Author: jtphelps

What Next?

The last couple of months sure have been different. The old adage that you throw the business plan out the day you open can easily be replaced for some of us by throwing the long term plan out the window when a pandemic comes along. Needless to say there has been a lot of time for reflection as well as good old fashioned jam sessions talking about all manner of crazy ideas.

Yesterday I saw the wonderfully written piece by Carl Soderberg from Able Ebeneezer Brewing Company, and beyond how nice and positive the message within it was, we could also relate. Grind on Able!

I will similarly cut to the chase. We aren’t opening our patio on the 18th as NH guidelines would permit. We will be sticking with our Take Out model which has been successful. It has allowed us to keep the business open, running at partial capacity, and given us the time and flexibility to be able to muse over the big question, what next?

Read on and you’ll get it. Oh, and we were open for Take Out on Star Wars Day, May 4th. I was the Jedi bartender. 

In early March we had a swirl of things going on at Ancient Fire. Second Birthday party, prepping for the Made in NH Expo, and I was getting ready to head to Colorado to present at my first Brew Your Own Magazine NanoCon.

By then I had heard of coronavirus, but now I was seeing more and more news reports about this new illness COVID-19, caused by the virus, that it was quickly spreading, killing people and already upending life elsewhere in the world and Western US. I knew something was wrong, and I knew we were going to be in it soon. By the time we opened on March 11th for the first of our birthday party events, we were already doing extra sanitizing and the topic of coronavirus really did consume a lot of the conversation. On Friday March 13th I predicted we would be forced into Take Out mode early the next week and introduced a Take Out menu and ordering process. By the end of the weekend we had worked out kinks with several orders and had already received feedback from customers that they appreciated the option.

We had fun over the birthday party weekend. We really did. We accomplished so much of what we had planned in 2 years, and the love and support from our community was easily felt. When Margot and I locked the door on March 15th to head home I remarked that we should remember this moment because everything was going to be different. I was trying to celebrate the two years that we had just eclipsed in the way they should have been, but my mind was elsewhere. This makes the four years of business planning and operations that led to here seem like a past job already. So weird.

The Made in NH Expo was cancelled, and so was the conference late in the month. Things changed that fast. I’ve subsequently been part of two additional conference cancellations and two more wine judging events that have either been cancelled or postponed.

At least my schedule was clear! On the 16th we opened for Take Out, a rare Monday, but honestly we weren’t sure exactly what would happen in NH, and we wanted to book some sales to at least go down fighting. Over the next two weeks we stabilized our process and hours, and continued to see strong engagement with our community. We didn’t know what to expect, so anything would have been welcome, but what we did experience still feels really special.

Sadly our staff found themselves with no work to do (bar & dining room closed) and an uncertain future. We furloughed everyone that week, but thankfully Ancient Fire is a second job for all of them, so this did not immediately impact them. Margot has been working her full time job as well, balancing time between both as best as possible. As of last week the staff have begun returning to help with Take Out orders and cleaning. It has been a pleasure to have them back, and be able to talk with them from 8 or 10 feet away. We have a fun wheel of social distancing that we practice as we work around the different stations at the meadery.

Because of the Made in NH Expo being cancelled we found ourselves sitting on a sizable inventory of bottled product, more than we would typically have on hand in the winter season. What a stroke of luck. And it immediately started to move. We had a small amount of direct shipping business prior to all of this, but once everyone was stuck at home getting a shipment of mead from us definitely seemed like a realistic option for those outside our pick up area. We are still working from that inventory, but new bottling plans are already on the schedule.

Making a difference in our local community has always been part of who we are, and from the very first week of Take Out we decided to share a portion of our weekly sales with local non-profits who would be struggling to react to COVID related issues in their missions. Since we began we have donated $2000 to several non-profits including: The NH Food Bank, American Cancer Society, local mask makers, American Red Cross, FrontLinesNH, FIRST and the NH Hospitality Employees Relief Fund. We have also made a new batch of Making A Difference, our wildflower draft mead that generates non-profit donations with every sale. This mead will be back on June 7th.

