Anita Johnson – Behind The Beer

Founder and recently retired “HMFIC” of Great Fermentations beer/wine supply store, Anita Johnson opened her store in 1995, a time when the beer world was far from what it is today. Anita’s friendship and mentorship to homebrewers throughout Indiana, many of whom became professional brewers across the country, is what helped her earn the 2016 Golden Growler award from the Indiana State Fair Brewers Cup for her outstanding contribution to Indiana’s brewing community.

A true pioneer in her field, Anita’s influence to today’s brewing industry is something that cannot be overstated. Considering herself just a conduit, she won’t allow herself to take any credit for someone else’s success. From her first good beer, to relationships and growing a business, to the state of Indiana beer, here is Anita Johnson’s Behind The Beer story.

Anita Johnson: Well…when I was 15 the drinking age in Ohio was 18 and they had ‘three-two’ (3.2%) beer! So that’s my first introduction to beer. But my first introduction to good beer was I had a summer job in college in Chicago and they had Augsburger Dark, and I thought that was the best beer in the world. It was wonderful, I loved it! They had a great ad, they had a little German guy that would misuse American idioms. So that started it. I realized, “Wow, not all beer is light, yellow and fizzy.”

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

I got out of college and I’ve always been kind of a foodie and my husband and I were in Washington D.C., and we went into this pub and we said, “Do you have any local beers?” You know we were kind of on a quest. We were drinking some imports and things, and they said, “Well yeah, yes we do. The rep was right in here yesterday. Sam Adams.” And we tried it and we were smitten. And any time my husband would go to the East Coast he would check a case knowing that a couple would break, and bring it back. For a long time we couldn’t remember the name and we would go, “Do you have this beer Sam, Sam, Sam…” And they’d go, “Sam Smith?” “No not that one,” and finally it came to Indiana. From there we just kind of branched out and we were exploring good beer and good food.

I worked at a company called Seradyn and a friend of mine there said, “I brew my own beer,” and I thought it was super cool. I kept saying to my husband, “Do you want to brew your own beer?” He would go, “No,” and then he’d get in the car or he’d just walk away. I got him in the car one day where he couldn’t get away, “Don’t you think brewing your own beer is cool?” And he was like, “No I don’t but if you do, go right ahead.” “Okay I’m going to.”

So my friend Joe Gula came over and I said, “Teach me how to brew, I’ll make you dinner. What do you want? I’m a good cook, I’ll cook you anything.” He said, ‘Macaroni and cheese out-of-the-box, none of that homemade crap. And fish sticks (laughs).” So that’s what I did. He took me to the store, he helped me buy the stuff, he came over, he brewed it with us. We bottled it. It was “Cheeks to the Wind Mlld” out of Charlie Papazian’s book (The Complete Joy of Home Brewing) which nobody uses anymore. I thought it was the best beer ever and it just became a passion. We would fight over who got to read the book and my kids were there, and they read the book too when they were in like sixth grade. And it just became a really cool family event. I love the science, I love the creativity, I like the food aspect, the pairing aspect. There’s really nothing I don’t like about beer. So that was the beginning. Joe Gula, I introduced him to his wife. I got a hobby, he got a wife.

Opening Great Fermentations, “What in the world have I done?”

Anita Johnson: Then my husband would always tell me, “I’m going to go to the beer store tonight,” which meant the homebrew shop and “I’m going to be late.” He’d go in there and hang out and learn stuff, and then he said, “Anita something’s happening. They’re going to go out of business, I just know it.”

Image courtesy of Great Fermentations

We passed a note to the cashier and (the owner) said, “You can’t buy it but I’ll help you get started.” Well, we couldn’t buy it because he was getting inventory, taking cash and stiffing the suppliers, and we had no idea about that. So we bought none of his inventory but we paid him a small sum to teach us how to get started. We needed to paint and you know, freshen things up and the kids are in there painting and playing, and they knew how to run the cash register better than I did because they were playing on it. On the first day we weren’t completely ready, we put up note on the window that said, “Reopening July 15, 1995.”

We had no idea, people just came. We didn’t know prices, we didn’t know how to run a cash register, it was pretty humbling. And on Monday I sat there and thought, “What in the world have I done? I quit my corporate job, gave up my dream of selling internationally and I’m here, and I don’t know anything about it.”

