Fernson Brewing spreading beer across five states

By Patrick Lalley, for SiouxFalls.Business

Nebraska: Meet Fernson.

The Sioux Falls brewer has inked a distribution deal to bring the brand to Omaha.

The move brings Fernson Brewing Co.  into its fifth state and largest metro market to date, marking another step in the brewery’s pattern of fast growth.

Entering a new market to sell beer isn’t as easy as finding stores or bars to sell it. There is fierce competition for tap lines and retail spaces no matter where you live.

Selling beer requires a distribution deal with a company that serves that market.

Throw in variations in state laws and it’s a slow-growth proposition.

“Distribution doesn’t happen overnight,” said Blake Thompson, who co-owns Fernson with brewer Derek Fernholz.

A vital cog in the growth is Ricardo Tarabelsi, the vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

Tarabelsi is a veteran of the Sioux Falls restaurant business and an admitted wine guy. His connections and expertise have proven invaluable.

“Having a dedicated salesperson has really helped us get where we are,” Thompson said.

Starting a brewery in an industrial patch of northern Sioux Falls may have seemed a bit outside the craft-beer tradition when Fernson opened more than two years ago.

Experience would suggest something small, in a cozy pub along a hip and happening road somewhere.

Thompson and Fernholz had a bigger vision. Their beers are already distributed across South Dakota along with parts of North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

They currently produce three main variations — Farmhouse Ale, India Pale Ale and the Lion’s Paw Lager — that are available in cans as well as tap. There are also seasonal features, such as the Porter and Galivant.

In addition to new markets, Fernson also plans to bring the can portfolio to six varieties, sell 12-packs of Lion’s Paw and perhaps offer variety packs.

For all the planning and hard work, it helps to catch a break. That was the case with Lion’s Paw, which is the company’s top seller. It was the third variety released by Fernson and met with better-than-expected demand.

Lagers have grown in popularity over the past year, said Tarabelsi, so they were ahead of the curve and well positioned.

“We were a little lucky to have the right beer at the right time,” he said. “When something resonates, you know it. It’s a great feeling.”

Omaha is a million-plus metro market with the potential to drive sales of both kegs and cans.

It also means expansion – and more investment — back at the brewery.

“Growing is expensive,” Thompson said.

A fermenter runs about $24,000, but that’s just for the basics. There’s also plumbing and electrical, as well as other equipment and staff to brew and can.

“You usually need all of it at the same time,” Thompson said.

Fernson’s capacity is 5,500 barrels per year, a mark the brewery is approaching. The plant is plumbed to allow an additional six fermenters.

It’s also going to mean increasing the staff of 16 full- and part-time employees.

The brewery and taproom at 1400 E. Robur Drive opened in February 2015. They also operate Fernson on 8th at Weber Avenue and Eighth Street.

While the expansion will require investment, the road to profitability is ahead of plan, Thompson said.

“We are still in the stage of business where we aren’t taking in quite as much as there is going out,” he said. “We’re hoping to be there in a month. It’s a stretch goal, but there’s no reason why we can’t hit it.”

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Fernson Brewing spreading beer across five states

An agreement to sell beer in Omaha moves Fernson Brewing Co. into its fifth state and largest metro market to date, marking another step in the brewery’s pattern of fast growth.

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