The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
In 2002, Tia Agnew and Brett Canaday started making their own booze in their bedroom as a way to consume their honey surplus. At the time, neither knew they were brewing up mead—the oldest fermented drink known to man—and neither knew it would lead them to start a meadery four years later.
Today, New Day Craft in Indianapolis, Indiana offers a portfolio of more than 20 varieties of modern craft mead and hard cider, all made with whole fruit and wildflower honey and no concentrates, purees, or natural flavors.
I recently met with Tia in their tasting room in Fountain Square to discuss how their hobby became a business, the highs and lows of working with your spouse, and what they’re brewing up next.
Joe: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you share a little about your childhood and also Brett’s upbringing?
Tia: I’m the eldest of two. I have one younger brother. We grew up with both parents, as did my husband, so we were both really lucky in that regard. I’m from Northwest Indiana, so I’m a “Region Rat,” as they say. I kind of moved around a lot, but I went to high school in Munster.
Joe: I think I’ve interviewed three or four people from the Region in this blog series. It’s where all the good entrepreneurs come from, I guess!
Tia: Yeah, right on. I’ll try not to bust out too many cuss words, but that’s just the vernacular there.
Joe: Hey, whatever you want to say is fine. How about Brett? Did he have any siblings?
Tia: Yeah, Brett’s the youngest of two brothers. He grew up in Frankton, Indiana. It’s just a little tiny farming community. And while I grew up in an urban environment up in the Region, Brett grew up on his family homestead. He’s a sixth generation farm kid, and he grew up on his family’s original property from the 1800s. I like to say I married a cute farm boy. I’m very lucky!
Joe: So you grew up in different parts of Indiana, and I know you eventually met at Purdue. Tell me about your first encounter.
Tia: We met at an Environmental Action Committee Meeting. I was highly involved in that, and that night Brett and his friends were looking for hot chicks—or so the story goes. And that’s where we initially met.
Joe: And so why Purdue? What did you go there to study?
Tia: I got my degree in forestry and wildlife management, and Brett got a food science degree.
Joe: Very interesting. And then where’d you go from there? What was life like after college?
Tia: During our undergraduate programs, we both worked in our fields. I ran the wildlife laboratory at Purdue (with some of our work being done at Crane Naval Base). Well first, I volunteered for it, because as an urban kid I didn’t know shit about wildlife or nature. I eventually wound up getting a job in the lab for a year. And then, when the person who ran the lab graduated, I got offered the position. It’s a little rare that I got to run a laboratory as an undergrad for two years, but it was great!
Brett worked in a food science pilot lab at Purdue. After we graduated, I immediately moved to Arizona to take a job at the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation. Brett, on the other hand, rode his bike across the country—coast to coast—before starting his job up in Wisconsin working for a cranberry juice company.
Joe: Nice! He was a millennial before millennials were even around.
Tia: Totally. He was hip before it was hip. And so we dated long distance for some time.
Joe: Interesting. Then you eventually tied the knot.
Tia: Yeah, we’re a very atypical couple. We met, dated for a year in school, immediately moved halfway across the country, and dated long distance. I moved in with him a year later in Wisconsin. About a year after that, I actually moved back to Arizona because I had a job opportunity to start a business with my friend and Brett was like, “Go for it!”
We dated long distance again for another year. And after six years of dating back and forth, I was finally able to move back to Indiana for a job. Brett had already moved from Wisconsin back to his family farm in Indiana. We were like, “Hey, we’re in the same state. Let’s get married!”
And six years to the date of our first date, we got married! It just happened to work out.
Joe: Wow! Yeah, just your average story.
Joe: So at this point, you’d moved back to the farm. What year was this again?
Tia: It was 2002. Yeah, after we got married I moved to the farm with him. I still worked downtown so I still had an hour one-way commute, and he worked in Madison County.
Joe: And so talk about where this idea for mead came about?
Tia: Well, we’re both really into food, and we were producing a lot of our own food on the farm. Brett had always wanted to keep bees, and, since we don’t do anything small, we got 10 hives. That doesn’t sounds like a lot, but it’s 500 pounds of honey at the end of a season.
Tia: We were like “Shit! What are we going to do with all this honey?” We set up at farmers markets on the weekends, but also wondered what else we could do with all this honey. We knew we had access to all this fruit from our neighboring farms, so we started making some booze for ourselves.
To get fruit—not a grape-based wine—up to 12 percent ABV or higher, you have to augment it. Typically people add sugar. We aren’t into the processed stuff, so we were like, “Hey, we have this honey. Let’s just add that!”
So we started making mead for fun! Just doing it as a hobby. It was just utilitarian.
Joe: And so at what point did the hobby become a business idea?
