Climbing the Mountain


Two weeks ago, June 6, marked the three-year anniversary of the date that I created the business plan for our brewery in Google Docs. In an inadvertent metaphor, Nicole and I also hiked up to the summit of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. At 6,684 feet, it is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Starting from Black Mountain Campground, it was a 3,000 foot elevation gain over 6 miles.

Geared with plenty of water and snacks, we started at 10 am and began the three and a half hour uphill trek. Despite the constant glute burn, we were treated to beautiful wildflowers and views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

Finally, upon reaching the summit (and why does the last mile of a hike seem to take as long as the previous five?), we got the payoff: clear skies, 360 degree panoramic views from atop the pinnacle of the East Coast. Off in the distance we could see two other mountains we’d hiked: Grandfather Mountain and Craggy Dome.

Sitting on the observation tower, we ate our cashew butter and jelly sandwiches, which were probably the best we’d ever tasted. I also splurged on a Snickers Bar from the concession stand at the gift shop. I forgot how great a candy bar that is. Somehow, everything tastes better after you’ve walked up a mountain.

After a short rest and soaking up the views, we headed back down the trail. Even though gravity was working with us, the burn goes from the glutes to the quads. Up or down, hiking a mountain is never easy.

Keeping a leisurely pace downhill, we made it back to the truck shortly after 5 pm. Pretty exhausted, it felt great to take off those hiking boots and put on flip flops. We threw our packs in the truck and headed to one of our favorite post-hike destinations: Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain.

There are fewer things better in life than the post-hike, post-ride, post-whatever beer. You’re exhausted but totally relaxed, recounting the amazing events of the day and sipping on a delicious beverage. (Remember, everything tastes better after you’ve walked up a mountain!)

Pisgah Brewing is a great post-hike destination for two reasons: the beer is great (Pisgah Pale Ale may be the perfect post-hike beer) and it’s a no-frills, come as you are place. You can show up covered in dirt and sweat and no one cares.

While sitting on the faded picnic tables sipping our beers, Nicole and I were reminded of why we’re doing what we’re doing with Fireforge. It’s to create a place that feels just like that. Enjoy great beer with friends and family. Encourage people to get out in the world and give them a haven to return to and relax. It’s our version of heaven.

We’ve spoken with a lot of entrepreneurs who have told us various versions of, “If I had known what it was going to take to start my business before I started, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But now that I’m through it, it’s the best thing I ever did.” In many ways, that statement applies to us.

Back on June 6, 2014, the brewery was going to be called Croxbone (pronounced “crossbone,” and we learned to not spell things to confuse people) Brewing Company, and Nicole and I were still living in Tampa, FL.

If someone had come up to me on June 7, 2014 and told me that three years later, we’d be back in Greenville, we had to rename the company and we still would be at least four to six months from opening, that sprout of a dream probably would have died right there.

Just like climbing a mountain, the best thing to do with any goal that seems monumental is to have a vision of where you want to go, and build the dream one task, one conversation, one action at a time. And adjust course as often as you need to.

Our original plan for this past weekend was to take a three-day backpacking trip to the top of Cold Mountain. A string of thunderstorms dashed that idea, so instead we went to Asheville, visited our friends at Hillman Beer, checked out the new Wedge at Foundation, and made an epic day hike up Mt. Mitchell. Not a bad consolation prize!

While I’m often frustrated at the slow pace at which our start-up process is going and I’m chomping at the bit to get open, anniversaries are a great time to look back at the progress we’ve made. And man, have we come far.

On June 6, 2017, the Fireforge Crafted Beer that we’re creating is so much better than what we started to put on paper June 6, 2014. Thanks to the help and support of so many people, we’re building something bigger than we thought possible at the time.

I hope that on June 6, 2018, I’ll be able to tell you stories of our start-up journey while sitting down over a pint at the bar in the Fireforge tasting room. Until then, dream big and start small!

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The plans are done


Well, as much as plans are ever done…

Have we been on a roll lately! Last week we checked off another milestone, completing our architecture and engineering plans and submitting them to the City for permitting. If all goes well, we should have our building permit in the next four to six weeks.

This was our first time going through the process of architecting and engineering a physical building. When we started, I had no idea the volume of building codes and how much detail they specify. It was quite the education.

I’m glad that we had a team of people behind us that know what they’re doing. Many thanks go out to Brian Thomas, Adam Roberts and their team at DP3 Architects, as well as the crew at Devita & Associates. They did a fantastic job of translating our vision into a plan that we can use to actually build something.

