, “on the brewing side, they have very good people and they make an outstanding product, so I’m focused more on sales and marketing,” he said. “I’m just really trying to make sure we know exactly who our target market is and really go after that demographic in our home market.

“The beer industry is really a relationship business. It’s being able to work with our distributor, our retailers, our customers. It’s easier said than done. It’s a lot of block-and-tackling work that sometimes gets overlooked. It’s one thing to get your product on the shelf; it’s another thing to get it off the shelf. You just have to go one account at a time, one distributor at a time.”

A lot of hard work, yes, but with positives as well for someone named Stroh.

“It’s really fun being back in the beer business,” he said. “The beer business is really fun because your customers are usually celebrating the end of a day, or with a friend or two watching football.

“I could be selling widgets, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

What’s next for Post Brewing? Expansion, yes, but slow and measured.

“Hopefully we can figure out what the future looks like, whether I’m involved or not,” Stroh said, “but it’s really fun.”

Query is confident Stroh will help steer a profitable path for Post Brewing.

“If he has his way, lots will change,” Query said. “He’s completely current with what’s happening, but still has that old-school blocking-and-tackling approach.

“He’s very focused on a goal, not easily distracted. He’s one of a kind, a unicorn.”

BOULDER — Businesses typically hire a consultant to teach them what to do. For Big Red F Restaurant Group founder Dave Query, hiring Greg Stroh as a consultant for his Post Brewing Co. was almost as much about learning what not to do.

“What I tell people is not to grow too fast,” said Stroh, who represents the fifth generation of the dynasty that founded the Stroh Brewery Co. in Detroit in 1850. “My family had a strong regional brewery, but then, within one year, they bought Schlitz and used that infrastructure to take Stroh’s national. There were outstanding results for the first year — but it didn’t stick.”

Query recalled fishing trips in which “Stroh’s beer was part of the life on the lakes of Michigan.” And after the acquisition in the 1980s, Stroh’s became the nation’s third-largest brewery. Its television mascot, “Alex” the shelter dog, even pawed his way into rapper Tone Loc’s hip-hop hit “Funky Cold Medina.”

But Stroh’s growth beyond its roots eventually led to its decline and fall. Between price wars, battles for the attention of distributors and a heavy debt load, the company couldn’t survive. By 1999, its brands had been sold to Miller and Pabst.

“Pabst owns our namesake,” said Stroh. “It makes me a little sad. It’s hard for me, and it’s hard on all our relatives.

“I’ve made plenty of mistakes with my own startups, too, growing too quickly,” he said. “I’ve seen…