Since retiring in 2010 after 22 years of service in the Army, leaving active duty in the ranks of Major and as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, Drew Larson has rigorously dedicated himself to the craft beverage industry with the same precision that was required of him in the military. The story of how Larson is challenging the industry to evolve will soon have an affect on West Michigan’s beer scene.
Larson attended Kendall College in Chicago, where he earned a degree in culinary arts. It was a fitting complement to the passion for food and beverage he developed traveling abroad in the service. For a business project during his undergrad, Larson conceptualized Leaders Consulting—a consultancy to the food and beverage industry that would be the precursor to Leaders Beverage.
Fascinated by what he was exposed to internationally, coupled with over a decade of homebrewing experience, Larson honed in his sights on his next mission—craft beer. In tandem with becoming a Certified Cicerone® and Certified Sommelier, as well as conquering the Master Draft Certification programs at Siebel Institute of Technology and Micro Matic, Larson was promoted to beverage director at Hopleaf. It took less than two years of Larson managing one of the most well known and respected draft accounts in the country before word of mouth spread. Soon other establishments who cared about the quality of their draft beer came calling to employ his expertise.
Hopleaf supported Larson in branching out to secure a waiting list of clients who needed his help. However, in order play nice with Illinois state law, Larson needed to incorporate. Larson officially founded Leaders Beverage in late 2014 by simply refining the idea he had previously submitted as a class assignment.
Larson has draft lines for veins, and Leaders Beverage is the heart that pumps the beer that flows through them.
The man was born to be a leader, and is now raising the bar for the industry—elevating the standards for quality and service of craft beer beyond expectation. Larson clearly wants to set Leaders Beverage apart from the competition. He works to ensure that they’re providing more value for their customers than simply going through the motions just to collect on an anonymous bi-weekly invoice.
Larson demands as much from his customers as they should of his company, only managing venues that “want to stand out as having the highest level of draft quality.” Larson shoots straight with new potential business, “When you hire us, you’re not replacing your current beer line cleaning service with another — what you’d be doing is taking on a draft system management service,” said Larson.
Whether it’s Larson himself, or a personal consultant he assigns to each account, Leaders Beverage is on call 24/7. It’s important to Larson that he and his team of Leaders are present, recognized, and accessible to their customers. “Of course, one component of what we do is draft line cleaning, which we do at a much higher level, but we’re actively engaged in managing how your beer pours because that’s your profitability,” said Larson.
Larson’s value proposition to their customers is to create revenue for them that outweighs the difference between the investment in hiring Leaders Beverage and what’s usually a discounted fee from the competition. He can accomplish this because he’s systematic and doesn’t cut corners. When asked about how he approaches addressing issues in the field, Larson’s integrity for doing right by his customers never waivers, “If there is a proper way you’re supposed to do [something], I don’t deviate until I know enough to improve it. I’m not going to deviate toward a lesser degree, ever.”
Angela Steil, MittenBrew staff writer, attests to Larson’s commitment, “The way he conducts himself and operates his company speaks volumes about how he approaches business.” Also a Certified Cicerone®, Micro Matic Draft System expert, and all-around beer badass, Steil has been consulting for Leaders Beverage since 2015. Recently, she was promoted to Grand Rapids Chapter President, which hints at Larson’s next move.
The goal of every account Larson touches is to develop their system to be Certified Clean, and he plans to bring that standard from Chicagoland to West Michigan by the end of 2016. Steil’s palate can spot an off beer from a mile away. She has witnessed Leaders Beverage’s track record for success, and is optimistic about their forthcoming presence in and contribution to Beer City USA, “There really isn’t anyone else I’d recommend.”
“We put our name on every single beer that comes out of any draft system we’re involved with. As far as I’m concerned, every pint has my name on it, and if anything’s wrong with it, it’s on me,” said Larson. He’s proud of the fact that he’s even stopped brewers in their tracks while watching them drink their own beer for the first time on a draft system he’s built or maintained. “Brewers are humbled by the way their beer tastes at on-premise accounts when they realize that their beer matters to me, too,” said Larson. Larson isn’t shy about the elite reputation he’s helped his customers earn, “People know when they see the list of accounts with our name on them, they’re the best places to drink, period.”
As Michigan is a state without any formal draft system laws to regulate quality or standards for cleanliness, it’s all too easy for accounts to operate according to an archaic philosophy with draft technology and practices that are decades old. Larson is eager to build a clientele who will get the support they deserve. The consumer is getting smarter and demanding better, which is pushing the industry to be more responsible with the product they’re providing. Both sides are desperate for a higher level of service. As Larson continues exposing draft’s dirty little secrets, unkept systems of yesterday are doomed, making way for what he hopes is a “better draft beer for a brighter, tastier tomorrow.”