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Adult Tested, TTB Approved


Miracles do happen! Last Wednesday, we received a notice that our Federal TTB Brewer’s Notice was approved. We filed the application on January 19, less than three months ago. Currently, this process is taking many breweries around the country six to eight months.

The TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and they control the license to brew commercially in the United States and collect federal beer excise taxes. This approval came in so much earlier than I was expecting, I’m still not entirely sure what it means for us right now.

The biggest impact for us is that it removes the possibility of massive roadblocks in the process down the line, and we can start brewing as soon as we complete our build-out and get our brewing equipment installed. I’ve heard stories of breweries having everything ready to go, and having to wait two or three more months before receiving their approval so they can actually start brewing.

I want to give a huge shout out to Brook Bristow of Bristow Beverage Law. He’s helped us navigate the government permitting labyrinth, on both the federal and state sides. We’ve already received our conditional Alcohol Beverage License from the SC Department of Revenue, in addition to the recent TTB approval.

That means from a permitting standpoint, we now have to make it through the City of Greenville for our construction permits and we’re in really good shape. Brook handled the federal and state permits, telling us exactly what we needed to provide and he put it in a format to make it easy for those agencies to approve. I don’t know exactly what he did to get us approved so quickly and easily, and I’m not sure I want to

Thank you Brook!

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Freaking cool reclaimed metal roofing


Cedar Bluff, an 1890s historic home on the May River in Bluffton, SC, in 2013 prior to renovations. Owners Joe & Diana Zokan donated the old metal roofing to Fireforge for the tasting room.

We have returned from Bluffton, SC with some amazing material for the Fireforge tasting room. Thank you so much to Diana and Joe Zokan for donating a ton (literally) of metal roofing from the historic 19th century house that they recently renovated along the May River.

The historic home, named Cedar Bluff, was originally built in the 1840s and was destroyed in June 1864 by Federal ships during the shelling of Bluffton during the Civil War. The current house was built upon the original foundation in the 1890s.

Over the next 100 years, Cedar Bluff had an interesting history. In the 1920s, it’s possible that the second floor was used as a speakeasy and gambling hall. In the 1930s, after Prohibition ended, it was a restaurant called The Silver Eagle.

nicole with roofingEventually, it became a summer home for a Savannah family and over time fell into a state of disrepair. In 2013, Joe and Diana purchased the property and began renovations. They reused as much of the original house as they could, including the original roofing as wall finishes on the second floor.

They had a lot of the metal roofing material left over and offered it to us for the brewery. It was a no brainer, we immediately accepted. The rusted out metal and faded green paint is a perfect fit for the atmosphere we want to create at Fireforge. And we hope that it inspires us to live up to the old days at Cedar Bluff, when who knows what was going on up on that second floor!

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The Deer Moves In

Bob Coble, The Deer

While it doesn’t look like much has happened from the outside here at Fireforge, a lot has been going on behind the scenes. Most importantly, my trusty deer, Bob Coble, has moved into the brewery. Bob has been with me since college. He always has a place of honor, from my college apartment, my studio in Columbia, our first house in Columbia after we got married, the brew garage in Greenville, and now he’s gone big time.

We’ve also been busy collecting pallets and various odds and ends for the brewery and tasting room. We even won a receipt printer in a restaurant auction for two cents! #score

Our friends at DP3 Architects and Devita have been hard at work for us finalizing our architecture and engineering plans. If all goes according to schedule, we should be ready to submit for our building permit by mid-April and hope to begin the build out in May.

We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of permits, licenses and inspections to pass. We’re still tracking toward a late summer opening. Just in time for the great fall South Carolina weather to enjoy in the beer garden!

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Fireforge Crafted Beer Finds a Home


Welcome to our new home.

We’ve all heard it said that good things come to those who wait. The impatient, perpetual 12-year-old inside me has never liked that saying. However, I believe it’s true.

After an 18-month search evaluating over 60 properties throughout Greenville and seemingly every surrounding nook and cranny, we found a home for our brewery. And it’s right in the heart of Greenville.

Fireforge Crafted Beer has signed a lease for a 4,600 square foot warehouse section of the former WN Watson Tire & Auto building at 311 E. Washington.

Homegrown in Greenville

Greenville has been experiencing tremendous growth over the past several years. In particular, the landscape downtown has changed tremendously. There are several new multi-family housing developments, the West End is exploding, and the old Greenville News building redevelopment is already in the works. There are several other new projects in the planning stages. It’s an exciting time.

