New Roots Bio: Owners Steve and Ellen Furbacher

Grand Teton Brewing Company owners (from left to right) Steve and Ellen, with son Chris, daughter Jackie and son Stephen, 2011.

Running a successful brewery isn’t as easy as your average beer drinker might think. We’ll let you in on a little secret… you only need two things: good beer and good people. Not enough of one and you end up with your old pappy’s homebrew, or not enough of the other and you get something high in “drinkability” but low in soul. So, repeat after me…step one, be good people. Step two, make good beer. Step three, (optional but highly recommended) do it all in an amazing place.  Steve and Ellen Furbacher, owners of Grand Teton Brewing Company, have followed these steps with great success, although not necessarily in that order.  It was the place that brought the great people to brew the tasty beer.  And in the two years since they bought the business from Charlie Otto, we have quickly come to learn how lucky we are to have them in Teton Valley. It is time to share exactly why you should feel just as lucky as we do.

Born and raised in Northern Illinois and Southern Michigan, Steve Furbacher grew up in not exactly what you’d call microbrew country in the 50’s. He met Ellen Kowert, a Milwaukee native, not far from home at Valparaiso University on a blind date.  They married shortly after graduating while Steve was completing his two year tenure in the Army.  The newlyweds traveled 1970’s America in their VW Van with little money to their name before landing in San Fransisco.  It was there Steve began his career with Chevron while Ellen completed her Masters in Speech Pathology at San Fransisco State University.  Ellen worked in both the California school system and Martinez VA Hospital as a speech pathologist for eight years before she took on the career of a lifetime, parenthood.

In the years that followed, Steve ran the gamut in the refinery business as an engineer and operations manager, as well as positions in marketing, distribution and human resources.  His expertise took him and his family from San Fransisco to Bakersfield to Chicago to Tulsa and finally to Houston, Texas.  He finished his career as President and COO of the Houston based energy company, Dynegy, in 2007.  Not only is he an accomplished and successful businessman, but an extremely versatile one.

While on a family vacation in 2001 Ellen and Steve fell in love with Teton Valley and a year later bought a house in Alta.  Steve and Ellen share a love for the grand wilderness and natural beauty of Teton Valley and savor the western culture of Jackson Hole. To keep them connected while they’re away, the Furbachers have been JH News & Guide subscribers for the past 10 years. It was that love for, and connection with the Tetons that pulled the Furbachers out of retirement.  In 2008 Steve saw a “for sale” ad for Grand Teton Brewing Company in the News & Guide.  For the Furbachers this presented an opportunity to create a family business and establish a legacy in Teton Valley, and to drink a lot of really good beer.

Over the last two years the Furbachers have made significant changes to the brewery.  They have added much needed brewing equipment, fixed the bottling line and grown local events.   Production has more than doubled and California has gone from a tiny share to Grand Teton Brewing Company’s largest market. Within the last few months they have recruited a new wave of employees including seasoned head brewer Kevin Bolen, formerly of The Ram in Boise and former Sierra Nevada salesman Matt Berg in California.   The Furbachers have made it a point to tackle one goal at a time, understanding the importance of learning to crawl before you walk, to walk before you run.  Their efforts have not gone unnoticed.  Production has grown from 4,900 barrels to 10,000 barrels in three years, while keg sales have increased 60 percent in the past year alone.

Ellen and Steve are committed to continuing and expanding Grand Teton Brewing’s tradition of giving.  One of their first actions was to form a formed Donations Committee, lead by Ellen, which has worked to contribute to many worthwhile organizations in Teton Valley.  Ellen has also spearheaded a new kettle brewed soda line which is growing daily.  Steve’s passion for beer stems from the idea that good beer is meant to be shared with special people during a special time, even if that time is next Thursday.  This passion drives the brewery’s Coming Home Holiday Ale program with anticipation for the special beer growing each year.

The Furbachers’ impact is far from over.  Additional fermentation and warehouse capacity are in the most immediate future in addition to five more planned phases of growth.  Although now proud owners of a thriving business they are not in it just to grow.  As the company grows and makes a profit, so in turn will its employees.  They have made a commitment for the second year in a row to not add any new distributors, but instead develop deeper relationships in their existing markets with quality products and quality people.   “We are looking out for our distributors.  We will never be the biggest beer in their portfolio but we will be a top quality profitable beer in their portfolio,” Steve says.

