Do it yourself: Fermentables is a hobbyists dream shop
January 22-28, 2018
For a young, aspiring journalist from Virginia, Arkansas wasn’t anywhere on the radar. Nevertheless, Mike Byrum found himself at the University of Central Arkansas to study journalism, and the effects of the Natural State never quite wore off.
“I actually moved here to go to UCA because I used the Wall Street Journal’s journalism search program. It picked three schools that were best suited for what I was looking for [...] and, after looking at all the demographics, I decided on Arkansas just because of location,” he says.
The outdoor quality and beauty of the area guaranteed that Byrum would fall in love with Central Arkansas, and he quickly made many lasting friendships, one of which would influence his life path.
At the time he was in college he also happened to be in a band, which opened opportunities for Byrum to continuously meet people.
“We had a pretty unique college house – I played in a band, I’m a musician, and we were actually a working band throughout my college career. My house was were everybody lived or ended up,” he remembers.
It was around that time that he was introduced to different styles of beer, and when his friend Eric Lancaster, then-owner of Fermentables & Homegrown Hobbies, introduced him to homebrewing, he was ecstatic.
“I knew people made wine and whiskey – moonshine – but it never really occurred to me that people were making beer at home. He brought me a used beer making kit because I was a broke college kid and he said, ‘Just pay me when you get the money.’ And that’s how I started brewing beer,” Byrum remembers.
Meanwhile, while continuing to study journalism at UCA, he worked for various local publications to pay his way through school. Somewhere along the line, though, he decided he wasn’t sold on journalism as a career.
“By the time that I graduated I had figured out that the field is made up of bad hours, low pay, and ultimately, I wasn’t getting satisfaction from it,” he says. Instead, he found himself well suited for marketing, and was able to secure a solid, stable job right after graduation promoting construction.
It was around this time that his friend Eric Lancaster met an untimely death. At the time he was dating Lancaster’s sister, and as he remembers, “After some serious thinking, we decided to buy the business.” It was 2002, and Byrum had just made a pretty risky decision – leaving a steady, stable corporate job making good money to work for himself. Luckily, he was able to make a profit right away.
“I was fortunate that I purchased an existing business that was already successful. There was never the typical three to five year wait [...] we actually started making a profit fairly quickly,” he recalls.
Fermentables was no stranger to success. Lancaster had originally purchased the business from a couple who had named it the Treasure Chest – a shop for avid treasure hunters, back in 1995. The Treasure Chest also had a homebrewing arm, which is what Lancaster – by then burnt-out in restaurant management – latched onto when he purchased it.
Thanks to a growing interest in the ‘90s in craft beer, Byrum felt poised to continue serving enthusiasts when he took over the business in the early 2000s.
“In the ‘90s, homebrewing was doing really well. ... You had places like the River Rock Brewery were Omar Castrellon from Lost Forty originally brewed, opening and operating here in Arkansas,” he remembers.
That growing interest kept Fermentables busy, as Byrum recalls –“The business started to grow really quickly, so we pumped a lot of time, finances and energy into it.”
In the early days, the biggest challenge was being at the shop all the time to establish a level of customer service and quality that customers associate with Fermentables, even today. In order to keep up with the trends, Byrum also found himself expanding shop offerings.
“We just slowly started adding things that made sense. First we added cheesemaking […] cheese and wine go together – it’s hobby oriented and it’s food oriented,” he explains.
Later on, a friend recuperating from cancer got the team into indoor gardening and aquaponic systems, as well as roasting coffee beans. “We added gardening, which oddly enough, there are several business models around the country that do homebrewing and gardening,” says Byrum, “It kind of makes sense. People that like to garden tend to like to cook, and people that like to cook tend to like to homebrew. All the hobbies in the shop all kind of mingle together.”
As Byrum has added each new area of interest, he has gotten into the hobby. From cheesemaking to gardening, he’s had his go at doing it himself – which, at the end of the day – makes sense.
“That is the thing about a business like this – you have to know the products, you have to make the products themselves, even if you’re not an expert at it, you really need to be practicing it continuously,” says Byrum. “Usually the best way to answer your customer’s questions is to have been there before. If you do this long enough you’re going to go through the problems and you’re going to figure out how to solve them.”
Along that vein, the shop offers classes to help those who might be interested in a particular hobby, but unsure of where to start.
And while Byrum and his team were, for a while, the only beer making shop in Central Arkansas, they still faced fierce competition. Namely, the online marketplace has been a serious obstacle – offering enthusiasts a convenience on another level.
While customers can also order supplies online from Fermentables, a large part of their ensuing success goes back to one thing – customer service.
“Customer service is what we do best … we can always give good customer service and take time to give answers,” says Byrum.
And he must be doing something right, as each hired employee has been a customer first, and most new customers are turned onto Fermentables through word of mouth. “All of our employees have been customers before they were employees – even me,” laughs Byrum.
Mark Sniff, avid employee and local homebrewer involved with the Void Cellars brand, is a prime example. He used to travel heavily for his job, but when he had his daughter, he needed something close to home. “I asked Mike if he needed any help in the shop,” says Sniff, “And, luckily for me, he did.”
Byrum is extremely grateful for all of the friendships he’s made since owning the business, on all fronts.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends. Not just professional contacts, but people have become friends like Omar over at Lost Forty. Even people like Mark here, we’ve become good friends. We have a lot of things in common even though we have a working relationship,” he says.
And while Byrum has been here for quite some time and considers Little Rock his home, he’s ready to see the scene push the envelope even more, especially when it comes to one of his favorite hobbies – brewing beer.
“It’s been good to see the growth we’ve experienced in the past five years. Unfortunately, we’re still a long way away from where we should be,” he says. “Quality is going to really become the main issue for breweries in the future. Bad quality is just going to eventually weed out the bad breweries.”
In the meantime, those looking to get their feet wet at homebrewing – among other things – should stop by Fermentables located on 3915 Crutcher Street in North Little Rock.
Owner Mike Byrum and his team tout customer service as their number one weapon against competition from online markets. (Photo by Becca Bona)