Look out, Anheuser-Busch. This WilmU alumnus is hopping.
Story by Bob Yearick
Photos by Susan L. Gregg
In the first two decades of the 21st century, craft beer has evolved from a trendy cottage industry to a phenomenon that has carved out a significant niche in the beer brewing market. There were eight craft brewers in 1980, 537 in 1994, and more than 6,000 by 2018. And that’s not counting the innumerable breweries that are in the planning stage. Every home brewer seems to dream of having his own 10-barrel fermenter.
Which, on reflection, is amazing, because these small, specialty brewers must take on long-established behemoths like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, who have had decades to gain loyal customers. As a result, many craft beer start-ups result in rather quick failure. It is not a business for the faint-hearted.
So who better to try his hand at it than an ex-Marine whose mettle was tested in the hell hole known as Afghanistan?
Say hello to Neil Shea, Wilmington University graduate and proud owner and founder of Bellefonte Brewing Co., located in a small industrial site on Old Capitol Trail, south of Wilmington.
Shea took a bit of a roundabout route on his journey to the craft beer business. To start with, he says, “I love beer, but I really wasn’t a craft beer drinker.” Secondly, when he started Bellefonte Brewing, the 29-year-old Delaware native already owned a thriving business — The Dirt Squad, a residential and commercial cleaning company he bought the day he graduated from WilmU, in January 2015.
While Shea seemed an unlikely candidate to run a craft brewery, he had even less knowledge of the cleaning business. But he is a willing and indefatigable worker. And he was convinced the business held potential. Also, he felt confident in heading up his own enterprise.
“I’m a numbers guy,” Shea says, “and if you know how to manage finances and people, you can make a business work. And I thought this was a very viable business.”
To learn the ins and outs of cleaning houses, he would drive to a shopping center near Newark, Delaware, and meet The Dirt Squad night crew of three or four women, then go out with them to clean “about 30 homes.” And this was after a day at his full-time job at a risk-management firm. (Not surprisingly, his two sports at Wilmington’s Salesianum School were cross-country and wrestling, both of which require serious stamina.)
It wasn’t long before Shea’s ever active mind saw the potential for additional services: power washing, gutter cleaning, window cleaning. So he expanded into those areas. Next, he bought out two competitors. Now he has about 20 employees and they clean “a couple of hundred houses” plus office buildings and individual offices. He says his clients are now approximately 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial.
While working on purchasing The Dirt Squad, Shea already had his eye on the burgeoning craft beer market. But he quickly discovered that creating a brewery (literally from the ground up, as it turned out) would not be the relative walk in the park that purchasing an existing business had been.
Shea and two partners formalized their business plan in early 2015, and by November, after looking at several locations, they signed a lease for the Old Capitol Trail property. “It was just a gravel pit at the time,” he says.
All the partners had full-time jobs, so their spare time was devoted almost entirely to building a brewery on that gravel pit. They recruited family and friends to help and ultimately had to resort to that break-the-glass emergency move of the social media world: crowdfunding.
Still, it was touch-and-go right down to the wire.
“We were running out of money before we even opened the doors,” says Shea. “We needed to start recovering our investment.”
Finally, Bellefonte Brewing debuted in May of 2016. The owners heaved a collective sigh of relief, and patrons soon started crowding the bar.
Since the opening, the company has upgraded its equipment.
“When we opened we were using a 1.5-barrel system that was not the most efficient,” says Shea. “The brewers brewed twice a day, nearly 16 to 18 hours, to make enough beer to meet the demand. Now our system is four barrels and we have six- and 10-barrel fermenters that allow us to have a surplus, which got us into distribution. Our next step is canning the beer, which we expect to do by the end of this year . That will take tens of thousands of dollars.”
By last winter, the brewery was turning out 600 barrels of beer a year, or roughly 1,200 kegs. And Bellefonte products were in bars and restaurants up and down the state.
It could have all been different for Neil Shea. After graduating from Salesianum, he seemed destined for a career in the military. “I always had a fascination with the military,” he says. Much of his zeal was inspired by his father’s service in the Navy and a couple of grade-school visits to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Following graduation from high school, he spent one year at The Citadel, the military academy in Charleston, South Carolina. Then he joined the Marine Corps.
