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What Craft Beer Taught Me About Innovation

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I recently quit my job to start my own agency called coalisten which provides consultancy based on Design Thinking for small and medium companies. As a side hustle I earn some extra money by teaching people how to brew their own beer. And it doesn't stop here. Together with two friends, I will launch a relaxation lemonade called "Heldenpause" in April.

I call this my personal "3-column-model" of living, the columns being profit, passion and experimentation. coalisten will hopefully allow me to charge people a profitable daily rate to get my professional advice on human-centered design & innovation. I teach people to brew because I love craft beer and want to enable people to enjoy their own homebrewed quality beer. The lemonade is an "incubator project" and I can only hope that the invested money will not be totally lost by the end of this year.

Now, the situation is this: I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful boys. And of course, sooner or later I need ask myself which of these crafts will be the right one to nourish a family and which needs to be left abandoned. Or I come up with a sound explanation to legitimize that I should continue to invest heart, time and money into all of them. So I did some thinking. And you know what? Everything will be OK. Because there is a connection. A synergy. A dependency.

There is a straight line from being a homebrewer & craft beer afficionado to consult companies on how to innovate better with Design Thinking. Why? Because I have found that brewing beer is a process following the same steps that I use to make my clients innovative. Sounds crazy? Here's the proof!

Ah, wait. Some of you might not yet know what Design Thinking is, so here a quick summary in-a-nutshell from Stanford d.school:

"Design Thinking is a methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines."

1. Understand and Observe

Before I mash in a new brew, I do my research. I collect deep user insights by chatting with fellow brewers in Facebook groups or message boards. I seek inspiration by reading across a range of beer and food blogs. For example this fantastic piece on 2014 trends in craft beer from Goodbeerhunting.com argues that we will see more and more collaborations between craft brewers and coffee roasters this year. So I went to see my local coffee dealer to get some Columbian coffee beans for my first coffee stout. Reminder: it is all about collaboration across disciplines.

2. Define a point of view

Next step in my Design Drinking process is to nail down my target beer profile. Based on user observations and the types of malts, hops and yeast available in my cellar, I start to define a profile of the beer that I intend to brew: high vs low alcohol, malty vs hop-driven, traditional beer style vs herb-infused experimental brew. After I have formulated the beer concept I am aiming for, I enter into the idea generation phase.

3. Generate ideas

In a brainstorming session, I turn the point-of-view into a full-fledged, detailed recipe. Again, collaboration plays a big role in this step. I might team up with another fellow brewer for a collaboration brew for which we combine our experiences and wild ideas for new beer styles. Usually the resulting recipe ideas iterate and develop into an unexpected range of possible solutions. We might decide to add orange peels to our recipe or a hint of whiskey malt hoping to achieve a light smoky taste in the beer prototypes.

4. Prototyping

Beer prototyping is a tough business. Less so because I lack ideas or technology but because a beer prototype takes so long. Brewing beer is a full-day activity and afterwards it goes into fermentation before you can bottle it. After bottling, a good beer has to mature in the fridge for some more weeks. So it takes several weeks in total until I can actually enjoy the prototype. Funny enough, one of the most interesting new beers out there is made by Hamburg's Kehrwieder Brewery and called Prototyp. It is a dry-hopped lager beer of truly cross-disciplinary character. Made from handmade barn floor malt, Czech Saazer hops and American Simcoe hops.

5. Testing

What can I say? Of course, my beers are thoroughly tested by users. In this case, I usually sacrifice myself as the lead user to taste my prototypes in a very early stage of beer maturation in the fridge. As soon as I have acceptable results, my beers are served to friends, family and other homebrewers. And after some iterations, the prototype beer might turn into a regularly brewed recipe.

So after all, my "passion column" indeed feeds my "profit column" and I decided to continue my beer hustle. Actually I even think about extending the business by offering the brewing courses as team-building events for Design Thinking people or companies to get creative and do something handcrafted.

René Kaufmann is an Experience Designer, passionate craft beer brewer, and founder of coalisten.