Sonder Stories Chapter 1: Our Story

Chapter 1: Our Story

sonder (n) - the realization that every person has a unique story


In the first chapter of Sonder Stories, it makes perfect sense to dive into the four owners, and hear how this idea of a brewery in Mason Ohio went from concept to reality. The vision started in 2015, it was a long road to opening, and these four embody the culture Sonder Brewing has created.

Justin Neff, President, started his beer journey as a home-brewer for 8 years, and created a business model for owning a brewery. His passion came from a desire to do something more than his previous role in food sales, and an upbringing in small business gave him the perspective on what it would take. A family with his wife, Liz, and a move from Chicago halted the business plan for the time being, but it was always in the long term plan once the timing was right.

Daniel Schmerr, Vice President of Sales, has been working in the industry for a long time as a beer and wine buyer for retail locations across Cincinnati. He met Justin while he was working at a bottle shop, and their friendship naturally grew over time because of the shared interest in beer. Daniel enjoying one of Justin’s home-brews he decided to share was an important moment between the two, and Daniel will be the first person to tell you he’s an honest critic when it comes to beer so him enjoying the beer was a really good sign. Over beers the two talked through Justin’s business plan, and after about three pages Daniel was on board.

Justin and Daniel started looking at properties and buildings, they found one that they thought would work out, but structure and mold problems caused it to fall through. Then they stumbled upon 6.5 acres of land in Mason, which would eventually become the location of Sonder Brewing today. The location was set, but the name of the brewery was the next thing on their mind. Trying to be intentional and meaningful with the name, they fell in love with the word Sonder, and more importantly fell in love with the meaning behind it. Every person has a unique story, and that definition embodies the people behind Sonder Brewing.

Jen Meissner, Chief Marketing Officer, was introduced into the fold as the third piece to the puzzle. Jen and Justin met as neighbors, and their families quickly became close. Jen’s background in marketing was the perfect fit for the group. She quickly was able to run with this idea that Justin and Daniel had come up with. The thought of “everyone having a story” and a shared passion for music were the only pieces of information she was given, but coming up with the Record Hop logo came from it.  Originally thought to take a few weeks, Jen had multiple concepts ready to go the next day.

The original idea was that Justin would brew, Daniel would run the taproom, and Jen would lead all the marketing and branding. The initial thoughts were a small three barrel brew system, but having no commercial brewing experience created some doubt in Justin’s mind. His normal brewing at home was on twenty gallons, and he often had his Dad brewing with him. The size of the land gave them a lot of flexibility to do more, and that sparked this idea of being a much larger operation. They envisioned a community center where everyone is welcomed, whether you love beer or not. September of 2016 Sonder official earned their LLC, and in Justin’s basement, where most of the initial “meetings" were held, they decided to change the vision from Justin brewing to him operating as the President.

Once they made that decision, finding someone to be the brewer was the next thing needed to be done. They had a vision in mind for what the ideal candidate would look like, but with no money the team looked around not really knowing how to find someone and more importantly didn’t know if they would find someone with the right experience. The famous words of Daniel Schmerr at this moment were, “Yeah unless you get someone from somewhere like New Glarus, then you do whatever you can to hire that person.'' A pipe dream that was talked about after a couple Serendipities quickly came to life when they posted the position. At this point there was no land, money, or beer in the business, just a vision and concept for what could be.

Chase Legler, Director of Brewing Operations, was the fourth piece added to the equation, and the first resume to be submitted for the position. It was a shock to everyone when his name came through and a resume attached, you can’t make these things up. Chase’s time at New Glarus started from the bottom and evolved into leading their brewing operations. Justin and Chase began speaking about the position, and Justin coincidentally was traveling to Wisconsin for work shortly after they started the initial conversations. Specifically it was two days after the first phone call, and luckily the Wisconsin stereotype of the people being friendly and hospitable lived up. Justin left Cincinnati with the weather being 70 and sunny, and showed up to Wisconsin in a blizzard wearing shorts and Toms shoes, “tom toms” if you ask Chase. He was meeting Chase at a local bar, and clearly stuck out like a sore thumb which made it really easy for Chase to know who he was looking for. With the cheese curds and New Glarus fruit beer on tap flowing, they quickly found that their ideas aligned. They shut the place down, and Chase invited Justin over to continue talking.

What had to of been a great phone call was Chase calling his wife, Haley, to let her know that a stranger from Cincinnati was coming over to stay. “Sorry if he murders us, but he seems really nice. It’s going really well, see you in 5 minutes”, Chase tells her. Luckily Justin had the same conversation with Liz just to make sure she knew where he was if he wasn’t heard from the next day. Justin was confident that Chase was the right fit, and Chase felt the same way but needed to convince Haley of the same thought if they were to ever make the move to Cincinnati. Justin left Chase’s house at 1:30am to make sure he got to Milwaukee for an 8am meeting the next day. He got to Milwaukee at 3am, got some sleep, and woke up to the news that his meeting was canceled due to weather. The news didn’t matter because the trip was more than worth it.

Justin, Daniel and Jen had already built a family feeling together and Chase joined seamlessly, but him being added to the mix meant that they needed to go even bigger than previously thought. The trajectory changed because of the talent these four had, and they were confident that together they could achieve more. Luckily fundraising with Chase’s beer samples made it much easier to gather funds.

Ground break was supposed to happen in May 2017, and construction would be finished five to six months later. Fast forward, Sonder breaks ground in October and the doors opened October the following year, 5 months later than expected. If a beer ever gets named about a man sleeping in his truck while he’s supposed to be doing his job, you will know why.

Once the word spread about Sonder, the question became, “What are you going to do with 6.5 acres?”. The vision of a community center speaks true, and is already coming to fruition. Jen said, “People are just embracing that you can meet here, bring a group, have a birthday party, a surprise anniversary party, retirement party, etc. People call all the time just wanting a chill space to have great beer and hangout with our friends, and we have a great space for that”. Truly a build it and they will come idea, and it’s something that Sonder is embracing. A community center appeals to the masses, and the hope is for Sonder to be that place to everyone. You’ll often hear Chase speak to how functionally beautiful the brewery is. The brewery is a very welcoming place and an easy place to enjoy beers, but the brewhouse was designed by Chase and gives the brew team the ability to create and recreate excellent beers.

The Sonder Story is only beginning and these four have created the foundation for what is to come, and their leadership will continue to drive this place to new beginnings. Every beer has a story, and these four coming together is a great story in its own.