Usually in this column, I’ve got good news to report. Most of the time, I’m writing about new breweries opening, new beers being offered, upcoming beer events, etc. That’s not the case this week. This time around, it’s strictly bad news: The Ring of Fire Meadery in Homer will be closing this fall.
Rachel and Laurence Livingston opened Ring of Fire Meadery in 2004. Over the years, their meads earned many awards, especially at the prestigious Mazer Cup International. From 2009 (when the Mazer Cup was created) to 2012, Ring of Fire earned 10 gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes. In 2012 they earned a gold medal for their Tart Cherry Reserve (a semisweet dessert mead), their Raspberry Melomel (a dry melomel, or mead with fruit added), and their Kulani’s Big Island Mead (a semisweet mead). Obviously, Rachel and Laurence were brewing some excellent mead in Homer. So why close?
When I put that question to them, they said, “It has been a successful 10 years with the Ring of Fire Meadery and we really struggled with the decision on whether to expand our business or close the doors. As always, it takes money to make money and we just decided we did not want to go into substantial debt in order to expand the business. It was a risk we were just not willing to take. The business has been for sale for quite awhile but the right buyers have yet to come our way.”
As of now, Ring of Fire Meadery is still open, with the employees bottling the last batch Aug. 26 and a liquidation sale underway since Aug. 27. It is half price on all mead and merchandise at the retail store, not including cyser. There is a limit of 25 750-ml bottles per person, per day. The Livingstons have departed Homer, with Laurence taking a job as the head brewer at Sky High Brewing in Corvallis, Ore.
“We will always have a strong spot in our hearts for Homer, but in the meantime, the beer-making is hot in Oregon and we are all enjoying the ride,” he said.
The sad fate of Ring of Fire calls attention to an issue that will confront more and more successful craft breweries as time goes on — succession planning. In other words, what happens when it’s time for the owner/founders to move on to other things, like retirement? Most craft brewers pour a tremendous amount of sweat equity into building their breweries and establishing their brands. How do they go about cashing out?
A lucky few may be so successful that the brewery becomes an entity in its own right. The truly big, successful craft breweries — Boston Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, New Belgium — will go on, regardless of what happens to their founders. No brewery was more identified with its owner than Anchor Brewing was with Fritz Maytag, yet he was able to sell it a few years ago to a group of investors without any issues. It had truly developed a life of its own.
Other craft brewers may be lucky enough to have family interested in taking over the business, passing it from one generation to the next. But that is always hit or miss. For many, perhaps most, a day will come when they will be faced with the same choice Ring of Fire’s owners faced — find a buyer or close up shop.
The case of Goose Island Brewing in Chicago illustrates this dilemma perfectly. Founded in 1988 by John Hall, the brewery developed a great reputation for brewing exceptional craft beers, including its award-winning Bourbon County Stout. Then on March 28, 2011, Hall announced the sale of Goose Island to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing company (and pretty much the anti-Christ to many craft beer lovers). The furor on the Internet was intense, but Hall answered his critics by simply pointing out that after 23 years of hard work, he was ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and if AB-InBev made him the best offer, so be it.
Hopefully, we’re a long way from having to contemplate these issues with any of our breweries here on the Kenai, but the day will come eventually. It’s certainly something to think about.
We’ve got another beer festival in the offing. On Saturday, Sept. 14, Bodega Fest will be happening at Cuddy Park in Anchorage from 2 to 8 p.m. It’s $25 in advance or $30 at the door, for 15 tasting tickets and a commemorative glass. Live music will be happening throughout the event, and plenty of food will be on offer from local vendors. You can purchase tickets at La Bodega in Anchorage or online at http://www.bodegafest.com. It will be a great time, so you should seriously consider it.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska — Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.