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Interview with a brewer: Fullsteam in Durham, NC

We just finished up a great interview with Maui Brewing as part of our Interview with a Brewer series, and now we move a little closer to home. We got the chance to talk to Sean of Fullsteam, a microbrewery-in-planning in Durham, North Carolina. We have a lot in common with Fullsteam:

  • We’re both in-planning
  • We love the South and are committed to making it a craft beer destination
  • We’re all about the local focus
  • We have similar taste in music

Fullsteam is a little further along than us at the moment, as they have already purchased their brewhouse and have raised some money. I’ve been reading about their dirty doings and beers for awhile now, and they have some incredibly unique beer ideas. I’m particularly fond of their experimental hickory-smoked porter, Hogwash!, to be paired with barbeque. Mmmm. Barbeque. I just drooled on my keyboard. Before I cause a short underneath my spacebar, I present you the interview in full. Thanks to Sean and Chris for indulging us:

1) In haiku form, who are you guys and what are you about (doesn’t have to be in haiku form)?

Experimental.
Crap, that’s five syllables long.
Can I start over?

Okay, for real… Fullsteam is a brewery-in-planning that will be both a distributing brewery and an on-premises tavern. We don’t plan on having a full-service restaurant, so we’re not really a brewpub. But the tavern is a big part of the plan. We want it to be both a community gathering place and, ultimately, a landmark brewery.

Our beer niche is Southern agricultural brewing — experimenting with local, seasonal farmed ingredients and heirloom grains in the brewing process to craft a distinctly Southern beer style. In addition to our experimental Southern Ag beers, we also plan to launch a “control” series of easy-drinking, lower-alcohol beers.

At the tavern, the food will likely be limited to hand-held savory pies called bullies. Bullies and beer. We want to keep the food simple and fun, with the focus on brewery operations… not restaurant operations.

It’s complex to write out. I’m not real good at trimming down the concept into easy-to-digest sound bites. Hopefully people will get it.

2) What beers do you plan on launching with?

Our flagship beer — well, what we hope will be our flagship beer — is a “Carolina Common” called, simply, Fullsteam. It’s based on the traditional turn-of-the-century California Common; we’re calling ours a Carolina Common just for fun. Plus, a lager yeast fermented at warmer ale temperatures kind of works for the south, being warm here and all.

Other than Fullsteam, we don’t really have a set line-up of beers. We’re testing control and experiment batches, and we’ll decide on our beer list when we’re closer to knowing our opening date. Since our focus is on local and seasonal farmed ingredients, so much will depend on the time of year and the availability of harvested goods. This makes it both exciting and a little daunting.

I remember a conversation with a brewery owner who was “all about the recipes.” That basically there’s no brewery without intellectual property. I don’t want to speak for Chris Davis (our brewer), but I don’t follow that mindset. I’ve worked in too many restaurants where the best dishes where the literal catch-of-the-day or what the local farm brought by. I do realize that we’ll have to settle on some core, consistent beers to satisfy customer demand…but I believe it’s too early to try and nail down what that selection might be.

3) What’s your favorite thing about brewery planning?

Your question sounds deceivingly simple, but I’m finding it difficult to answer.

I think the best part is when Chris and I are sitting around drinking Fullsteam’s test batches and talking through the ideal tavern atmosphere. The steampunk concept is going to be a lot of fun, even if economics temper our enthusiasm and we have to go more sparse than we’d like. We’re both kind of big goofballs, and we spend a lot of time scheming up ideas that we think people would like: Really Bad Movie Night, the Contraption (Chris’ amazing beer dispensing machine), collaborative brewing with local homebrewers. That kind of dreaming up is fun…a lot more fun than meeting with city officials determining whether brewing beer is allowed in a particular zone.

4) What did you learn from Pop the Cap (NC’s specialty beer lobbying organization) and how have you been able to apply it to the process of opening a brewery?

Relationships matter.

It’s so important to speak positively and respectfully and to avoid gossip. Idle conversation can really mess up relationships, whether with retailers, restaurants, distributors, or fellow breweries. I think we did really well with Pop The Cap because our mission was singular: to lift the 6 percent alcohol cap…and we stuck with that mission, avoiding as much as possible the gamesmanship of state politics. We spoke positively about the industry and treated people with respect. We’ll be successful with Fullsteam by working under a similar code, speaking kindly and living generously. Good relationships are the key to our start and to our future.

5) You’re only a year into brewery planning, but is there anything you would do differently if you had to do it all again?

I’d raise all the money first.

I’ve had it in my mind that I needed to first show investors that we found an ideal location, and *then* we would go out and raise the money. What I’ve found is that building owners, banks, and even other investors want our funds to be in-place before we secure a space. Duh, right? I know now, but like most entrepreneurs, I thought getting money would be snap. It’s easy to put off raising money, thinking that you just need this web page looking good or this zoning issue resolved. Not good enough. I’ve been doing it backwards, and it cost us time…and probably a potential location or two. I’d love to have a mulligan on that one.

6) What marketing tactics have been most successful for you thus far?

Similar to you guys, we put a lot of stock in building online community, including our newsletter (6:14 Express), Facebook, Twitter, and the fullsteam.ag website…which is really just a blog on steroids. A lot of the up-and-coming breweries in the South are taking advantage of new so-called web 2.0 platforms. I think you’ll see a lot more interactivity and collaboration amongst customers and craft beer manufacturers in the months and years ahead, particularly among the new breweries unencumbered by existing HTML. The danger is over-communicating…of failing to create a bit of a mystique by showcasing everything. I like a bit of mystery, and we’ll have to think about how to balance communication and transparency with intrigue…particularly as we build out the brewery and tavern.

I do want to say that I’ve enjoyed following Monday Night Brewery online…I think I’ve been following y’all since the first few months of (online) inception. I’ve picked up some stuff from you guys; hopefully you from us, if not now, then perhaps in the future. It’s one of the many reasons Chris and I love craft beer…the people are great and the industry is a blast. I truly appreciate you interviewing us.

4 thoughts on “Interview with a brewer: Fullsteam in Durham, NC

  1. Living in the Raleigh area….I’m looking forward to the opening of Fullsteam. They seem to have put together quite a good team. Also, there is another brewery opening up here in Raleigh……LoneRider Brewery, check out there blog. Good interview!

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