To say the Furbachers enjoy a good challenge would be an understatement.
Rather than settle into a comfortable retirement after more than 30 years in the oil, gas, and energy industry, Steve decided to buy a brewery with a less-than-stellar reputation and turn it into something great. "We didn't buy Grand Teton Brewing because of the beer," he says, "but because it presented an interesting business challenge. It had a reputation for spotty quality and was hard to find in the local restaurants and stores. But we believed it just needed a few systems that are typical in bigger businesses."
Having held 18 different positions over the course of his career at Chevron and Dynegy, Steve was uniquely suited to tackle the issues at Idaho's oldest craft brewery. "I have a strong background in process and operations, and I understand human resources and finances very well," he states. He and Ellen immediately set about upgrading equipment, implementing new processes, hiring a full-time quality control professional, and "making serious adjustments in just about every facet of the business including accounting, order entry, and data management," he says.
Their changes have certainly paid off. From Bitch Creek ESB, an extra special brown named for a local landmark and the brewery's third best-seller, to the brewery's Gose, a Cellar Reserve Series beer brewed with Yellowstone salt and coriander, Grand Teton's lineup has since won awards at such high-profile competitions as the Great American Beer Festival and the North American Beer Awards.
In 2013, the brewery introduced its bestselling 208 Session Ale, crafted with 100 percent Idaho-grown ingredients. Steve says it's quickly grown to account for 30 to 35 percent of Grand Teton Brewing's total sales by volume. "We've been Idaho's best-kept secret, and this beer was designed to change that," he says. "We named it after the state's area code, and our distributors in Idaho tell us it sells itself. It's a pale golden created with Idaho hops, Idaho malted barley, and Idaho water that fits a niche that really matches well to the Idaho market."
This type of careful thought goes into making all of Grand Teton's new offerings. "We have a process that involves a large percentage of the staff," Steve explains. "We taste a lot of beers in the style we want to create and research the style itself to look for attributes we think we want our beer to carry. We have to find the best flavors, aromas and mouthfeel because at the end of the day you have to sell it. Our beers need to be true to style yet unique, all while leveraging the high-quality ingredients we have available to maximize their flavor profile and appeal."
The Furbachers and their brewing team are particularly excited about adding their first IPA to Grand Teton's year-round lineup. "It's the fastest-growing style in the country," Steve says, "so we decided to create one. But we didn't want anything garden variety. We wanted an IPA that is outstanding in all ways." They're currently working on their fourteenth 15-barrel to 30-barrel test batch -- each one rolled out to local restaurants in six-barrel kegs --and gathering customer feedback for analysis. "We're getting very close," he says. "We're making a couple of tweaks, but we'll soon have a beer we can release."
After an initial post-purchase increase from 4,900, Grand Teton's total production has held steady at 10,000 barrels in the 30-barrel brewhouse since 2013. However, the Furbachers expect to see new growth again this year. "Declining sales of our year-round beers in the outer states have been offset by growth in our local market," Steve explains. "We added a new sales force in May, and I expect this year will give us some nice momentum to move into 2017."
Currently distributed in 15 states, they've asked their distributors to focus on selling their high-end Seasonal, Cellar Reserve and Brewer's Series beers outside the Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana area unless there is a particular demand for one of their year-round products. "Every order we send to our South Carolina distributor always has Howling Wolf cases in it," Steve says. "It's a hefeweizen brewed in the German style with traditional yeast strains, and our water is much like the water in Munich. So all those cases wind up in one town in South Carolina where the BMW plant is located."
Favorite beers: "I like Howling Wolf and 208," says Ellen. "I also really like our Brewer's Series Brett Saison. But I'm not the huge beer drinker everyone else is."
"If I'm just going to pick up a beer to drink it will probably be Sweetgrass American Pale Ale," says Steve. "But Ellen and I mostly drink beer with food. So if you tell me what I'm having for dinner tonight, I'll tell you what my favorite beer is based on that."
Challenges: "We're located in a rural, unpopulated area," says Ellen. "So most of our money is made by shipping beer out of the area rather than selling to the locals."
"The winter to summer swing in sales is huge," Steve adds. "Yellowstone gets something like 4 million visitors during the summer months, so our effective population swells. Then it goes back to under 3 million in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana combined. That's why we've taken the distribution strategy that we have: keeping our year-round beers in the local markets unless there is a demand for them elsewhere, and pushing the higher-end releases outside of our area."
Opportunities: Grand Teton Brewing currently does all of its packaging in glass bottles, so the Furbachers see moving into cans as a huge opportunity. "People here love to do things outdoors, and glass doesn't fit that market very well. Our beers, including 208, are growing in popularity even though virtually none of it is sold to what we call the recreational market. You can't take it horseback riding or on the river or into the backcountry because of the package. Someday we will be in cans, though I can't say exactly when."
Needs: "Space," says Ellen. Steve agrees. "We need more space for cold refrigeration and other things. If we do something with cans, we'll also need more space. So we'll probably have to put together a project involving both of those things."