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How this three-person craft beer brewery surged to national fame in just four years

CNBC logo CNBC 13/9/2017 Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com
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Small businesses usually have, at best, a minor impact on their hometown. They employ a few people, they pay taxes, and they certainly add a convenience factor, but as individual entities, they're rarely big revenue drivers.

Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina, is one of the exceptions. Founded four years ago, the beer maker has just three full-time employees but has built such a strong reputation in the beer world that Morganton (located about an hour east of Asheville) has become a destination for beer tourists, bringing thousands of visitors to the town of 17,000 people each year.

While its locally sourced funky and Saison beers have become hot commodities in the $23.5 billion craft beer market, Fonta Flora's way of running its business isn't much different than many of the companies CNBC surveyed in the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey.

It's among the 61 percent with an employee count of just one to four people (though it does have 10 part-timers who assist). It's among the 55 percent that have a website, though it's fairly rudimentary. And the owners will be the first to admit that they were slow to fully take advantage of social media marketing.

Seeing is believing

"Initially, our social media presence was pretty weak," says David Bennett, co-owner of Fonta Flora. "We really started all of our platforms — as far as Twitter or Instagram — after we'd been in business for about 12 months."

Read More: This 60-year-old founder took her business from zero to $500 million is 6 years

Since focusing on Instagram as a tool, though, the company has learned the importance of telling a story — and using it as a way to showcase their corporate culture.

"What we do is so visual, whether it be photos of us harvesting raw ingredients or something else," says Bennett. "Sharing the process with our customers really helps our brand identity. We're not some nameless, faceless, industrial park. We're not buying 20 tons of grain from who knows where. ... When you're seeing someone hand-zesting oranges, for instance, those things really convey what we are as a brand and as a company."

It wasn't social media that set Fonta Flora on its path to success, though. It was beer festivals.

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With offerings like Beets, Rhymes and Life (a beet saison) and Rind (a mixed culture Gose with watermelon and rhubarb), Fonta Flora has always offered something different. That uniqueness is enhanced by the company's insistence on sourcing as many of its ingredients locally as possible.

So when it began pouring at beer festivals, beer enthusiasts took note — and began talking the brews up to their friends. That word of mouth kicked into overdrive in 2014, when the brewery won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, Mecca for beer nerds.

"If you want to create a unique product, the best way to do it is with unique ingredients," says Bennett. "If you're using the same malt and water sources and yeast strains that are abundant, you're starting into the same platform, but when you reverse the trend and use your own ingredients, you're not going to find that anywhere else. ... That creates a unique product that resonates with our customer base."

Keeping up with demand

The downside of that is, supply simply can't keep up with demand. Much like San Francisco's The Rare Barrel, another microbrewer who has built a national reputation, Fonta Flora doesn't distribute much outside of its own walls — and even then, it's hit or miss if people will be able to leave with a bottle of their favorite, something that can be frustrating to people who have driven hundreds of miles.

To remedy that, the brewer is building a new production facility on eight acres of a historic farm site that will quadruple its capacity (and add 10 more full-time employees to its payroll). Much of that acreage will be used as farmland to grow the produce the brewer uses in its beers, but local farmers will see benefits as well.

"We're working with local farmers as well as the local community college's farming program, saying, 'If we can't find it, we're going to make it.' So let's get some farms and, say... if right now we're buying 1,000 lbs. of blueberries for a sour we make, let's bring in 5,000 lbs. and help them scale up," says Bennett.

Even with the growth, Fonta Flora is in line with many of the companies who responded to the CNBC survey. Cybersecurity isn't something that's a top-line concern (since critical information, like brew logs, is done by hand), it doesn't expect political changes to have a drastic effect on its business, and it's not giving a lot of thought to succession plans. ("We're in phase two or three, and that's phase seven or eight," says Bennett.)

What the brewer has found, though, is that a national (and international) reputation changes the relationship with your customers. And in many ways, that has been the hardest adjustment to make.

"We didn't intend to have a national presence," says Bennett. "At some point that grew beyond what we are, as owners of the company, and at some point you become less an owner and more a caretaker. You're a steward for that company. It's a responsibility I wasn't ready for at the start."

— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com

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