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

warehouse-jumping

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.

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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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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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