A SuFu Brew
Meet Blake Thompson ’10, part owner and brewer of Fernson Brewing Company in Sioux Falls.
Blake Thompson’s passion for his job shines brightest when he’s pouring you a beer.
“Galavant is a pale ale. There’s a dash of fruit, peach and mango. And there’s bitterness there but it’s not overpowering. It’s one of our most popular beers.”
The 2010 graduate is part-owner and brewer of Fernson Brewing Company, a Sioux Falls brewery he started with business partner Derek Fernholz in 2014.
To these two, making and serving beer is all about the experience.
“We wanted to create an environment that would spark a fun conversation with you and your friends. When you come here, you don’t usually see people sitting on their phones like at other places.”
— Blake Thompson '10
Co-owner and brewer of Fernson Brewing Company in Sioux Falls
Their taproom doesn’t have any TVs, and visitors are encouraged to play board games provided at the bar or sit and enjoy a conversation together.
When coming up with a name for their brewery, they kept this philosophy in mind:
“We had a bunch of names picked out including the name Overture because we wanted a company that would bring people together over a beer,” Thompson said. “Just like a musical overture, the beer was the beginning of something larger.”
They found with some research that Overture was already a winery owned by a big company and their lawyers advised them to pick a different name.
“So we went back to the drawing board and my mom said, ‘Why don’t you call it Fernson?’” Thompson said. “Which we knew would be completely unique because it’s a combination of our last names, Fernholz and Thompson. Four months later, Fernson was officially the name of the brewery.”
In their logo, the “o” in Fernson is represented by a drawing of a man, whom Thompson says is the characterization of Fernson.
“Fernson is supposed to be this guy, kind of like a Gandalf character, an old mystical figure, who calls the shots.”
Thompson’s sense of humor is shared by his partner and their employees who, together, produce 4,500 barrels of beer annually.
But getting to this stage was not an easy road for Thompson.
From T-Shirts to Cellars
Even before he chose to study business administration at Augustana, Thompson had entrepreneurial experience from starting a t-shirt business called Moose Friendly, LLC., based on a moose drawing he’d been doing since middle school.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Hey, if you put that on a shirt, I’d buy it.’” Thompson said. “So I did.”
He has sold shirts all over the world and has been a go-to favorite for Augustana organizations. But after graduation, Thompson was hungry to start something bigger.
“I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know what,” he said.
In the spring of 2011, he started making beer with his friends as a hobby.
“By no means was it good beer,” Thompson said. “It’s probably one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted in my whole life, but just doing it inspired me to take advantage of this winery opportunity.”
His parents, Jana and Vance Thompson, are part owners of Jessup Winery in Napa, California and had invited Thompson to come work for them in a position he says is known in the winemaking industry as a cellar rat.
“We do whatever the winemaker tells us to do,” he said. “It was a nice opportunity to go do something different and I jumped on it. Plus, I knew there were all these breweries out there who asked for experience.”
Thompson said it was a good experience and he learned everything about the winemaking process including sorting grapes, filling barrels, maintenance, tasting and fermentation, which is also used in making beer, “but unfortunately breweries didn’t think wine experience translated to beer experience.”
After working at the winery, he applied for brewery jobs all over the country but was told he needed more experience.
“It’s really hard to get experience when no one gives you a chance,” he said. “But it was fine, because it all worked out.”
Becoming a Master Brewer
Thompson decided he could best get experience through a master brewer program and began applying to schools.
He was accepted to the Master Brewer Program at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and eventually got a job at Bitter Esters Brewhouse in Custer, South Dakota, as the assistant brewer in 2012. With loftier goals beyond being an assistant brewer, however, Thompson was excited to find out that summer he was accepted to the Master Brewers Program at University of California-Davis.
With these two additional programs and his experience at Bitter Esters, Thompson again began to look for brewer positions across the country. Again, he had no luck.
“So I said, ‘Screw it. I’m going to start my own brewery in Sioux Falls.’”
