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Brew Master

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:05 p.m. February 16, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Get ready to get jealous: Michael Wagner isn't just an entrepreneur, he's an entrepreneurial professional brew master.

The gig, though, isn't all suds and Buds.

It's a combination of a decade of dedication, a big chunk of personal savings and a gamble that a gritty neighborhood just south of downtown Bradenton is poised for a rebound. Wagner's avenue in beer is the Little Giant Brewing Co. The Little Giants is the nickname of the sports teams from Wagner's alma mater, Wabash College in Indiana.

Wagner's brewery is actually more of a manufacturing facility where a variety of microbrews are the products. The brewery will go in an empty 5,000-square-foot building next to McKechnie Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates hold spring training. He intends to open it in June.

The facility will sell beer wholesale to bars, restaurants and resorts, and it will sell retail, too, in a customer lounge and bar area at the front of the building. There are no plans to sell food. “We are all about great beer,” says Wagner. “That's the mission.”

The mission began in a shack, literally, on Anna Maria Island. A Chicago native, Wagner began to brew some beer there for friends in late 2009. He shared space with an 86-year-old artist in the shack. Says Wagner: “It was home brewing with a purpose.”

Before that, Wagner, 40, traveled the world on a beer-brewing expedition for 10 years, from Colorado to Germany to Turks and Caicos. He has worked for several breweries in Tampa and the Midwest. He even attended the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago — the Harvard of brew schools.

Wagner is seemingly launching the Little Giant at the right time. The craft brew industry sold $7.6 billion worth of beer in 2010, up from $7 billion in 2009, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based trade group.

Wagner still had his doubts about the Gulf Coast being a good place to launch a commercial brewery. “I've always called Southwest Florida the beer frontier,” says Wagner, because Budweiser and other so-called big-box brews dominate the market. “I never knew if the demographics would support this business.”

But he decided to give it a shot late last year. It will cost between $500,000 and $750,000 to launch the brewery. Wagner's personal savings, plus some money from outside investors, will fund the venture.

The first phase is to turn the 40-year-old building, which has been everything from a Greyhound bus station to a water purification facility to a Mexican restaurant, into a beer manufacturing plant. The work includes a total turnover of the plumbing and electrical work, in addition to new paint and floors. Also, the ceiling in one area will be extended to make way for some large equipment.

The neighborhood that surrounds the building presents another challenge. In addition to McKechnie Field there's an eclectic mix, from a homeless shelter to an auto repair shop. Wagner didn't receive any subsides from the city to open the brewery there, but he says he might apply for help soon.

“I look at this as a pillar in the neighborhood,” says Wagner. “Hopefully other business will build up around it.”


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