This is the true story of our three year journey to build the first brewery in American Samoa. It's equal parts instructional and cautionary. It has not been easy, but it has been exciting. We've nearly given up on more than one occasion along the way, and even though we have not yet opened the business, the proverbial light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. It all started three years ago with some chicken stir-fry...
THE LIGHT BULB MOMENT
There are those few moments of clarity in life that really stand out in your memory. A first kiss, getting your driver's license, getting married, or the birth of your first child (sorry Michael & Alli, second and third child births too). It's funny how the human brain works - I can remember what t-shirt I wore to the opening of Return of the Jedi 35 years ago, I can recall that distinct feeling of both excitement and impatience waiting for my first Nintendo Entertainment System...but if you asked me what I had for dinner last Tuesday, I'd have no idea. I can recall with great clarity a discussion at the dinner table with my wife three years ago over chicken stir-fry, when we decided to turn our homebrewing hobby into a business. We had been brewing beer for family and friends and had received some great feedback from a lot of people we had shared our beers with; a party here, a family funeral there, a BBQ...any opportunity to share beers that you can't buy where we live. Speaking of where we live, that just happens to be on the main island of a small chain of volcanic islands in the South Pacific. American Samoa is the United States' southern most possession and the only US soil in the southern hemisphere.
More importantly, there are zero breweries here. There are basically two options for beer drinkers here: German-style lagers from neighboring Samoa or New Zealand (Vailima and Steinlager, respectively) or your choice of American light lager beers (Budweiser and Coors products). Recently distributors have begun bringing in other beers such as Corona and Heineken. I think I saw some Mickey's 40 oz bottles in the store the other day too.
All beers taste the same...don't they?
Having lived in American Samoa since 1987 (aside from my time living on the west coast of California and the Big Island of Hawaii during college), I was very content with those light beers. Coors Light was my beer of choice. Not because I thought it tasted great or anything, just because. And that is where my friend from college enters the picture. You see, Josh drank these strange beers that I had never heard of whenever we went to drink beers. They had cool beer labels with funny names and tasted nothing like what I thought beer should taste like (i.e., Coors Light).
I feel I should explain something before I go on. I don't consider myself a beer snob, and drinking beer should be about whatever flavors you enjoy most. I don't hate beers like Coors, Budweiser, Vailima or Steinlager, I have just grown to prefer other beers. I still drink all those beers occasionally, and I don't like to "school" people on beer since that's something that personally drives me insane about some beer enthusiasts (i.e., snobs). And even though I'm writing this article about my journey to build a craft beer brewpub, I don't look negatively at corporate beers. A couple who are good friends of mine own the local In-Bev distributorship. The company that brings in Steinlager is owned by my former landlord who I have called "Aunty" since elementary school. The company that brings in Coors and Heineken products is owned by someone I've known since high school, and two of my friends manage the company that distributes Vailima beer. I understand why independent breweries want to set themselves apart from corporate beer companies, but here on such a small island, it's a different dynamic. Those guys support what I'm doing, and I wish them the same success in return. There aren't many locally owned businesses and because it's a small-town kind of atmosphere, we all want to see each other succeed. But I digress...
Back to Josh and my beer awakening. I would try these new beers when I drank with Josh and I'll be honest, it was not love at first taste. The beers ranged from interesting to a total shock to the taste buds. The hoppy beers were the biggest shock of all to me and I remember wondering how anyone could drink more than one. I did enjoy hefeweizens though and I guess those wheat beers were my gateway into a larger appreciation. Eventually those flavors became very tasty and I began to not only enjoy them, but crave them. I travel to Honolulu for work three times per year and I use that time to try new beers I can't get back home. So naturally the next step was homebrewing.
I started with extract kits before graduating to brew-in-a-bag and all-grain brewing. My wife has been there with me for every single batch I've ever brewed, from our very first extract kit (a Fat Tire clone) to the cacao & coconut flavored porter we brewed last Saturday night. Brewing was a fun thing for us to do together. Since we've had our kids over the last 9 years, the opportunities for us to do things together have been difficult to come by, and brewing has always been a great date night activity for us. Some couples prefer dinner and a movie (Netflix & chill?) but not us, we love filling the house with that amazing smell of grains in the mash. We're weird (read: awesome) like that.
And that takes me back to that conversation at the dinner table three years ago that began our journey from homebrewing to building a small craft beer business. It was that night we decided that we would make a business with the mission of introducing our love for these different beer styles to the territory. It was a great idea and we were very proud of ourselves for deciding to do it - we were going to open our very own brewpub! Then reality quickly set in.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM (SEVERAL OF THEM)
Ideas are great, but figuring out how to bring what's in your head to reality is not without its challenges. This was a lesson we learned first-hand (over and over and over and over...). For starters, there was the problem of location. More specifically, we didn't have a location. We live way out in the western village of Leone. Our house is not close enough to the main road to be seen, and the dirt road going to our home could rival some of those Red Bull mountain bike challenge courses. Luckily for us, the stars aligned and my mom's non-profit organization had an unused conference room that we were able to use as the location for our brewpub. Her building is located in the village of Pava'ia'i, and right at the corner of a very busy intersection. The location is also nestled in one of the most beautiful areas on the island, and while it doesn't have any ocean views (except for when Cyclone Gita blew all the trees down and we could see the south coast from the bar), it is surrounded by a heritage forest and gardens that my parents grew over the course of nearly 30 years since they built their house.
If you build it, they will come...
So check location off the to do list. Now it was time to turn an empty conference room into a bar. Spring turned to summer and things just got real. We went from visualization and dreaming to actual renovation and the meeting of the rubber to the pavement - two and a half years of research, experimentation, saving money, spending money, drawing plans, erasing plans, re-doing plans, and on and on and on...
For this task we looked at a bunch of bar decor ideas on Pinterest and used the ones we liked best to draw up some really rough sketches. We then shared those sketches with our good friend Tatofi, a local contractor who just happened to be available at the right time. We met with him on a Saturday afternoon and Tatofi said, "Sure. No problem." Things progressed quickly, which was nice, but there was this sense of dread that came with each and every decision. A feeling of finality attached to each detail that created both urgency and anxiety. Second thoughts?
Never. Just the constant question that tugs at your brain-strings over whether a certain choice was the best idea. Whether it's the material for the counter-tops, or the decision to go with orange over lime for the hefeweizen - there was just so much more at stake for each move we made at that point. When we first planned things out, we were going to have this large indoor seating area. We did floor-plans and layouts for that space and thought we had something we really liked. Then we came up against a harsh truth - we didn't have the money to build a big extension to the existing building and still pay for all the brewing and cooking equipment. Not without overextending ourselves through a massive loan. So we thought about simplifying our plans, and the more we thought about it, the more it made sense.
As I mentioned, the property that we own in Pava'ia'i is stunningly beautiful. Our small brewpub would be surrounded by three traditional Samoan fale (traditional open houses), beautiful gardens, and a heritage forest that the local Land Grant helped us grow on our property. This is the perfect spot for an outdoor setting. So when the time came to get started...we pivoted. First week of June we finalized an agreement with our contractor for layout and costs for the brewpub. Operating at that point without much capital or a loan, we had to opt for small and basic for the floor-plan of our brewpub - 23' x 13' interior, the majority of which to be serving and prep space, 10 bar stools around a main bar and smaller window bar. There would be an outdoor lanai connecting to the brewpub and leading to the three fale samoa structures. Simple and functional, and showcasing the property's natural aesthetic. But a small and simple plan doesn't have to mean a substandard one. It's all about your vision for the place. We channeled Apple and their "think different" slogan. With a small-scale business like ours, you really have to set yourself apart to have a prayer at success. Different beer, different decor, and a different vibe.
By September of last year, Tatofi had turned our vision into a pretty amazing reality - a cozy little brewpub with a distinctive wood theme that was functional, attractive and comfortable. We liked the wood motif inside and decided to carry that over to the outside. Tatofi suggested a reclaimed wood decor for tables and chairs. After scouring Pinterest (what a great app), we had more sketches for him to begin phase two. And thanks to a good friend from one of the local tuna canneries, we had a large load of wooden pallets for Tatofi to build our outdoor customer area. Tatofi and his small crew (his friend, his two sons and his daughter) laid the cement, dug the drainage, built the covered lanai, tables and chairs, and installed a second bathroom in under three weeks. They also extended the conference room with a little 6' x 14' mini kitchen.
I 'll admit that when we got to the brewpub on that last day of construction and shared some of our homebrewed pale ale with Tatofi and his pal Siope, it was a humbling experience. We sat there in the west Fale drinking cold beer and admiring the fruit of our imagination and Tatofi's labor. There was a surreal sense of accomplishment looking at the new home of Flying Fox Brewing Company for the first time, and it was a great feeling.
