When Will Fisher was first asked by his friend, Jake Austin, to help open a brewery, Fisher initially turned him down. Even though he wanted to start a business, Fisher thought that a brewery was just too risky at the time.
Both capital and labor intensive, he’d be burning both ends of the candle working at the brewery and at his day job until the brewery grew enough to support him. And it was possible the brewery never would grow enough.
But luckily for Fisher, it has.
He overcame his initial doubts and jumped on board with Austin. Now, Austin Street Brewery is thriving and is poised to open a second, larger location on Portland’s Fox Street.
Fisher embodies a true entrepreneurial spirit: He took a risk, learned from his mistakes and learned from the community to build a business with a quality product and a growing customer base.
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When the business launched in 2014, Fisher and Austin were friends and spending time together at Austin’s place in Westbrook — which just happened to be on Austin Street. Hence the name of their future business.
Austin was homebrewing, and the beer he was producing was good. So good that when he made the offer to Fisher to become business partners, Fisher’s friends told him he should do it. Fisher had a decision to make: take the risk or risk Austin finding someone else to go into business with him.
At the time, Fisher was working as the service manager at Morong’s Falmouth. He had been there for ten years, working his way up from service advisor to the management position. Fisher credits the position with teaching him about the ins and outs of business and management.
“I loved the job and could have done it forever, but life’s short,” Fisher says.
He’s also glad that he earned his Associate’s Degree and learned a trade, rather than completing a four-year degree. Fisher is a strong proponent of a technical education, noting the current demand for tradespeople while expressing regret that the trades and technical education have been looked down on for far too long.
Though he earned his Associate’s Degree with the intention to work in the automotive industry, Fisher had always wanted to open his own business. Now, with business experience, money saved up, a great business partner and a quality product to sell, it was time to launch his dream.
Austin Street Brewery started out as a home brewing operation with the two founders labeling individual bottles of beer and passing them out to friends within the industry. They traveled up to Newcastle to share beers with the folks at Oxbow, taking time to pick their brains about running a brewery in Maine. At Novare Res, the two not only offered their test batches to the staff to try at home, but also honed their own tastes by completing the Uprising; a proverbial beer right of passage in Portland. In doing so, they tasted beers of different styles from around the world, learning what they liked, didn’t like and what they wanted in the beers they would be brewing.
At Novare and beyond, the reception for their own creations was positive. Austin Street Brewery was on its way.
With a name, a quality product plus feedback and interest from the industry, the two were ready to make a go of it. They leased space at One Industrial Way, alongside other iconic Portland breweries like Allagash and Geary’s. Their building had been the former home of two other notable Maine breweries: Rising Tide and Maine Beer Company. Here, they found not only valuable foot traffic due to their neighbors, Bissell Brothers and Foundation Brewing, but also an incredibly welcoming and helpful atmosphere.
Bissell Brothers washed their kegs, and even offered up their canning line. Petar and Noah Bissell pushed the line across the parking lot, putting the equipment at risk, just so Austin Street Brewery could have the opportunity to try canning some of their beers.
“That is just incredible that they would offer to do that,” Fisher reflects, still grateful for their generosity.
Even with a supportive community around, Fisher still had his doubts. Their opening day was successful – a Saturday celebration complete with a food truck and crowds of friends and family. The next day, though, Fisher remembers as being pretty depressing. He and Austin sat outside the brewery, waiting for customers, but only a few trickled in over the course of the afternoon.
“We opened at noon and no one came for two hours. That day, we averaged $10 an hour. That was slap in the face the day after opening,” recalls Fisher.
Luckily, they didn’t have to wait long for things to pick up. Soon, they were having to close down the tasting room after just four hours, because they couldn’t brew enough beer to keep up with demand. For two years, they were making and selling as much as they could but were never able to keep up. And it was still just the two of them operating the brewery. It wasn’t until 2016 that their first employee, Lisa Kellndorfer, was hired.
Today, Austin Street Brewery is up to 11 employees — with zero turnover.
“I never thought we could build a team this rock solid that truly cares about what we’re doing. That blows me away on a day to day basis,” Fisher says.
Only 4 years into operations, they’re now looking to hire five more employees for their upcoming Fox Street location. Fisher describes the new location as, ”A place for people to hang out, have a great time and drink some great beer.”
It will be a tasting room with a pub atmosphere, and will also be where the bulk of their beer production is done. Their Industrial Way tasting room will remain open, while they retain the ability to brew pilot batches there and continue their wild beer program.
Beyond the expansion, Fisher isn’t sure what the future holds for Austin Street Brewery. They’re doing well now, but he’s a natural worrier so he’s always on his toes and thinking about what might happen if they can’t pay their bills. That doesn’t seem like a plausible scenario right now, but Fisher says the importance of planning for business has become more and more evident to him over the years.
In fact, he says one of the biggest mistakes he made was not creating a business plan at the outset of Austin Street Brewery. Being a self-financed startup, there was no one to answer to per se, and they promptly went well beyond their initial budget. Now, Fisher knows better.
Fisher knew he wanted to open a business, but a brewery didn’t seem like it was in his wheelhouse. He overcame his fears, listened to people he trusted, and took a leap that has changed his life and made a major mark in the Portland beer scene. He has used his years of business experience in a completely different industry to inform his work at the brewery, and even as head of operations he’s still involved in the grunt work of the day-to-day.
That’s why Will Fisher is an Emerging Icon.
All photos by Peter Anania