But I tell you, I had a savior. And that’s Paul Edwards. Paul Edwards was an investor in that previous store and he got stiffed too, he didn’t get any of his money. He came in, and I think he was really trying to figure out if we were legit or not, and if Keith Hill got paid. But we became very good friends and he was in every single day after work. He said, “Call me if you have questions.” Honestly, he taught me sooo much about beer and brewing and engineering stuff, he really helped me a lot. I knew he had influenced me a lot because one day I was explaining something to a guy and his wife said, “You speak ‘guy.’’’ Because I had to. I had to learn what a ferrule was, what a barbed fitting was, look at sizes, that kind of stuff.

I guess I had won over the guys at Indianapolis Brewing early on because I would go there and buy grain, and I would pick up the 55 lb. sacks and load my truck myself. I guess that won some hearts over but I never looked at it as a gender thing. I think it’s more important to be good at what you do.

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Now I will tell you in that period of time, the engineers up at Delco had a pool – I’ve heard – about how long I would be in business. And I think I won the pool but I didn’t see a dime of it. I’m pretty upset by that (smiles). I want to know who’s got the money because it isn’t me. Probably the other funny thing is this: When I was in business school at IU, I applied for their entrepreneurship program and I got denied. So the jokes on them (laughs)!

Less hobby shop, more professional retail

Anita Johnson: It was still kind of the do-it-yourselfers, people who cook or have hobbies. People who have hobbies have more than one hobby and so we went from 1,000 square feet in Nora to about 1200 sq. ft. in Broad Ripple, across the street from Broad Ripple Brewpub. There was no place for an office so we built a platform and I couldn’t even stand up, it was the John Malkovich office. I had to bend over to stand up. We were there for about five years and it was a great time, it was a fun time. We outgrew the space pretty quickly.

In 2001 we moved to our current location. I vowed I would never move again but we did expand, we went from 4000 to 8000 sq. ft. and we added a classroom. We added basically a commercial kitchen that we could rent out so that was great. That helped a lot because when we taught classes in the warehouse it was either hot or cold. Honestly, we have a great staff that have been with me for a long time, we have turnover but we have 20 employees. There was better information, there were people actually publishing books and there was a homebrewers association. And so, homebrewers got better and the hobby got bigger and homebrew shops got more professional.

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Early on I went to California to see the big shops and I thought, “Wow, if this is good, if this is the best shop in the country, I can certainly do better than this.” It wasn’t clean, they weren’t running it like a retail store. It was a hobby to them to get their stuff. I didn’t realize this but I was a part of the beginning of a more professional homebrewers shop. We called ourselves The Underground because we met at a conference and there were 5-7 of us, and we were pushing the industry to do better. You know, “What? You don’t have a point-of-sale? You eat lunch at the counter? No! That’s not what you do.”

An evangelism grows and changes an industry  

Anita Johnson: I will tell you that back then, we were on a quest for a great beer, something better than we could find. And there weren’t a lot of craft beers out there. I think Pete’s Wicked (Ale) was out, Sam Adams was out, and those were good but we are on a quest. It was almost like an evangelism kind of thing. We brewed because we couldn’t find it. It was a very close-knit community that shared the love and passion for craft beer. The customers were early adapters. I didn’t recognize this but when my family came in to see what the heck I was doing, they spent a couple hours in the store (saying), “Your customers are kind of strange.” But they were a lot of really geeky, engineers, do-it-yourselfers. I happened to love that community. I like that!

Then it started branching out to people who were creative like cooks and graphic artists and stuff, and then we got a huge boost when United moved to town because those guys are do-it-yourselfers, but they came from the Northwest and there are an awful lot of breweries there. In that period of time from 1995 to 2000-ish, we had this thing called The Friday Night Club, and a bunch of people will filter in on a Friday afternoon. We would drink beer, talk about beer, share beers, talk about recipes, tell lies.

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Honestly, it was, Rob Caputo (Executive Director, Brewers of Indiana Guild, and co-founder and former head brewer at Flat 12), was there. Chris Ingermann (multiple award-winning homebrewer) was there, and there were just a bunch of other people that just loved beer. It was an interesting time and it was… we didn’t really think that we could change the world but we could make a different world. You know, a different beer world. But we changed an industry. It hit me right before my retirement party and it’s true. Because homebrewer’s became pro brewers, who spawned more pro brewers and consumers, and we collectively kind of pushed it. Pushed craft beer rather than having craft beer pushed on us. We went out and made it happen and now big beer is starting to take notice, and has taken notice. Now as I look back 20-22 years later we collectively changed the industry.

