Wall Street guy's path to joy: Less banking, more beer

Former investment banker Michael Kane followed his real passion - for beer. Now, Kane Brewing Co. is among New Jersey's increasingly successful craft breweries.

Kane fell in love with beer in college, though not in a frat party sort of way.

In 1997, while backpacking through Europe before his sophomore year, Kane found himself drawn to the pilsners and ales of Germany and the Netherlands. He liked the beer, but he also liked the social, family-friendly culture of the beer gardens.

When he returned to Fairfield University in Connecticut, Kane spent his weekends visiting New England's small-craft breweries-companies like Magic Hat and Long Trail, which were just small start-ups at the time. Most of the owners, Kane learned, had started as home-brewers.

Inspired, Kane bought a book and a brew kit. It was love at first pint, and he knew instantly that he wanted to start his own brewery. But he also knew that at age 22, he lacked the experienced and capital to be successful. So upon graduating, he used his business degree to get a job as a litigation consultant in New York City. When he traveled for work, he'd make detours to visit breweries. He continued to brew at home, and even made the beer for his wedding.

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Later, while working toward an MBA at Notre Dame, every business proposal he wrote was for a brewery or distillery, "just to get an understanding of how the industry worked," he says. An internship at the Hague in 2004 brought him back to the Netherlands, where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions-and lagers.

Kane returned to New York to work as an investment banker, but he still had beer on the brain. After four and a half years, he had his "now or never" moment. In 2010, with his wife's blessing, he quit his Wall Street job and signed a lease on a 7,500-square-foot building in Ocean Township, New Jersey.

Self-funding the brewery allowed Kane to brew the American- and Belgian-style recipes he'd been honing for the past six years, without the influence of outside investors.

"I had a vision for what I wanted," he explains, "and I wanted to make sure we could execute that and not have any outside interruption." He and his wife spent a year transforming his facility and when the first kegs of beer were ready for distribution, he enlisted a childhood friend, Glenn Lewis, to help him with deliveries. He and Lewis, now VP of Sales, went door-to-door to local bars and restaurants, hawking the new brew.

Nip & Tuck Bar, in Long Branch, New Jersey, gave the brewery its first big break in August 2011 when it put Kane's brew on tap. Each year, Kane Brewing Co. celebrates its anniversary there.

Another big break came in 2012, when a change in New Jersey law allowed for on-site beer consumption at microbreweries. The new legislation meant Kane could serve customers at the brewery instead of just distributing. He started hosting twice-weekly tastings and tours and hired additional staff to manage the hundreds of locals who turn up for them.

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Since 2012, New Jersey has seen a 20 percent increase in its number of craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association. There are now 30 breweries serving nearly 49,000 barrels (1.5 million gallons) of beer a year. Kane Brewing Co. has been part of that growth, with 2,000 barrels brewed in 2013 and another 3,000 expected this year. But as production increases, Michael Kane envisions slow, managed growth for his brewery.

While he may expand distribution to the New York City and Philadelphia markets at some point, he's happy for the time being, to focus on his home state.

"I'm more concerned about making really good interesting beer than getting it out," Kane said.

-By CNBC's Karen Stern

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