The Unbelievable Story of Stephen Foster, Craft Beer Con ManPhotos via Getty Images, Chris J. Ratcliffe Drink News craft beer
I’ve heard some strange stories about brewery employees over the years, but it’s 100 percent accurate to say that I’ve never heard a story like this one before. Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione once described the craft beer industry as 99 percent asshole-free, but if the years since have taught us anything, it’s that he was being very generous in his estimation. Especially in a world where the likes of Stephen Foster continue to exist, trailing brewery closures in their wake.
We should note: Information regarding this story is still pretty scarce. Most of what we know comes from a Kentucky Sports Radio story first published yesterday, wherein the tale of Stephen Foster is brought to light, but there are some supporting anecdotes to be found around the web. Some of this stuff may have to be taken with a grain of salt, but there are enough corroborating breweries to say this with some degree of certainty: A man named Stephen Foster has been conning American craft breweries for more than a decade, at the very least. It’s like the beer world’s equivalent of Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can, except much less sophisticated.
Credit where credit is due: Writer Michael Moeller did a bang-up job of diving into the seedy history of this craft beer bogeyman in his KSR story, and you should really go read it in its entirety. Rather than attempt to condense Moeller’s entire story here, I’ll simply sum up.
The Craft Beer Con Man
Since at least 2007, craft breweries in both the U.S.A. and Europe/Africa have apparently been scammed by a man named Stephen Foster, who just so happens to possess the same name as the famous songwriter, although there’s evidence he has at various points worked with the first name “Scott” and the last name “Sala.” He has been connected to a dozen or more breweries, working in various places for a few months at a time (up to several years) before disappearing when things turn sour. He seems to target brewmaster positions especially, but primarily at young breweries with less-than-robust hiring practices where he can win jobs through force of personality alone, covering up a seemingly obvious disqualifier: He’s not very good at making beer.
The typical Stephen Foster MO, then, has worked out something like this:
1. Foster approaches a young brewery looking for a brewmaster, or approaches small-town entrepreneurs and convinces them to open a brewery, with him as brewmaster.
2. He misrepresents his previous brewing history, saying that he received “formal education” in beer at the Bavarian State Brewery of Weihenstephan or the Siebel Institute in Chicago. These lines are repeated in a Creative Loafing Tampa story from 2016, where Foster is mentioned as having brewed in “the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and South Africa,” while working for the time at Tampa’s 81Bay Brewing Co.
3. Beer quality under Foster’s reign is subpar, with various breweries describing batches that are infected and contain bottle bombs or other off-flavors. Brewery business suffers as a result, and occasionally other brewery employees grow suspicious of their brewmaster’s supposed qualifications.
4. At some point, Foster disappears overnight, leaving town with a wife and children in tow. He gives no warning, leaving breweries in the lurch and several times leading directly to brewery closures.
According to the timeline assembled by Moeller in his story, this pattern has played out repeatedly, leading to Foster jumping around from Kentucky to South Africa; from Arizona to Indiana; from Tennessee to Pennsylvania; from Florida back to Kentucky. That eventually led Foster to Cadiz, Kentucky in 2017, where he convinced a couple named Brandon and Molly Oliver, the owners of Black Hawk Farms, to open a brewery named St. Arnulf Alery, which is now (unsurprisingly) defunct. To quote Moeller:
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.
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.
“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.”
This type of story is repeated in various permutations on other corners of the web as well. In this reddit thread, representatives from Tampa’s 81Bay Brewing Co. bemoan the damage that Foster did to their brand before he either disappeared or was fired. Here, more brewery professionals discuss Moeller’s story on reddit, with more accounts of Foster’s apparent negligence popping up.
In the end, we’re left with a number of obvious, unanswered questions.
— Has Foster never had charges brought against him by any of these breweries? Based on the stories in Moeller’s piece, one would expect him to be wanted on some kind of fraud or embezzlement charge, but there’s no mention of any of the breweries attempting to have Foster arrested or brought to a court date.
— Why would a guy like this travel the country, uprooting his family once a year on average, in order to attempt to pass himself off as an experienced brewmaster?
— How do you not become an experienced, capable brewmaster after a decade of experience in pretending to be one? You would think that after the sheer amount of batches he’s produced to date, that Foster would have an easier time faking competence in his chosen field as a con man.
— Where is Foster now? Is he once again employed by a brewery? Brewers reading this: Do you know a brewmaster by the name of Stephen Foster, or “Scott Foster,” or “Stephen Sala,” or “Scott Sala”? If you do, you might want to look into that.
And finally, we’re left also with an inescapable observation: The craft beer industry really needs to grow up. A con man like Stephen Foster would never be able to gain employment as a brewer, much less as a brewmaster in charge of a company’s entire brewing operation, if there wasn’t a severely lax attitude toward hiring. If most of these companies had simply done a little bit of research—at the very least, calling some of Foster’s stated previous employers—they could presumably have warded off disaster. This type of con is only possible in an industry that prides itself on a “DIY” or fly-by-night ethos that all too often translates to a lack of basic professionalism.
Breweries of the USA: Don’t let this happen to you.