Author: jtphelps

Running Ancient Fire in COVID Times

Star Wars is always our go to after a long day.
(Rise of Skywalker screening in Dec 2019)

In two posts earlier this year we shared some of our experiences and plans during these challenging times. Check out What Next? and Finding The Future to see how things went earlier in pandemic mode. Truthfully the challenges continue to mount, and like so many stories from this period, you can quickly see the “perfect storm” in this one.

First and foremost we are very concerned that no matter what we do we may provide a path for COVID through our community. What a horrible concern to have. Reflected in these times where there will clearly be no easy solutions, we must carry that concern with us as we literally do things that increase that chance. 

What are we, and other businesses like us, experiencing? Assume this is a partial list, because like so many of these stories, every experience is at least slightly different. 

  • Rising prices for materials, packaging and supplies; availability issues with existing suppliers causes lost time and money searching for alternatives
  • COVID specific supply shortages (PPE, etc from day 1, but other items consistently and more frequently)
  • Profitability drops (margin decreases) as more distributed product drives sales goals
  • Logistics delays and sharp freight increases
  • Lots of new “rules”, “recommendations” and “requirements” and approval overhead
  • Minimal to no enforcement of or public education about the new State-driven rules with a call for the public to do their part, e.g. helping to create public trust

The integrated nature of our business means that all of the problems in a wide number of supported industries combine in our production and distribution process. Did you catch that? That was the sound of the perfect storm crashing in. Every day is a soupy mess of tradeoffs and decisions, almost none of which are technically good. Everyone is going through these things. We know because we ask our customers, vendors and service providers. 

But wait, there’s more!

These challenges on top of the changes in gathering behavior and events specific to our hospitality business stokes that perfect storm with unpredictable demand, much reduced marketing opportunities and more friction at and resources needed through every customer facing activity. We’ve brought the staff back to help with Take Out, recovery planning with several having been partially deployed on other responsibilities to help us as much as possible right now. 

This is all without raising prices or adding fees, and as of the time of this document being published, without taxpayer funded relief either. 

And again, we aren’t alone or unique. Ask your favorite local restaurant, bar or brewery. You’ll hear a lot of different stories, but the underlying themes will be the same. 

Depending on where a particular business is at in this moment however, the weight of all of this may come at any one of some classically “bad times” and be more comprehensively damaging than they otherwise might be. For a small company that was just reaching a point of having a capable team in place for primarily a taproom driven model, this wasn’t good timing. We were staffed and trained for one thing, and something quite different was required immediately. Our part time staff all had, and thankfully kept, their primary jobs, but for us that meant they weren’t a good fit for any radical transformations we might want to undertake. We asked them to stick with us without being sure when we could use their help again. Assume the part time arrangements and specific hours per week plays a part in how, and how well, “paycheck” minded taxpayer relief works. 

Some people might say “why didn’t/don’t you just hire new people who fit the need?” Good idea, except that in the immediacy of this change having any staff toiling away next to each other (unprotected at the time) was the opposite of what was being asked, and with an abundance of caution, we took it seriously. Our job can’t be done remote, and training can’t either. Now we don’t have the resources to hire, and remain cautious because we aren’t out of any woods yet. 

So a perfect storm of rising costs, unstable sales and COVID burdens it is. 

Coming back from all of this will be even harder. 

  • We still have lots of uncertainty 
  • Long term thinking is largely off the table
  • Short term thinking can be dangerously reactionary at this point; things change fast

For some of us it is survival not recovery.

This week we are finally re-opening for dine-in, and we hope lots of folks will come see us. Take Out is still a great option, and we also have our quarterly bottle club and the ability to ship to 37 states. You can find us on more shelves and on more taps now than pre-COVID. But we see the challenges reflected in all of these areas. We understand that this is affecting you too, and we are doing what we can to help. As we continue to enhance the engagement with our community we are excited to get the word of mouth working again like it did in years one and two. Thank you so much for all of your support. Your continued feedback has been helpful for us to understand the reality we are all in!

We still need to do all of these and other things we had previously planned so we can understand what the dine-in and other sales channels can actually do for us in THESE times. We need this information because assumptions won’t do it, and this data will feed some very important and challenging decisions that we will have to make at month end. 

The only thing that is certain, and this is typically exciting, is we have a lot to learn with everything coming at us this way.

Thank you for caring enough to read to the end. We want you to know that this is real for us too, and that we understand. We hope what we have to offer can provide you enjoyment for at least a little bit in these challenging times.

 Thank you, and see you soon!

Jason & Margot

Finding The Future

{ Way back machine. 1st birthday party, March 2019 }

It’s amazing what a crisis can do. The opportunity to learn, refocus, exploit new opportunities and to dream are all positive elements to situations that can often just seem so hopeless. My own experience with cancer nearly 20 years ago gave me this same opportunity, and the fact that Ancient Fire even exists is because of what side of that crisis I decided to play on.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been crippling for families, businesses, cities and states. The whole of our country has all been mixed up by it. We are very much at the beginning of our experience with this virus and its impacts, and that is precisely when we need to be looking at where the opportunities are. What can we do differently, and better?

We’ve learned a lot in the last 3 months. We’ve had the opportunity to look at our business model and figure out what worked and what didn’t, and while we were able to pivot to Take Out quickly and easily, everything else we lost definitely didn’t help us to try and continue to grow our brand. Scaling back to a skeleton crew (just Margot and I for the first 8 weeks) definitely reminded us that we’ve grown a bit since we started out that way in 2018, and two people can’t run this business by themselves anymore! We are so thankful to our staff and our entire community for helping us get here, it sure hasn’t been easy!

With re-opening here in NH set to enter phase 2 on June 15th, we’ve ramped up our planning for supporting dine-in again. That said, we won’t be opening for dine-in inside or outside the week of June 15th. We need a little more time to get ready as well as a couple weeks to work on changes from what we’ve learned. Margot and I are also going to take a little break before we jump right back in to things.

So, we are still asking for everyone to be patient with us. We will be back, it will be better than it was before and we really appreciate all of the support we have had with Take Out and Direct Shipping orders up to this point. Folks that really want to help us should continue to use these options. This allows us to put money in the bank, pay our staff and keep the production ramping in the right direction to support all the thirsty mead and cider consumers out there.

So what’s the plan?

We expect to re-open for dine-in both inside and outside the week of July 6th. We will announce more details on what kind of seating and offerings will be available as we get closer. It will be reservation based and there will be all kinds of rules we all have to follow to keep ourselves safe and Ancient Fire in compliance with the Manchester Health Department.

In the meantime we have a number of upcoming releases including, You Cyser, You Brought Her and Leaping Off  The Ledge. At the end of the month, and right before the July 4th holiday, Sweet Burn Dude! and Station 7 come back! So, while we get ready we are still keeping the mead flowing!

Over the next couple of weeks several two person teams from our staff will be making new batches of mead from the Hawaiian honeys so that we can bring back favorites like SHE-nanigans, Orange You Happy and Tai Fighter as well as release new meads from them like Colada Love and some yet to be named! Everyone on the team is rolling up their sleeves to get product moving, re-envision the tap room and make sure we are ready to have you all back!

THANK YOU!

Margot & Jason

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

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