What if you could drink a beer in your old first grade classroom? A brewpub housed in a 1930s schoolhouse in Eola, Texas, gives alumni the opportunity to do just that. Farm Ale Brewing Co. is both a craft beer maker and destination spot, also popular with families, tourists, and locals from neighboring San Angelo, Texas.
The business brews and cans beer inside the old school—but the history of the building is just as important as what’s brewing inside it, according to Farm Ale’s brewmaster, Chris Fisher. “What we’re trying to do is not only be a brewery, but we want to bring the school back and kind of restore some of its former glory,” he said. Eola School served as a community center for this small town (now with a population of 38), before the building shuttered in 1983.
Under Farm Ale Brewing Co.’s ownership, the school gets a new life. Chris said: “I’ve had people out here who actually graduated from out here, and we can walk them through the building, and they’ll say ‘Oh, this was the science room. This was the home-making room. This was math. This was English.’ We’ve got old pictures of graduating classes from 1938 hanging on the walls in the hallway. We’re trying to bring it back to where people can come out and drink a beer in their first grade classroom.”
Chris’s dedication to honoring history while modernizing the business for a wider audience made an impression on Yelp reviewer Josh H. “It’s like history is coming alive in this building—all while you’re sipping on a really good beer,” he said.
Below, Chris shares some of the business strategies that have helped make Farm Ale Brewing Co. a draw for this Texas community.
1. Give customers a ‘place to be’
“If you build it, they will come” is rarely true in business. When your brewery is located 25 minutes outside the nearest city, you can’t wait for customers to trickle in. To help spread the word and build momentum for the future, Chris encourages groups to come to the space for events.
“As of right now, we do not charge people to use our venue for different functions,” Chris said. “It’s a place, especially for this community, where they’re not going to get charged an arm and a leg. They want to do something, they have a place to be.”
So far, Farm Ale has hosted a community fish fry, car show, motorcycle meet-ups, and even a wedding. Families often bring their kids to play at the old Eola School playground, while the parents have a couple beers. The brewery’s family-friendly, community-centered model is particularly beneficial for rural communities, where many businesses struggle to stay afloat.
“It’s acting as this really nice adhesive for cultural development, [both for people] who may be big time beer drinkers and people who aren’t really in it just for the beer, but they want some kind of a local community outlet where they can go and do things,” Josh said.
2. Hire for potential, not experience
Farm Ale Brewing Co. operates by another golden rule: Hire employees for what they can become, not just what they are. Not only will you be able to train your team members firsthand, but you’ll also develop the next generation of ambassadors for your business. Farm Ale’s small team includes a 19-year-old bartender, line cook training to be an executive chef, and a maintenance tech who’s remodeled nearly all of the school building himself.
“It’s always been my opinion that if you are always only looking for the right person, you’re going to pass up a lot of people who could be that right person in the future,” Chris said. “There are so many people that are overlooked in this world. It kind of goes back to [my experience in the] military. I developed so many people into who they are today.
“And that’s what I love here—we take people who might not have been given a chance somewhere else, we give them that chance, and we let them blossom into the people who they can be rather than the person that they are right now.”
Even Chris is self-taught. The owner, Jason, took a chance on him—and it paid off. Aided in part by his lack of experience, Chris spurned trends and forged his own path in the beer industry, creating a gateway IPA for those wary of hop-heavy beers. “I’m giving them the aromatics without that kind of kick to the face or the lingering aftertaste,” he said. “It makes it very drinkable for a large audience.”
3. Honor your history
When using historic spaces, it pays to honor that history. Rather than destroying everything and building it anew, upcycling an old space can add to the charm of your business. You might even uncover stories that become a crucial part of your business identity.
For example, through his own research, Chris learned that Western performers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers once performed at Eola School. “There is so much history here, so much heritage here, that it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “When I finally got the chance to actually work out here, I actually started studying the history of the school.”
All of this history adds value to the business—from customers who visit their old classrooms to Chris’ brewery tours, which feature as much history as they do hops. “If I’m giving that tour, I’m not just telling people, ‘This is how we make beer, and this is what our equipment is,’ he said. “I’m telling them the story of the school because the school itself is what’s really important… It’s an all-around experience.”
From a customer perspective, this immersive experience is what makes Farm Ale so memorable. “They’ve [taken] the best parts of what was there when it was Eola Schoolhouse and built upon that foundation,” Josh said. “They’re making it bigger, better, and newer than it was before—repurposing the spaces, not trying to build from scratch, but keeping what’s there about historic nostalgia and amplify[ing it].”
Photos from Farm Ale Brewing Co. & Yelp; interviews by Emily Washcovick; editorial contributions by Holly Hanchey
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Chris and Josh, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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