It was very much a relationship in a sense, and I’m really a relationship person. I can’t tell you how many people I would drag home to have dinner with us. Oh, a few spent Christmases with us. You know, showing up to visit brewers on their first professional brew day. So it was really the relationship and I love that part of it. Now it’s a little bit different. It’s more…oh…it’s more hands-off. It’s just like Facebook isn’t a relationship and Twitter isn’t a relationship but you’re connected. It’s a different connectedness.

I’m happy to have played some part in that. I certainly am not part of their success but I kind of think of them as a proud mama. Let me just say it’s like a mama bird teaches her baby bird how to fly and the bird flies on its own.

A who’s who of Indiana and nationally renowned brewers

Anita Johnson: Early on, well, “V,”  Mark Vonavich. And that’s where Dave Colt (Sun King Brewery co-founder and head brewer) started as a bartender at Circle V. Oh, Dave Chichura. Dave Chichura was a young guy who homebrewed and he and I and my husband all connected. I am his self-appointed second mother and he would come in and say, “I hate what I’m doing. My parents are not happy that I dropped out of Brown (University). I want to brew.” Rock Bottom was opening and he said, “How do I get a job there?” I said, “Go make a pest of yourself.” And he’d go down and talk to them and then come back, and tell me what he did. He got a job there and on soft opening, Jim and I were there to support him. From there he went to Rock Bottom-Warrenville, and then to Bell’s, to Mountain Sun, to the head brewer at Oskar Blues. He opened the Oskar Blues in Asheville and now he’s at Melvin (Brewing, Alpine, Wy., GABF 2015 Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year and 2017 Brewery Group and Brewery Group Brewer of the Year). He spent a Christmas with us. I love that guy.

And then Tonya Cornett of Bend (Brewing) and actually 10 Barrel now. She was going to open a brewery in Brown County. She had the space and she was buying the equipment and the space flooded. She was so bummed, she said, “I can’t open a brewery here. What am I going to do?” I said. “You know what, I think Oaken Barrel is hiring” and so I called and said, “This is the person you need to hire.”

Oh there’s more, there’s a lot more. Bill Ballinger (co-founder, Daredevil Brewing) had an all grain brew in my basement with Darren Conner (co-founder of Bier Brewery) which is kind of funny (because of their different personalities). They had brewed before that but I tell you what, they just took that information and flew with it.

You know, Mark Havens (asst. brewer, Daredevil Brewing, formerly of Quaff On) was a customer. Jon Lang (Triton Brewing) was a customer. Mike Pearson (co-founder, head brewer, Daredevil Brewing) came in later and I think he might have known how to brew. You know who I refused to hire? Jim Matt (Head Brewer, Rhinegeist Brewing). I said, “You don’t belong here, you need to go to a brewery. Your talents would be better used there.” It’s true!

Dan Krzywicki, another one that I think of as a son, he’s one of my favorites. He’s at Chilly Water, he’s worked for me. Darren’s worked for me. Shawn Kessler was at Grand Junction and now is at Taxman, he worked for me. Omar Castrellon (head brewer, Lost Forty Brewing, Little Rock, formerly at Three Wise Men) worked for me for little bit. Dave Colt (Sun King Brewery co-founder and head brewer) worked for me for a day (laughs)! No, (she did not fire him) it wasn’t what he wanted to do, which is okay. Tony Vivaldi, Colt Carpenter at Wooden Bear. Scott Ellis up at Big Lug, they all worked for us. Spencer Mason went to Flix (Brewhouse). Ah, a bunch!

Easing into retirement, seeking new challenges and keeping the business in the family

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Anita Johnson: I worked a lot. I worked seven days a week for a long time and then six days a week for a long time, and it never felt like work because it was a passion. I learned something every day, it was like going and seeing friends everyday. It was really cool because people would be bringing their family, bringing their kids. Mike Deweese (co-founder, Tow Yard Brewing, formerly of Triton Brewing) brought in his very first girl. I played around with her and one day she was crawling around on the floor and she ate some hops. I came up to her and she puked in my face (laughs)! But I’ve seen babies, I’ve seen parents, it was really a family. My son, my kids would be there on the weekends. Brian jumped up and touched the door jam and a picture fell off the wall and it cut him right here, and he has a Harry Potter scar on his forehead from Great Fermentations.

