It’s not supposed to be this easy. You’re not supposed to win gold medals at the California State Fair when you’ve been open for less than a year. You’re especially not supposed to win a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) if you’ve been brewing beer just five years total. But that’s exactly what Rancho Cordova’s Fort Rock Brewing (FRB) did in 2017.
As the brewery is set to celebrate its first anniversary I sat down with two of the four partners Heidi Wilder and Tom Fuquay (Kim and John Dudek are the other two) to reflect on what they are calling their “Year of Beer” and we just had to start with their surprising success.
“The two awards last year I think… I’m sure I’ll look back on it like 20 years from now and think that was probably one of the coolest things to happen to me in my life,” says Fuquay, who is also the brewmaster.
“It was shocking when we won (the silver medal),” says Wilder the self-dubbed Director of Funtivities. “We had just come off the gold medal for the pilsner and everybody was like, ‘Gee, are you kidding me? You’ve been open for like four months and you’re winning a silver medal?!?’”
The pair says they have never been competitive people and really only entered the different contests because that’s what you’re supposed to do. So when the Damn Good Pilsner took home gold at the state fair they were quick to doubt it was really happening.
“Tom thought we were being pranked the whole time,” says Wilder.
That gold medal came out of a competition with about 90 other breweries statewide. But the Great American Beer Festival is a whole other level. Last year, the GABF hosted around 800 breweries with some 3,800 beers being sampled.
“When you see the massive size of (the GABF) you’re like, ‘We were like nobody at this place,” says Fuquay. “It’s just overwhelming how much competition there is.”
“We had no expectations,” Wilder adds.
The Fort Rock team assumed their best shot to win was with their gold-medal winning Pilsner. But as a last-second change, the team also included the FRB Brown Ale. When the Pilsner didn’t win, they figured their competition was over. In fact, John and Kim had left the auditorium to pack up. Turns out, they left too soon.
“And they announce (the FRB Brown) and I’m looking at the screen and going, ‘Oh no. Oh God, we have to stand up and get this medal,’” says Wilder. “So I’m hitting Tom like, ‘Come on, come on let’s go!’ And he’s like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘We just won!’”
Wilder describes going on stage and posing with brewing legend Charlie Papazian as “absolutely terrifying.” She says she was shaking so badly one of the workers there actually asked if she was OK.
For his part, Fuquay says he was just waiting for someone to come and take it away. He says it wasn’t until a random stranger gave him a high-five and congratulations that it really hit him that they had just won a medal at the biggest craft beer competition in the nation.
“I remember walking out and I just start welling up with emotion,” says Fuquay. “My thoughts were, ‘How is this happening? I don’t get it. What are we doing that makes this happen? I’m going to call it luck forever I think.”
JUST GETTING STARTED
At the heart of Fort Rock Brewing, is a team of couples. And while their relationships go back decades, their brewing experience does not.
“We are actually coming up on our five year anniversary of homebrewing together,” says Wilder. While sitting at another local brewery around St. Patrick’s Day of 2013, Wilder says the idea to homebrew took hold. “Tom says, ‘I think I want to learn how to brew beer.’ And I’m like, ‘Great, let’s go buy everything at the Brewmeister we need and try to make beer.’ What could go wrong?”
Turns out everything was going to go right. Wilder says that Tom’s recipes were quickly catching on and those who tried them began encouraging them to open a brewery. Heidi and Tom were already business partners with Heidi’s sister Kim Dudek and her husband John, so why not just keep that going?
“We owned a scuba shop together so we all kind of transferred the same hats we wear for the scuba shop over to the brewery,” explains Wilder. Tom is the brewmaster, John is the head brewer, Heidi handles branding and marketing and Kim makes sure the employees and bills are paid.
And while this all sounds easy, like starting any new adventure there was some concern. For the 20 years or so prior Tom had been working in the tech sector and that experience kept his expectations low when entering the beer business.
“In software, time doing it is a lot of how good you are,” says Fuquay. “I had no expectation coming into commercial brewing having any abilities whatsoever; I’m thinking we’re starting over.”
Also, keep in mind when they decided to open, the Sacramento region was already well into the craft brewing boom with around 50 breweries. In fact, so many had opened the team was worried they were late to the party.
“(We were like), ‘I hope it’s not too late. I hope the market’s not getting oversaturated,” says Fuquay.
Still, the team moved forward, finding a tremendous location at the Nimbus Winery Shopping Mall. While they admit rent costs them more significantly more than an industrial location would, it also provides two things: A) easy access right off Highway 50 and B) they were able to use Folsom water, the same water they used when they were homebrewing.
“We have great water which makes a big difference,” Fuquay explains the water straight out of Folsom Lake is soft and free of minerals. “If we hadn’t started homebrewing where we had really soft water coming out of the tap… I’m not sure we would have had the same successes homebrewing and I’m not sure then we would have thought about opening our own brewery.”
With the right water, the right location and the right team in place the decision was made and in March of 2017, Fort Rock was opened. And Wilder says the team hasn’t looked back, “So (Tom’s) like, I can take some time off from work and we can open a brewery. And so we did. And he still hasn’t gone back to work, so it’s been great.”
Looking back on a “Year of Beer” that’s been full of success you’ll find it’s not all been rainbows and unicorns for Fort Rock. While the brewery and taproom have been incredibly successful, they’ve learned some hard lessons in distribution.
“I’d say the one biggest challenge and the biggest surprise and difficulty is how difficult it is to maintain any sort of market share outside the brewery,” Fuquay explains.
This is even true when it comes to their gold-medal winning Pilsner, a lesson they learned the hard way.
“We’re thinking, ‘It won a gold medal, it will fly out the door,’” says Wilder of their initial optimism. Fuquay was so optimistic he decided to double the batch size.
“My expectation was that the sales guys would find a market for it where we could get retails to each take ten cases a pop,” he reflects. “It was like retailers would take a case and then that would sit there for two weeks before they worked through those six four packs.”
So why didn’t an award-winning beer not sell?
“The feedback when we canned our Pilsner was that it’s a great beer, it’s a great package, but the market is just not ready for four-packs of 16 ounces of Pilsner,” Fuquay explains.
It’s a lesson the FRB team is taking with them into year number two.
“What sales is something new. Staying on trend is really important,” says Fuquay. This is why the brewery will do more can releases in 2018.
“We kind of jumped on the hazy trend, we’ve got a great hazy now,” Wilder says of their Hop Goblin. They plan to can that New England style IPA soon, but say it will be a much smaller run than the Pilsner.
Fuquay says the mistakes and the success are all part of the process that will continue to help Fort Rock as it brews into the future. “We’re learning from our mistakes and trying new things and rolling forward and trying to be successful at it.”
Wilder adds that no matter what happens outside the brewery they will continue toward the goal they’ve always had of being the neighborhood family room. “Where you can come bring your dog, bring your kids you can hang out, you can play connect four, you can have some beers, you can order food, you can bring your own food. Do whatever you want!