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