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Schafer stands in the brewery where Ten Ninety beer is brewed.

Brian Schafer of Ten-Ninety

Start Me Up: Brian Schafer '05

Brian Schafer ’05 went from CFO at a scrap metal company to pairing craft beer with fine dining

By Peter Jurmu

1/13/2014 - Editor's note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights younger members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.

It’s no secret that fine dining and fine wine go hand-in-hand.

But at Ten Ninety Brewing Company, Brian Schafer ’05 is raising craft brewing’s dining profile by rivaling wine’s subtlety and complexity with high-gravity beers.

“[Ten Ninety is] the beer that people will take to dinner parties and not be embarrassed of what is on the label,” Schafer says.

Schafer and his co-founders Andy Smith and Jamie Hoban named the brewery after the high “gravity,” or relative density of 1.090, at which they brew their flagship beers. That’s the ratio of the beer’s density to water’s.

For comparison, a Budweiser is a comparatively watery 1.045 starting gravity, Schafer says. Water itself is 1.0.

Ten Ninety’s gravity, Schafer and crew say, is due to their recipe calling for a quantity of fermentable sugars similar to the quantity present in wine.

The name doubles as a pledge, staking out the corner of the market they intend to dominate in making Ten Ninety a national brand.

“People regularly spend $18-$25 on a bottle of wine,” Schafer says. “We have to get people to understand that $12-$18 for a bottle the same size with higher quality ingredients and unique flavor profiles is a value.”

High quality, low ego

Ten Ninety’s brews are now on draft in more than 70 Chicago-area bars and restaurants. They debuted on store shelves in November.

At Monk’s Pub, a popular Chicago Loop destination known for its extensive beer list, Ten Ninety’s Imperial Porter and Imperial IPA are hot picks.

“We get a lot of positive comments,” says Melissa Shary, manager at Monk’s. “We pour through those barrels rather quickly, which means people are having more than one from a list of 150-plus beers.”

Schafer says that even as the company grows, it will stay true to its homebrewing roots.

“Craft beer is a hands-on business,” he says, “Once you stray from that, you’re no longer craft beer.”

‘Living the dream’

Before Ten Ninety, Schafer was a CFO for a scrap metal company, but the pivot hasn’t fazed him.

“My strong financial background, along with my marketing and strategy degrees from Kellogg, has been indispensable in making a smooth transition,” he says. “I can say ‘I’m living the dream’ and not be using a cliché.”

Currently brewing by contract at a facility in Zion, Ill., the Ten Ninety team plans to move into a permanent brewery of its own in less than two years.

Read more in the Start Me Up series: