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Greenville Business Magazine

Brewing a Business

Aug 31, 2017 08:11AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Emily Stevenson
Photography by Greenville Headshots

Some people dream of throwing off the shackles of the ol’ 9-to-5. Brian and Nicole Cendrowski actually did something about it. After a few years of planning, the husband-and-wife team’s brewery, Fireforge Crafted Beer, is slated to open sometime this fall.

Though both have worked freelance, contract, and corporate jobs for years, the switch to being business owners was the final nail in the coffin.

“I don’t think I can work for anyone else anymore,” says Brian. “I’m so over it.”

“I’m not employable,” laughs Nicole.

Although Brian has interned and worked part-time at some commercial breweries, including Greenville’s Thomas Creek Brewery, and Nicole has tended bar at nearby Quest Brewery, neither has a background in commercial brewing. Brian graduated from college as a web programmer and moved into project management, while Nicole worked in sales and marketing.

So why open a brewery?

“Insanity,” Brian laughs. “Nicole bought a home brew kit for me in 2006 for Christmas. I brewed the first batch and it didn’t suck, so we decided to stick with brewing.”

When the first batch, an Irish red ale, was ready, they threw a big party for their friends to celebrate, and the beer was well-received.

“No one told us to our face to stop brewing, so we didn’t,” says Nicole. “I just had this feeling that one day we were going to do this. We’ll build a really cool organization. That crossed my mind, but I didn’t tell Brian.”

“Nicole is apparently a better visionary than I am because I did not see that coming,” Brian says. “I’d always wanted to start my own business, but I never did. I always had an idea, but in three days I’d talk myself out of it because it would be too overwhelming.”

In 2010, Brian was working part-time at Thomas Creek Brewery, doing packaging and cleaning kegs. Though he was also doing some contract work at the time, when a full-time job offer from Fluor Corp. came through, he took it.

“It was like, do I pursue the passion job and make virtually nothing and work my ass off, or do I take the money and the corporate job?” he says. “I chose the money.”

He says at the time it was the right decision to take the job at Fluor, but in 2013 the Cendrowskis decided to moved to Florida. Nicole took a new job and both were starting to think more seriously about opening a brewery that served beer onsite in a tasting room. This business model was not legal in South Carolina at the time, and laws were more craft beer-friendly in Florida then.

Brian had found a job in Florida as a project manager for a web design company but quickly realized he didn’t like it.

“I think after not having liked any job I’d ever had, it finally dawned on me that maybe it’s not the job. Maybe it’s me,” he says. “So I said I need to stop repeating the same mistake and have the guts to do what it is I really want to do.”

He began working with an executive coach to help him “get outside of my own head and get off my ass” and to take steps toward opening the brewery.

While in Tampa, the pair worked on the business plan, began raising capital, and looked for a location. Missing the mountains and having four distinct seasons, they moved back to the Upstate in 2015 and began planning their brewery in earnest. By then, the Stone Bill had passed in South Carolina, which allowed for onsite tasting room sales.

“We don’t have kids, so this is kind of like our kid,” Brian says. “We don’t have pets, either. It’s just us and the company.”

One night they went out to dinner, promising no shop talk. They were quiet in the car, but when they arrived at Swamp Rabbit Brewery and started drinking their beers, they couldn’t help but start discussing ideas for their own brews.

“We’re definitely guilty of mixing business and pleasure,” Nicole says. “There’s no separation.”

“The positive of that is that we’re so excited about what we’re trying to do that we can’t help it,” Brian says. “It really is probably our biggest topic of conversation at the house, but it’s not work.”

Though there are plenty of popular breweries in Greenville, the Cendrowskis aren’t worried about competition. In fact, that’s one reason they relocated from Florida. Despite what seems like a number of breweries, the market in Greenville is still young – and wide open.

“It’s a sexy business, so it gets a lot of publicity,” says Nicole, who does the brewery’s marketing. “A lot of times people think there are 500 breweries in Greenville, when that’s not the case.”

They also plan on distinguishing themselves with their brews.

“Brewing beer, especially at a craft level, is an art,” Brian says. “There’s a lot of science that goes into it, certainly, but at the end of the day it’s your art form and the expression of that, how you bring forth the flavor and aroma. Each brewer is like an artist in that sense.”

Though Fireforge may offer the same styles of beer as other Upstate breweries, Brian says that he plans to do a lot of experimental work with spices, herbs, fruits, and historical styles of beer, unlike any others on the market. Once the brewery is up and running, he hopes to have 16-20 beers of their own on tap, with several rotating flavors and a few core mainstays.

They also hope to distinguish themselves by the atmosphere and customer service. The Cendrowskis, who frequent breweries, tasting rooms, and farm-to-table restaurants on their travels, have occasionally found breweries with, for instance, a great product but poor customer service or a poor atmosphere. Fireforge plans to offer it all.

“We want to provide that full package,” Nicole says. “Building that team and overall experience of how people feel and what they remember when they’re not here, cultivating a really cool experience, that’s important. It’s something we’re very sensitive to.”

Finding a location for the brewery was a slow process, but Fireforge finally found a home in the storage section of the old WN Watson Tire & Auto store on East Washington Street. They have plans for a fenced-in biergarten where the parking lot currently stands, and they hope to recruit a restaurant tenant to the front part of the old auto-body shop.

While the prime location in the heart of downtown Greenville ensures plenty of foot traffic, it comes at a price: regulations are much stricter than in the county. For instance, the brewery can only host two acoustic musicians outdoors, and the old automotive store sign, which the Cendrowskis wanted to keep as a retro decoration, isn’t in line with downtown’s current signage requirements.

“It can be kind of soul-crushing sometimes, when you’re like, ‘Yay, we’re doing our own thing!’ and then, ‘Wait, we can’t use that sign?’” says Nicole. “There are all these rules.”

Still, though, they insist it’s been a worthwhile journey.

“Sometimes you don’t really know,” Nicole says. “You look back and see all the breadcrumbs of the trail that we’ve left to get where we are today, and it’s neat to see how it all works together.”

“From our experience, I always like to encourage people, whether they think they can make a business out of it or not, to do more of what you love to do,” says Brian. “If, down the road, you’re able to figure out a way to make money doing it, all the better.”