Number of Employees - Less than 10
Founding Date - May 30th, 2008
Distribution - Tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT).
Taproom/Tasting Hours - Tap room opening on Long Island in 2015!
You’ve almost definitely never heard of Fire Island, located off the southern shore of Long Island. A long, very thin natural paradise where cars are banned, deer are plentiful, and you’re forced to enjoy the simple pleasure of a nice walk and beautiful sunset.
If you have heard of it, then you’re probably from New York. We sat down Simon Leonard, owner of Fire Island Beer Company, to chat about the unique circumstances under which he came to own this brewery, his vision for the future of the company, and a not-so-crazy endorsement of contract brewing in the craft industry.
Just to get your mouth watering, here's the current line-up of their beers. The Sea Salt Ale is a treat.
Hey Simon. What’s your background?
Hello. Great to talk to you today. A quick background on the brewery itself, as it’s a little complex. It was the late 90’s, and three guys; Bert and Tom Fernandez, and their cousin Jeff Glassman, were home brewing at their holiday house on Fire Island. They made a very drinkable amber ale, and people really seemed to like it. They realized that they should get a company going, and the brewery was officially founded in 2008. They got a contract brewery to help them make the beer and Fire Island Beer came to life with the original recipe that became Lighthouse Ale, along with an IPA called Red Wagon.
Fast forward to today, and I presently have a 90% ownership of the company. The other 10% of the business is owned by Bert Fernandez. A few years ago, Fire Island Beer was purchased in majority by Latis Imports. At that point, they were looking to build out the brand with some new offerings as well as update the existing products to be in line with the rapidly growing craft beer movement. Latis then moved the production of the beer to Two Roads Brewing Company, in Stratford, CT.
Wait. So how did you end up owning most of the brewery? And that’s a funny accent you’ve got there…is that a Fire Island accent?
I'm British (we knew we’d heard it before somewhere). I dropped off a growler of my own homebrew at a friend’s barbecue, and one of the owners of Latis Imports happened to be at the party. They really enjoyed the beer and essentially had me make a few more beers for them as a small test to make sure I knew what I was doing. Soon after that, they made me part-time head brewer. Their goal was to make the beer reflective of the brand of Fire Island. Up until recently, I had been doing the consultancy thing for the brewery, and the plan was (for me anyway) to help them open up a brewpub in Connecticut. I shared this idea with the original owners of Fire Island and Latis, and Latis came to me and told me they were going to focus on broadening their import business. They offered to sell the brewery to me. For me it was an easy decision given I know the products and the story behind the brand, which would give me a head start on really learning the ropes of the beer industry. So I made the plunge and here we are today.
What is the “brand” of Fire Island and how exactly do the current beers reflect this?
The historical branding and packaging tells us that it’s not from Manhattan, which is usually the first thing Non-New Yorkers think is New York when people say “New York”. We’re aiming to be seen as the other New York. Fire Island is a vacation destination and a place people go to relax and unwind.
The beer we brew is meant to represent a more laid back vibe. None of our beers have extremely high ABV and two include Atlantic Sea Salt to give them that beachy, laid back feel. That’s the brand in a nutshell.
How’s riding the learning curve of brewery ownership so far?
I love the science of craft beer. I graduated with a degree in biochemistry. When you make beer, you’re applying science and chemistry, but you get an awesome product out of it at the same time. Moving from the financial world, where I worked before this, into craft brewing, is certainly more interesting, and there’s always the satisfaction of making a product that people enjoy.
As a sidenote, one thing that continues to be hard is understanding how state-by-state beer laws work. It’s definitely a curve in terms of ensuring we are doing the right thing by each state. They are very complicated.
So…the elephant in the room. Contract brewing. Some people don’t think this is craft beer?
I think it’s a number of things, but I know the word “craft” doesn’t do people any favors when it comes to the perception around contract brewing. Outside the beer industry, you hear “craft” and you think of something unique and not necessarily reproducible. If you line up craft beer and compare it with a similar product, like wine, it’s hard to recreate the exact wine each time. With beer, it’s a more controlled process. The hops and malt used by breweries are generally supplied by the same or similar suppliers. The water can be different, but that can be treated. The ‘craftiness” come from the process and how you use those ingredients. People still want a consistent product, and that’s certainly what we’re giving them. Two Roads (where Fire Island currently contract brews) use the formulation I created on a small pilot system and work with me to produce this in significantly larger quantities to meet demand. Understandably they control the production and how they use their equipment, but are very open to suggestion on how the process should be run for our (Fire Island) beer. Gone are the days where contract brewing meant picking from a menu of predetermined beers and slapping your own label on it.
We will get to the point 2015 where we own our own brewing equipment and brewhouse, but given where we are in production there is no way we could produce enough beer on a 10-barrel brewpub system to meet our current demand. Other breweries are in a similar position and contract brewing allows them to ramp up production without significant capital outlay.
As mentioned, I still make the beer on seven gallon system at my house before I take it to the contract brewery. When we have our own brewpub, I’ll be happy to make our own, one-off stuff there. I’m also happy to have a contract brewery who makes consistently good, clean, delicious, high-quality beer. At the Brewers Association CBC in Denver this year, the prevailing message was quality. Quality is extremely important. And ours has to be as good, if not better, then the next craft brewery out there.
Way to go to bat there. You mentioned that your biggest problem is when you run out of beer. What do you mean?
We noticed that for those people who actually drink our beer, they drink a lot of it.
If you’re a brewery that’s popular in a specific bar, and you run out of beer, it’s very difficult to get it back on the tap in that bar. We’re really working on our production and distribution to make sure that it’s getting to those accounts consistently, while making sure it’s fresh and delicious. There is no point to continuously create new beers if we can’t manage production inventory of our existing product. That is not how to build a solid brand. When we have a brewpub, we will have the ability to create new styles and get direct feedback, but for now this is the best way to do it.
What’s coming down the road?
The brewpub in 2015! We’re happy where the current beer is at. We’re asked all the time “Where can I go and try your beer”? We understand that we need a location that people can be proud of, and go try the beer. Burt (the other owner and original co-founder) is really driving this for us.
Sweeeeeet. Our readers know we love a great brewpub. What are you drinking right now that’s not a Fire Island?
Jack’s Abbey is great right now. I’ve wanted to put some lagers on soon, and they’re the people regionally that are doing a lot of lagers. I also love Lagunitas beer. They’re delicious, innovative, and accessible to me.
(Editor's note - Simon sent us the note below a few days ago as an add-on for the interview)
Chris - I was out at the weekend and was drinking Southern Tier. I can’t believe I missed them when we were talking!
Thanks Simon. Let's hope we can raise another pint soon!
Published December 2014