Thompson told Rob Green ‘11, a friend from Augustana, about his plans to start his own brewery and learned Green’s brother-in-law, Fernholz, was also planning to start a brewery in Sioux Falls.
“So we met and hit it off,” Thompson said. “We started making beer together and officially formed a company in the summer of 2014. Then, February of 2015 was our first brew day, and it’s all been crazy since.”
Being One of the First
When it comes to starting a business, some ventures are riskier than others. Breweries for example? Definitely a risk. Especially when you’re one of the first in the area.
“If you look at other markets around the country — Minneapolis, Omaha and Colorado — there are breweries everywhere,” Thompson said. “But there weren’t a lot of breweries in South Dakota and we drink a lot of beer here.”
Gandy Dancer came to Sioux Falls in 2013 and was the only brewery in town before Fernson.
“It seemed like the perfect opportunity for us,” Thompson said.
They began by brewing the two most popular beer styles from the coasts, an India Pale Ale (IPA) and a Farmhouse Ale.
“We might have come out of the gate with the wrong beer styles right away,” Thompson said. “They’ve been slowly coming to South Dakota, but most of our palates here aren’t used to that. We came out ambitious thinking we’re going to change everyone’s palates and we’re going to change the way people think about beer and it’s been a little harder than that.”
Thompson says they tried a number of new beers after the IPA and Farmhouse, but it wasn’t until about the tenth beer they created, a German-style lager called Lion’s Paw, that Fernson finally got the attention of South Dakotans.
“After that came out, every one of our beers started to sell better. So now we’re maxed out. We can’t even make more beer than what we’re making right now.”
Currently, Fernson can brew six different kinds of beer at once in their 60-barrel fermenters. Two of those fermenters were just recently delivered to help keep up with the demand for Lion’s Paw and their original IPA and Farmhouse beers, which they package and sell in South Dakota and western Iowa.
“Sioux Falls is drinking us dry right now, which is a good problem to have.” Thompson said. “But it will always be a big risk because we are trying to grow constantly. We are trying to be the big regional brewery covering all the way down to Texas, up to Canada, and then we’ll probably try to expand beyond the borders of the U.S.”
With those big dreams, Thompson says their current space just north of I-90 on Robur Drive won’t be big enough for long and they will have to start shopping for another location sometime in the near future.
Fernson recently took the national stage at the Republican National Convention, held July 18-21, as the exclusive craft beer provider for a party during the RNC. As Thompson told the Argus Leader, “The convention party is a huge step for us. Launching our brand in a new market is exhilarating. We can’t wait to see how our beers resonate with RNC attendees from across the country. This is our first time on a national stage – people from every state will be in attendance.”
Thompson, Fernholz and their team have busy work weeks that require careful planning.
“We wear many hats here,” Thompson said.
They prepare for brewing on Mondays and begin to brew and package at 5 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and work until they’re done, which he says could be 5 p.m. or it could be 8 p.m.
“We start early because problems that happen on a big system usually become big problems and they can take a while to solve.”
Fridays are left to catch up on computer work, accounting, inventory and planning out future brews.
“The most challenging thing is trying to manage people,” Thompson said. “It’s the best part about it and the worst part. Running this business is all about picking the right people to work for you and we’re trying to offer the best experience possible for beer drinking, which is a lofty goal.
“It’s also a very expensive business to get into,” he said. “Beer is not an expensive item so you’ve got to sell a lot of it to make money.”
Recently, Fernson opened a taproom in downtown Sioux Falls.
“We put a lot of thought into that,” Thompson said. “We set up a pretty cheap budget and came in below our budget somehow next to a great pizza place, Breadico.”
Thompson said the partnership with Breadico has worked out well.
“We thought, ‘How great is it that we can offer the beer and wine and the food can come from right next door to us!”
Continuing to dream big, Thompson says they have ideas to start a brewery focused on aging beer in oak and “trying out some funky flavors” in the next three to five years.