Friday, December 21, 2012

Going Native - An Interview with The Native Brewing Co.'s Adam Fine

The craft beer scene in Florida has grown dramatically over the past decade and a half. Craft beer sales are up and the number of bars and restaurants serving it is through the roof. The state is also home to over 30 breweries, with more on the way in just the next few months. 

But look back ten years ago, and the landscape was completely different. Craft beers were hard to find and restaurants, bars, and retailers weren't sold on the stuff. A few breweries were turning out some great beer, but distributors hadn't yet figured out how to sell their product (nor did they care to).

That was the climate in Florida when Adam Fine decided to found The Native Brewing Company.

A Florida native himself, Fine had spent the better part of the '90s hanging out in Houston, Texas. It was there in the city's lively bars, music halls, and restaurants that Fine would discover what would become his life's passion: great craft beer. So, in 1996, when the University of Florida graduate returned to his home state, he had one goal in mind. He needed to make a living, somehow, off of craft beer. 

"I caught the craft beer bug," says Fine. "But I knew that if I was going to start a business the first thing I needed was professional experience."

And so, the engineering major retreated to what he knew -- an analytic approach. He set his sights on learning everything he could about brewing beer. He took courses and read books. He homebrewed like crazy and shared it with his friends. He even landed a job, working for the now defunct brewpub chain, Hops, where he brewed house beers for two years. Then, in 1999, Fine decided he was ready. He quit his job at Hops, took what savings he had, and opened The Native Brewing Company -- and his distribution company, Fresh Beer Inc. along with it -- in February of that year. The rest -- as they say -- is history.

We spoke to Mr. Fine about the journey his brewery has taken over the past ten years, and where it's headed in the next ten. 

SFBW: What was the catalyst for you saying, "I’m really going to do this?"
Fine: Well, the whole idea of starting a craft brewery was very appealing to me. I think a lot of people that are starting out right now probably feel the same way. They're homebrewers and have this dream to be in the beer business -- it's the same type of bug that I had back in 1999.

Most people take a big risk with one business, but you actually opened two -- Native and Fresh Beer -- at once. Why is that?
In 1999, South Florida was just at the very beginning of this craft beer thing. A couple of breweries had recently opened up, and craft beer had just gotten going. And right when we were deciding to open Native, we saw some breweries in South Florida struggling. They had difficulties because the distribution channel at the time didn't understand how to build or sell a craft beer brand. So we took a step back and thought to ourselves, "We can invest a lot into stainless steel and equipment, but if we don’t have a way to sell this product effectively then we're going to be out of business quick." It was at that point that we decided, "Lets brew this at someone else’s brewery, and we can spend the majority of our focus on getting the beer to market." So Fresh Beer came about as the distribution arm at essentially the same time as Native. This way, we were able to do the quality control and actually brew with the brewery, but we were also able to go hand sell the product bar-to-bar. 

Your first beer was The Eleven Brown Ale - that refers to the batch number, correct?
Well, it wasn't actually the eleventh recipe or anything like that. At the time down here, there was no craft beer. So we really didn't know what the market would be interested in. So we tested things out. We brewed different recipes and passed them out to friends or at parties. And all the recipes were anonymously numbered because we always wanted to get feedback. The bottle and the recipe that kept coming back as the one people liked was number eleven; a brown ale. We did pale ales and red ales and all kinds of stuff , but most people kept coming back to us saying, "This is really good, I want more." 

What were the early days like for you?
Well in the early days I wore every hat. Most small business owners will tell you that you have to be able to do everything in your business, whether it's accounting, marketing, sales, or making deliveries. I was selling the beer one day and delivering it out of my pickup truck the next. I was going out to bars and selling the beer and marketing it. It was a one man show at that point.

How did the two businesses grow?
Eventually Fresh Beer started to outgrow Native. Being in the craft industry, I met other people at conventions or events and found out that they faced the same challenges in Florida that we had faced. So the more people we met from breweries, the more we started to take on their brands. And from there, Fresh Beer really started to grow as its portfolio grew.

What were the first breweries you brought on board?
One of the first was Shipyard: technically, that probably was the first brand we carried outside our own. Left Hand was up there, too, and Boulder.

Was there a turning point where things started growing dramatically?
I think one of the big moments was when we first got Dogfish Head into the market. Back then (2003), Dogfish was a very, very small brewery. They were making something like 5000 barrels of beer per year at the time. They were teeny. But everyone loved their beer! Well, craft beer drinkers did, anyway, which was a growing contingent. At the beginning, if we sold a couple of pallets of Dogfish beer a month, that was like "wow!" Now, we sell truckloads. But that was the point – when we started bringing in recipes like Sam (Calagione)'s recipes, that’s what made people excited and we really started to see the brands grow.

When did what you were doing start catching the attention of larger distributors. 
We were doing good things. We were taking handles from the big guys, doing a good job, servicing the market well. From 2006 to 2007 to 2008, we grew at a big clip every year. By then, people started to look and pay attention. The craft beer industry had started to accelerate, and other distributors in Florida saw the success of some of the beers we were carrying. 

What influenced your decision to sell Fresh Beer to Brown Distributing?
Um, I think Jason (Brown) and Reid (Brown) showed an interest in the overall success of the industry. They weren't just trying to cherry pick for good brands, they actually had vision and saw where craft was going. Ultimately, Brown was interested in the whole market and they had a lot of respect for what we did as fresh beer, so it was the right fit. 

With so much having changed over the years, do you miss anything about your early days?
I think in the really early days it was just really fun to be in the market meeting the customers on a regular basis and convincing them to bring craft into their bars. The climate was tougher, but when we were able to make a placement and be successful with it, that was probably the most fun part of the business for me.

Back to Native, how do you see Native changing in the future?
The public's taste has changed a lot over the past ten years. I think now more than ever there’s a lot more room for experimentation and exciting brands and flavors. We'd definitely like to expand more on what we do with our brands, not just focus on the highly drinkable styles that we've been doing since we've been in business, but some new and exciting stuff.

What style would you like to see Native tackle next?
Of course, like most people I love pale ales and IPAs. But I also love a good stout and darker beers. We have had some new brands come out on a limited basis such as Glades IPA (releasing for South Florida Beer Week), but I want to get the product right and get it into the package right. I think there’s a lot more room for having fun with different stuff and I just want to keep experimenting.

What excites you the most about the Florida craft beer scene now?
With all that’s happened in the past few years with the intense growth of craft beer, the truth is we’re still at a very minor share of the overall market. There’s so much room for our industry to grow, for our brands to grow, for people to discover craft beer. It reminds me of being back in Texas in '92 or '94. The breweries starting up there at the time were extremely exciting, and people felt that. So it's very exciting from that perspective to be a part of the movement here.

What advice would you have for some of these new breweries as someone who has started out where you have?
It's a fun industry to be in, but at the end of the day, you’re still running a business. You have to make money, you have to pay your employees, and you have to keep the lights on. So if you’re not turning out consistent quality, your’re not going to do well. Beer is a product that people have to be willing to buy over and over again. You don’t just drink one beer, you drink more than one! People have to taste it, like it, and come back for more. It seems like a glamorous job, but being a brewer is not that glamorous! It’s a lot of hard work and sweat and back breaking, It takes a bit of time, experience, and humility when it comes down to it. But it's also so rewarding. I think it’s just an exciting business to be in. Doing something you love and have a passion for is something all people want to do with their lives.

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