Men have become the tools of their tools...
We now had a location. It was small but inviting, and the perfect spot for someone to enjoy a nice, cold beer in the late afternoon or evening after work. With the locale squared away it was on to the next obstacle - production. At the time of the "Big Decision", we had an 8 gallon brew kettle, a couple of 5 gallon water coolers we converted into a mash tun and hot liquor tank, and a bunch of buckets we used as fermenters. Obviously our brewing equipment needed to be updated and upgraded, but there was one major problem - we didn't have much money to invest in an upgrade. We decided it best to buy bigger, better equipment on a paycheck to paycheck basis. An SS Brewtech 20 gallon mashtun this week, a 20 gallon BrewBuilt kettle next week, and so on and so on. Brewing is hard work, especially when you and your wife have full-time jobs and are raising three young children. Under those circumstances, it felt like juggling chainsaws. You're restricted to brewing on the weekend because that's the only time you have enough time to do it, and your children are less than enthusiastic about you spending your only free days of the week calculating grain bills, standing over a brew kettle, and preparing yeast starters. We realized early on that if we had any hope of being successful in this venture, we needed help. As fate had it, that help would arrive sooner than we anticipated.
That assistance we needed came in two forms. The first was monetary. We were fortunate enough to be one of five local businesses selected by the Bank of Hawai'i to receive their Atina'e Manuia Small Business Revitalization and Development grant. It was $5,000 and while some of you may think that is a small amount, it was an enormous boost as it allowed us to speed up the equipment upgrade process. There was a small ceremony held by the bank, and I received a check and a cool wall plaque presented by branch manager EJ Ozu. It was a great honor to be selected to receive this grant award and we will always remember the huge role Bank of Hawai'i played in our business startup process.
We immediately put those funds to good use.Less than a month after receiving the grant award, we had a fully functional brewing system that allowed us to make much larger batches of beer than we previously could. We also built our own beer dispensing system, and we set up a nice gravity feed system in our brewing room. It was a great thing...for a while. But the ability to make more beer also resulted in more time spent brewing that beer. It was hard to balance work and family and still have enough time for ourselves to avoid insanity. That's when the second form of assistance came along. We found two amazing people who joined our team. The Flying Fox family doubled in 2018 and the impact was unbelievable.
Darlene is someone we have known since she was 15 years old. Her mom has taken care of all three of our children since they were babies, and they have become family. Darlene was working part-time for my mom's nonprofit and attending the local community college working on a marine science degree. We asked her if she wanted to learn how to make beer and she was more than happy to join us. Darlene now knows how to brew beer and she often reminds us of things we forget during the process. Our luck doubled when one of Emily's Land Grant co-workers joined our team as well. Niela is probably the hardest working person I've ever met. He, like Darlene, is a fast study and he is a highly social individual. I look forward to him bartending and making all our customers feel at home and at ease. He has one of those personalities that just makes everyone feel comfortable. It's true what they say, many hands make light work.
As I said before, brewing is a time and labor intensive task, and to further streamline the process, it was becoming clear that we would need to further upgrade our brewing system in order to keep up with what we were estimating as the demand for the business. I had done some reading online about HERMS (Heat Exchange Recirculating Mash System) and RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System) systems and decided that was the next step in the evolution of our brewing process. I took out a small economic development loan with the local development bank and we purchased a HERMS pilot brewing system from Blichmann Engineering. It's an amazing system that will allow us to quadruple our output while eliminating almost all of the tough, manual labor aspects of brewing. Good riddance to team lifting heavy hot liquor tanks with near boiling water 7 feet onto the top stage of our gravity feed system!
So we got some financial assistance, the brewing equipment issue was now sorted out, and we found two great people to join our team. We could meet our estimated monthly demand and do it without brewing every other day of the week. Life was good...until we checked the shipping costs for the amount of grain we would require to brew to our monthly estimates.
The best things in life are free, but the shipping will still get you...
Grains and hops do not grow in the tropics. American Samoa is over 4,700 miles from the US west coast. Shipping is a problem. You can usually slap an extra 20% on anything you have to order from off island.
