When I began this project, I had an idea but no vision. I rode solo on a plane heading back from California in August of 2010 dreaming about beer. It was an industry I was only connected to as a consumer. It felt foreign to me, but I knew it was what I wanted to do; I knew that I would figure out how. With nothing more than that idea, I began to immerse myself in anything I could get my hands on that could help me learn about building a brewery. Books, magazines, and blogs helped me begin to understand the things I didn't, but I couldn't stop there.
If I'm working with an artist or talented individual and giving them a lot of direction, I feel as though I am working with the wrong person.
My education continued through phone conversations and blind email exchanges with brewers throughout the country. By simply reaching out, I began to make connections within the Chicagoland industry and many of them gladly aided with some elements of the business plan I was putting together. A plan, I might add, that has been completely thrown out the window since we opened our doors. But, for it to feel real for me, I needed the project to have a persona. As David Ogilvy said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” And that, I hoped, would not be a problem. For awhile, in the beginning, it was.
Few know that this brewery has had several names. The truth is I thought we'd end up in Chicago. From that assumption grew the concept of FourSixPoint, an homage to the Chicago flag. I commissioned one of my closest friends in the world, Los Angeles-based designer Greg Favro, to create the logo. The first thing people would see when they came across my brewery needed to be created by someone with an eye and skill set that I don't possess, but, more importantly, by someone I trusted. Working with Greg gave me the comfort of knowing that he would do whatever it took to fulfill our identity, that he would take much more care than someone just looking to fulfill a contract or a job.
When I work with talented people I try to be as hands off as possible. I never make notes about style points or try to say that we can improve the piece by moving this or changing that; I get out of the way. If I'm working with an artist or talented individual and giving them a lot of direction, I feel as though I am working with the wrong person. With Greg my concept was simple: "Here is the name. I want it to be flexible enough to stand alone as one color. Do what you do."
Greg likes to provide options. Even given free rein, he insures himself from being too far off base by coming up with several concepts. And I love that about him. It let me work the way I prefer to work while still having a lot of choices to choose from. Soon, we had decided on one of the directions. But a decision to shift west of the city made me hesitant about using FourSixPoint at all. Probably searching for a reason to abandon it, I decided to reach out to Shane Welch of Sixpoint Artisan Ales. New to the industry, I wasn't comfortable with my first act causing problems in the area of copyrights. I never saw it as not getting the name I actually wanted, it was more about being respectful for the people that laid the foundation for what we were about to do. So I decided to change it.
Robert Burns, the eighteenth-century Scottish poet, began to throw his weight around in my mind. As you can imagine, his poem 'John Barleycorn Must Die' haunted me my whole life. But it was always less about Bobby Burns and more about the album of the same name by the celebrated English band Traffic, which is how I became aware of my namesake. As I grew older I learned more about what John Barleycorn really meant, and I liked it.
"There was three kings into the east, Three kings both great and high, And they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn should die"
John Barleycorn is the personification of the grain, and these men vowed to cut it down and kill it, to make bread and provide food for their families. So it was born again; the brewery was to be named Three Kings Oath. In our case, killing John Barleycorn meant beer, not bread. But something about it never really resonated. I thought it was flimsy that there was no connection to three of anything. So I continued to struggle with it.
A name can be just a name. But, for me it was important. Vital. An opportunity to connect with the people I wanted to reach with our products, with our beers. An opportunity to connect with you. A brand can take many directions. We could have selected something that resonates with us, like an inside joke, a word, or possibly an homage. But if it doesn't connect with you, then what are we really doing? So I changed it, for the final time. Solemn Oath. It means something different to everyone. Something real.
Greg and I went back and forth, a few ideas here and there. We ended up pointed in one direction. Through Greg's vision we found it. He asked for a weekend, "to sexify it." He'll deny ever saying that, but I assure you that is a direct quote. And sexify he did.
By January 2011 I had my business plan locked down and felt confident to move forward. With an answer for every question that was asked, I raised 100% of the funding in about three weeks. And with the financing in place I began the next, and most vital step: pulling together a team. More on that next time.
“We must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.” -Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
This is the second in a series of posts (and clearly the first of several volumes for John) about the origins of SOB full-timers. First in this series was head brewer Tim Marshall's account of his unlikely entry into the brewing world and transition to Solemn Oath. In a few weeks, brewer Paul Schneider tells us why he quit a stable and bright future to pursue his passion.