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The (Other) Stephen Foster Story: Kentucky’s Craft Beer Con Man

On3 imageby:KSR01/27/19
[caption id="attachment_254945" align="alignnone" width="975"] Photo: South Bend Tribune[/caption] By Michael Moeller This is the story of a craft beer con man who traveled across the United States and abroad - a man who knew how to exploit the shared weakness of most small businesses - talk a big enough game and a background check won’t be required. Talk an even bigger game and even fool business partners and investors. In the beginning there were exploding bottles, infected batches, and angry customers from across the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The longer the brewery stayed open, the more rumors and complaints piled up within the beer community. Despite the many issues, St. Arnulf Alery, a new brewery in Cadiz, Kentucky, announced on social media that a beer garden was under construction in late September 2018. And then nothing. Without explanation or warning, the beer stopped flowing. Distribution stopped. Contact ceased. It wasn’t until a few days before Christmas 2018 that St. Arnulf Alery’s owner, Molly Oliver, confirmed in a Tweet that the business was no longer in operation. I spoke with Molly and her husband, Brandon Oliver, about what happened. In early 2017, Foster approached the Olivers, the owners of Black Hawk Farms, with a business proposal. He was a brewer and he needed a brewery. Foster mentioned that he moved back to his childhood home of Kentucky after brewing in Florida. He wanted his two kids and wife to experience Kentucky how he had. Foster had a plan. He asked for $25,000 in start-up funds to start brewing beer in the Oliver Farm grain bin. He would split beer sales 50/50 with the owners. In August 2017, St. Arnulf Alery, LLC was incorporated. Soon after, the farm refit the grain bin, brewing equipment was purchased and installed. Beer was being made and distributed and consumers were purchasing. And complaining. I asked Brandon Oliver his opinion on Foster. “Intelligent. Smooth. And he would talk down to others. But what he was doing was ass-stupid...” Oliver’s opinion of Foster was that he wasn’t really inept at handling equipment of any kind. Various accounts in the region indicated that Foster began asking for more investors. He reportedly wanted to expand the business into Florida and additional states. He and Arnulf’s beer rep would take samples to Tampa and St. Augustine, meeting with distributors and craft beer bloggers. During this time, the beer rep admits that Foster didn’t always pay her the amount promised, and sometimes would pay her with funds, as Foster told her, via his “old bearer bonds” instead of through the company’s normal payroll system. In September of 2018, Foster began working on a taproom and it took the form of an outdoor beer garden on the Oliver property. One day, weeks later, Foster asked his assistant to meet him at 9 a.m. the next morning to brew. Foster never came back. [caption id="attachment_254947" align="alignnone" width="459"] Photo: St. Arnulf Alery Facebook Page[/caption] “The phone rang and rang and rang...I checked the house and it was empty. The door was unlocked,” Brandon Oliver says. “His chickens were still in the backyard...about 90% of his clothes were gone...he left as if he only had six hours to leave.” Foster left his tools out at the unfinished beer garden. He and his family left town overnight. But this wasn’t the first time Foster caused issues for a brewery. It happened many times before St. Arnulf’s Alery. That night Molly Oliver confirmed the brewery’s closure? She mentioned this: The ‘Tampa scandal’ Oliver refers to Foster’s involvement with 81Bay Brewing Co. in Tampa, FL in 2016. A Reddit post (Feb. 2017) describes an open brewer position with 81Bay. Reddit user /r/wobblingwheeb asked bluntly – “I hope you aren't the guys that hired Steve Foster. Because if you are, I feel really really really bad for you.” It was. “Yup. Lesson learned. Moving on,” replied Michael Beard, owner of 81Bay. “We'll survive. He definitely did a number on us, though.” Other comments in the thread described Foster as a “con-man,” “crook,” and “fraud.” Beard and 81Bay were not available for comment. The Reddit thread lead to an article citing a brewery closure in South Bend, Indiana - Four Horsemen Brewing Company. Brothers Sam and Ben Roule opened this brewery. The third owner and brewmaster was Stephen Foster. One beer blogger familiar with Four Horsemen Brewing admitted that “the beer sucked,” and that he believed Foster to be a fraud. He relayed that Foster was most likely let go for lingering quality control issues. Later, Foster would tell others he left on his own. “Bottling line was a disaster mechanically (thanks to Stephen),” replied Reddit user /u/hoptaco777 on what happened at Four Horsemen. “Stephen Foster is a crook, con-man and fraud. This guy has never been successful at anything. He's destroyed breweries he's worked for and has scammed brewery owners into thinking he was experienced.” An anonymous brewery owner admits that they let Foster and Four Horsemen contract brew beer for them before officially opening. Because of poor production quality, the new brewery owners had to break off the relationship with Four Horsemen, for the sake of keeping their new business from going sideways. They placed the blame solely on Foster. Sam and Ben Roule did not respond for comment. So what does Foster’s resume look like? Creative Loafing Tampa (May 2016) describes Foster’s brewing experience before 81Bay Brewing’s opening. Foster grew up in Pennsylvania (disputed, as he told Brandon Oliver differently) but gained international brewing experience later in life. He told others that he had formal brewing education from the Bavarian brewing monastery Weihenstephan in Germany as well as holding beverage jobs in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. To have that kind of experience coming to any brewery, let alone one in Caviz, KY, would have been a great get. But