Luckily I found a business in Hawai'i that changed the game for us. I have been ordering my grains, hops, yeasts, and other ingredients from a homebrew shop in Honolulu for years. Homebrew In Paradise is the closest homebrew store to American Samoa - just a short hop, skip, and a jump (plus a swim, paddle and drift) 2,600 miles northeast from Pago Pago. And despite how "close" they are to us, amazingly there were still challenges with shipping! At this point I would be remiss not to mention Bill, the owner of Homebrew in Paradise. He has been awesome since he took over the business a couple years ago in helping us order ingredients and even some of our brewing equipment. He has never said no, and has always gone the extra mile to check on things he can order and send to us at a fair rate. It is the reason I called him and asked if he could help our efforts by being our grain seller. We sent him the grain bill for each of the beers we planned on producing and created a spreadsheet with estimates for monthly needs. Bill said it was doable and he became the official Flying Fox Brewing Company beer ingredient supplier. Thank you, Bill - you solved an enormous piece of the puzzle for us, and we'll always be thankful for that. I look forward to hanging some Homebrew in Paradise signage in our brewpub to show our appreciation.
Licensed to swill...
Now, here's a little story I got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well! Sorry, I'm an unapologetic, diehard Beastie Boys fanboy and I couldn't resist. But back to our story, we learned a lot about local laws during this whole process. We spent a good deal of time on the local bar association website combing over regulations for alcoholic beverage control. The first speed bump on the road to getting a liquor license was a Latin phrase I had never heard of. In the provisions of Chapter 5 Title 27 there was a little blurb about grounds for refusal. One of the grounds for being refused a liquor license was described as such:
27.0508 Grounds for refusal.
The board may refuse any applicant if it has reasonable grounds to believe: (1) that the granting of a license in the locality set out in the application is not consistent with public interest or convenience; proposed location within 50 yards of any public school, private school authorized by the director of education, or church is prima facie...
Prima facie? It sounded like something I vaguely recall ordering at the Olive Garden or that shady proclamation that Edward the Longshanks invoked to breed the highlanders out of Scotland in Braveheart. But upon a quick Google search, I learned it meant first impression, or in the case of Title 27, first sight. What it meant was that Church of Latter Day Saints was directly across the street from our location, and I had to get their permission to receive a liquor license. Okay, so I have to get the church's blessing to sell alcohol right across the street from them. This should be fun, I thought. Turns out the church was extremely reasonable. We have had a great relationship with the LDS church across the street for years. They park in our lot for functions and church on Sundays and they have helped us keep the front of the lot nice and trash free. My brother is a member of that church, and I also have many good friends and other family members who are members as well. When I went to see the church's West Stake President at the time, he was more than happy to sign off on our business as long as we agreed to two concessions - first we would be closed on Sundays, and secondly, that we continue to allow the church's members to park in our lot on Sundays. Deal! Problem solved and we had everything we needed to get our liquor license, right? To quote the great Lee Corso...
We received our liquor license in May of last year. You can't believe how stoked we were to have everything we needed to open up shop. We were mistaken. Our good friends at the local commerce department (and I genuinely mean it when I call them friends, because I worked there in a former life) informed us that we could not open our business because what we had was a liquor license to operate a brewpub. According to the person we spoke to, we also needed a second liquor license to sell beer. Huh? Does a bakery have one license to make bread and another to sell it? I asked why, if that was the case, did my approved brewpub license contain all these provisions regarding the sale alcohol - no sales to minors, no sales on Sundays, no consumption beyond 150 feet of the premises, etc. Silence on the other end of the phone and then, "Sorry Nate, that was a typo." An hour later I get an email with the exact same liquor license with all the selling alcohol terms deleted. Okay, so another $300 to get the second liquor license. It sucks, but it's not the end of the world. Or so we thought until we tried to schedule our liquor board hearing. The board only meets when there are five applicants with pending licenses, and the wait was lengthy - it's not every day that businesses apply for liquor licenses. My calls to the department became a part of my weekly routine - Monday 8am...Friday 2pm...
"Hi, it's Nate again. Calling to check on my liquor license."
"Oh, hi Nate. Next week for sure." Click.
