Photo courtesy Brad McClenny/Gainesville Magazine

Something’s Brewing

Had Luke Kemper waited a month—just 30 little days—before buying brewery equipment, he may not have realized his entrepreneurial dreams.

And Gainesville beer lovers may have been deprived of ever tasting a Big Nose, Cottonmouth or Stump Knocker.

What seemed like an ill-timed foray into the beer business has turned into a successful venture, which has Kemper on the verge of achieving his vision: Elevating Swamp Head Brewery from a local outfit into a regional player in the craft beer industry.

“My goal was to be a regional brewery within five years,” said Kemper, Owner, and Chief Executive Officer of Swamp Head. “It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s a whole other thing to get there. I had no idea the amount of work necessary to run a business.”

Kemper’s (BSBA ’05) introduction to craft beer began when his older brother, Bo, then a student at Colorado State University, would return home with some of his favorite beers from local breweries. Luke followed his brother to Colorado, one of the craft beer capitals in the U.S., and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The popularity of craft breweries and how those businesses operated made a lasting impact on Kemper.

“They stood behind their product, and they were socially and environmentally responsible as a company,” Kemper said.

Kemper transferred back to UF his junior year and completed his undergraduate degree in business. After a brief move to Atlanta, he returned to Gainesville intending to pursue a graduate degree in fisheries and aquatic sciences with a vision of a career in off-shore aquaculture. Then, he reconnected with Craig Birkmaier, a family friend and home brewer. The opportunity to replicate the Boulder craft beer scene in Gainesville was too enticing to turn down. After a year of planning and raising capital, Swamp Head was born.

The company, however, may have never existed had it not been for interesting timing. Kemper purchased Swamp Head’s brewery equipment in August 2008, only one month before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which triggered the Great Recession. Had the financial crisis began earlier, Kemper said he may not have gone through with the purchase.

“I don’t know if I would have executed [that transaction],” Kemper said. “When the economy crashed, it got really serious. It was even more imperative that we make sure this works.”

In some ways, the financial crisis may have helped lead to Swamp Head’s growth. With big business falling out of favor, there was an increased emphasis on supporting local companies. That support, coupled with an ideal demographic of young professionals in a college town, was integral to Swamp Head’s early success.

“So far it’s been amazing to see the response Gainesville has given us,” Kemper said. “It’s been fantastic.”

With impressive sales and the support of the Gainesville community, Swamp Head is ready to make the leap to a regional brewery. Companies must produce at least 15,000 barrels of beer annually—Kemper said Swamp Head produced 5,550 barrels in 2014—to be classified as a regional brewery. To reach that category, Swamp Head is moving from its current home to a brand new, 13,000-plus-square-foot facility on Southwest 42nd Avenue near the Alley Katz Lanes bowling alley. Kemper, 32, said the new facility will allow Swamp Head to produce 18,000 barrels annually, and he expects to reach the 15,000-barrel mark in about 18 months. Kemper said his team begins moving into the new building at the end of January.

Although Swamp Head is growing quickly, Kemper said the brewery remains committed to the strategy and community that brought it early success.

“I’ve had people tell me that we’ve helped improved downtown Gainesville by bringing better beer, which brings better food,” Kemper said. “I don’t know if it’s true, but the thought of it is exciting.”