The beverage industry may be a dog-eat-dog world, but Jamie and Kevin Miller think they've found a niche — and this one's for man's best friend.
Their company, Dog Star Brewing Company, makes beer for dogs. The happy tale of Dog Star's Happy Tail Ale all began with the Millers' favorite four-legged friend, Kodi, a 120-pound Akita.
Jamie Miller said she came up with the idea of making and selling dog beer. "We were camping and one of our bottles of beer got knocked over. We noticed Kodi was lapping up the beer. He loved it," she said. Miller described her husband Kevin saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if there was beer for dogs?"
At the white picket-fenced headquarters of Dog Star Brewing, the very large, buttercream-colored Kodi enthusiastically greets visitors. Standing on his hind legs, he's taller than the average woman.
Top dog Kodi is right at home, literally. That's because the Dog Star office is the Miller's home in west Napa. Inaugural batches of Happy Tail Ale were brewed right in the home's kitchen, with samples given to Kodi and other neighborhood dogs.
Dog Star's first Happy Tail Ale recipe consisted of soda water, yellow food coloring and beef bouillon. Right away the Millers learned one quick lesson about combining bouillon cubes in soda water, "It explodes like a volcano," said Jamie with a rueful laugh. Additionally, they discovered dogs really don't like carbonation. "It upsets their stomachs," she said.
With that, they began more research. Through visits to microbreweries and brewing suppliers Jamie learned more about beermaking. "I had only been a beer drinker, now I was turning into a beer brewer," she said.
Jamie eventually came up with a formula very similar to beer but without alcohol, carbonation or hops, which can cause dog seizures. The final recipe consists of water, malted barley, glucosamine, vitamin E and lactic acid. Natural beef drippings provide additional flavor and sodium benzoate prevents bottle fermenting.
Some Napans may already be familiar with Happy Tail Ale. Jamie said she initially launched the company in 2004, while still brewing at home. Jamie described the I-Love-Lucy-like home bottling process as she and Kevin furiously brewed giant vats of dog beer and boiled bottles on their tiny stove. "It took a whole week to make 10 cases," she said.
After a successful two-week introduction at that summer's Chefs Market, Jamie realized she needed to find a contract brewer and bottler. She spent the next several months sourcing her suppliers.
Today, a contract brewer in Central California makes Happy Tail Ale with Jamie's recipe and ingredients, and ships it to the Millers' garage in Napa. In September, she received her first shipment of 200 cases of Happy Tail Ale.
Jamie is now busy selling her brew. "I've visited pet stores, pet boutiques, even restaurants with outdoor dining that are dog friendly," she said. One of her first customers is Jim and Carol Beazley. Both of the Beazleys' pet friendly B&B's, the Beazley House and Daughter's Inn, sell the dog beer.
"Jamie and her husband brought by the new brew and our dogs loved it," said Jim Beazley. "You put it down and the dog just laps it up."
Beazley said they immediately sold one case to a guest. "Dog owners get a hoot out of it, said Beazley, who plans to continue selling Happy Tail Ale. "It's really a hit with the pooches and their folks," he added.
Both Downtown Joe's and Bounty Hunter have bought Dog Star Beer. Eddie Heintz, manager of Bounty Hunter said, "The first time you show (the beer) to customers, they're kind of taken aback. After explaining it, they say 'That's awesome!'" Heintz even put the brew on their menu. For $3 a bottle, visitors can "buy a beer for their best friend."
In the one month he's stocked Happy Tail Ale, Heintz estimates he sold about 24 bottles. He seemed quite happy selling beer to both dogs and humans, "It gives people one more reason to stop by the Bounty Hunter if they know that their pal's going to be taken care of." Heintz added, "We look forward to serving more dog beer."
At this point, Jamie does it all at Dog Star. "I'm the sales rep, the distributor, the bookkeeper; I'm everything," she said.
Her more than 12 years of radio and advertising sales have benefited her. "Sales taught me how to take rejection," she said. "Sales helped me to cold call and understand how buyers think, no matter what the product."
Jamie's family is also in on the job. "My family are honorary employees," she said, as she showed a scrapbook her mom had made documenting the first dog beer delivery.
This businesswoman doesn't think she's barking up the wrong tree with her pet brew.
So far, Dog Star Brewing's signature red-capped beer bottles can be found at retailers including Yountville's Best Friends of Napa Valley, Napa Valley Traditions, St. Helena's Sunshine Foods, and Brown's Valley Market, as well as other stores in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Danville. In the future, Jamie hopes to sell private label dog beer to pet store chains, adding a chicken-flavored "Off Leash Lager" and vegetarian version.
Her confidence in the dog beer business clearly shows. "I absolutely love the product. I think dog beer's the coolest thing ever," said Jamie.