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Hops and a heck of a risk: starting a brewery

Posted: 6:22 AM, Oct 26, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-26 14:05:37Z

It took Rob Whyte years to get the right ingredients. He had to experiment with equipment and recipes and methods. And when the beer was ready, the real work began. 

"Time, effort, sleepless nights," are what goes into the business part of the recipe, he says. "The creative part is the most fun for me."

It's always been that way for Whyte. He picked up home brewing before he could legally buy beer. But after college and getting a job, he gave up his hobby. 

By the early 2000's, he and his wife Jen were newlyweds living in California. Jen traveled with her job for weeks at a time, so Rob picked up homebrewing again. To Jen's surprise.

"I walk in, and the hose is connected to the sink and there's all these glass containers all over the place. I open the fridge, and all the shelves are out of the fridge, and there are kegs stacked in the fridge," Jen says.  "And he literally looked at me and said, 'you're gone. I need a hobby. It could be worse.' And I thought yea, brewing beer isn't the worst hobby he could've picked."

So Rob stayed with it. For years he hung out at a local brewery and learned the ropes of brewing. As he tinkered with his recipe and the homebrew awards began stacking up, an idea began to ferment. What if this could be more than a hobby?

Around that time, the couple moved to Fort Myers to be closer to family. It didn't take them long to realize there was no brewery in Southwest Florida. So the Whytes began scouting out possible locations and buying equipment.

"At that point, I thought we were a little crazy," Jen says. "Our garage was full of diary tanks, we couldn't pull our car in. We didn't have a location yet. And my husband, he was going to build a fire box to put underneath these dairy tanks to make into a brew system. And I had no idea if it was actually going to work."

"Looking from her perspective, I guess I could see that," Rob says when he thinks about that time. He remembers being tired. It was a lot of work.

"We didn't take on any investors; we cashed in our bank accounts," he says. "We did everything ourselves."

They were spending money, but if things didn't work out, they had their jobs to fall back on. So they started small. In 2013, Fort Myers Brewing Company was open just two days a week. This way, both Rob and Jen could continue their work-from-home jobs, and run the brewery on the weekend.

A year later they decided to take a more significant risk. Rob quit his job to concentrate on the brewery full time.

"I thought, 'oh, we're giving up a stable salary, insurance,'" Jen says.  "Him leaving that job, we gave all of it up."

It was a big risk. But the Whytes came to wish they had taken it sooner. Pretty much overnight, business exploded. 

"So everything just keeps getting bigger," Rob says. 

"When we first opened, our tasting room was a couple hundred square feet. And you're looking at well over 15 hundred square feet of tasting room space," Jen says. 

Fort Myers Brewing Company is the area's first and still, largest brewery. Now the Whytes have another risk to think about, what to about the future?

"We're still having that conversation about what do we want to be. Because there's great risk in continuing to grow. There's also great risk in deciding to be what we are right now, " Jen says. 

Fort Myers Brewing Company is the second in our SWFL Reinvented series. These are local success stories about people who have changed their lives by starting over.