The rapid growth and development has attracted a lot of attention from out-of-town developers that see opportunity in Greenville. And while it speaks highly of our community that businesses are coming here to open a second, third or Nth location in Greenville, the increase in property value and rent has squeezed out or provided a barrier to entry for many local businesses inside Greenville’s core.

That’s one reason we’re so invigorated about the building on Washington. The circumstances that allowed us to be there are uncommon. We have the opportunity to create a homegrown experience that’s unique to downtown Greenville.

More details will come over time; there is more to this building than Fireforge. With the help of Stone Property Management, the vision is to create a hub of community activity centered around beer, food, music, family and friends. Grown organically in the Upstate.

We’re eager to help grow Greenville’s reputation as a craft beer travel destination. Let’s build the ultimate craft beer sandwich…Greenville is the tasty filling in between the Asheville and Charleston beer markets.

It’s all part of the Master Plan.


The front gates of the future brewery. (Sketchy car not included.)

A Cozy Warehouse

Is that even a thing? What does that mean?

The Fireforge tasting room is going to be a warm, inviting and comfortable place to enjoy a beer or three. Whether you’re wearing a suit or shorts and flip flops, we want everyone to feel welcome.

One feature that attracted us to the property is the small parking lot in front of the two large garage doors. Our plan is to turn that into a beer garden and gathering space. You’ll be able to bring your kids, pets or spouse, and they can run around and play.

We will have a variety of music, private events, markets and ever-changing beers on tap to surprise and delight. We will not have televisions. We want to encourage community. Talk to each other.

Brewing on a 7-barrel system, we’ll be making beers inspired by culinary traditions, local and regional ingredients, fun memories and travels. Initially, most of our sales will be in-house, with a little bit of distribution to select craft beer bars and restaurants. 

Beer was made to be enjoyed with food. Fireforge will have a small, yet mighty menu of specially-created sandwiches, meats, cheeses, crudites, and desserts to pair with the beer that we have on tap. There are also plans to put in a separately-owned restaurant in the front section of the building, so guests will have the option of getting a larger meal and bringing it over to Fireforge to enjoy with a house-made beer

Now What?

The real fun begins! There’s still a long road ahead, filled with plans, licenses, permits, construction and who knows what else. But it’s tangible now, not just on paper. We can see what it’s going to look like in our minds.

Fueled by that vision, we’re going to push forward as diligently as we can. We plan on opening mid-summer 2017.

In the mean time, keep an eye on us. We have several collaborations in the works with our Greenville brewery friends. We may also have a surprise or two pop up around Greenville Craft Beer Week. You can follow our adventures on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for everyone’s support and encouragement. We can’t wait to pour you a beer at the brewery!

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Brewery Acquistion Mad Libs

Last month, Northern Brewer/Midwest Supplies, Minnesota-based mega homebrew shops, were acquired by ZX Ventures, a venture capital firm backed by AB InBev. ZX Ventures is self-described as “global disruptive growth group, incubator, and venture capital team.”

I’ll say. They just somehow figured out how to buy-out homebrewers, the ultimate grassroots innovators of craft beer in the United States. Bravo by them.

This hits pretty close to home for me. I bought many of my early homebrew kits from Northern Brewer, and continued to buy equipment and ingredients from them from time to time over the past few years when I just wanted something dropped off at my door.

They have EVERYTHING a homebrewer could want. Their customer service is great. And they’re just cool. I can see why it was attractive for XYZ-AB to buy them.

While I appreciate the sentiment, when I read the statement from Chris Farley, Northern Brewer’s founder, about the acquisition, it sounded like every other statement put together by a corporate PR department, about how nothing will fundamentally change and they’ll still be independent.

That may be true to an extent as long as things are going well in the minds of the investors. As anyone who has ever accepted investment or taken out a loan, once you take that money you’re no longer the boss. I just wish one time, an executive would come out and say, “They made us a great offer and we had to take it. It’s a lot of money.”

Since I would like to be helpful to my future fellow brewery owners, in an effort to help breweries, brewpubs and homebrew shops save some time and money when they’re acquired, I went ahead and wrote a boilerplate press release they are welcome to use, Mad Libs-style:

Today, we at ______ are ______ to announce our acquisition and partnership with _______. This is a ______ moment in our company’s history, and we could not be more______ and ______ for all our employees that have helped us reach this moment after so many years of _________. We are so ______ at the prospects for future ________.

“Our new relationship with _______ will create _______ that will allow us to ______ and pursue _______ to better serve our customers with greater ________ and increased _______,” said ______, ________’s founder and president.

