One Year Back in Greenville

One year ago today, our moving van rolled back into Greenville. Was it a triumphant return, or wounded retreat? I believe it’s the former.

Nicole and I spent two and a half awesome years in Tampa. I look back at that time with amazement at the opportunities we had. We did a lot of cool things and met so many great people. I hope that many of those relationships will remain in tact for years to come.

Most importantly, the move got me out of my comfort zone. I had lived in South Carolina from 1986 to 2013. You get into a routine when you are in the same place for nearly 30 years, and it takes a lot of internal motivation or excessive external force to change it.

Being away from family and long-time friends gave me an opportunity to start over and define a new identity that doesn’t come with decades of baggage. I saw clearly what I wanted to do and what I believe my purpose is.

I was able to get off my ass and start the journey.

So why did we come back? Being away also gave us a chance to look at Greenville from a new perspective. We realized it had so much that we really liked. It’s our speed. We felt we could plug back in, armed with new experiences, and contribute positively to a growing community.

It was not a retreat back to the familiar. It was an advance into new opportunity.

The past year has been remarkable. Greenville has changed more than we thought, I believe mostly for the good. There are growing pains, but I’d rather be a part of a vibrant city that outsiders look at and want to be a part of, rather than a stagnant or dying community.

We have met so many great new people since being back. We are so thankful for the acceptance and support we’ve received.

We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress on the brewery in just a year since being back. We’re close. We’re really close…

I’m excited to be back in Greenville. This is our home, and it feels good to be here. But don’t worry, I’m not letting myself get comfortable. That ship set sail three years ago, and there’s no going back to that.

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Fireforge and other South Carolina start-up breweries shut out from festivals and special events

“People love free beer. Why ruin the fun?”
— Nicole Cendrowski, VP Arts & Crafts, Fireforge Crafted Beer

Recently, the South Carolina Department of Revenue (SCDOR) and SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) began to strictly enforce a 20+ year-old state alcohol law that prohibits any producer of beer to sell beer, give free beer, or provide any service to a retailer.

Over the past couple decades, breweries have been donating beer directly to non-profits, festivals, special events and causes they believe in, not knowing that this is actually illegal in this state because it circumvents the wholesale layer in the three-tier-system.

Most states do allow for some level of self-distribution, or give breweries the ability to directly supply retailers with or without limitation. South Carolina is one of 13 remaining states that does not have any provision for self-distribution for the direct sale or donation to retailers.

While donated beer may be a small percentage of the total beer market, this does have a potentially large impact on non-profits, events, festivals, and in our case, start-up breweries. The change in enforcement comes about because SCDOR and SLED consider festivals and special events to be “retailers” and thus subject to the same three-tier-system regulations as stores, bars and restaurants.

Rather than try to explain all the details in this post, Brook Bristow, beverage lawyer and head of the South Carolina Brewer’s Guild, wrote a detailed blog post about the issue. If you run a business that sells alcohol, put on events, or care about craft beer, I highly recommend you read that post.

I will touch on what this means for Fireforge and other South Carolina breweries-in-planning in the foreseeable future.

Impact to a Start-up Small Business

Since Fireforge is not yet a licensed producer of beer, we cannot sell or distribute any of our beer through a wholesaler. (We could possibly contract brew at a licensed producer and distribute it that way, but that’s a story for another time.) Therefore, we can’t give away samples at beer festivals or special events, as all beer needs to be channeled through a wholesaler in South Carolina.

Prior to the change in the enforcement of this law, we were able to pour free samples at festivals, tastings and events as a homebrewer. I brew my beer at home, 10 gallons at a time on the same system I’ve had for the past six years.

I don’t sell my beer or get paid to brew it. However, giving away samples has been a tremendous marketing opportunity for us, allowing us to get our product in people’s hands to build a following prior to our opening.

By working to build a base of potential customers prior to opening, our goal is to have more than just our families in the Fireforge tasting room on opening day. Giving away our product builds our reputation and brand awareness so that we can hit the ground running from Day 1, rather than appearing out of nowhere on the craft beer scene as if we were dropped out of a spaceship.

