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Great Fermentations: Fueling the quest for the perfect pint Northeast-side business caters to DIY brewers

August 14, 2006

Northeast-side business caters to DIY brewers

Beer, Benjamin Franklin once said, is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

If the fermented brew so captivated one of the nation's great thinkers, it's no wonder it also trickled into the hearts and minds of thousands of home brewers like Anita Johnson.

Johnson, 44, is co-owner of Great Fermentations, where beginning and expert home brewers alike can stock up on barley, hops and yeast-and discuss the finer points of creating a quaffable pint of brew.

For Johnson and her 53-year-old husband and business partner, Jim, Great Fermentations is the classic example of a hobby run amok. The couple began brewing beer for fun and were Great Fermentations customers before they took over the then-struggling Broad Ripple business in July 1995.

Neither had experience owning a retail store. Anita left her career selling medical diagnostic equipment to run Great Fermentations full time, while Jim has kept his job as owner of locally based financial consulting firm Wealth Plan Strategies.

Anita recalls sitting on a stool behind the counter on her first day on the job, "thinking, 'What have I done?'"

Over the years, the fear of failure has dissipated like foam on a pint of ale, but Anita said she still feels a twinge when Great Fermentations takes a big step as a business-like the company's recent move to larger headquarters a few miles from its longstanding location in the heart of Broad Ripple Village.

At 4,000 square feet, the new store near 65th Street and Binford Boulevard more than doubles the retail and warehouse space of the old location, which the Johnsons hope will allow them to expand Internet sales of their equipment. Anita believes online sales could eventually make up more than half of

Business name: BTCE Inc. d/b/a Great Fermentations Location: 5127 E. 65th St. Phone: 257-9463 Web site: www.greatfermentations.comE-mail: anita@greatfermentations.comFounded: 1991 Founder: Keith Hill Owners: Anita and Jim Johnson Service/product: equipment and supplies for home beer brewing and winemaking Employees: three Revenue (2005): $350,000 One-year goal: Increase total revenue 10 percent to 16 percent; increase online sales. Industry outlook: In recent years, home brewing as a hobby has slowed, but inhome winemaking has soared in popularity, according to wholesale equipment distributor L.D. Carlson Co. Most home-brew retailers tapped the trend by adding winemaking equipment and supplies, and also are reporting growing sales for home-brewing equipment as well.

Great Fermentations' sales. They've come a long way since taking over the store at a time when the number of retailers selling home-brewing equipment was at its zenith. Full-time retailers have been disappearing ever since, said Brian Wright, Midwest sales manager for Kent, Ohio-based L.D. Carlson Co., one of the nation's largest wholesalers of home beer- and wine-making equipment. But business-savvy retailers-including Great Fermentations, which Wright called one of the strongest-have survived, he said. To build their business, the Johnsons focused on offering superior customer service. Anita eventually hired two employees, both of whom are, like her, experienced brewers and can wax poetic on the merits of the dozens of varieties of grain and hops sold at the store. The staff also began developing recipes to offer beginning brewers and now provides diagnostic help when a customer brings in a sample of a brew that didn't turn out quite right.

"We began running it like a small-town business," Anita said, learning the names of customers and pausing for chats along with the sales. "We have met [customers'] fiancees before their parents did."

When the home-brewing hobby began to wane and the popularity of wine surged in recent years, Great Fermentations began offering winemaking equipment and kits. The addition has been wildly successful so far. Wine is easier for beginners than beer, Anita said, comparing the kits to bread machines for their work- and time-saving abilities.

Although wine is an expanding part of Great Fermentations' business, beer remains its heart and soul. Other local stores sell a limited amount of beer-making equipment that can get a beginner up and running at home for $150 or so, but for serious home brewers tinkering with multiple flavors of malted barley and hops, much of Great Fermentations' competition these days comes from the Internet.

Still, those Web sites can't match Great Fermentations' customer service, and the freshness of the perishable ingredients is less of a gamble when buying in person, said Paul Edwards, a longtime home brewer who lives in Broad Ripple, within walking distance of two brewpubs.

"Anita has a very good sense of what a customer wants," Edwards said, including brewing classes taught by outside experts. "She does a good job of keeping costs under control. ... And she's willing to get whatever the customer wants if she doesn't normally stock it."


Great Fermentations owner Anita Johnson helps customer Alex Parrish make homebrewing selections at the north-side store. Johnson turned a hobby into a career.
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