Tia: It was truly our answer to the brain drain. We wanted to have a way to stay in Indiana that was in our control. We didn’t want to keep moving around. Our families were here. We could see neat things were starting to happen in Indianapolis and across the state.
We wanted to have a reason to stay, so we started looking at what kind of businesses could we start being food based or related to food. And so we ran the numbers for everything from a CSA–Community Supported Agriculture—to maybe growing trees to sell. But we kept coming back to the mead we were making.
So we went back to Purdue and had them review our products, just to see if they could be marketable. If the quality was there. And they confirmed we had something sellable.
And so we started selling in our tasting room and by going to six farmers markets a week. The farm markets are where the majority of our income came from. We did it for a number of years. It was a challenge, but it went well. It was very taxing, very tiring. But we got to be really good at talking about our product, because in Indiana you can sell wine at a farmers market but not sample it.
Joe: Oh, wow. So you have to sell it with your words.
Tia: Yeah, imagine a $20 price point bottle of wine that isn’t made from grapes and that you can’t taste. Tough sell. But we got really good at the presentation of things. It was all great training.
Then, we eventually decided to really look at the business model and said “Okay, if we want to grow it, we’re going to have to move.” And six years ago this summer, we decided to move here to Fountain Square.
Joe: Talk a little more about that process of educating the public.
Tia: It’s not like you’re selling shoes or t-shirts, an everyday item people are familiar with. Most people are like, “What the hell are you selling?” And definitely at the time we started the business—this is going on 13 years ago now—mead was definitely not something people really know about. We knew it was a bit of an uphill battle.
We just thought from a quality standpoint the product was there. So we started a little business in Elwood because we originally thought we’d locate back on the farm. But then we realized that the trajectory of the business made much more sense to move to an urban location.
Joe: Let’s hang out there a little bit. Why Fountain Square? What was it about this area that made you feel like this was where you wanted to land?
Tia: It took us a year to find where we wanted to move the business. We looked from Bloomington to Westfield. We looked everywhere, trying to get a feel for where we wanted to move.
I was in love with what was happening in Fountain Square. I could just tell there was such a great energy. It reminds me a lot of the Region, actually, as far as very neighborhood centric. I really like that.
I always wanted to be part of something and be somewhere where I felt I could give something back. Not just land in a neighborhood that would benefit my business, but where I could benefit it in return. By me being here I could help in a positive way, and by me being here the neighborhood could help me in a positive way. I fell in love with the neighborhood.
We originally were trying to find one building that accommodated both our taste room and production. We couldn’t find anything. And it’s a darn good thing, because we were thinking too small about future production. We’re so much bigger now.
The owner of our building told me the lease on this space was up and suggested I consider it as our taste room. Turns out it was a great idea!
Joe: Do you know what was this space used for before?
Tia: Oh man, it’s the third oldest building in the neighborhood. I believe its original use was as a stable and livery. One of the most famous uses over the years was as a grocery and drugstore. It’s been a bar. Supposedly there was a brothel upstairs. I don’t know if there’s any proof of that, but that’s the legend. Right before me it was a practice space for the band Hero Jr.
Joe: That’s cool. I just love this space.
Tia: Yes, it’s a beautiful space, and I feel very connected to Fountain Square. I really like this area. Even if, 20 years from now, we decided New Day was no more, I’d still stay here. I really love this community.
Joe: Ok, back to the mead. How do you source our ingredients?
Tia: The foundation of New Day Craft is about creating a well-balanced product from quality of ingredients. Initially, way back in the day, we used to get all of our honey from a single apiary up in Anderson, Indiana—Dave and Pattie Barrickman at Wildflower Ridge Honey Farm. They’re really good people and dear friends. And also, way back in the day, we’d actually pick all our own fruit from different growers in Indiana. I still have the raspberry cane scratches on my arms.
But as we got bigger, we couldn’t do that. Within the first couple of years, we had to start working with fruit growers from around the country to get our fruit. Most of it up from Michigan, but some of it comes from where we can source it. Some fruits are just not grown that much in the Midwest, so with Brett’s background in the juice industry, he knows how to source. It’s about quality of fruit.
With the honey, until just a couple of years ago, we were using only David and Pattie’s honey, but we needed more than they could provide. Now we work with a conglomeration of midwestern farmers who produce wildflower honey. I want certain notes from that. I want that to be a consistent flavor profile through all the production processes and have the other fruits—or the barrel aging or the hops or the spices or the combination thereof—to make the different flavor profiles. That’s how we operate.
Joe: How many different varieties do you offer today?
Tia: Oh man, in our portfolio right now I think we have roughly 20-25. Not that we have those all on at all times. We have usually 10 on tap at any given time. We have a set of year-round varieties, as well as seasonal and specialties. Then we have some stuff that we just kind of pop in every so often.