St. Arnulf Alery’s was not Foster’s first brewing job in Kentucky. In 2007, Foster was the Head Brewer for Bowling Green Brewing Company (BGBC) for about 18 months. [caption id="attachment_254944" align="alignnone" width="469"] Photo: Bowling Green Daily News[/caption] “For approximately 1½ years at its inception. Stephen Foster was our brewer at that time,” Ellen Selig, former President of BGBC says. “Due to it [the beer] not being pasteurized (according to Stephen the best process), the beer continued to evolve while held the Kentucky stipulated 3-5 days in our distributor's unrefrigerated storage.” For this reason, Selig and Foster believed the beer's flavor was unpredictable and often disappointing. The BGBC board had invested in a brewing system that was not fit for Kentucky distribution. Foster was unfamiliar with Kentucky requirements and did not feel responsible for the brewery’s ensuing difficulties. BGBC is no longer in operation. Sources say that Foster was briefly employed by Boston Breweries in Cape Town, South Africa. After Foster took sick leave one day, his employer at Boston Breweries found him working for another brewery nearby. Shortly after, Foster left both breweries, and the country, leaving work unfinished and loans unpaid. A former employee of Nimbus Brewing in Tucson, AZ told me that Foster showed up to his brewery (as mentioned on shortly after leaving Cape Town in 2011. Foster befriended the owner, Jim Counts, and persuaded Counts to hire him. Over the course of 6-8 months, employees at Nimbus grew suspicious of Foster and his capabilities. After a background check, they claimed that Foster was never enrolled at Weihenstephan and confronted him. Foster stormed out the door, claiming his coworkers were conspiring against him. Fast forward to January 2014, shortly after the events in South Bend, IN. Foster is aiming to open up a brewery of his own in Tennessee. He has partners and investors. However, he is not able to get all the funding he needs. Foster, learning of a new brewing opportunity, reaches out to Adam Palmer of Knoxville Saw Works. According to Palmer, Foster had a wonderful resume. Foster knew the lingo, the literature, could navigate a brewhouse, and could talk the talk. “He was a walking encyclopedia...he was very intelligent...he’s a con-man.” Palmer says. In February 2014, Foster helped Knoxville Saw Works and Palmer get investors for expansion projects and canning lines. Right away, it seemed excessive. “We returned $250,000 worth of brewing equipment that Stephen requested...just because we didn’t need it,” Palmer says. Foster and a couple of other brewers began making beer at Saw Works. Foster started a job at South College’s Professional Brewing Science Program, and it became evident that he could help with new business at Saw Works. In a matter of months, he and Palmer wanted to open up a secondary bar and brewery in Sevierville, TN. Investors were again secured and a plan for a new business was coming together. Foster proved to be a great salesman. Except... “The quality of beer went to shit.” Palmer says. Despite Foster’s insistence on over-sanitizing and cleanliness, batches at Saw Works were constantly infected or bad. “The product was not good.” Foster played it off as his assistants’ fault, but Palmer suspected otherwise. The other brewers had been there before Foster’s arrival – he was the only variable. The beer got worse. Distributors threatened to leave. Suspicion grew behind closed doors. Around Christmas of 2014, Foster disappeared. In March 2015, Foster pursued a new brewery idea. This time in Gatlinburg, TN. He headed up the project and would call it The Sevier Ale House. The brewery would find its home in an old Gatlinburg, TN KFC. The last social media post was on May 1, 2015. Foster then disappeared. Again. Foster’s business partner at Sevier Ale House did not respond for comment. Later in 2015, Foster appeared in Pennsylvania at Wyndridge Farm, where he worked as a brewer for three months. According to a previous employee of Wyndridge, Jared Barnes, Foster called in sick one day. They discovered his house had been emptied and lost the brewery “about $100,000” in poorly produced beer. “He ruins people’s lives,” Barnes admits. “He makes them put their trust in him...give him money...and he leaves.” According to Barnes, Foster could talk the talk but “in practical application, he’s a f****** moron.” We know what happens eventually. Foster moves to Tampa, Florida and begins another doomed-to-fail relationship, this time with 81Bay Brewing, eventually moving back to Kentucky for St. Arnulf’s Alery. Foster did not respond for comment. Based on conversations with former colleagues of Foster’s, in addition to what Foster told others, here’s a timeline:
  • Pre- 2007: Foster is allegedly receiving brewing education in Germany and later employed in beverage jobs in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
  • 2007- 2008: Bowling Green Brewing Co. (KY)
  • Pre-2011: Boston Breweries + Unnamed brewery (Cape Town, South Africa)
  • 2011: Nimbus Brewing (AZ)
  • 2011 – 2013: Four Horsemen Brewing Co. (IN)
  • 2014 – 2015: Knoxville Saw Works / South College (TN)
  • 2015: Sevier Ale House project (Gatlinburg, TN)
  • 2015: Wyndridge Farm (PA)
  • 2016: 81Bay Brewing (FL)
  • 2017-2018: St. Arnulf Alery
Since researching this story, I have learned that Foster occasionally goes by his first name of ‘Scott’ and sometimes takes the last name of ‘Sala.’ As of January 2019, colleagues of Foster believe he is residing with his family in Illinois. The takeaway for small business owners, of breweries or otherwise - take the time to interview and check references. Know who you’re allowing to become an ambassador for your brand and your name, and especially those who you might be entrusting with investment dollars. If you have a brewery story to share, or have any additional information about Stephen Foster, contact Michael Moeller at [email protected] or Tweet him at @michaeldmoeller [mobile_ad]

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