“First established, but not first to sell,” head brewer and the hardest working of the Friends, Jon Fulcher, jokes as we begin our conversation. A group of about 15 green-thinking and environmentally mindful members of the Charlotte networking group, Green Drinks, finishes their last sips of Queen City Red and i77 IPA when Queen City Brewers Festival has the Four Friends tap room to itself.

Earlier in the evening Jon treats the bar area like a lecture hall; breaking down the arduous process he and the three other owners (Friends in this case) endured to successfully open, produce and ultimately sell its “hand crafted quality beer”. From city council exchanges with now Mayor Anthony Foxx five years ago to marathon brewing sessions to keep up with demand today, Four Friends Brewing has shaped Charlotte’s craft beer industry and continues to impact the Queen City’s stable of start up breweries.

Beth Fulcher, one of the Friends, closes out the night’s bar tabs and joins us for the Q&A session.

How did you get into homebrewing and what was your “a-ha” moment that turned brewing into a profession?

[Jon:] It was a co-worker of mine at my previous job that got me into homebrewing. But that “a-ha” moment didn’t come until we took an Asheville brewery tour with the Carolina BrewMasters. That was when we met the owners of Pisgah Brewing Company.

[Beth:] We saw so much of ourselves in the Pisgah owners. They had a “we can do this” mentality and really inspired us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

[Jon:] Hey, you don’t have to have a multi-million dollar facility. All you need is the passion to turn your project into a profession.

As the brewer and distributor, what is the most challenging part of getting a consistent product to the end consumer?

[Jon:] There is no shortage of variables that can compromise the product by the time it gets to the customer. The reality is that if it doesn’t come out right here (gesturing toward the brewhouse), well, that means I’ve got to dump over a thousand dollars’ worth of liquid down the drain. Luckily, that hasn’t happened yet. But once you get off the premises there is a lot that can mess with the beer – is it stored at the proper temperature? Is it going to be served at the proper temperature? Are the tap lines clean? We try to control everything we can, but we also know we can be better in some areas.

What styles of beer are driving the local craft beer scene and what sets Four Friends apart from other Charlotte breweries?

[Jon and Beth:] The IPA (said in unison).

[Jon:] The irony here is that we tried setting ourselves apart from other breweries by not being an IPA brewery. With so many IPAs out there, several even within the same brewery, you could argue it’s a saturated style. But the market clearly told us that’s the beer everyone wants, and wouldn’t you know, i77 is our most popular beer and the one that’s demanded most by bars and restaurants.

[Beth:] We knew we needed to introduce an IPA and it had to stand out. The challenge was to bring an IPA to market that would be palatable to someone who wasn’t a hardcore IPA drinker, but would also appeal to that hardcore IPA drinker. We think i77 pleases both crowds.

[Jon:] When you look at the overall craft beer market, and not just in Charlotte, that hardcore IPA drinker is only making up a small percentage of the pie. So if we were to launch a second IPA it would be more on the entry-level side. We could brew an extreme IPA for example, get the profile just right and it would still die if it’s so esoteric you can’t sustain it. Fortunately, we’ll have a much better tasting room in about 12 months when we break through that wall over there (motions to wall where pallets of grain are stacked high). Customer feedback is always welcomed and I’m sure we’ll hear the letters I, P & A more often than not.

We’ve heard the term “bubble” used to describe financial and real estate markets; do you believe there such thing as a “craft beer bubble”?
[Jon:] You know, I really don’t think you can deny that a bubble does exist. There has been a proliferation of all things craft beer, but the reality is that the number of consumers has to outpace the number of suppliers for this trend to continue. For the time being that relationship has been in our favor and you’re seeing this eat into Bud, Miller and Coors’ market share, but eventually the number of raw gallons of craft beer produced will exceed Charlotte’s demand – there are only so many of-age consumers out there. Unless we see the population growth support the increased supply, or we adopt an Asheville mindset where we really dial in to what we consider local, I think the bubble will burst. Hell, we could be a consequence of that happening, but I sure as hell hope not (laughing).
As the “older brother” in the Charlotte brewery scene, you have shared advice with several startup breweries. What is the most important message you have given others?

[Beth:] Before we get to the advice part, I think it was really about serving up a dose of reality. It’s not all glory, this is hard work.

[Jon:] I whole-heartedly agree. I would tell anyone who calls or visits me anything I know about the brewing process, sourcing equipment, materials; anything. But the point I really try to get across is that it’s going to cost you two, three times what you forecasted and twice the amount of labor – that is my best friend over there (points to shovel)! At the end of the day, it’s about sacrifice and perseverance, and there are times when the stress level is off the charts. But we’ve been able to bend without breaking and throughout all of it we manage to have a lot of fun.

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