Imagine the challenge of building a reputation from scratch and trying to get our first customers in the door while we’re already paying rent, utilities and employees. Those first few weeks and months are critical, and starting from zero on Day 1 shortens the runway. It could be perilous to a fledgling small business trying to break into in a very competitive market.

Giving away samples has also been extremely informative market research for us. We’ve been able to validate that people enjoy our beer and that we’re not completely insane for opening a brewery.

If we had not been pouring samples for the past couple years, I would never have guessed that some of our beers, such as Perlin’s Ghost Pepper Pale Ale, Tampanian Devil Guava Tripel and Sunshine of Your Love Cream Ale would have gotten the positive reaction they have.

The feedback we’ve received has been invaluable to know what people really like and what has gotten a lukewarm response. We can start off brewing beer that we already know people like.

What Can We Do About It?

Right now, not much. South Carolina’s beer and alcohol laws are in desperate need of modernization. Restrictive and antiquated laws are a big reason why South Carolina ranks 41st in breweries per capita in the U.S.

The next state legislative session does not begin until January 10, 2017. In the mean time, the state’s craft brewers will be huddling up and planning which are the most pressing and realistic issues to address in the coming year.

We’ve made a lot of progress over the past decade for craft beer in South Carolina, thanks in large part to the support of craft beer fans mobilizing and letting their representatives know what’s important to them. We’ll continue to keep you updated on issues and bills that affect craft beer in our state.

What Does This Mean For Fireforge?

One of our favorite things to do is to serve our beer to people. It’s why we wanted to start a brewery in the first place. We are deeply saddened and frustrated that we do not have a legal outlet to allow people to sample our beer in a public venue.

There is the possibility that we could contract brew or collaborate with other breweries in the area to continue getting our name out there. We are developing some collaboration recipes in conjunction with other breweries and hope to brew those with our comrades soon. Contract brewing is a bit more complicated, and we’re evaluating whether it’s worth it for us to pursue that channel for just a few months before we open.

However, all this is just another challenge that we have the opportunity to overcome. Please continue to keep an eye on us, we’re not going anywhere and your support means so much to us.

Rest assured that we will continue to work our asses off and push as hard as we can to get this brewery open as quickly as possible. We’re making tremendous progress toward securing a location, and we’re getting close to our fundraising goal.

So stay tuned for more news over the coming months, and please continue to support your local breweries and other small businesses. Let’s make this community a wonderful place, fueled by diversity and innovation. We’ll see you around!

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Is the craft beer market saturated?

Not from where I’m sitting.

The Brewer’s Association recently released the 2015 craft beer sales data, which showed continued growth of the industry. Craft beer sales increased 12.8% by volume and 16% by dollar, marking the sixth straight year of double-digit growth. Craft beer now holds a 12.3% share of the overall beer market, which is at $105.9 billion in 2015. That’s a LOT of beer.

Brewing fear

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Craft beer may have jumped the shark when Nicole and I make the front page with a brewery that doesn’t exist (yet).

617 breweries opened in the U.S. in 2015, bringing the total up to a record high of 4,225. Craft beer is receiving a ton of coverage in the news media. Hell, even Nicole and I somehow ended up on the front page of the Greenville News, and we technically don’t even exist yet!

With all this attention, and a new brewery seemingly opening up on every corner, it has many wondering if, or when, the craft beer bubble will burst.

In our journey to open Fireforge, we’ve had many prospective investors express concern over the number of breweries opening, along with limited shelf space in stores and taps in bars, and passed on us. I’ve lost track of the number of banks that told us they have financed enough breweries and their “portfolio is full in that industry.”

How many more craft breweries can the market support? Can craft beer continue to carve into Big Beer’s market share at a double-digit growth rate?  These are billion dollar questions that no one has an answer for.

