The Beer Issue | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

August 24, 2016 News » Cover Story

The Beer Issue 

The 7th Annual Utah Beer Festival Is Here!

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How a simple idea turned into a four-year slog that is not over yet.
By Colby Frazier

It's been four years since a couple of buddies and I sat down and began the extremely slow, arduous, painstaking and terrifying process of starting a brewery.

All of the obvious stuff has happened: We've encountered thousands of roadblocks and pitfalls, and we've managed to overcome a few of them—a modest, but monumental undertaking that has proven to be just enough to keep us going.

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I could fill every inch of space in this week's issue with the nitty-gritty details of putting our business plan together, raising money and jumping through legal hoops to secure our name, A. Fisher Brewing Co. Since I don't have that kind of space, in one massive paragraph I'll give you an overview of our model—the nuts and bolts behind our idea. Then I'll focus on a few key points that have been particularly interesting. They involve the acquisition of property, the altering of city laws and our eternal wrestling match with government regulations.

In Utah, there are largely two kinds of breweries. The first kind are brewpubs like Deseret Edge in Trolley Square, Wasatch Brewpub in Park City, Red Rock and Squatters, to name only a few. A key part of being a brewpub is the pub part, whereby hamburgers, fish and chips and other delicacies are cooked in a kitchen by chefs and delivered to your table by a server. It turns out that Steve, Tim, Tommy (my partners) and I, had never owned a restaurant, and didn't even want to own a restaurant, so we decided to not own a restaurant. The other kind of brewery is a distribution brewery, like Uinta (many Utah breweries that are brewpubs also distribute), which makes its beer in a massive warehouse on 1700 South, where it is placed in bottles, cans and kegs and shipped around the world. The world is a big place, and Steve, Tim, Tommy and I dig it right here, in Salt Lake City. So we decided to try something a bit different. We wrote a 43-page business plan outlining the way that a brewery could open that is not a brewpub and does not distribute its beer far and wide. Rather than packaging our beer, people would have to come to our brewery to drink beer. And rather than having a restaurant, we would have food trucks and taco carts.

This all sounds simple enough. But hidden within the text are theories, proclamations and estimations that need to be backed up by real numbers, industry data and a close examination of the area's breweries, the latter of which we all undertook with boozy zeal.

As we wrestled with our idea, a discovery was made. While the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) was totally cool with A. Fisher Brewing Co. operating a small brewery and locating a tavern on site to serve the beer, existing local laws would not permit it. Salt Lake City's definitions of what types of breweries could exist were antiquated and stifling.

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The city defined a "brewery" as an establishment that manufactured beer, heavy beer or malt liquor for off-site consumption. Two other types of breweries were allowed in Salt Lake City at the time: a brewpub and a microbrewery. Both of these establishments had one critical item in common, in that they required food sales to make up 50 percent of total sales. Essentially, if you wanted to be a brewery in Salt Lake, you either had to distribute all of your beer for off-site consumption, or jump into the restaurant business.

We pointed out this vagrancy to city planners, and a nearly year-long process unfurled. The end result was great for us and any future breweries in the city. Since the definition of microbrewery was more or less identical to a brewpub, it was dropped altogether. A new type of establishment known as a "small brewery" was created that would allow breweries that make less than 15,000 barrels of beer to operate a tavern on site.


A Place to Work
With city laws now allowing us to exist, we began the process of trying to find a home. Knowing that up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars would have to be expended to install drains and upgrade electrical and gas utilities, buying a building was an enticing option. But buying requires even more money to be spent up front. And all of those same upgrades would have to be made whether we owned or leased.

To make a very long story short, we tried everything. For nearly one year, we negotiated with a property owner, drafting up architectural drawings and attempting to hammer out the details of a rent-to-own option. These efforts, though, fell apart. A second effort at another location unraveled in similar fashion, after much work and around six months of planning and trying to meet in the middle.

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After more real-estate wrangling than any of us cared to do, we finally hired a realtor, who swiftly noticed that a roughly 4,000 square foot auto shop at 320 W. 800 South had been sitting on the market for more than a year. The place was perfect, but for one massive detail: The city's new brewery laws came with limits, including regulations on where certain types of breweries could be located.

In the new zoning maps, there is a big blank spot in the city where any type of brewery can possibly exist if it obtains a conditional-use permit. At this location, this was necessary. We filed the needed paperwork, held a pair of community meetings that were largely void of any concern from the community, and that conditional-use permit was granted. The building was bought, and we began the next phase of this little adventure.

In order to apply for a permit from the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), a prospective brewery owner must first have an address, an architectural drawing of the space and many other items specific to the location of the brewery. And today, with breweries opening their doors at a rapid rate across the country, the folks who work at the TTB are busy. The average wait time for a TTB permit is 150 days. Some folks wait less, some more. And there does not appear to be any logical reason for falling on the low or high end of this 150 day lag.

With a building, an architect, a contractor and the city's blessing, we put several massive wheels in motion: We ordered our brewhouse and fermenters, which, similar to the TTB, involves some pretty serious lead time. We then applied for our federal permit, and we commenced to hemorrhage cash on construction (new roof, grease trap, drains, bathrooms, a bar, etc., etc.—a process that is ongoing.

We had hoped to open by this summer, but the sunlight is already tilting toward fall. While we have our TTB permit in hand, we've only recently discovered that the UDABC won't permit us to file an application for our beer manufacturing and packaging agency license until Salt Lake City has issued us a business license. Salt Lake City won't issue a business license until our building permit is closed, which could be several more weeks. This has the potential to bump our opening even further back.

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These discoveries, jarring, disappointing and sometimes joyous, seem to be endless. At some point soon, we're going to start serving beer at our brewery—a place that isn't a restaurant and isn't a big distribution facility—minor details that, given the process, are miraculous. In between the germination of that idea four years ago and now, we've become moderate experts on zoning, city planning, jack hammering concrete, installing windows and making really expensive, and typically pretty sound, decisions.

If all of this discourages you from opening a brewery, or some other endeavor, don't let it. It's been a good time, and there has been some thick comedy and real-world realizations along the way. Every person sees and experiences things in this world a little bit differently. This is true when it comes to important topics like racism, Donald Trump and whether or not Cutthroat Pale Ale is better than Full Suspension Pale Ale.

It is also true when attempting to make any lasting decision at the brewery. What color paint in the bathrooms? Flush or waterless urinal? To grind or not grind the concrete? Imagine these scenarios played out a few hundred thousand times over every single detail imaginable. That's what you'll see when A. Fisher Brewing Co. returns to Salt Lake City sometime in ...

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