Craft beer is making a surge in Greenville. Several breweries have announced their opening in the past year alone.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but I’ve developed a taste for craft beer in the past year or so. For a long time, the only thing that I could stomach were ciders, like Woodchuck or Angry Orchard. Now I find them entirely too sweet.
I suppose that means my palate is maturing and my taste is becoming more diverse. I’ve acquired the taste, if you will.
Recently I had the privilege of sitting down and talking about my beer palate and about everything else under the sun with Brian and Nicole, founders of FireForge Crafted Beer. They are on the path to opening up their brewery and taproom on the corner of Washington and Church street.
Brian graduated from College of Charleston in 1999 with a computer science degree and immediately landed a job at a web development firm.
Though, self-admittedly, Brian wasn’t the greatest programmer, “There were guys that would work all day and then go home and code for fun,” he said. “I, on the other hand, would go home and drink a beer with friends. I quickly realized that these dudes would smoke me at coding and I thought, ‘I better find something else to do.’”
While Nicole was in her teens her interest in microbrewing was already growing. “I think it was because my Dad was into it,” she said. “He traveled for work, and I would go with him from time to time. In the evening after his meetings, I would go with him to the brewpub, and I became fascinated with the brewpub atmosphere.”
Nicole laughed and said with a smile, “At 16 or 17 I totally NEVER had a brown ale.”
Nicole knew nothing about the brewing process, but it was just something about the atmosphere that drew her in. It was different than your normal bar or club. This translated to her waiting tables during college. But not just at your neighborhood Outback Steakhouse, but at a brewpub called “Hops.”
So you see why it makes sense that Nicole was the one who got Brian into enjoying beer. “I started with ciders,” he said, “specifically Woodchuck. Over time, Nicole introduced me to Guinness and then onto other flavors and styles. I didn’t even like coffee before I started hanging out with her. I’m convinced that the bitterness of coffee helped my palate adapt and learn to appreciate different flavors.”
When the internet bubble burst, Brian was laid off from his programming job. This furthered his suspicions that he wasn’t in the right line of work, so he went to business school. He ended up bouncing around jobs for several years from small company to big corporation, then back to small company, then back to big corporation.
“I realized about 2 or 3 years ago that it wasn’t really about the job. It was me,” Brian said. “I was never going to be happy doing the same role over and over again.”
Brian had been brewing at home since 2007. It all began with the homebrew kit that Nicole got him for Christmas. January 4th, 2007, they brewed their first batch on their stove.
And so it began.
“I always liked to brew stuff that I couldn’t buy. I’d try to put a little twist on a traditional style to ‘jazz’ something up. Sometimes I would try a cocktail and it would give me an idea. One night we were having Thai food, and I thought, ‘how could this translate to a beer?’ Lemongrass and ginger!”
“I quickly learned not to try to put EVERY ingredient into it,” Brian said. “It’s better to pick two! Less is more when it comes to brewing. Often times, simpler beers use fewer ingredients which allows those few flavors to shine through. The quality of our beer got a lot better when we learned those lessons and applied that philosophy.”
Their interest in the industry grew, so Brian took a job for a summer at Thomas Creek Brewery and worked in the back on the bottling line while he also ran a beer blog. Nicole, whose degree is in English, began writing for Southern Brew News. These opportunities allowed them to become well-established individuals in the industry. They quickly found that it was a very welcoming community. Even though they were just home brewers, they were greeted with open arms.
Around 2010, Brian got connected with a job opportunity at Fluor, which would allow for them to bring in some extra income. So he left Thomas Creek, kept the beer blog, kept brewing, but he put the entrepreneurial portion on hold. Once out of college, Nicole applied her English degree skills in the marketing communication field. After a few years with a local agency, she started her own marketing business. “I recognized early,” Nicole said, “that I didn’t know what my life was going to look like professionally 10 years from then, but I wanted to have the opportunity to build something cool.”
They both were thrown for a loop, though, when Nicole took a job opportunity in Tampa, Florida.
Thankfully there was an established craft brewing community in Tampa that they were able to quickly connect with.
“The hardest part is getting to the starting line, not actually running the race,” Brian said. “We actually started the business plan for Fireforge three years ago while living in Tampa. We really wanted to start a small batch brewery and sell as much as we could out of a tasting room.”
They then went through the normal steps of opening up a business. Hired attorneys, accountants, and were looking at locations for their operation.
After about a year into the plan, they came back to Greenville in 2015 for the Community Tap beer festival. They quickly realized how much they had missed the Upstate and the Carolinas. After about a week in the Carolinas, they reconnected with some friends and fell back in love with this part of the country. While sitting down over a beer, Nicole said to Brian, “this could be nostalgia, but I want to move back up here.”
Nicole went on to say to me, “Opening up a brick and mortar store requires a lot of commitment. We had started over twice already, first in Greenville, then in Tampa. Florida was a great experience that we don’t regret. It allowed us to implement certain ideas into our concept that we wouldn’t have thought of if we hadn’t gone on that adventure. But the thought of starting over again was more than we felt like we could deal with, both mentally and emotionally. So coming back to Greenville was the most logical choice. It brought us comfort to not completely start over again. It became very clear exactly what we wanted to do. So many people were incredibly excited when we told them that we were coming back.”
That brings us to the present. Brian and Nicole currently have a space located on the corner of Washington and Church Street. They are in a holding pattern while they wait on the permitting process to be completed with the city. Their space is part of a multi-tenant development property with plans for a restaurant to be right next door.
Interestingly enough, the Johnson City, Tennessee brewery Yeehaw Brewing will be opening up only a block away from Fireforge in the coming months. I asked about this and if the proximity was a concern. Brian’s answer stuck with me and has given me fascinating insight into the craft beer community:
“People don’t understand that the scale of beer market is so gigantic. The general public thinks there’s a ton of craft beer out there, but big beer takes up the large majority of the market. Think about the ‘big beer’ shelves of a grocery store vs. the craft beer shelf. We all want to work together to bring more market share for craft beer. As long as we all feel like we are pulling towards the same cause, you’re going to see cooperation. Look at Asheville. They have essentially a craft beer district. All of them within walking distance. There is a camaraderie that forms with breweries so close together.”
He continued, “What drives us isn’t necessarily attracting all the beer geeks. Obviously we wanted to be appreciated and respected, but we’ve noticed that each brewery here has their own personality and each one will attract their regulars. We see the opening of Yeehaw Brewing as a great opportunity. By being neighbors, they will help draw patrons towards us and we hope to do the same for them.”
“We aren’t trying to pull people away from other breweries. We just want them to be open to trying something new no matter who brewed it. Our hope is that we grow the amount of craft beer appreciators. We want to guide folks who walk in and aren’t sure what they’re looking for. We can walk them through what beers might translate to their taste," he added.
“We both want to spread the message about craft beer,” Nicole said then laughed, “I guess you could call us craft beer missionaries!”
The name “Fireforge” came to Brian while he and Nicole were driving up the mountains for a craft beer and food pairing weekend with close friends. “Fire is a symbol for passion,” he said, “and our beer is crafted (forged) with my own hands.”
Brian and Nicole are aiming to open Fireforge Crafted Beer this winter.