Meg Gill, 35, is president of Golden Road Brewing, the Atwater, Calif.-based craft beer maker that was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2015. That was the year in which some of the biggest names in the foamy drinks market decided to dip their mugs into artisan brews to staunch market share losses from rising wine and hard liquor sales. Gill was just 27 when she co-founded Golden Road in 2011. It has 414 employees, and its beer is sold nationwide.
‘The first sip’
Gill, the youngest of three children, recalls of her mother, “At the end of the day, she’d be fixing dinner and say, ‘If you go down to the basement and get me a beer, then you can have the first sip.’ I’d always loved that first crisp, refreshing taste.”
Aside from a taste for beer, nothing in Gill’s background even hinted at a career in craft brewing. She earned a degree in Classics, studying Greek and Latin, at Yale University. She was also a dedicated athlete and captain of her swim team. Gill was on a bike ride in Colorado “training for swimming Olympic trials and dabbling in triathlons,” she said, when her unexpected beer moment arrived. She met Dale Katechis, the owner of the pioneering Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colo., who helped sell her on the craft beer business.
“You can have a business, employ a lot of people, make some dough and have fun,” Gill said. At Yale, “being an entrepreneur wasn’t really talked about. It was more like, ‘Are you going to go to law school? Are you going to go to med school? Are you going to go to Wall Street?’ And I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to keep training and find something I was really passionate about. So, that’s how it happened.”
At Oskar Blues, “I learned brewing, packaging,” Gill said. “I was sent to do events, talk to consumers, learning the marketing side of the business. Eventually I ended up doing distribution, opening new markets for them.” Later, while working at Speakeasy Ales and Lagers in San Francisco, Gill would make another important connection — this time with Tony Yanow, with whom she would later co-found Golden Road.
San Francisco’s craft beer scene in the mid-2000s was already “a mature market, and I kept getting pulled back to L.A. by retailers, bar owners, people saying, ‘Craft beer hasn’t hit L.A.,’” Gill said. “That’s when I started looking seriously at the L.A. market. There were all these people who want to drink great products and there’s no local craft beer here?”
A hundred times no
But setting up a brewery in Los Angeles wasn’t going to be easy, even with the help of craft beer expert and partner Yanow, who wound up taking out a second mortgage on his house to help fund the effort. Early on, backers were few; Gill said she got “no” for an answer at least a hundred times from venture capitalists and other investors.
“I would get these meetings and they would say, ‘Well, we look for an exit in three to five years’ and ‘This seems way too capital intensive and way too risky for us to get involved at this point.’”
To get off to the fastest start possible, she needed to have an excellent beer. Gill had hired former Dogfish Head assistant brewer Jon Carpenter, but that wasn’t all. It was crowd consulting in a big way.
“We brought in 30 bars and the biggest distributors in L.A. before we had a product and said, 'Help us build a brand,’” Gill said at the time. “That’s what made our distribution so successful. It’s been the community. This is the beer that L.A. built.”
In less than four years, Golden Road’s annual production grew to “in the 40,000-barrel range,” Gill said, which works out to more than 1.2 million gallons. “It was one of the fastest-growing craft breweries.”
Although Golden Road was fast in launching, it takes time to get each flavor exactly right, Gill said. For instance, Gill wanted the brewery’s Mango Cart beer to taste like the mangoes she used to get from a sidewalk vendor.
“It took a couple of years to develop that exact one. Our mango beer is one of the beers that’s contributing the most to our growth. And it won a World Beer Cup gold medal last year,” Gill said. “We wound up using real mango puree in it, directly from the fruit. So that makes a big difference in the taste.”
Golden Road found itself running into what is perhaps the craft beer industry’s biggest challenge: competing with deep-pocketed giants such as Anheuser-Busch while new entrants to the market nip at their heels.
Cracking the distribution barrier, which favors big-name brands and big-time money, has been craft beer’s greatest challenge, particularly in sprawling Southern California. Bringing Golden Road under the aegis of Anheuser-Busch, Gill said, “was a good partnership for AB as well as for us. We’ve only expedited our growth.”
One of the most unusual routes Gill has taken to both sell her brand and encourage growth in the craft beer industry has been to host her own television show, called “Beerland,” which ran on the Viceland channel for three seasons. Gill would judge the offerings of local home brewers around the U.S. to determine which was best. It took great trust in her employees to allow Gill to do it.
“The team here has gotten better and better,” Gill said. “We have operators at all of our locations that are fully autonomous, that we trust and who allow me to go, whether it’s to do a TV show or work on new products.”
Golden Road continues to grow. There’s the original brewery and pub in Atwater Village and a smaller brewery and pub in Anaheim. There’s also a Point the Way Cafe at Los Angeles International Airport, a stand at downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market and a pub in Sacramento. In the works is an 8,800-square-foot restaurant and brewery set to open in Huntington Beach this year.