As the V1 ordering process stressed from increasing demand we pivoted again and moved to a new web site with integrated payment and a lot more options to include in orders. Two days. That is all it took. I am a retired software engineer, but clearly not completely retired.

In the weeks since we’ve introduced new meads, new honey wines, new snacks, a new Social Distancing T-Shirt and local honey to the store. We lost track of the number of Take Out orders after about 500. As we continue to fit this process and offerings to our audience, it has gotten smoother, and we’ve been able to stay on top of all the other changes.

We are cleaning a lot more now. Growlers are a significant portion of our business, and for the last 8 weeks we have been swapping them for clean glass, and cleaning the dirty growlers in between our open and closed days. It is definitely a crappy job. This is also a great example of a change in costs. We didn’t spend as much time doing this work in the past. Between this type of work, extra cleaning and the cost of cleaning supplies, we definitely are spending money differently today. Food is more expensive to buy, and our supply chain for a lot of ingredients is either still disrupted or has seen cost increases as well. But don’t worry, we’ve got a healthy list of products we can make that won’t break the bank as we try to keep things rolling!

Getting all of this in place, and especially bringing the staff back, has allowed us to plan some short and medium term goals. We hope this will allow us to continue to successfully work through the COVID crisis, but also let us flex into other areas that at a minimum are good marketing, but could also have bigger long term potential.

The cancelled conferences are a hint at other aspects to my work as a meadmaker and are really one of the big reasons why I am where I am. I have been a writer and educator on homebrewing topics since 2010, something I very much enjoy. Getting to share experiences with other people who are passionate about beverage making has got to be one of the coolest jobs out there.

Earlier in the year I turned down a couple articles due to time constraints, but with a newly cleared schedule I revisited the jobs and found some were still open and have subsequently gotten to work. I have more pitches to make. I have conference content that I expect I will finish and use as part of virtual workshops and videos that I am planning to create. We’ve got more ideas like this in the queue, and taking this time to develop them to help engage our community seems like the right choice.

We’ve begun talking about our business model and what the next version might look like. We’ve not made any decisions, but are grateful that we continue to be able to pay all of our bills and can use this foundation to cautiously look ahead.

Honestly, I am consumed by all of this. Margot reaches her limit with me early in most days. I often get up early to read news, share my strong opinions on Facebook, and then set about my day trying to use what I’ve learned to navigate changing State guidelines, consumer sentiment and operational issues all with an eye to “what next?”

I wrote this piece after genuinely realizing that people would be curious. What has this been like for the local craft owners? How are different businesses reacting and making changes based on their unique skills and opportunities? I hope this has been interesting enough to have spent the time.

THANK YOU!

2019: New Opportunities To Learn About Mead & Cider

When we were doing our business planning for Ancient Fire we found a lot of occasions where we could see how our work as authors and educators could be intertwined with the business of making & selling beverages and operating our tap room. Building an engaged community around our brand takes many different tactics, and because the world of mead and cider are still largely unknown to most people, engaging fans with learning opportunities and immersive experiences is an exciting way to share the story.

We agreed that we needed to focus more on the production and tap room areas initially, and work towards expanding the educational mission of the brand as we felt more confident about the business. There were some obvious “quick hits” that we knew we could integrate early on, like the honey tasting bar, but we also knew there was so much more we could do; much of it needing more time to evolve though.

We’ve reached a point where we would like to tackle the next phase of the mission which involves classroom and hands-on activities on making mead & cider, a return to competition judging and more frequent collaboration with other organizations who host educational events.

And we aren’t wasting any time! So far this year we have the following activities scheduled:

WineMaker Live Chat hosted by Winemaker Magazine on Feb. 13th

Survey Of Modern Meadmaking at Ancient Fire – Feb. 24th – SOLD OUT
We are excited to host our first class at Ancient Fire! We will be talking about a wide range of topics in mead and will make a batch of session mead as a group!

Judging at the 2019 Winemaker Magazine International Competition in April

Speaking & Hosting Bootcamps at the 2019 Winemaker Magazine Annual Conference in Michigan in May. I’ll be speaking about Adding Fruit to Mead and hosting two bootcamps on cider and mead-making.

