There are nearly 9,000 craft breweries in the U.S. as of late 2021, with at least another 2,000 in the development stage. Never before in the history of America has craft beer been so easy to find.
Even in Dumas Texas, where J.L. Wiswell (MBA, 2010) has been serving locals and tourists alike at his Toppled Turtle Brewing Company. He opened in December 2020 with to-go sales only, in the middle of the pandemic. Six weeks later, on February 3, 2021, he opened for on-premise sales.
Wiswell got started brewing before the turn of the century. “I was a 20-year-old at Texas A&M and I couldn’t buy beer,” he said, “but I kept seeing this place that said ‘Make your own’.” So he did, and started competing. “I was winning a lot of contests and doing very well,” he recalled with a smile.
As for choosing the MBA program at the Paul and Virginia Engler College of Business at WTAMU, it was a family thing in part, but also about quality. His father earned a bachelor’s degree here in 1984, and Wiswell was already acquainted with the strengths of the College.
“I wanted to go to the best place that I would be accepted,” he continued. At the time, he was living in Dumas, and knew that an online program was a must. But the relative of closeness of Dumas to Canyon—an hour apart—provided an added benefit.
“I could take classes online, but also drive down to see my professors at any time.”
One day he was at Dodgeton Creek Brewing Company near Trinidad Colorado. “They said to me, ‘If you like the place, it’s for sale’.” He and his wife, Ashleigh, took a long hard look at the financials, and decided to buy it, retaining the original name. His experience brewing many years prior were finally being put to good use.
It quickly became apparent, though, that in spite of being only minutes off the freeway, he was not near any of the dispensaries, which are the primary tourism driver in Trinidad. He started thinking about options, and heard that the historic old hardware store facing the Donley County Courthouse had become available. Dumas, Texas was calling his name once more.
While trends are often slow to arrive on the scene in the Texas Panhandle, craft brewing has found its stride. It turned out the City of Dumas was looking for someone to start a brewery there, and the Dumas Economic Development Corporation more than willing to prime the pump. “It was a no brainer to buy the building and get started,” he said with pride.
Dumas has responded well. While about 30% of his business is pass-through visitors on US 87, the most direct route between Texas and the mountains, it is his local followers who have sustained him. Wiswell learned in his MBA to have a good cushion of cash just in case, his instant-hit status has allowed him to grow. “I have always been able to purchase new equipment as needed,” he pointed out.
Trying to open during the pandemic was challenging in many ways, from sourcing necessary materials for the remodel, to finding employees willing to work during a time of high infection rates. Wiswell persevered, though, and put his MBA to good use. He purchased the parking lot behind his building, and now leases space to four more or less permanent food trucks. He also rents a small ice cream shop on the north side, as well as small coffee shop inside the brewery. Finally, the back of his building once housed a restaurant, and Wiswell now rents it out as an event venue to the tune of $1000 a week in extra revenue.
Wiswell’s signature style centers on traditional English beers. It’s a category not commonly explored by other brewers, which creates a niche for him. Still, old-school nomenclature like the use of the word “bitter” created some challenges, because the word has very different connotations here. Wiswell quickly learned the value of a good name, and instead uses phrases like “English Mild” instead.
“Naming beers makes a bigger difference than you think,” he laughed.
Every brewer has their favorites, which may not always be the customer go-to. Wiswell names two on the top of his list, the Cuban Missile Crisis (as 12% Russian Imperial Stout) and Pinocchio, an Italian pilsner. But his best-selling beer follows a different path, one that may not be all that surprising given our area.
“My highest selling beer is El Alemán (The German), which is my version of a Mexican beer. I took a German lager and “Mexicanized” it with corn.” It’s his #1 seller.
Looking ahead, Wiswell hopes to be in local gas stations, liquor stores, and supermarkets within four to six months, canning his specialty brews in 32-ounce cans called “crowlers.” After that, he is considering utilizing the services provided by third-party mobile canners for 12-ounce containers. If all goes well, he will then look into buying his own canning line.
Wiswell contends that beers like El Alemán are the future for craft beer, with consumers settling into more approachable beers, and shying away from the extremities of hopped-up IPAs and high-alcohol stouts. “I think we’re going to move away from the tails, and more toward the middle.”
Still, there is an ever-present need to produce new varietals, a task that keeps many craft brewers on their toes. Wiswell introduces a new beer every 10-20 days, the result of Tuesdays being dedicated to brewing beers he thinks everyone will like, and Thursdays focusing on something he wants to try.
While the craft beer culture continues to grow slowly in the region, Wiswell is committed to helping his guests make the shift. The culture of buying locally runs deep here, and people want to do what they can, but sometimes they need a little help venturing into unfamiliar territory. “I coach them through, and usually people find that they like it,” he said with satisfaction.
As for his successes thus far, Wiswell is quick to give praise. “I have a good wife!” he said, relishing the support that Ashleigh has given.
But his MBA has also played a big role, providing the background and helping him know what to expect. “I understand what supply chains are, financing, how to get a loan,” he listed. “I would not be as prepared as I am now had I not been exposed to it.”
And that’s the kind of endorsement worth raising your glass.
By Nick Gerlich
For more information about Graduate Programs in the Engler College of Business, contact COBGrad@wtamu.edu or 806-651-2500.