Recent Spate of Craft Brewery Fires Across the Nation Highlight Safety Work of Brewers Association

Recent Spate of Craft Brewery Fires Across the Nation Highlight Safety Work of Brewers Association

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

March 23rd was the date for the Sour Wild Funk Fest, put on by Upland Brewing and consisting of 50 of the best breweries in the country that produce sour, wild, and mixed fermentation beers. One of the breweries that people enjoyed that Saturday was Common Roots Brewing Co. from South Glens Falls, NY. I’m sorry to report that a fire swept through the entire building on Monday evening, the 25th.

Seven fire departments were called out to battle the blaze, but the structure was almost completely lost. The brew house was totally destroyed, taproom was heavily damaged, and a rear warehouse was burnt to a slightly lesser extent. Brewery co-owner Christian Weber had begun a wort boil in the kettle (natural gas) and had moved to the office when he smelled smoke and heard crackling.

The origin of the fire was somewhere near the roof where the stovepipes connected to the brew house. The fire has been determined to be accidental, but just what caused it will not be known for some time. The Weber family gathered with their employees the next day to start the process of determining how they will proceed. Weber says he plans to rebuild, but the timeline is completely up in the air.

Common Roots would like to keep the employees working as much as possible until they can reopen, in an effort to retain the current staff. This is similar to what Kevin Matalucci did when Twenty Tap in Indianapolis suffered through their fire in February and the five months it took to get reopened. Their fire was also accidental and took place in the ceiling/roof, so this seems to be a common source of fire (although Twenty Tap’s fire was in the kitchen, not the brew house).

Remember the Twenty Tap fire – it was the worst five months of Walter’s adult life. image credits: RTV6 and Fox 2 News

These were two very unfortunate incidents, and they got me to thinking….didn’t I recently hear about another brewery fire? Walter and I were visiting southern Illinois for the Scratch Brewing’s 6th Anniversary party in early March. We met a couple from central Illinois who told us that their local brewery had recently burned; the husband had seen the flames from their house. I couldn’t remember the name, but with these two in mind, I did a Google search for brewery fires and found a disturbing number of them.

I easily found 16 different fires noted, from large to small and from very recent to pretty recent. The earliest I wrote down was Matt Brewing in Utica, NY in 2008 that destroyed two floors of their very old building, but a trend developed as I put them in order for this story. It stuck out to me that there have been eight craft brewery fires in the last four months. Did you hear that? The US has averaged two craft brewery fires a month since the beginning of December, 2018!

I know the country has more than 7000 breweries in operation now, so brewery fires, even if rare, are going to be more numerous. But eight in four months? We have a lot more restaurants than we have breweries, so I wondered if I could get any statistics on restaurant fire incidence and then compare them to breweries.

Once again, I turned to my source of all knowledge – Google. Statista says there are more than 680,000 restaurants in the country. That’s a lot of people not cooking at home. FEMA says that there was an average of 5600 restaurant fires each year from 2011-2013. If the rates were the same for breweries and restaurants, then we would expect 61 fires in breweries this year. I really hope that doesn’t come to pass.

What I do think this means, besides the fact that my math is fuzzy, is that breweries are doing a pretty good job at monitoring safety. True, there aren’t as many instances where breweries are working with open flame and hot fat, and not every brewery is brewing every day, but it’s still a credit to the industry that fires aren’t more common with all that heating equipment being used. The again, not all brewery fires are about the brew house.

The police released a picture of the suspect in the Yard Brewing arson, but no arrest has been made. image credit: 6abc Philadelphia

The damage done to Yards Brewery in Spring Garden, PA in March of 2018 was arson. Someone set a dumpster on fire and the ensuing blaze spread to the façade and then the building. Likewise, the fire that opened a 15 ft. hole in the roof of Zero Gravity Brewing in Burlington, VT on March 19, 2019 was due to stray paper lantern that had been released from a nearby park (illegal to do so). Finally, the fire at Start Line Brewing in Hopkinton, MA in January of this year was due to a defective gas heater for the building, not the brew house.