Perspective from the grassroots

What I can share is our experience as a start-up brewery in Greenville, SC. Everywhere we go and every event we attend, people practically beg us to open in their town. There aren’t enough new breweries to go around. Mauldin, Simpsonville, Greer, Fountain Inn, Pickens, Spartanburg, Easley, Clemson… People are thirsty, and they want a neighborhood brewery that they can call their own.

The Greenville area currently has six operating breweries: Thomas Creek, Quest, Brewery 85, Upstate Craft Beer, Shoeless Brewing and Swamp Rabbit Brewing. As far as I am aware of, there are five more in planning: Birds Fly South, 13 Stripes, Loose Reed, Blue Ridge Brewing (the resurrection in Greer) and Fireforge.

To put that in perspective, the Asheville area has over 20 operating breweries, with who knows how many in planning. Granted, Asheville has it’s own unique culture, very different from Greenville. However, they have roughly the same population. Greenville’s metropolitan area has 400,000 people and Asheville is at 420,000.

The closest beer market in South Carolina is Charleston, which has around 15 breweries and 15 or more in planning. Greenville, and the Upstate in particular, is far behind other areas in the region.

Every pro brewer I talk to tells me to go as big as possible. Expect to hit capacity early and be prepared to work your ass off to keep up with demand. And what we are seeing backs that up. Thomas Creek has added capacity in the past couple years. In Asheville, Burial, High Wire, Wicked Weed, Highland, and Green Man have recently added additional locations or made huge capacity expansions.

We have our work cut out for us

Obviously, by starting Fireforge, we’re betting the farm that there is still a lot of room for growth in craft beer. There is a tremendous amount of competition on a local, regional and national level. There is a finite amount of shelf space and taps in stores, bars and restaurants.

On the positive side, the biggest competitive advantage of local craft beer still holds true. Your local brewery can offer the freshest beer, the most variety and contributes directly back into your community. That will never change.

What we’re seeing in the more mature craft beer markets like Portland, Denver and San Diego is a return to the neighborhood brewery and tap room.  We’ll eventually see that happen as well in the South.

We know we’re going to have to work hard to brew great beer and provide an amazing experience for our guests. We know the shakedown is coming down the road. Only the best will thrive, or even survive, based on the merit of their products and service. As it should be.

And we look forward to earning our place in the craft beer world and growing the pie for everyone.

EDIT:

I forgot to include Upstate Craft Beer and Shoeless Brewing in my original post listing current Greenville breweries. That was completely unintentional and has since been updated. Thanks, James, for bringing that to my attention!

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Planning a Business

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In a little over a week, June 6 will mark the two-year anniversary of my opening Google Docs and creating the file that would become the Fireforge Crafted Beer business plan.

It began as Croxbone Brewing Company. I was in Tampa, Florida. If you had told me on that day in 2014 that in two years I would be typing this blog post while on my porch back in Greenville, South Carolina, the company name would now be Fireforge, LLC and we’re still a minimum of six months from opening, I’m not sure if I would have been excited or if I would have stopped before typing the first word in the document.

It’s been an educational, scary, exciting, frustrating and joyful journey. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing everything that will happen along the way before you take that first step.

While I would have loved to have completed our fundraising, found our building and been open 12 months ago, I realize now we wouldn’t have been ready. Everything happens for a reason, and we needed to learn a lot more before we opened. It will vastly increase our chances of success in the long run.

The obstacles and detours also test your passion, determination, commitment and belief in what you’re doing. We will face greater challenges than these once we are up and running, and if it came too easily at the beginning, we would not be hardened in our resolve to make it work no matter what. It would be too easy to quit when things seem hopeless.

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in this process is that anything worthwhile cannot be done alone. I’m the oldest child in my family, fiercely independent, stubborn and a perfectionist. For most of my life, if I couldn’t do something perfectly by myself, I wouldn’t do it.

