When Berny Silberwasser opened the first Bogotá Beer Company in 2002, he did so with a very defined vision, following step by step the business plan he devised when studying for his Business Administration degree at the ICESI in Cali. “There was one thing I had very clear from an early age,” claims the 38 year-old entrepreneur. “I didn’t want to be employed.”
Silberwasser is undoubtedly one of Colombia’s most successful businessmen with a highly visible chain of pubs, employing 250 staff and someone who believes that monopolies should be challenged. “Consumers deserve to have choice.”
A ‘thirst’ for change
Berny’s rise up the corporate ranking was not rags to riches but the result of a 24/7 work ethic. Silberwasser was convinced that Colombians, if offered high quality British-style ales could develop their own beer culture far from the shores of Belgium and Holland. “I believe Colombians have developed a sophisticated beer culture thanks to the BBC,” claims Silberwasser.
In the ten years since Silberwasser and his staff of brewers set out to create their ruby “Monserrate Roja,” followed by a “Chapinero Porter” and a golden ale “Candelaria Clasica” the list of artisanal beers has expanded to include premium beers for certain seasons. Today, the BBC connects people across the city and across generational lines. All thanks to an investment in second-hand brewing equipment shipped to Bogotá from Portland, Oregon.
But having access to seed capital, especially when it comes to importing the finest malt, doesn’t necessarily guarantee the growth of a business. It takes vision to pick up on an idea, and that is precisely what happened to Silberwasser when in 1994 he traveled to the United States and saw how supermarkets were stocking beers from specialized breweries.
It seemed that no matter how small a community, one could build a business if one stayed local while understanding the global standards that come with beer making. “I was at a tipping point in my life,” recalls the businessman. “I knew that an opportunity existed to serve one’s own beer at one’s own establishments.” But to become the beer ambassador of Bogotá, Silberwasser had to first sell his first business, a Cali-based paintball circuit.
A culture of beer, but no beer culture
Historically Colombia is a beer nation. From the hot towns of the coast to the grain fields of the central mountains, Colombians drink more than 20 million hectoliters of beer each year and ever since it was founded by a German immigrant Leo Kopp in 1889, Bavaria, has been the symbol of an intense national habit. Yet in 2005, when the London-based SABMiller took over Bavaria there hasn’t been much holding the name of Colombia to the brand, except for mass advertising and the sponsorship of the country’s soccer team.
So when one tours the neat Bogotá Beer Company brewery in Chapinero and sees how the company went towards a national distribution of their beers as a result of an important partnership with supermarket Exito, one can understand the mindset of its CEO: that the BBC is the only “genuine 100 % Colombian beer on the market.” Despite Bavaria controlling almost all the market, the BBC is now producing some 200,000 bottles a month, of which, 80,000 are available in supermarkets.
As the fan base of the Bogotá Beer Company keeps growing nationally there are requests to bring BBCs to Barranquilla, Medellín and possibly Cali. Silberwasser is cautious to preserve the authenticity of the brand and a product that is very much identified with the capital. Hence one of the company’s slogans: “the biggest small brewery of Bogotá.” And winning 24 awards just this year at prestigious international beer festivals including 7 ‘Monde Selection’ in Belgium, one can confidently assert that the BBC has been the most awarded brewery of Colombia during the last several years.
Putting Bogotá on the map worldwide
While gaining international recognition and exposure is important, Silberwasser continues to push the envelope locally by investing in his 13 city wide pubs and the human resources which drive all the product and services. With new pubs planned for 2013 and a recently inaugurated one in the busy Titan Plaza of the Ave. Boyaca, the BBC is present in many neighborhoods removed for the expat beat of the ‘Zona T’ and ‘Zona G.’
The BBC story is one of expansion and hard work. It is also one of playing fair in the face of competition and working for the good of one’s employees. As part of its many social responsibility initiatives Silberwasser points out that the BBC actively supports the educational aspirations of its staff by picking up the tab for semesters to those who excel within the company and has a clear open door policy of facilitating educational loans to many with zero interest.
Berny Silberwasser is an example to Colombia’s entrepreneurs that ambition alone doesn’t reap awards and financial rewards. To be successful is to have a clear set of ethics and a vision that investing in people is as important as the the finest ingredients that go into the best beer the city has to offer.