Attendance, Speaking & Judging at the 2019 National Homebrewers Conference in Providence, RI in June.

Later in the year we plan to host additional classes (more topics too) on site at Ancient Fire as well as at locations such as Musto Wine Grape in Hartford, CT

We won’t be limiting our activities to just content and topics of interest to home-brewers or home mead-makers, but will also include more on honey, food pairing, cocktails and who knows what else we think will be fun!

Merry Christmas to the Ancient Fire Community!

Thank you all for coming to see us these last two weeks, the incredible gifts and for taking all the #deliciousAF home to share! We can’t wait to hear all the holiday stories next weekend.

And we must also thank you for all the great feedback on our new products, including Lavandula Limonatta, Iced Tea Break, Local Action and of course Sugarwood. We are humbled by your excitement and happiness.

We will be closed until Saturday December 29th now. We hope everyone gets a break over the next few days, and thoroughly enjoys the time with family and friends.

Our New Year’s Weekend hours are:

December 27th – CLOSED
December 28th – CLOSED
December 29th – 11AM to 6PM (closing 1 hour early)
December 30th – 12PM to 5PM
December 31st – 12PM to 5PM (New Years Eve!!!)

Growler fills are 10% all weekend.

We will have the last keg of Local Vitis I running on New Years Eve.

Be Safe. Have Fun!

The Return Of The Sweet, Ancient Flavor

Check out this very exciting interview style article with Jason about the resurgence of mead at Forbes.com!!!

Mead: The Return Of The Sweet, Ancient Flavor

Cheers!

WMUR Viewers Name Ancient Fire One Of The Top 10 NH Wineries!!!

Thank you to all of our fans who got out and voted. We tied for 6th in the 2018 viewers poll for best New Hampshire winery!

WMUR Viewers Choice: Best Winery 2018

What a huge honor!

Wine Enthusiast Magazine Says It’s Time to Pay Attention to New Hampshire Wine

Wine Enthusiast Magazine Says It’s Time to Pay Attention to New Hampshire Wine

And we AGREE!

This was a great article to be part of. Congratulations to all of our industry peers who were also featured.

The New Hampshire wine industry is very diverse. We have something for everyone. Come visit!

Press Roundup Fall 2018

Ancient Fire has definitely been getting its name out with a variety of media outlets. Here are some recent digital mentions that we hadn’t posted yet.

Hippo Press – Merry Mead

Hippo Press – Need For Mead

Winemaker Magazine – From Hobby to Startup

Cheers!

Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink

When Fred Minnick’s new book on mead, Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink, was released back in June we excitedly shared the release both because it is a very interesting book, but also because we had helped with a number of aspects of it. It was a fun project, and something we are proud to have been involved in.

We’ve been back talking with Minnick recently, and specifically for an article that was published on Forbes.com last week. Check out Mead: The Return Of The Sweet, Ancient Flavor to learn more about the resurgence of mead.

Jason will be posting again next week with interview material that hit the cutting room floor as well as some new things the interview inspired us to get moving in both our taproom and several local restaurants. Stay tuned for some exciting news!

Back to the new mead book.

We don’t claim to be mead historians, and we often tell people how we literally stumbled into making mead and that it is now very much a 21st pursuit of ours. In Mead, Minnick takes on the task of discovering the mead lore that exists everywhere in our history. Every region of the world, and every civilization has at least dabbled, and some even turned it into “a thing.”

After a spin through these different regional histories Minnick brings together the themes of honey and mead he found in each area and shares cocktails inspired by both the stories and meads. This latter part (cocktails) is one of the great frontiers in mead, and something we will be talking a lot more about soon.

What have others said about Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink?

Learn to Brew ‘History’s Oldest Drink’ – NY Times

Books: Fred Minnick Breaks Into Mead  – Alcohol Professor

Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink by Fred Minnick – Bourbon Guy

Authority and Author Fred Minnick – Drinkhacker

Sipp’n Corn Book Review—Mead: The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History’s Oldest Drink by Fred Minnick

We will have copies of the book for sale in our tap room very soon. If you would like to peruse our in-house copy over a flight or a pint, come for a visit!

