Shawn Gatesman: From North Clarion to Virginia’s Friendly Fermenter

| March 4, 2019

HARRISONBURG, Va. (EYT) – North Clarion High School graduate Shawn Gatesman never brewed a batch of beer until 2014, but now he owns the Friendly Fermenter, a licensed microbrewery in Harrisonburg and a fully stocked home brewing shop that opened in 2017.

When he graduated from North Clarion in 1994 and IUP in 1998, he was looking forward to becoming a veterinarian, but a few things changed after he moved shortly after graduation to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

“I had some family down there, and as the youngest of nine children, I traveled a lot with my parents there, and I loved the area,” said Gatesman.

“Compared to northwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up, there were seemingly countless opportunities.  It was a different market, but at the same time, there was a rural country living to be had down here, like Lucinda, and that’s where my heart remained.”

Gatesman moved with the idea of eventually attending vet school after majoring in biology, minoring in chemistry, and on a pre-vet track. At that time, it was a little tricky getting into vet school in different states, and Gatesman gained work in the animal businesses and eventually got into management in northern Virginia.

“Julie and I tried to find other opportunities for ourselves, and that’s when our family started quicker than we participated. That guided many of our moves, and that was one of the reasons I ended up in veterinary management. Lilly, our first child, came along a year and a half after we were married…a little quicker than we were expecting.”

The Gatesman Family

The Gatesman Family

He ended up in veterinary management at the Heartland Veterinary Clinic in Harrisonburg where he gained great tools over his decade in management.

“About three years or so ago started the germ of an idea for the Friendly Fermenter with home brewing,”

“About three years or so ago when I started homebrewing, the germ of an idea for the Friendly Fermenter also began,” said Gatesman.

“We had three kids.  I guess I needed a new thing in my life, and it just came along.  I liked doing it and got in the habit of sharing my beer. People’s reaction to my beer was not only enjoyable, but it sometimes shocked them. That led to making more and more homebrew and more people.  Being blessed with a big family, I had so shortage of people to share my homebrew with.”

“It didn’t take much time for me to get a reputation in the area for a really good homebrewer who is making some awesome beer.  That got me tied into judging and involved with some competitions.”  

fermenter bar

One thing led to another.

Gatesman explained that he is from a blue-collar entrepreneur family. His dad Jack got married in 1949 and started his garage a few years after that, and his brother Dave has various contracting businesses in Erie.

“It was in my bloodstream, and I wanted to drive my own boat, and if I was going to give a lot of me for somebody else’s benefit and business that got old to me,” said Gatesman. “We are an entrepreneurial family, and it wasn’t like my parents did it with any intent, but if you’re one of Jack Gatesman’s kids and you see what he and mom did with an extremely humble upbringing, you know hard work brings success.”

“I remember telling someone down here when I first got here, that I know I’m not born to be famous or destined to do world-changing things, but I know I’m supposed to do something that matters, and I’m not just going to collect a paycheck.”  

“Being the youngest of nine, I always wanted to have a family. I knew that was a box I was going to check.  I’ve been in business long enough to have some things confirmed and what was driving me to do all of those things were very, very real.”

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to do it forever or sell it in a year.  Heck if I know. I know now that this was something I was supposed to do.”

After visiting a small store about an hour and a half away, Gatesman thought it would be nice to have his own store in Harrisonburg, but wasn’t sure if it would be feasible. On February 2, 2015, he mapped out a rough plan of how to make it work. He slowly made the transition from veterinary management to brewing.  He was lucky enough to be able to train his assistant of nine years to take over.  Gatesman said the owner was very supportive, and it meant a lot to him and his family. His wife Julie still works there as a bookkeeper.

“The difference from my past job is I was the manager there, directing people and I didn’t actually do a lot of things myself.  Here, I do all of that with a very tiny staff, but I also make all of the beer, still clean the bathrooms occasionally.  People ask if I’m the owner and I say yeah…owner, brewmaster, janitor, social media…”

The Friendly Fermenter is one of those cozy little bars that remind people of “Cheers” and surely everyone knows your name. Like the real bar that “Cheers” was modeled after in Boston, the Friendly Fermenter was constructed out of basement space in downtown Harrisonburg.

“The main thing is I am a brewery taproom where I produce beer and that is 80 to 85 percent of the business.  I have a 50-person capacity. I have a true brewery license. I can produce and sell all of the beer I want out of here, but I cannot sell any other kind of alcohol.  The nice thing is I don’t have to sell a lick of food or anything else if I don’t want to. I could sell a thousand pints a day out of here, and I’m legal.  That’s the advantage of a brewery license. Of course, I’m a mix of a retail shop, service, educational facility with different classes.  Different groups have commissioned me to do classes through the Harrisonburg Parks and Rec Department.”

friendly fermenter

“We do not have a restaurant.  In Virginia, if you have a brewery license and you want to make food from scratch, you need a brewpub license and they have to sell a certain percentage of food. I can bring in a food truck, and if they have a license to sell, any arrangement we have is perfectly legal.  Also, I can heat up and serve any food as long as it came from a legal vendor.  We do have heat up and serve items like chips and salsa. We do have a lot of food, but we’re not a restaurant.”

Gatesman also has also a fully stocked home brewing shop for mainly home brewers, but also wine. He has all of the ingredients to make beer, yeast, and different equipment, things to adjust water chemistry.  People are interested in making beer themselves and that is also how Gatesman started.

In addition to brewing colorful flavors of been like “The Bee’s Knees” – Honey DIPA “Almond Brothers” – Toasted Almond Brown Ale,”Brehfuss” – Blonde Coffee Stout, “Heartland” – Vienna Lager, “Don’t be Bitter” – NE Style IPA, and “Big Toby” – Imperial Irish Red, Gatesman also offers a unique brew on site where customers can brew their own. It’s a small part of their business.

“When you brew beer, there’s a lot of downtimes.  You can come in, and we guide you in making beer. We do all of the hard work in brewing, and they get to do the fun part. We still do four or five a month.”

Like Cheers, the Friendly Fermenter is very much a people business and is a growing part of the community, supporting fundraisers in the store.

“I don’t know where it was rooted, but it just started right out of the gate. It was such an awesome thing, personally and professionally, to make memorable connections with these people.”

“A group of them that care about a cause, care about an organization, right here together having this experience and seeing the community and the Friendly Fermenter give back.  That kind of stuff burns a deep impression.  I’ve created some super fans—they didn’t know who I was two years ago and now their friends and raving fans and what I’m doing with my brand and my beer.”

“We’re looking to do more doing of that type of mutually beneficial fundraising.  We bring a group in here when we’re not going to be really busy. I’m giving them a platform and a kickback, and it doesn’t cost them anything out of their pocket or to me when all is said and done with even a donation to them. It’s such a beautiful symbiotic relationship, as I like to put it. There are organizations out there that are interested in doing those types of things.  Once you help one, they start coming out of the woodwork.  We found that doing these events have become very much of what we are. We had three nights in a row—Friday, Saturday, and Sunday where we had a fundraiser, and it all went off with other entertainment.”

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