Fireman’s Brew: A compelling story behind the craft beer

Just about every amateur brew master who has made a tub of beer in the garage has dreamed of going pro.

But Los Angeles County firefighters Rob Nowaczyk and Ed Walker, who expanded from home brewing to founding the commercial Fireman's Brew Inc., had an edge over most would-be brewery owners.

"Everyone likes firefighters," Nowaczyk said. "People respect what we do and that we put our lives on the line every day."

That goodwill helped kick-start their brewery into profitability after only about three years. It also didn't hurt that Fireman's Brew donates 5% of its net income to the nonprofit National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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"The fact that I can go into a bar or talk to a grocer and say, ‘I'm a real, active firefighter and this is my company and I'm doing this because I want to help other firefighters and because I love beer,' " Nowaczyk said, "that gets our foot in the doorway."

Woodland Hills-based Fireman's Brew is now sold in upscale supermarkets such as Gelson's and Whole Foods, and in restaurants such as the Barney's Beanery and Hennessey's Tavern chains. In 2009, the company — which offers three types of beer, plus a brand of coffee sold only to firehouses — had $500,000 in sales.

That's not even a swig compared with the $36.8 billion in revenue that industry giant Anheuser-Busch InBev had last year.

But while it's not a great time for the beer industry overall — sales of domestic brews slipped 2.2% in 2009 and foreign brews fell 9.8% — the craft-brew segment made up of small, independent breweries that produce less than 2 million barrels a year is growing, according to the Brewers Assn.

Indeed, sales of beer from craft breweries were up 20% in the last two years, the association said.

The rise of craft brews is all the more impressive in that they generally retail for about the same price as imports.

"The difference is most imports don't have a story behind them," said Eric Schmidt, research director for the Beverage Information Group. "Having a story plays into the authenticity of the beer. It's not being sold to you by a guy in a suit in a boardroom."

Fireman's Brew has a particularly compelling narrative, he said.

"The story itself — a firefighter owning a company and donating money to firefighter charities — is unique enough that it could cause someone to pick up a six-pack," Schmidt said.

The idea for Fireman's Brew came to Nowaczyk and Walker 10 years ago after they fought a fire along the 210 Freeway in Glendale.

"We were chewing barley that was growing on the hill and we were thirsty," Nowaczyk said. "And we started dreaming a bit of having a nice, cold beer, and then we thought, ‘Why not brew our own beers?' "

Nowaczyk had been brewing beer as a hobby since his 20s.

"We came up with the slogan on the hill, too," he said: " ‘Extinguish your thirst, ignite the party.' "

The next year they started making Fireman's Brew one keg at a time at Brewbakers, a small brewery open for public use in Huntington Beach. Bottles were labeled by hand and the beer was sold mostly to fire stations.

Nowaczyk and Walker poured about $80,000 of their own money into the venture.

"Back then, my goal was just to be able to brew a keg and sell it," Nowaczyk said. "I knew that the idea was a good one and that it could be bigger, I just didn't know how to get there. I'm a firefighter. I don't have a business degree."

Less than a year after they got started, the 9/11 attacks hit, killing thousands of people and turning firefighters into national icons. Nowaczyk and Walker halted their operation.

"I didn't want to be seen as making any money off of being a firefighter," Nowaczyk said. "So everything with the company stopped. We just shut it down."

They didn't start again until 2006, but this time it was a more serious venture. Using $350,000 raised from family members and friends, they moved the beer making to the professional Indian Wells Brewery in the small Mojave Desert community of Inyokern.

They opened an office in Woodland Hills and hired a chief operating officer — David Johnson, straight out of USC's entrepreneurship program — and two salesmen.

Sales were slow at first, but firemen came to the rescue.

"Firefighters will buy from firefighters," Nowaczyk said. "That's what kept us going for the first few years."

The operation went into the black in 2007. The next year, as the company continued to grow, Walker sold his ownership share to Nowaczyk.

"I have a wife, I have two kids, and with my family responsibilities and being a firefighter full-time, I didn't really have the time to go to business meetings and do research and help run the business every day," Walker said. "So I just thought it was right to pass him the flag."

For Nowaczyk and Johnson, Fireman's Brew remained very much a hands-on business. "We were delivering our cases and kegs out of the trunks of our cars," Johnson said.

Till this year.

"We doubled our accounts to more than 200 restaurants, bars and retailers since January," Johnson said. Last month they switched the brewery operation to Skyscraper Brewing Co. in El Monte, which also handles distribution.

"We can now spend more time marketing and growing the company," Johnson said, "rather than just trying to keep up with deliveries and getting more businesses to carry us."

But Nowaczyk is not giving up his work as a full-time firefighter. He's currently at West Hollywood's Station 7.

"I've been risking my life the last 20 years and I enjoy it," he said. "And with this, I can do both, and I don't have to risk my life to run a beer company."