With three grown, and successful, children out of the house the Furbachers happily split their time between Teton Valley and Houston. When asked why they think Teton Valley is the best place on Earth to craft beer Steve replied, “Beer is a rural American business.  We are here near the grain and the water. It is only natural for us to brew here.” (Please see our Brewmaster’s article on Teton Valley.)

There is something incredibly grounding in the way Steve shares his knowledge and the way  you are present in Ellen’s focused eyes and sincere smile while telling her of your day.  These people care.  No longer is this a business a mile wide and half an inch deep.  Roots are growing at Grand Teton Brewing Company, and they are growing deep.

– Julie Levy

Beer Durability

The shut down last winter definitely paid off from a quality standpoint.  As part of our physical plant improvement project we installed a “newer” generation Meyer bottle filler. This version has several technological updates over our old machine. As a result, we are starting to see huge improvements in packaging quality, which translates into better quality beer for consumers!

You might have noticed that our bottle fill levels are much more even than they were in the past, with many fewer “low-fill” and “high-fill” bottles. Most importantly, the new filler runs consistently, without many starts and stops. That allows our filler operator to “dial in” the parts of the filler that purge the air from the bottle prior to filling and then again just before the crowns are applied. More consistent purging means less air in each bottle, which should lead to crisper, fresher-tasting beer.

As part of our quality control tasting program we force-test beer in a hot  (85-90 degrees F.) environment for two and four weeks.  This is what we call “hot box” beer.  The idea here is that one week in the hot box equals about one month on a warm shelf in the market.  We taste these stressed beers compared to beer stored properly, all from the same batch and bottling day.  These tastings are set up as a blind differential, where each taster has three samples in front of him or her.  They smell and taste each one and try to pick out the different one.  In the hot box beers, we typically taste off flavors from oxidation.  These can be described as stale, old, wet dog, cardboard, etc.  The main culprit of these flavors is too much oxygen in the bottles.

During some of our routine tastings, we have noticed that fewer people are able to taste a difference between hot box samples and properly stored beer.  This is a big step forward for the brewery.  We are moving in the right direction, keeping oxygen out of bottles and keeping CO2 in!  The packagers and engineers have done a fantastic job, as have the rest of our team who all play a part in making quality products!

Quality Control Manager

How Old is Your Beer?

Have you ever opened a bottle of your favorite beer and it just didn’t taste right?   What did you blame it on?  Did you think you just got a bad bottle?  A batch of beer that wasn’t up to par?  Your hangover?  Maybe the beer didn’t match up with something you had eaten recently?  Realistically, it was something much more simple.  By any chance did you check the date code?

Every year, we receive several consumer complaints about product quality.  Almost exclusively, it’s another case of out-dated beer (usually WAY out-of-date!)  Great efforts are taken to keep our products fresh in all our markets, but inevitably some old product slips through the cracks or simply hangs in someone’s garage for too long.  Our signature beers should be consumed within the first 4 months after being bottled or kegged. We do design beers that are meant to be cellared and aged, but those beers are usually confined to our Cellar Reserve Series.

Every bottle and every keg of beer we produce is clearly marked with the date it was filled.  We don’t use complicated coding systems like many breweries and want every consumer to know the age of their beer exactly.  So next time you are looking to buy beer, check the date codes.  Let the store owner/manager know if they have old product on the shelf.  If you can’t find a date code or if it’s too old, don’t buy it.

Chuck Nowicki

Reason Number Two: Fantastic Idaho Hop Growers

Early August is a good time to visit with hop growers. The vines are tall and strong, themachines are buffed and ready, but harvest is still a month or so away. A group of Grand Teton Brewing Company’s brewers benefited from the growers’ hospitality during this “slower” season the first weekend in August. Brewmaster Rob Mullin, Head Brewer Kevin Bolen, Brewer Chaz Hansen and Brewer Trainee AnnaLisa Gardiner made the scenic drive through the lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument to Parma, Idaho to meet with our local grower partners.

