BY NAN BIALEK | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
What do you do when you move into a house and find a couple of empty beer kegs abandoned in the basement? If you’re Milwaukee’s Ben Caya, you turn the kegs into gold by creating Spike Brewing Equipment, a thriving business that has more than doubled its revenues in each of the last three years.
Caya was a junior studying mechanical engineering at UW-Milwaukee when he stumbled across those first kegs.
“From a young age, I’ve always been a person looking for an opportunity and ways to make a buck,” Caya says. He put the kegs up for sale on Craigslist, and they sold right away. The market to tap, he quickly learned, was the home-brewing enthusiast.
“What [customers] were doing was cutting the tops of the kegs open and using them to make beer,” Caya explains. “Instead of buying a $300 or $400 kettle, they were making their own.”
Opportunity was banging on Caya’s door, so he began to set up a network of his friends at other universities to help find more empty kegs for home brewers. He posted fliers on campus and offered a finder’s fee of $10 per keg. Soon, the kegs came pouring in. At one point, Caya recalls, he and a friend drove to Iowa to pick up more than 100 empty barrels.
Eventually Caya realized that it made sense for his company to add value to the kegs by modifying them into home-brewing pots. When demand for the product began to outpace the keg supply, he switched gears and found a source for large cooking pots to create the home-brewing kettles.
After graduating in 2012, Caya decided to grow Spike Brewing Equipment rather than work for somebody else. He moved back to his parents’ house in Wales, operating the business out of one side of their garage for about six months. As the business continued to expand, Caya moved into a much larger facility and brought his welding operation in-house. Just four years later, Spike had outgrown the building that Caya initially thought was too big. In 2017, he moved the business to a 4,800-square-foot building in Riverwest, which he’s expanded twice to 22,000 square feet, and designed a conical fermenter to add to his product line.
Caya changed suppliers too, deciding to have pots made to his specifications in China. “That was a huge step for us,” he says. “I was definitely nervous about dealing with China directly, but we were gaining additional quality. Being an engineer, I’m pretty particular about design. I said a little prayer when I opened that first container.”
Caya, 30, says that he has nearly 19 years of doing business with China. He started his first enterprise with a friend when he was 12, selling shirts imported from China on eBay and at school.
However, Caya points out that he sources as many equipment parts in the U.S. as is economically feasible, and the more local, the better.
While Spike Brewing has grown steadily, with more than 20 employees, Caya notes that he has only considered it an “established company” in the past two years.
“For a few years, it was a lot of sleepless nights,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of rolling up your sleeves. But our team has risen to the occasion on every front, so it’s definitely been a fun ride at times.”
Part of the fun is watching some of his customers, most of whom buy equipment online, make the jump from home-brewing to starting a professional craft brewery. Start-up brewers are welcome to try out new recipes at the test brewery at Spike’s headquarters on North Fratney Street. Notable local brewers — including MobCraft, 1840 Brewing Co., and Gathering Place — have experimented at the facility.
“They come in and want to use the equipment, and we get to learn a lot from those guys,” says Caya. He has also learned that timing is crucial to success. When he first began collecting kegs around 2010, there were just a few small brewers in Milwaukee. As the number of home brewers and craft breweries have snowballed over the past several years, Spike has grown right along with them. Its kettles, fermenters and electric brewing systems are sold throughout the United States and Canada, and the electric brewing systems sold to more than 20 countries internationally.
Given that he contributes to the liquid gold central to many Milwaukeeans’ good times, what does Caya himself do for fun? “I think I’ve come to the realization [that] my hobby is to work,” he says. “I really enjoy it. I love talking business, I love talking shop.”
For more information on Spike Brewing Equipment, go to spikebrewing.com. MKE