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Fire Island Beer: A Vacation Hobby Hits the Big Time

For years, Jeff Glassman and his family vacationed on New York's Fire Island -- brewing their own beer all summer long. Until they decided to turn it into a business.

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Fire Island has long provided the laid-back vibe missing in the day-to-day New York City grind. Less spoiled than the Hamptons, less crowded than Coney Island, less Jersey Shore than the Jersey Shore, and less of everything awful that goes with being stuck in Manhattan on a 95-degree August day, Fire Island brings in some 820,000 visitors every summer.
Naturally, Fire Island is a great place to kick off the flip-flops and have a beer; coincidentally, it's a great time to be in the craft beer industry. Combining the sun-and-suds is the idea behind Fire Island Beer Company, a small artisan beermaker with designs on owning its 32-mile-long namesake.

Over pints of Red Wagon IPA, Fire Island Beer president Jeff Glassman, 29, discussed the new beer company rising up from the sandy beaches of "The Other New York."

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the idea for a brewery originated on Fire Island...

It did. I'm from Bedford, New Hampshire, but my aunt and uncle have a place in Atlantique. It's on the lighthouse side of the island, and I've been coming out here for 12 years. In 1999, my cousin Tom got into home brewing as a hobby. There aren't really proper beer stores on Fire Island and we didn't want to schlep it out here, so whatever five-gallon brew he had going was our beer for the weekend. All these years, we kept saying to ourselves, "Fire Island Beer, why the hell not?" We see all these people out here every summer having a good time -- isn't that a strong basis for a beer company? In 2008, we decided to turn the dream into a reality.

Were you working in the beer industry at the time?

No, before we started this, I was director of sales and marketing for the Classic Car Club in Tribeca. It was an amazing time. I loved it, met a ton of cool people and got to play around with awesome sports cars, but it was a young company, so I had to put everything I had into it. I decided if I was going to do that, I wanted it to be my own thing. That's when I talked to my brother and cousins and said, "I want to start Fire Island Beer. I think it could be big." They said, "Let's do it."

So you had the entrepreneurial bug regardless?

Believe me, I was going that way no matter what. I'm very unhirable. If I see something that needs to be done a different way, it has to be done a different way. And if it can't be done a different way, then I'm out.

What is your role at Fire Island Beer?

Technically, I'm the president, but it doesn't mean anything. I might as well be the intergalactic spaceman. I do a little bit of everything, but basically it's all part of figuring out ways to make this company bigger and better. Anything from filling out spreadsheets, to talking to people about raising money, to hosting tastings at Whole Foods, to sponsoring a comedy night. The promotions stuff is fun, coming up with the sweepstakes where someone can win a weekend on the island, or an idea we're trying to nail down with a radio station to have a six-hour sailboat ride with a couple of cool bands and plenty of Lighthouse Ale.

That sure beats a day in the office.

It's a lifestyle brand. The only way to convert all those summer visitors into local beer drinkers is to promote the hell out of it. For example, we found a shore house that a lot of the waiters and waitresses were sharing and threw a party for them. We brought food and a keg and had a good time, so now they've all tasted our beer and will helps spread the word. We're out there all summer long. People know my face... partly because I've passed out next to a lot of them.

Is it hard to get people to drink craft beer while lying in the sun? Old habits would seem to favor Corona and the like.

That's why we started with Lighthouse Ale. It came out last May and will always be our flagship. It's a lighter beer that you can drink all day long. It's also a gateway beer to stronger brews, which is why we brought out our Red Wagon IPA last November, to show we could make something more full-bodied and hoppier. Next up will probably be our Black Pepper Lager, which we're testing now.

Fire Island has long been a vacation spot for New York City's gay community. Did you do any specific marketing to that crowd?

We did. Fire Island Beer hosted a surf party at the Pines, a major gay area. We didn't do great -- everyone mostly stuck to their vodka drinks -- but it's worth a shot. We'll go after anyone who visits Fire Island.

Where do you do your brewing? There's not room on Fire Island, is there?

All of our beers start out here as homebrews. Tom's sole job at the company is to make delicious beer in small batches. We take it around in growlers, our own little island market research. We contract the larger production to Olde Saratoga Brewing in upstate New York. We're the first homebrewers they've worked with, which is very cool. We showed them our business plan, marketing materials, and they believed us when we said we're here to stay.

Are there any plans to have some sort of facility on Fire Island?

Absolutely. The goal is to build up a local base until we have enough loyal beer drinkers to open a brewpub. Cars aren't allowed on the island, so we'd never have the ability or capacity to do large-scale brewing here, but we do hope to have a homebase brewpub where we can hang out and experiment with more exotic types of beer. Incidentally, we named our IPA after the longstanding tradition of islanders pulling all their stuff around in red wagons.

It's you, your brother, and two cousins, who are also brothers. How intense does it get?

[Laughs] It's not at all. It's laid-back island-style. Actually, we have a smart functioning system. Tom is strictly beer, and the other three of us split up the sales, marketing, promotions, etc., geographically. I handle Manhattan and Suffern County, my brother Greg does Brooklyn and Nassau County, and my cousin Bert tackles the rest of Long Island out to Montauk. We're all 100 percent committed to the company. So far, it's worked out great.

Where did you get your start-up capital?

Friends and family gave us $250,000 to get it going. We're in the middle of raising a second round of finance right now. I've promised a lot of stuff -- we better deliver.

Is it keeping you up at night?

I'm in the bars at night, so I'm already up. No, honestly, the only thing I fear is running out of money. But I believe in the product so much, I have good faith we'll blow our expectations out of the water in 2010. We did $265,000 from May to November in 2009. I think we'll do $600,000 this year.

So Fire Island Beer must be getting into the right glasses.

We're up to about 1,300 placements. I learned quickly that this job is all about relationships, so a lot of my time is spent working the distributors. Just this morning, I met up with a guy who controls the entire South Street Seaport. Fire Island Beer ended up with seven tap handles in a huge tourist destination spot. Yes, we were drinking beer by noon, but it wasn't a waste. It could be my most productive day ever.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Jeff Glassman
Company: Fire Island Beer Company
Age: 29
Location: Fire Island, N.Y.
Founded: 2008
Employees: 4
2010 Projected Revenue: $600,000

Tags: beer, Fire Island, Fire Island Beer Company, Jeff Glassman, microbreweries

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