_______’s management team will remain in place and we will continue to be a ________ operation. Rest assured that our ______ and ______ will stay intact as we go forth.

________, CEO of ________ called the merger “______.”

We are confident that this merger is a ______/_______ for both our customers and our company. We thank all of our past customers for their _______, and we look forward to ________ing them for years to come.

You’re welcome.

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Why It’s Important to Know Who Brews Your Beer

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather

The big news in craft beer these days is all about acquisitions. AB InBev acquired Goose Island in 2011 and followed that up with 10 Barrel, Blue Point, Elysian, Breckenridge, Devil’s Backbone, and Golden Road.

AB InBev also controls about 120+ other brands globally. Founders, Lagunitas, Terrapin, and Ballast Point recently sold a majority share of their breweries to other major corporate breweries.

This raises two important questions that are being debated throughout breweries and tap rooms everywhere:

  • What does all this consolidation mean for the future of craft beer?
  • Should a conscientious craft beer supporter continue to buy formerly craft brands after they’re acquired by one of the big guys?

I’m sure many of you are asking, “Why should I care about all this? Grapefruit Sculpin is the best beer I’ve ever had! I don’t want to give that up.” Grapefruit Sculpin is phenomenal, I can’t argue with that.

As the current trend of acquisitions continues, including AB InBev merging with SAB-Miller to create the brewing equivalent of The Empire, we’re going to find more and more scenes like this photo below at the Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball team:

#IllusionofChoice (PHOTO © CRAFTBEER.COM)

#IllusionOfChoice (PHOTO © CRAFTBEER.COM)

(HINT: In the lower photo, check out the tap furthest to the right to uncover the one owner.)

Major brewing corporations are acquiring craft brands to present the “Illusion of Choice” to beer consumers. They can provide a wide variety of brands to their wholesalers, who in turn offer one-stop-shopping at a lower cost to bars, restaurants and venues. How many retailers really care enough about craft beer to pass up easy and cheap when it all looks just as good?

Why don’t the major corporations just brew their own “Kraft Killerz”? Why are they acquiring craft brands to expand their reach?

Do you remember Budweiser American Ale? For whatever reason, they just can’t seem to figure out how to create tasty beer on their own.

There’s also the marketing matter of brand association. Just like no one wants to buy a luxury version of a Toyota Camry, they’ll buy a Lexus ES 350, which is essentially the same as a Camry with more options.

To combat the meteoric rise of craft beer, Globobrewers can’t just create their own craft brands. They have to attack craft brewers by assimilating brands like the Borg, so they came up with this playbook, which I think is loosely based on Monty Python’s Wooden Rabbit.

  1. Buy a majority share of a craft brewery that has shown tremendous growth in the past 24-36 months and wants to expand rapidly or cash in.
  2. Rapidly scale up production of the craft brewery’s core brands.
  3. Push out the core brands to far reaching regions using the behemoth’s established distribution network. (For example, we suddenly now get Elysian Space Dust in South Carolina.)
  4. Price the beer well below other craft beer, thus undercutting local and regional craft breweries. (See: Goose Island IPA)
  5. Leave the part about being majority-owned by AB InBev, SAB-Miller, Constellation, etc. off the labels so as to not drum up any suspicions among unsuspecting customers.

Just like milk at the CVS, these newly acquired craft brands are loss leaders, designed to eat up more taps in bars, more shelf space in stores, and price the competition out of existence.

These guys don’t #$%& around.

The reason that we should all care is that diversity and innovation are what led to the craft beer boom that started in the late oughts. Diversity in nature has countless benefits. The same can be said for language and culture. And beer.

Big beer, whose empire is built on light lager, can’t innovate on their own, so they seek to grow through acquisition. Growth through acquisition alone is not a sustainable business model.

By supporting independent breweries, you are supporting the innovators that fuel the creativity on the front lines of craft beer. You are creating jobs and putting money back in local communities throughout the country.

The Brewer’s Association defines a craft brewery as:

  • Small: Annual production of six million barrels of beer or less (approximately three percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.
  • Independent: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
  • Traditional: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

In particular, supporting your own local breweries not only puts your money back into your community, when you visit their tasting rooms, you receive the added benefit of getting the freshest, best tasting beer you possibly could directly from the source.

Ultimately, the responsibility to meet the challenge of the big breweries lies with the indie brewers. Our beer has to be of the highest quality, consistently. I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay more for a beer that doesn’t taste good, no matter who made it.

I encourage you to stay informed of the changing craft beer landscape, and that when all other things are equal, choose local and independent.

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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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