Blue Current Brewery, maker of handcrafted sake in Kittery, Maine, is nominated as Small Business Success Story of the year by Seacoast SCORE chapter 185 of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Daniel Ford developed a passion for sake while working in Japan in the financial information technology business between 2005 and 2008. After losing his job in the financial crisis, he decided to turn this passion for sake into a new career. Ford felt certain the pure water and cool weather of coastal Maine, which is similar to Japan, would provide the perfect environment for brewing sake in small batches from natural ingredients. He believes the United States is a huge untapped market for high-quality, domestically produced sake. He explains Blue Current is much more than a beverage to go with sushi. “Think of it as a white wine. It’s like a nice Pinot Grigio, but without the sulfites,” Ford explains.
In Ford’s view, the biggest obstacle facing potential entrepreneurs is coming up with a great idea that combines the elements of a unique product with a reason to be produced in a certain way, in a certain location, with a strong appeal in its niche and a potential untapped market that will allow it to grow exponentially beyond that niche. “Idea first, expertise later,” he says.
Following his own advice about expertise, Ford became a recognized expert on sake, earning the Advanced Sake Professional (ASP) and Certified Sake Professional (CSP) designations from the Sake Education Council of Tokyo, Japan. He then began experimenting with making sake in his garage and traveling back to Japan, learning as much as he could about the brewing process.
Next, Ford realized he would need some help transforming his idea and expertise into a successful business. A former classmate of his from Harvard recommended that he contact SCORE, a unit of the U. S. Small Business Administration. SCORE offers free mentoring services for small business. Seacoast SCORE’s volunteer staff includes over 40 experienced former business owners and retired executives who are teamed up so that each client meets with two mentors right away. Ford came to Seacoast SCORE in 2013 for help in writing a business plan, navigating numerous licensing and financial hurdles, and finding a location for the business. SCORE mentors Steve Hershfield and Dick Krause met with Ford 18 times over the two years it took to get the business up and running. Hershfield says they were skeptical at first, but they became convinced that Ford would succeed when he “found the funding he needed and was able to design, develop and purchase enough equipment to make Blue Current the largest independent brewer of sake in North America”.
Ford funded his business with personal savings and investments from friends and family. When he needed just $33,000 more to purchase bottling equipment, he ran a campaign on Kickstarter that surpassed his goal. Ford credits Kickstarter with fast-forwarding his efforts to start a website, make a video, and establish a presence on Facebook and Twitter, all of which continue to help spread the word about his product.
Ford explains that “Sake is the hardest thing to brew in the world.” He has designed some of the equipment himself. The Japanese rice washer was the first piece of equipment that Ford purchased, a huge timesaver, processing 50 pounds of rice in a minute and a half. Ford designed the rice steamer, which was built with the assistance of students from the University of Maine. The Koji room is lined with cedar, the wood chosen for its antimicrobial properties. Brewing sake involves a multiple parallel fermentation process taking nine days to complete. Fermentation must occur at cold temperatures. Ford has six stainless steel fermentation tanks, which hold 2,000 liters each, working in parallel. After fermentation, the product is put through a membrane filter press, which Ford designed himself and had built in Asia. The product is then stored and bottled, using the bottling equipment funded through Kickstarter.
Blue Current Sake, a Junmai Ginjo with 14% ABV, is sold throughout Maine in Hannaford and Whole Foods supermarkets, as well as in many restaurants. By the end of the year, Ford expects to be licensed to sell Blue Current Sake in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Next year, Ford plans to roll out distribution beyond the New England region focusing first on New York City and northern California.
“Idea first, expertise later,” Ford said. SCORE mentors Steve Hershfield and Dick Krause met with Ford 18 times over the two years it took to get his business up and running. Hershfield says they were skeptical at first, but they became convinced that Ford would succeed when he “found the funding he needed and was able to design, develop and purchase enough equipment to make Blue Current the largest independent brewer of sake in North America”.
Ford is thankful to the SBA and the SCORE volunteers for sharing their time and expertise. As Blue Current continues to grow and prosper, he hopes someday he will be in the position to return the favor by joining SCORE and volunteering to help a new generation of entrepreneurs.