Margot & Jason

What’s At The Heart Of A Good Story?

A lot of new guests at Ancient Fire ask about the story. I usually setup it up with a bit of hype, maybe something like “absolutely, and it is a GOOD one!”, so forgive me for making that assumption as a bit of theater, but you do get to decide if it’s true when I’m done.

A bit more than 15 years ago I decided something was wrong and went to the doctor. Cancer. Yup! Cancer. Not really what I expected, but I had the thought that “at least this is going to be interesting” to keep me going. That thought doesn’t always work though. Sometimes it just sucks.

The initial treatment and testing went very well and I was able to happily say then, and since, that I’ve been healthy. I did undergo radiation for a short time, and plenty of scans and bloodwork (the interesting part) in the ensuing months and years. So for this outcome it really is a great story, and I’ve never lost sight of how amazing of an experience I did have. Going to doctor early counted. Life in the bonus round has been great so far.

Strides in 2003

While I was recovering my wife Margot asked me if I had considered doing something else other than work (with my off time) as I got healthy and back to what we could make of our lives. This is one of those questions people write stories about, a question that changed lives, the course of history and led to incredible experiences that otherwise might not have been.

I replied that I would like to learn how to make my own beer. Getting the green light to buy brewing, and winemaking, equipment I set to work and made two beers before the end of 2003. They were good, provided some good times (strong) and gave me motivation to learn how to do it better. What we didn’t know was how profound of a change in direction for our lives this would be.

One paragraph to capture what then happened up until Spring of 2016. Think I can do it?

Brewing, wine-making, cider-making, reading, fundraising, advocacy, meeting many new people, travelling, entering and winning in home-brew competitions, our fundraising team raising 1000’s of dollars, blogging, so much brewing/making, many miles walked around tracks at Relay, home-brew club, lots more medals, more travel to cool places, writing, teaching, speaking, all the cool people along the way, beer judge certification, mead judge certification, more writing, more speaking, more people and finally planning a new business. Whew! Caught up?

Relay For Life 2011

As a team, and we called ourselves Survivors Rule!, our family and friends raised over $120,000 for a number of different events from 2003 to 2013. We were consistently recognized for spirit and both our team and team member prowess for fundraising. It wasn’t only about the money, but it was always important for us to have that locked in too because cancer sucks and it takes a lot of money to do research to fight it; and your taxes don’t contribute much to the cause. Margot and I still raise money and walk in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event, the event we walked at in October 2003 where we realized we had an opportunity to take this story and give back with it. So let’s get to more of that.

As a new business we get a lot of inquiries to help support local organizations with a wide range of causes. Being a producer of alcohol puts a bulls-eye on your business. Who doesn’t like free samples while they check out festivals and events? We would be crass to overlook the impact and importance of all these activities and the programs they support. Most of us would easily recognize a great cause in any of them, and would gladly support them whenever we could. And we encourage people to do just that. Find a cause/event you feel passionate about and put a story behind your efforts when you go out and ask for others to support you. Go make a difference.

With all the inquiries coming in our challenge is that we have taken our own advice, picked several organizations we plan to support, and will never have enough time to respond to every independent inquiry we get. We don’t want to offend, but our team is too small to follow-up on all of them, we just can’t. We sincerely apologize in advance.

We have two programs we will be running this year, and both will provide opportunities for Ancient Fire community members to get involved in fundraising, but also being on the event team if they want. We are going to make an impact, and the in-person experience for both of these programs is going to be so much fun!

The first program is for the American Cancer Society event Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. We will use a series of promotional activities at the meadery to support our team and raise funds. Community members who join the team will also be raising money in their own networks and walking at the event in Manchester on October 21st with Margot and I. This event is held all over New Hampshire on the same day in October every year. It is amazingly powerful to think of all the people marching down streets together all over the state raising awareness and funds to fight cancer!