Sometimes the cause of the fire might not ever be known. The blaze which completely destroyed the 1905 Brewery in Assumption, IL this past February started around 4:30pm, but the collapse of a large wall around the brew house is hampering investigation of a cause. The ironic part? One of the ten owners of the brewery is an insurance claims adjuster who investigates the causes of fires

In other cases, the age of the building is a factor. Crystal Coast Brewing in Morehead City, NC had a fire on Dec. 27, 2018 that was started by buried electrical lines in the floor behind the bar. In many cases, breweries look to preserve or renovate old buildings as part of their mission to fit into and enhance the community. This often means that there are parts of the buildings’ history that the breweries’ are not aware of and other parts that are just plain old. In Crystal Coast’s situation, no one knew those electrical lines were there and it took chiseling out the area where the fire started to find them.

Anytime you have heat, dust, and electricity around, there’s going to be a chance for fire. Therefore, best practices say that you do those things that minimize that chance. Brewery insurance companies do a lot to help breweries reduce any risky structures or practices, and they will always give some version of the following points:

1) Keep your kettle and boilers separate from the rest of the brewery by some type of fire break. 2) Separate your grain milling area and places where grain dust can be trapped in the air from the rest of your brewery. This reduces dust explosion risk. 3) Make sure there is adequate ventilation throughout the brewery. 4) Have a central area that can monitor smoke and fire alarms and where this may be relayed to the local fire department. 5) Have working detectors and an adequate sprinkler system.

I think you might want to add to this that if a brewery is going into an older building, more work in researching the previous occupants and any changes they may have made, and better than “due diligence” is appropriate in renovating the space. I love breweries that assist in revitalizing a downtown or other stressed area, with all the history and architecture that the old places bring with them, but given what’s at stake, spending a few extra dollars is probably worth it.

On the other hand, thousands of breweries are in these locations, and as I learned through communication with Matt Stinchfield, the safety ambassador for Brewers Association – very few ever have a fire. Matt told me that there isn‘t a clearinghouse of information on brewery fire incidents, so that correlating the number of fires with the number of breweries isn’t possible at this time. Despite this, BA does have an entire portion of their website dedicated to brewery safety, including a series of safety training videos and workshops.

However, he also said that if he had to wager on it, he would bet that fire incidence isn’t matching an increase in brewery number “due to our industry’s constant attention to safety through trade associations and OSHA collaboration and emphasis.” He reached out to his restaurant safety contacts and they stated that restaurant fires are much more common than brewery fires – my fuzzy math just got fuzzier.

Image credit: Brewers Association

In fact, Matt stated that, “Brewing already has the lowest injury rate of any type of beverage manufacturer (beer, wine, spirits, water, pop, and ice).” Brewers Association is diligent in responding to the safety concerns and issues for the industry, and as such, they reach out to local contacts and breweries whenever there is a reported accident. He said it is frustrating when a “freak accident” is reported and when BA tries to circle back to get more information, the local reporting is misleading and the reports are not available because of litigation or insurance issues.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to know that the chief association for craft beer takes this issue seriously and develops safety training in response to issues that arise. It’s also great to know that breweries are safety conscious, both for the sake of their business, but also for the sake of their patrons and employees.

The nicest part about these tragedies, if there’s any nice part at all, is how breweries come together to help those in need. Nearly ¼ of the breweries in America joined together with Sierra Nevada to help people affected by the Camp Fire in California – the fire even closed part of Sierra Nevada Brewing itself for a short time. The numbers aren’t in, but I’m guessing the funding for rebuilding efforts will be in the tens of millions of dollars from the Resilience IPA project.

On a smaller scale, local breweries almost always come together to help breweries that are affected by fires. It’s happening now in New York with breweries around Common Roots, and it was the same with Portage Brewing in Walker, MN which burned down on January 5th of this year. Thanks to the community in general and the community of brewers, Portage has already started rebuilding. It’s just another way craft beer makes something good from something bad.

UPDATE: A small range top fire at Warped Wing Brewery in Dayton on Wednesday, April 17th will have the Spent Grain Grill for a few days. The fire was quickly put out by employees and the damage was limited to the kitchen. Hours for the brewery and taproom were not affected.


banner image credit: Post Star

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