At the corner of South Mason and East Market streets, down a short flight of stairs and through a glass door lies The Friendly Fermenter, a small hole-in-the-wall Nano-brewery. It is the first of its kind in Harrisonburg and although it has been just two months since its opening, the future is inevitably bright.
Shawn Gatesman took a leap of faith when he made the decision to leave his job as manager of Heartland Veterinary Clinic to pursue his dream of being an entrepreneur and starting his own brew shop. The pride and joy that he already has in the brewery is evident in the pristine yet homey and comfortable ambiance that the space radiates.
He utilized Facebook as a means to get the word out and hosted a Grand Opening at the end of the summer. “It was awesome. It was packed and there were people from a bunch of downtown businesses which was great,” said Daniel Bellerose, a local customer.
Gatesman has six taps that house a broad selection of varying beers, such as “The Green Jacket” and “The Bees Knees,” which is one of his favorites. Although his taste inevitably influences the beers that are on tap, he is aware that he must be careful to not let it dictate the options and instead tries to foster as diverse a selection as possible.
“I was ready to get out of managing business for other people,” explained Gatesman. “Everything was pointing towards ‘this is my opportunity, this is my chance.’ And on top of that, way before I ever brewed my first beer, I always felt like I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I wanted to be the master of my own destiny.” Gatesman’s approach thus far has been to offer something a little different to the community. With what is proving to be a diverse clientele from JMU students, to local Harrisonburg beer lovers and out-of-towners, it is clear that beer draws people from all walks of life together. This is also what Gatesman has enjoyed the most so far in his journey: the people.
“Recent history has shown that there is a big demand for something that is a little more, something with a personal touch. Something that is a little unique,” said Gatesman. “The excitement and enthusiasm from other people is honestly what fuels me and what is most enjoyable.”
Bellerose experienced this uniqueness when he stopped by at 11 a.m. and bought a home brewing kit.
“He gave me a whole run down of how to do home brewing and went through the whole process with me,” said Bellerose. “Super cool dude, incredibly kind, just a good guy. I’ve gone back in a couple times with friends to just play poker and hang out, it’s a great atmosphere.”
A “mixed bag” of three employees work here under Gatesman, each of them bringing something different to the table. For employee Mark Pedersen, it is also the interactions with customers that he appreciates the most.
“When Shawn was looking to open, he was looking for someone with bartending experience,” explained Pederson of how he came to be involved with The Friendly Fermenter. Today, Gatesman claims that Pederson is his “people person.”
“I learned a lot managing other businesses. Not wanting to make people feel bad, not wanting to deal with confrontation. You can’t settle,” said Gatesman. “I needed to find people who are an extension of me. You only get so much out of someone who doesn’t own something for so long.”
The casual, “incredibly chill” environment combined with Gatesman’s professionalism is something that Bellerose has found to be ideal for the small brewery. He has spent time with a few of the employees and noted that one also works at JMU in the Wind and Energy Center, which seems to have sparked Gatesman’s interest in opening a sustainable brewery in the future.
“The vibe I’ve gotten has been that Shawn has been a really good mentor,” said Bellerose.
Looking toward the future, Gatesman plans to keep The Friendly Fermenter just the way it is: “this little nano-brewing taste room, home-brew shop, brew-on-premise, and I hope all of them will be an integral part of the business. Not any one of them has to make the lion’s share. Hopefully they’ll just all be able to coexist.” He is happy with where the business is heading so far, and does not see distribution in the future.
“I just want to exist here.Whether it’s just one aspect or a combination of all of them, I’m hoping that those various attributes will bring people in enough to make this viable,” said Gatesman. “Time will tell. The way it’s going, we certainly haven’t hit our ceiling. That’s for sure.”
“It’s all in what you want.” This is the motto that Gatesman follows, something one of his brothers used to say. He wanted a piece of him along for the ride, and has found that it applies to more instances than he might have thought.
Whether you are someone with $50 or $1,000 to spend, Gatesman and his employees will be sure to find a place for you here. The Friendly Fermenter will also offer a Beer Brewing Pop-Up class, which will go through the entire process of making your own craft beer.
“For this area just for people to walk out of here and say, ‘man that place was cool.’ If they say that walking out of the door, mission accomplished.”