After basic training in Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, there were several postings in the states before the 22-year-old lance corporal was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. His 10 months in that war-torn country in South Central Asia proved to be a cauldron that forged his view of the world.
First, he was introduced to the seven-day workweek. “You stop thinking about the weekend as a God-given right,” says Shea.
Next, he learned to do more with less. “There were a lot of shortcomings,” he says. “We dealt with really junky equipment, and we were there during the government shutdown, so our pay was delayed.”
He also learned about trust. “It’s not like any war we’ve ever been in,” he says. “Somebody is working with you one day and they’re trying to kill you the next day.”
“It changed my perspective on a lot of things,” he sums up. “It was a wakeup call for me. At that age, people are full of themselves, but the world will continue without them. I learned patience, and that I’m a very small part of the world.”
Not surprisingly, Shea recommends military service for all young people.
His time in the Marines seemed to quench his thirst for military service and, more important, helped prepare him for success in civilian life. To enhance his skills, he decided to get a college degree. WilmU’s flexible scheduling and affordability got his attention, so he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled in the Organizational Management program at the University almost as soon as he was discharged.
At the time, he was working at the risk management firm, so he went to classes at night. This demanding schedule, coupled with the credits the University granted him for some online courses he took during his Marine days, enabled him to graduate in just one-and-a-half years.
In class, Shea displayed a zeal that indicated he meant to put his new-found knowledge to practical use.
“He really participated in class, asking a lot of detailed questions,” says Michael McGay, an adjunct professor who remembers Shea from his Economics (105) class. “I’m not surprised that he would be running a successful business.”
Shea returns the compliment, saying that McGay brought a lot of real-world experience from his banking background to the classroom.
McGay says he has been a customer at Bellefonte Brewing “multiple times,” and his busy former student found time to serve him. “Neil is very personable, very customer-service focused, and it’s great to see him doing so well,” says McGay.
Then he adds: “They need to expand. I’m hoping they do it in the Pike Creek area, which is where I live.”
Shea has maintained his ties to the University. He has been accepted into the MBA program, but at this writing had not yet started those studies, and he donated five kegs of Bellefonte brew to the Green and White Scholarship Ball, held in December.
Meanwhile, he and his seven partners are pouring their profits back into the brewery. They added a canning line right after Christmas.
“We’ll use the cash flow from that for a second location, which we expect to be ready this summer,” Shea says. “Since we opened we’ve made a ton of improvements to the tap room, the bar experience and our culture. We get out to a lot of events, make custom beers and sell some trendy merchandise.
“Our philosophy has been to grow within our means. Instead of bank loans, we have utilized investors that have business backgrounds, and we’ve been able to operate profitably with no debt since day one.”
Shea touts the Bellefonte brand as “craft beer for the non-craft beer drinker.”
“Craft beer has a reputation for being snooty,” he says. “But our crowd is eclectic; it’s blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar. We’ve converted a lot of them from Miller and Coors.”
He says his brewery can “make whatever flavor we want,” and its current offerings include sours, goses (a brew that originated in Goslar, Germany), and the trending gluten-reduced beers. “We have a big group of customers who are gluten-free,” Shea says.
Local bands often play in the tap room, and sometimes there’s a food truck in the parking lot.
Bellefonte Brewing also is an active member of the community, holding frequent charitable and political fundraisers.
“We keep reinventing the business,” he says. “Besides another location, we expect to continue to grow to larger systems and increased distribution.”
Oh, and Shea recently broadened his portfolio of businesses by adding a photo booth rental business and a real estate rental firm. “I don’t get out much,” he deadpans.
And he hasn’t forgotten his formative years in the Marine Corps. One of Bellefonte’s products is “Chesty’s Ghost,” named in honor of famed Marine Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, who served with distinction in World War II and Korea.
Stop in at Bellefonte and try a bottle. As the sign behind the bar says, “Save Water. Drink Beer.”