Joe: Is there a magic number of flavor offerings in your portfolio?
Tia: We have a very long R&D list of stuff we’d like to do someday. Some of it just takes time to work through the R&D process.
We’ve got our house specials—house varieties—that we’re always going to have them. But then, because that’s part of the fun of the business, we’ll experiment with a few varieties. There’s some that we have in our portfolio that we’ve not had around for a year or two because it was good but we have stuff that we like better so we just haven’t made that one. You know. It’s always us pushing our own envelopes for sure.
Joe: What is that trial process like before you put it out for customers to try?
Tia: Right now, because it’s just Brett, Brett’s assistant, and myself, we don’t have a very formal process at this point in time. So we do our R&D to see if one works. If we like it, then we make a little bit larger batch for an in-house release and let our customers see what they think. What kind of feedback does it get? Is it lukewarm feedback? Do people love it?
We also like to stay in front of the customer and give them something they didn’t even know they’d dig. Like with our Breakfast Magpie, we didn’t do a sensory analysis and taste panels to get all this data ahead of time. We just said, “We think this is going to be really delicious. Let’s make it and see what people think.” Granted, the balance, the quality, the excellent ingredients, all that stuff that goes into it was still there. But that particular product we just created in the hopes people would dig it. And boy did they ever! That’s a classic example of getting in front of your customers and trying to provide something that would make them happy.
Joe: Talk about some of the lessons learned over the years.
Tia: We have a lot of lessons learned. That initial business plan was adorable, i.e. naïve. From the point of opening to where we are now, we’ve gone through all sorts of challenges, discussions, and strategy changes. You have to do that as a business owner to be relevant.
As you know, we changed our product line. We’re still making mead, but we added a cider a few years ago. Now all we make is carbonated mead. We didn’t make anything carbonated initially. It’s all in beer bottles now, because we had to look to see what was the customer interest. If we had just said “Well, this is what we started with and by golly” we wouldn’t be in business anymore. You have to evolve. You have to listen to your customers.
It’s always a learning curve. Don’t let any entrepreneurs tell you they’ve got it all figured out. They’re full of shit. You can’t plan out the next five years. You definitely want to have a plan. We have a plan for the next five years on what we’d like to look like, but you can’t just assume it’s going to be smooth sailing and really easy.
Joe: And what’s it like working with your spouse?
Tia: Ah, the age-old question. Yes, it’s not for everyone. You’re two different human beings, and a lot of people are just not hardwired to work together. But it’s one of our strengths. It’s not like peaches and roses every day, but Brett and I have different talents that really meld well together.
But it has its challenges too. We’re both really stubborn, which can be both good and bad. And we can find ourselves always talking work, which can definitely be a challenge on our relationship. We’re both just really into the business, so we have to force ourselves to pull back at times.
Joe: How do find that balance between work and life? What are some things you do?
Tia: It’s definitely intentional, and we’re not perfect at it. It’s taken us a long time. We’ve both worked ourselves to illness before. Just because the buck stops with you, and you’ve got to get it done.
We definitely check in a lot. “Hey, what are you working on today? When do you think you’re going to be home?” We always tell each other there’s no need to race to a stoplight. If you’ve got to stop at a certain point and can’t continue with that trajectory until the next day or whatever, then don’t kill yourself.
We also come back to check our goals. We’ve got a lot going on, so are those tasks feeding the goal? Not that you’re ever going to be perfect, but trying to be really intentional on doing things that accomplish the goals. Doing our best to stay in front of the ball, rather than getting rolled over it, by it. I think that’s been a lot of practice and a lot of lessons learned.
Joe: Without asking you to divulge too much, what’s next for New Day Craft? Where are you headed?
Tia: We’re really looking to grow our wholesale operation. That’s really where we’re focused. We’re currently in Indiana and Ohio, and we’re getting ready to enter Kentucky. We’re also working on Florida and about 5-10 other states in the next couple of years.
Joe: Why those states?
Tia: Some of it is a combination of regionality. Some of it is choosing states that we’d like to go into, like the west coast states, because of population interest and a good sales climate.
Alcohol is a tricky product to sell. There’s not just federal regulation, but every state is different. Some states I’d love to be in, but it’s just so hard to get into. So we’re going to go to some easier states first and get our feet wet. Get those resources built up, and then maybe go into other states.
We have an idea of how many states we would like to get into, but again, you have a plan. You check it and crosscheck it with the reality. What’s happening? How are things going? Do I feel I want to get more wholesale pull through? Are our numbers good with only these states?
It’s not the number of states. It’s the volume and where we want to be. We won’t get any larger than our very high quality standards allow.