I haven’t really been active at Great Fermentation since probably November (2016) or so, I’m kind of easing my way out. So I spent January, February, March, and April organizing pictures, deep cleaning and gardening and digging in the dirt, and all of that stuff which I love. Making food and entertaining but I needed a purpose. I’m too young to really retire. I love beer but I don’t want to have to work and who knows, I might go back to the beer industry.

I’m happy to have impressed upon him what they should do with it. And whatever they do they want to go home at night and read about it. I mean even though I worked a lot I still read a lot at home. If I had stayed in insurance I did not want to go home and read about mutual funds. I don’t want to do to that. So he had to go out and make his own way and get experience, and then when it was time for him to come back to Indiana, he asked us if we would have him in the business. And he came in five years ago, he completely revamped my online presence and built that business to a very respectful amount, and kind of earned his own legs. He’ll do fine. I know he worries but I did too, the vomit early on was about right here for me and there are people who succeed because they have a fear of failure, and I think both of us have that. I had an instance early on as a kid where I failed in front of a group and I never want to feel like that again. I will do anything not to do that and I think he will too.

Indiana beer, past, present and future

Anita Johnson: I’m really pleased that beer is being used as a redevelopment tool, I think that’s great because I come from a small town. It takes something like this to kind of bring people together, create the bonds, create the beginning or the spark of redevelopment, and it’s a place for people to meet because you need that. Whether it’s in a neighborhood like Black Acre in Irvington or Planetary in Greenwood, or wherever, it’s neat that it’s becoming kind of that spark. I’m happy about that.

I think I’m probably most disappointed at the race for higher and higher alcohol and for higher and higher hops because it doesn’t showcase how good a brewer can be. I’m sad about that. Just because a beer is 11% and it’s got 150 IBU’s doesn’t mean it’s good. You know a great session IPA like All Day IPA (Founders) or Sly Boogie by Triton, you know those are great beers, drinkable beers. So I’m disappointed in that. I am pleased at the collegiality of the brewing community. Everybody helps everybody out and it’s a good industry.

I’m sad that I didn’t nurture more female brewers, I don’t know why that I couldn’t. That is a disappointment to me because I think it’s just an extension of cooking and there’s no genderness that should be associated with it. I’m sorry about that. I’m constantly amazed at the legislature in how we have to fight to nurture a business, an industry. You know, from not being able to have beer at the State Fair forever because it was a family event. You can drink beer and be a family, it just has to be in moderation.

To the barrellege limits, that makes me angry. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Or, the overwhelming population that wants to buy alcohol on Sunday. What’s the purpose of that law? I don’t get it. So, we can’t buy beer on Sunday but they’re starting medical marijuana – give me a break. So, I think you have to legislate to stop abuses but those kind of things aren’t abuses to me. I don’t know, I’m disappointed in that.

I think there’s going to be a shakeout, everybody says it, and it’s not because we have too many, it’s because the general population is becoming more of a connoisseur and educated about beer. (Gentleman interrupts, “I know you. You’re the beer lady!”).They’re not going to drink bad beer just because its craft beer or because it’s local. The people who aren’t making good beer need to start making good beer or they’re going to be selling.

The ties that bind. The relationship between people and beer

Anita Johnson: Ohhh, you know what. I’ll tell you an experience that I had that illustrates this. We were in Phoenix, Arizona at Four Peaks and it reportedly had the longest bar in all of Arizona. My husband and I were sitting there, and I said, “Hmm, I wonder what their Scottish ale tastes like?” And at the far end of the bar this guy says, “Oh, it’s delicious. Try some of mine.” Now how many other people would say, “Here drink out of my glass.” And I said, “Oh, okay I’ll try it.” He was a homebrew shop owner. I didn’t know him but that’s the relationship. That’s that connection.

Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Well I’ll tell you another. I was at Quaff On and my husband and I were talking about beer. This woman was right beside me and she said, ‘Oh, oh, well it’s really wonderful, you need to try this and this and this.” And in her, I saw me because she was advocating for the beer on the menu and introducing people to it. It’s almost like a secret society where we know something other people don’t, and that is, beer can be good. It’s kind of this combination of culinary and chemistry and microbiology and… so there is a connection. It’s something that for me defies description but I can tell you examples. It’s that people will offer you a drink from their cup is probably the most telling sign.

Beer people are good people.

Cheers!

Rick

Be sure to say to Anita at Winterfest Saturday!

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