Running a business by yourself is not sustainable in any industry. Even though Fireforge has no employees right now, we’ve been blessed to have a great team of professionals that has supported us to get to this point. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from accountants, attorneys, real estate brokers, architects, engineers, city officials, brewers, business owners, designers, programmers, printers, chefs, farmers, musicians, blacksmiths, bankers and event planners.

There are dark days, when I question if it’s worth it, I feel like I don’t know shit about anything, and wonder why I quit my job five months ago.

But it’s been totally worth it. It’s been the most enriching experience of my life, and I couldn’t imagine what I would be doing if it wasn’t this. In the immortal words of John Elway, “There is no Plan B, we’re going with Plan A!”

Thank you to everyone that’s helped us and supported Fireforge. We’ve come so far in two years, and we’re so close. I can’t wait to pour you a pint.

Cheers!

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BTR Collaboration #2: SheaDog Irish Red

SheaDog Irish Red Recipe SheetComing up on Thursday, May 8, we’ll be releasing our Batch #2 brewed at the Brewer’s Tasting Room. In collaboration with our friends Mike Shea and Silvana Capaldi, we brewed an Irish Red in homage to Mike’s Irish heritage.

We couldn’t keep it totally to style and still respect ourselves in the morning, so we added tupelo honey to give it a Florida twist. It’s a clean, malty ale with a dry finish. The honey comes through as a nice accent. It’s at 7.1% ABV, so it’ll pack the punch of Jack Dempsey.

The tapping will take place at 7 pm. We need your support to help us set the house record and kick both kegs that night.

Thursday, May 8
7 pm
Brewer’s Tasting Room (map)

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Cigar City & Intuition collab at Brewer’s Tasting Room

e30742_59159ed26bc64554ac0c5cf896e6870f.png_srz_p_980_1348_75_22_0.50_1.20_0Two of my favorite Florida breweries, Cigar City Brewing and Intuition Ale Works, teamed up over Tampa Bay Beer Week at the Brewer’s Tasting Room.

Joey Redner and Keegan Malone from Cigar City and Ben Davis from Intuition collaborated on this Imperial Rye Porter.

The release event is on Tuesday, May 6 at 7 pm, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet the brewers in addition to drinking the one-of-a-kind creation.

And I know I’m much less famous than those gentlemen, but I’ll be there, too, so come on out and say hi.

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Creative Loafing Spring Hops Beer Festival

Spring HopsOver the years, I’ve been to a lot of beer festivals. Many of them boast, “200+ beers from 85 breweries!” Those are the ones I now avoid.

To me, a beer festival is about two things:

  1. Sampling rare and one-off beers, and/or
  2. Reconnecting with and meeting new people in the beer world

That’s not very easy to do at the big drunkfest. I’ve kept track a few times, and the most beers I’ve been able to sample at a festival is in the upper 20s. I’d rather have 30 new beers at my fingertips than 200 that I’ve already tasted.

The upcoming Creative Loafing Spring Hops festival on April 19 in Ybor Square is right up my alley. It features 11 local breweries, each pouring two beers. 22 beers is definitely enough in a five-hour period, and it promises to provide a more intimate atmosphere than I’d get at the bigger fests.

There’s also an added bonus, pinup girls. You heard me.

As of this writing, there are 11 breweries signed up to pour:

  • Big Storm Brewery
  • Cigar City Brewing
  • Cigar City Cider & Mead
  • Coppertail Brewing Co.
  • Dunedin Brewing
  • Rock Brothers Brewing
  • Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.
  • Southern Brewing and Winemaking
  • Tampa Bay Brew Bus
  • Tampa Bay Brewing Co.
  • Three Palms Brewing

The festival runs from 1 to 5 pm. Tickets are $25 each and include 12 tickets (each ticket is a 3 oz. pour). There is food for purchase and you can buy more sample tickets.

There are also VIP level tickets available for $50, which gets you in an hour early and includes 20 tickets. VIPs also have access to a Creative Loafing lounge with food and entertainment.

For current info, visit the event Facebook page. And if you go, hit up the Twitters at #CLSpringHops and say hi if you see me.

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