My exploration into the Greenville craft beer scene continues this week with the story of the Johnson Family: owners and masterminds behind the incredibly unique Birds Fly South Ale Project. You’ll find this funky Birdhouse at Hampton Station, located in the historic downtown Water Tower district.
Shawn and Lindsay’s story began in Clearwater, Florida, where they met and married. Shawn’s career in the Coast Guard brought him to Clearwater. This line of work required their family to be nomads.
Not long after having their first child, the Coast Guard presented Shawn and Lindsay with two choices: Hawaii or Kodiak, Alaska. “We are risk takers,” Shawn said, “so we chose Alaska.”
“We don’t regret it for a second,” Lindsay told me. “The massive adjustment of moving from Florida to Alaska shaped us into who we are today. When it gets dark at 4pm, when it’s constantly snowing, or it’s so windy you feel like your house is about to fall apart, you tend to spend a lot of time indoors. We had to start creating hobbies for ourselves.”
“This is when we really began to invest in the process of brewing our own beer,” Shawn explained. “We learned to lean into our marriage, to the growing partnership, and this helped build our foundation as a family and as a business. Relocating our family in such a drastic way is directly parallel to the experimental nature of what Birds Fly South Ale Project is today.”
Lindsay added, “Moving to Alaska was a challenge that helped us grow as brewers. There are limited resources in Kodiak, so we really had to experiment with our recipes. Way back then we laid the foundation for our craft beer philosophy.”
Five years later the family of now four was transferred back down south to Florida. The couple invested further in the craft beer world, building their home-brew set up, attending countless festivals, and researching, reading, and talking about their beloved craft. “We were able to try so many great beers at the festivals,” Lindsay said. “It really developed our creativity further.”
During this time they met Bob Sylvester, renowned brewmaster and founder of Saint Somewhere Brewing outside Tampa, FL. Bob took Shawn under his wing and played an instrumental role in helping develop his brewing skills. Shawn interned for several years as a brewer under Bob, learning about farmhouse ales and brewing methods.
“Most of what I know came from Bob,” Shawn said. “He is an inspiration and a teacher, a true mentor. I call him my beer dad.”
The family of five made one last stop in their ale project evolution when they transferred to Washington, D.C. where Shawn was supposed to be stationed for 4 years. They quickly became involved with the brewing community and helped open Fair Winds Brewing Company. They gained valuable hands-on experience in launching a startup, a skillset much different than brewing beer. “I’m so grateful for that chapter in our lives,” Lindsay said. “We learned so much that we were able to apply with the creation of Birds Fly South.”
At the end of just one year came another plot-twist in their story when Shawn was unexpectedly transferred to Greenville, South Carolina. “We had never been here before,” Lindsay said. They quickly fell in love with the city and connected with the craft beer community. “We had been implanted into a Coast Guard community in the past,” Shawn explained, “but that wasn’t the case when we moved here. So we started at local bottle shops, found our people, and went from there.” Greenville soon became their home.
More than a decade after beginning their craft beer journey, and many months into a search for their future ale project home, the Johnsons landed at Hampton Station. “Shawn was able to connect with the guys at Thomas Creek, who gave him space to brew our own recipes and store our barrels,” Lindsay explains. This allowed them to get their beer into the public, and helped them establish a brand in the growing craft market.
“We call our kids birds,” the pair explains. “When the time came to head south we were ready. We landed in Greenville and it felt like a homecoming.” Lindsay, Shawn, and their 16, 12, and 8 year old sons opened the aptly named Birds Fly South Ale Project doors to the public on September 1, 2016.
“Everything about this place is a partnership,” they add. “It’s not one person brewing beer and another running operations. It’s about a team, shaping and being shaped by a community, creating quality relationships and quality craft ales.”
“The brewery atmosphere was influenced by our time in Alaska,” Lindsay said. “Up there people were able to live more openly, without feeling like they had to conform to a certain expectation. We want people to feel that no matter where you’re from, what you look like, or what you do (or do not) believe in, you’re welcome here.”
From what I can see, they absolutely succeeded in doing that. The very first time that I came to Birds Fly South I remember telling my wife that it felt like I was attending a family reunion. People brought their dogs, families playing corn hole, friends throwing around a frisbee, and there was genuine socializing around the outdoor beer garden.
“We want to stay true to how we’ve always lived our lives,” Shawn added. “We’ve gone to new communities and we’re well versed in what it feels to to be the new people. We want to be a gathering spot for people who hadn’t found their place yet, or if they’re new to town, don’t know where to start.”
I highly recommend that you make plans to visit Birds Fly South Ale Project at Hampton Station. Before you leave, be sure to shake Shawn and Lindsay’s hand. You won’t find a more genuine and passionate pair.