It's easy to miss the locally-made line of beers sporting the Fireman's Brew logo among the sea of craft and mega brews at local grocery stores. Not so easy to miss are the life size stand-up displays with L.A. County firefighter Rob Nowaczyk grinning and lugging his craft brews.
And while beer geeks may not give the beers -- a pilsner-style lager, chocolate-y doublebock and amber ale -- the highest tasting scores (the cheesy Blonde/Brunette/Redhead names might have something to do with it), Fireman's Brew customers don't seem to mind. You know, Nowaczyk has that fireman thing going for him. Plus, his company supports a good cause.
So how did an L.A. fireman end up in the brewing business? Ten years ago, after Nowaczyk and colleague Ed Walker had finished putting out a brush fire along Glendale's 210 freeway, they were understandably rather parched. "We were sitting up on a hill, we'd already knocked the fire down... and were super tired and thirsty," recalls Nowaczyk. "We thought, 'Hey, let's brew beer and raise money for firemen.'"
That same fateful night, they came up with the requisite (or so it seems these days) frat house craft beer slogan -- "Extinguish your thirst, ignite the party!" -- and Fireman's Brew was, well, ignited.
One problem. They were firefighters, not small business-minded sorts or professional brewers (though Nowaczyk had long been a homebrewer). So they hit Brewbakers, a bottle-your-own shop in Huntington Beach, to experiment with various ingredients. "We tweaked recipes, played around with one keg at a time until we found something we liked," recalls Nowaczyk, noting they bottled and labeled the beers by hand on their days off.
They'd just gotten the business off the ground when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001. "We put the company on hold for several years," says Nowaczyk, noting they didn't resume operations until 2006. "We didn't want to make money [indirectly] off of 9-11 just because we were firefighters and people were really supportive then... out of respect for those firefighters."
"And we also wanted to raise money for all firefighters across the U.S., not just those in New York," he adds. "The volunteer firefighter in Texas, or the small department in Idaho that doesn't have the resources we do as professional firefighters in California." In addition to not taking a salary, volunteer firefighters often do not receive health or death benefits. Although Fireman's Brew isn't a nonprofit brewery, 5% of the net income is donated to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (the company also participates in numerous fund-raising efforts benefiting firemen nationwide throughout the year).
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By 2007, Walker had opted out of the brewing end of the business (both he and Nowaczyk are still full-time firefighters), so Nowaczyk hired a family friend and recent business school graduate, David Johnson, to serve as the business and operations manager. "Being a fireman and running a business are two very different skill sets," says Johnson.
Until last year, Fireman's Brew beers and "on-duty drinks" (sodas and coffee) were only sold to local firehouses. The coffee was added, as Johnson says, because "most fireman work 24 hour shifts, so they drink a ton of coffee at work." (It is sold primarily directly to firehouses.)
These days, business is picking up at local grocery stores and bars. And while Johnson says no plans are in the works to open a stand-alone own brewery (the beers are made by a third party), Nowaczyk adds that "our goal is to provide drinks for all times, on duty and off-duty." Fireman not included.
Fireman's Brew beers and sodas are available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars, and most area Bristol Farms, Whole Foods and CostPlus stores. You can find them at several local bars, including Barney's Beanery.