Kwaku Kankam’s Story

Originally posted on VoyageAustin August 24, 2021

Hi Kwaku, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
The first thing you need to know about me is that I am an avid fan of craft beer and travel. Duh, right? Following graduation from Emory University with my doctoral degree in physical therapy, I spent the better part of the past decade traveling to visit friends, most living in different cities across the country. Each trip gave me a chance to explore a new craft brewery and share that experience with the friend I was there to visit. Flights with Friends was born in this idea, a flight of beers, with a friend that you take a flight to catch back up with. What started as a short-lived podcast series, which focused on the real life tales rehashed between old friends over a flight of beers, became a company whose mission was to incentivize brewery tourism. The idea was to create an extra reason that allowed patrons to share great beer with people they care about! The podcast may no longer be active, but this mission became that of the company and our Ale Trail.

The Austin Ale Trail passport, Flights with Friends first (and currently only) product, was born out of the idea to find a fun way to unite people to craft beer. When I was traveling to those cities the first thing I would do was run a Google search for breweries in the area. I found in my travels other passport programs that facilitated this exploration, which made me think, why doesn’t Austin have something like this? We have over 50 breweries in the city and most of them have amazing taprooms to explore! I figured if I enjoy it this much when I traveled, I am sure other craft beer lovers, locals or visitors, would like a way to explore this growing city too.

In 2019, I began the process of reaching out to all the local craft breweries and with their support, I designed a passport program to incentivize customers to explore craft beer in the Austin area. Now in 2021, I have added two more members to our Flights with Friends team that have helped our company grow and increase our visibility in the Austin area. We have already sold over 2000 passports this year in only our second year of offering the program. (2020 there was no passport due to COVID).

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Coordinating the breweries into an endeavor such as this one was not an easy task. What I thought would be a “no brainer” for them actually took a lot of cajoling and salesmanship that my career in healthcare had not really prepared me for. The one benefit I did have was that I was already a semi regular face at most of these establishments so there was a lot of early adoption and support from some of the bigger brewery names in the Austin area.

Logistically, the setup of everything i.e., making sure the breweries had stamps and program awareness, was another challenge that I had to learn on the fly in the first year. Then, I was setting up this program on my own, with no revenue or investment, so financially I was forced into a DIY situation. This caused me to spend a lot of my time in 2019 driving across the city and putting in face time with the front of house staff at these breweries to “onboard” them. There were upsides to this however, as most of my drinks were comped for being a part of the industry! In the end, it was time well spent.

The program awareness solidified a lot in this second year after having done this already once before. Now when patrons show up with the passports, the breweries are expecting them and excited to welcome the Ale Trail customer in!

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I graduated with a degree in physical therapy in 2011. I have been practicing in the acute care healthcare setting (hospitals/rehabs) in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas since that time. I landed here in Austin in 2015 and fell in love with the music, outdoors, and youthfulness (especially compared to Florida) of this city. Craft beer has always been a secondary hobby from my professional career of physical medicine. As a physical therapist, I have been a clinician, educator, and taken leadership roles. Leadership in the form of creating this passport initiative here in Austin may be the only true professional overlap which exists between our company Flights with Friends and my career. But the “separation of church and state” can be a good thing as it offers me a professional escape from medicine to do something else I also enjoy doing. 

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
Support local! I will say it again, support local! Our state government had no plans in place or safety nets for the local businesses here in Austin. I am sure this was the case for the rest of the country, as there was no precedent for the pandemic that occurred in 2020, but how we responded as a community really mattered at a time like that. Our local breweries for the most part are not financed by the big names in the industry or have significant wealthy investors, so they are very dependent on day to day sales of their beer. Our Austin Ale Trail Passport release for 2020 was lucky to able to hold off on a release while we waited for policy but there was a lot of confusion and delay that left a lot of these local breweries wondering what to do. The flip-flopping on rules that occurred really had a negative effect on these breweries attempting to remain solvent at that time. We did our best to assist them by promoting “Support Local” and “Beer-to-Go” initiatives for these breweries using our social media outlets. We even got creative by forming a social media BINGO card game out of it we called BEERINGO which incentivized patrons to go to these breweries, make a purchase, and post a picture about it on their bingo board. It was a hit!

Thank goodness most of the breweries have survived to see the other side of the pandemic but ultimately, we are still in this and they will continue to need our support! We have a great craft brewery community here in Austin both patrons and breweries alike which supported each other then and will hopefully continue to do so!