We toured the fields of all four Southern Idaho hop farmers. Grower Mike Gooding and his daughter Dianne Haas showed us their processing facility, where the hops are picked, dried and baled. Nate Jackson showed us his farm and discussed the challenges and opportunities he faces as an organic grower. Marty Ungewitter and Brad Clack from hop supplier S.S. Steiner treated us all to a convivial Mexican lunch before we met up with the Obendorf family, whose hop farm is the largest in Southern Idaho.

The whole group drove north through the beautiful Western Idaho landscape to the Obendorf’s cabin on the Salmon River in White Bird. Greg and Ann Obendorf prepared an amazing dinner of thick steaks and fresh Idaho sweet corn. We enjoyed meeting more of the growers’ families and friends. Early the next morning we all made the trip over the mountain and down into Hell’s Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America, where the Obendorf’s treated us to a spectacular day on the river in two jet boats. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience for each of us from the brewery.

GTBE file photo: Grand Teton Brewing Company's Brewmaster Rob Mullin (left), Nate Jackson and Grand Teton brewer Chaz Hansen (right) at the Gooding Farm.

The brewers were not only impressed by the growers’ hospitality, but by the quality of theirhops. Idaho hops have only recently become available to small brewers, and we have been quite happy with them so far. For the first time Grand Teton Brewing Company is writing five year contracts for hops that specify Idaho-grown whenever available. We’ll be returning to Parma this month to observe the harvest and bring back fresh hops for our first Fresh Hop Ale, and we’re working on more ways to collaborate with our new grower friends. Watch this space for some exciting announcements soon!

Rob Mullin

Best Place on Earth the Craft Beer

by Rob Mullin

Teton MountainsThose of us lucky enough to live in the Tetons have always known how great it is to work and play here. Some of us have known for a long time that this is also a fantastic place to craft beer. Now we’re coming to understand that Teton Valley, Idaho really is The Best Place on Earth to Craft Beer.

Unlike much of the Mountain West, Teton Valley is blessed with abundant water, the result of massive annual snowpack and millennia-old glaciers. The water we use to brew our beers is pristine glacial run-off filtered over hundreds of years through Teton Mountain granite and limestone before it bubbles to the surface at a spring just down the road from the brewery. It is the best tasting water we’ve tried, pure, clean, and perfect mineral and ph balance for brewing.

We like our water so much that we refuse to treat it. Many breweries filter their water. Some remove all minerals-and flavor-through reverse osmosis, then add back the minerals they desire for brewing. Over the past decade we have strived to create the best beers we can with our Teton Mountain Spring water, and have gravitated toward styles that are enhanced by our unique and flavorful Teton mountain spring water.

Idaho

Of all the great old brewing capitols, Munich is probably the city whose water most closely resembles ours. Like Munich’s, our water lends itself to producing bold, more malty beers. We think our water is largely responsible for the wonderful balance exhibited by our brews. Even our hoppiest ales-Lost Continent Double IPA and Pursuit of Hoppiness Imperial Red-are often praised for their drinkability and malt “backbone.”

After water, malt is the biggest ingredient in beer by weight. The farmers of Eastern Idaho-and Teton Valley in particular-are widely recognized as growing some of the best malting barley in the world. Our well-drained, volcanic soil and cool, dry summers are ideal for growing barley. All of our base malt is grown in Eastern Idaho and processed in Pocatello, a short drive from the brewery.

Finally, we are also fortunate to be close to some of the best hop fields in the world. Until recently the Idaho hop farmers were contracted to sell most, if not all, of their crop to the world’s biggest U.S. brewery. Changes at that brewery now mean that Idaho hops are available to us. Our initial batches brewed with Idaho hops have blown us away with their flavor and overall quality. Last month our brewers visited with three of the four Southern Idaho hop farmers (see related article here.) We were very much impressed with the farmers’ operations, and value the relationships we’re building with our new grower partners. This month our brewers will return to the hop farms to observe the harvest and bring fresh hops back to the brewery for our first-ever “wet hop” ale. Watch this space for more information.

Beautiful mountains, fresh mountain streams, wonderful water and some of the best barley and hops anywhere. No wonder we’re proud to call Teton Valley, Idaho The Best Place on Earth to Craft Beer!