Fireman’s Brew is much more than a beer by firemen, for firemen. It’s a comprehensive brand that links distinct taste with the culture of its founders. With a blonde pilsner, redhead amber ale and 16-proof brunette doublebock, as well as a line of coffees and sodas, Fireman’s Brew is all about ‘extinguishing thirst’ and ‘igniting the party.’ But brand still sticks to its roots, donating a portion of its profits to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
COO Dave Johnson has played a critical role in the company’s growth, most recently working with investment bank Monarch Bay Securities to raise $5 million. Johnson sat down to discuss the brand’s continuing development.
How did Fireman’s Brew get started, and what drew you into the business?
“My business partner, Rob Nowaczyk, is an LA Country Firefighter. He got thirsty after a brushfire. He wanted to get a beer after work and asked his friends ‘why isn’t there a beer for firefighters?’”
“At the end of 2006, shortly after getting out of [USC] Marshall, Rob recruited me away from the sports business. He had me come in to write the business plan and raise the capital for [Fireman’s Brew].”
“I saw potential for a big brand here. This was an iconic and classic brand with national appeal. I wasn’t going to leave everything for a small-time brand. The name Fireman’s Brew and the mission we stand for appeals to people across America.”
How has Fireman’s Brew grown since you joined in 2006?
“You don’t really see how far you’ve come since you’re buried in [the business] every day. We used to deliver a keg at a time. Now we’re under contract with more than 40 distributors in 15 states, soon to be 17. [Fireman’s Brew] is in the top 20% of all breweries by production volume in the country.”
How would you summarize the Fireman’s Brew brand?
“We’ve got an incredible brand that fits a special kind of person. It all goes back to our roots. Everything you think about in a fireman, we want you to think about that character and quality in our products.”
“You don’t see a fireman sticking his nose into a glass of wine. You don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy our products. We keep a very limited line of flagship beers while still appealing to a broad range of people.”
Who is your target consumer?
“We’ve got a dual track here. One is the natural firefighter/public service person. That’s the built-in market and the low-hanging fruit, but we’re not going to become a huge beer company with that.”
“On the other end, we're looking at groups like millennials, with above-average income, college educated. Age 25 – 45, looking for a good beer that goes back to a good cause.”
What made you decide to branch outside of beer and make nonalcoholic products?
“Given that we’re marketing an alcoholic beverage in a public service agency, we want to recognize that there’s a time for fun and a time for work. That’s why we created ‘on duty’ drunks and ‘off duty’ drinks. We don’t want to give the impression that firemen drink on the job.”
“We’re also a family brand, so now we can have fireman drinking our products with their kids.”
Speaking of marketing plan, what is Fireman’s Brew’s marketing strategy?
“An insanely high amount of beer festivals and tasting events. It’s very important for us to get the product in someone’s hands and make a connection with the customer. We want them to get the name and taste of it, so when they see it at the store they’re familiar with it.”
“We’ve done quite a bit of publicity too. Things like cooking with beer segments on TV. We can’t afford big TV commercials but we do come up with creative pitches on the news.”
“We also work with our distributors to connect with local fire departments. Each market we go into, we work with firefighter charities to reach out to those communities.”
What are the next steps for Fireman’s Brew?
“We’re raising capital to increase our sales presence. We plan to build a tasting room in Southern California for [research and development]. It will be a great base for testing out new flavors, seasonal beers and other products.”
“Further down the road, we’re looking at multiple R&D facilities and tasting rooms. It’s a very exciting time for us and we’ve got some big things in the works.”
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Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.