And then a big ol' monkey wrench. I was reading the news one morning and saw a fascinating little article about the Governor "restructuring" many of the local government boards to change their membership, including...wait for it...the Alcoholic Beverage Control board. Remember that scene in Scanners where that guy's head explodes? Turns out the Governor was not too happy with many of the local boards and wanted to install new board members almost across the board. I am sitting here writing this on May 1, 2018 - a full two and a half years after first applying for my initial liquor license - and I'm still waiting for that piece of paper. Luckily, I complained loud enough and to the right people and was granted an audience with the Governor's Chief Legal Counsel. He is a good guy and he helped me figure out a way to get this license done. He said something to me in that meeting last week that I'll never forget. There are three ways to get things done here, he said. The common sense way, the legal way, and the cultural way; and trying to reconcile those paths is not an easy task. Amen, counsel! But he suggested the commonsense approach was to roll up the two licenses into a tavern license that could cover both the operation of a brewpub and the selling of alcohol. Brilliant! Commerce staff agreed, and now I'm just waiting for the paperwork. I had to take the scenic route, but hey, I guess the best things in life come to those who wait, especially those who wait a long time - like two and a half years. Okay, moving on...
FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT
So it's May 1, 2018. The brewpub is built. We have two awesome staffers who will help us run the business so Emily and I can give our kids the time they deserve and not get fired from our day jobs. We have big plans to open the business this year. The real battle is in the details, and Emily and I have spent the better part of 2018 creating systems to address those very details. One thing I've taken away from my previous jobs - working for the local government and now working for the Fishery Council - is that the right system will make your life easier, while the wrong system or no system at all will make your life a living nightmare. Brew day checklists, sanitation standard operating procedures, food prep tasks, cleaning schedules...these are the minute details that we're hoping can streamline our operations and reduce any WTF moments after opening.
We had an idea, we made goals and we've nearly completed all the groundwork. We will be the first ever company to produce beer in American Samoa. We'll have something for everyone (everyone of age, that is). We'll operate as the local beer fale. Every beer on island can be found in our brewpub. I know craft beer purists will shake their head at this idea, but I firmly believe that the best beer drinking experience is the one you enjoy best. If that's our own Flying Fox Beer, then awesome. But if a person enjoys Vailima or Budlight, who am I to send them packing? And remember my friends who put food on their table distributing Budweiser, Coors, Vailima and other off-island beers? Believe it or not, I want them to succeed and be profitable. They encourage me to succeed as well. My friend who distributes Budweiser products was happy to hear that I'll be selling his products in our brewpub and he donated a beer fridge to our business. Polynesian culture at its root is about a tight-knit community that looks out for one another. Members of the community have come together to help one another for the success of the island since the first migrants began inhabiting the islands of the Pacific around 1200 BC. We're not going to mess with a formula that has stood the test of time for over three millennia.
We're very thankful to our friends and family who have so generously accepted free beer to help us gather feedback on our beers. It's a rough job, but we're glad you did it! We have received a ton of very useful input from those people, and while it wasn't always what we had hoped to hear, we always appreciated hearing it and we took every bit of constructive criticism and tried to perfect our craft. We will continue to work at improving and providing the best possible beer experience for our customers. From that feedback we've received, we have decided on three flagship beers. We will have a porter with koko Samoa (cacao) and roasted coconut flavor, a session IPA with just a hint of our local kipolo Samoa (lime), and an American wheat ale brewed with our local moli (orange) and coriander seed. We will also produce a hard apple cider that will be featured on tap.
Ninety percent of the game is half mental...
The target launch date is October 1, 2018. The journey has been a challenging yet rewarding one, and the amazing part is that it's just the first leg of the trip. The real adventure begins once we hang that open sign in the window for the first time. We have a great team. We have the support of our family, especially my parents who have allowed us to get to this point. When things got rough, and doubt set in at times, hearing from people on island and abroad asking us about the business and when we would be opening has buoyed our spirits and gotten us back on track.
Hindsight is 20/20 and if we could just find a 1982 Delorean DMC-12 with a custom flux capacitor, we would be traveling back to the year 2003 to begin this journey a decade earlier and when the kids weren't there yet. But as the chances of that happening are slim (never say never, right?), we forge ahead and await the next challenge we'll face, because the bottom-line is: we love craft beer and we want to share our appreciation of beers with the rest of the people of American Samoa. So thank you to everyone who's helped us along the way - your support is the backbone of our determination to see this dream to fruition.
Cheers and remember to always drink responsibly!
If you're interested in our upcoming brewpub, give us a call or shoot us an email. To get more information, visit our website or follow us on social media:
Phone: (684) 272-2630 or (684) 731-1855