Jason with Brew Free Or Die (homebrew club) at the Food Bank in 2018

The second program will be to benefit the NH Food Bank, an organization Margot and I added to our charitable work a decade ago. Since then we have donated funds as well as have participated in activities at the Food Bank that further their mission. And once again we are going to help make this experience part of Ancient Fire. This program will kick off in November with a donation of funds we raise being made in December. We will also be pulling together a small group of community members to participate in Fresh Rescue at the Food Bank, an activity that redirects leftover frozen meat to shelters, meal programs and community kitchens. Margot and I have done this event in the past and when you find out how much food you helped pack up and how many meals it will be able to create it is hard not to be emotional about your impact.

We will be launching each of these programs in their own time with a lot more information. There will be multiple ways to support each event that should provide workable, comfortable options for everyone. As a community we are going to stand up, get involved and make a difference. We are also going to have fun while doing it, and that ladies and gentleman was the point to Ancient Fire in the first place.

So is it good story? You decide. But, we are sure the next chapter is going to be even better!

Cheers!

Jason

Of Fruits And Local Labors

As we’ve quickly progressed into the summer season here in New Hampshire one of frequent questions in the tap room has been “where are we getting local produce we are using?” The short answer is lots of places, many of whom we’ve sourced from during our homebrew projects before we opened Ancient Fire. We have local favorites as well as new-to-us farms and orchards from around New Hampshire that we are expecting to get great produce from.

One of our favorite farms to work with is Sunnycrest Farms in Londonderry. Only short drive from home, we’ve visited the farm stand and the PYO areas at Sunnycrest many times! Over the years we have picked strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and grapes. When apple season comes, we’ve coordinated with a group from our local homebrew club to buy cider in bulk from Sunnycrest. We’ve also brought home peaches, apples, cherries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, honey, maple syrup and of course, cider donuts!

The recent releases of Wooderson’s Lemonade were made with strawberries from Sunnycrest. Our love for the strawberries from Sunnycrest goes back to 2004 when we first started bringing large amounts of them home to use in fermentation. The local season coincides with the official onset of Summer (June 21), which is also our wedding anniversary. Margot can definitely entertain with stories about picking berries in the early mornings of some of our first anniversaries. We fermented at least one beverage with strawberries every year from 2004 to 2013, and in some years we were able to taste a vertical (consecutive years) of a strawberry wine that we won a lot of medals with!

Earlier this year we sourced fresh dill from Country Dreams Farm, a fellow Derry Homegrown Farm & Artisan Market vendor, and used it in the house-made cheese spread on the food menu. We grow herbs at home as well, but not always dill, which typically gets used to make pickles anyway. Mmmm, fresh pickles. We might need to find some to add to the menu.

But summer isn’t over yet, and some of the best produce has yet to start arriving. So what do we have planned?

Pears – having gotten pears from another great Londonderry destination in the past, Mack’s Apples, we are hopeful we can source them here in 2018.

Wine Grapes – we are working on sources and should have some exciting announcements soon!

Cider – we will be sourcing from several farms including Apple Hill Farm, Gould Hill Orchards and Sunnycrest.

Peaches – we will be sharing peach meads soon, and some will have been made with 2017 peaches from Lull Farm.

Chili Peppers – most of our fans already know we love using chili peppers, and fresh, local, and even homegrown ones are fantastic to use!

Plums – it has been a couple years since we used plums in a wine, but that wine went from a sleeper to all gone once all the medals were counted! We like to use golden plums in particular, and sometimes along with delicious white wine grapes. The plums we made the decorated wine with came from Hackleboro Orchards.  We’ve also gotten golden plums from Elwood Orchards in the past, also right in town for us.

Pumpkin – we’ve already got some pumpkin squirreled away in the freezer, and we have a riff on a cider we made a couple years back in mind for this.

Maple Syrup – we have 2018 syrup from Four Saps Sugar Shack on hand already. We’ve also sourced syrup from Ben’s Sugar Shack in the past as well.

We also expect to work on some herbed mead recipes as we head into the cooler months, and some of these will feature herbs and hops we grew at home.

If that isn’t an exciting list of ingredients to work with we surely don’t know what one would look like!

Keep your eyes on our Facebook page for all of our product announcements so you can catch some of this local produce on tap at Ancient Fire.

Cheers!

Margot & Jason

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