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Big Bamboozle

The cost of one grifter’s craft-brewed con

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Last week, an incredible story began to circulate about a person who just may be the all-time greatest con man associated with craft beer. Stephen Foster conned his way into head brewer jobs at nine breweries in six states—including Florida—and two countries. His luck held up for more than 12 years. In his wake, breweries were left in shambles. Some closed permanently.

Who is the enigmatic Stephen Foster? The whole truth is still unknown, but what is known is convoluted and beyond bizarre.

It began in 2007, at fledgling Bowling Green Brewing Company, Bowling Green, Kentucky. As it readied to launch, Foster secured a head brewer position. He told board members he had an extensive brewing history and had studied at the Bavarian State Brewery of Weihenstephan. Foster also told them he’d been working at breweries in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Thing is, no one’s been able to verify these claims.

Foster was head brewer at BGBC for 18 months, and the brewery was plagued by subpar beer for just as long. Foster blamed the poor quality on the fact that the beer wasn’t pasteurized, letting yeast and bacteria thrive. The truth, as would be discovered later by many other breweries, was that Foster was a bad brewer. Not surprisingly, BGBC is no longer in business.

Foster next showed up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he worked at Boston Breweries in 2011. An anecdote mentioned by Michael Moeller on kentuckysportsradio.com tells of Foster calling in sick one day—and then being discovered working at another, unnamed brewery in Cape Town. Then, as is his modus operandi, Foster vanished from South Africa.

Foster’s story repeats itself at five more breweries, until 2016, when he shows up at Tampa’s 81Bay Brewing Company. An article in Folio Weekly’s sister publication, Creative Loafing Tampa, describes Foster as having 24 years of brewing experience and echoes his claim of formal training at Weihenstephan.

A lively conversation began on Reddit about Foster’s time in Tampa after the brewery posted a help wanted ad to the online bulletin board. The whole debacle was dubbed “The Tampa Scandal,” with the owners of 81Bay keeping mostly mum on the subject, save a few posts in answer to the outrage of other Reddit users.

One poster wrote: “I hope you aren’t the guys that hired Steve Foster. Because if you are, I feel really, really, really bad for you.”

“Yup,” replied Reddit account building_the_brewery (presumably 81Bay). “Lesson learned. Moving on.”

The last chapter of Foster’s story so far is from Cadiz, Kentucky. He approached owners of Black Hawk Farms and pitched a small brewery, St. Arnulf Alery, on their property. The owners agreed and sank $25,000 into the project. Foster even went so far as to try to expand the brewery’s distribution to Florida by taking samples to beer bloggers (I wasn’t approached) and distributors. In the end, Foster absconded into the mist again, leaving the brewery in shambles—it closed in December 2018.

The tale is twisted and strange and as further information comes to light, more questions come with it. Who is Stephen Foster? Certainly not the songwriter of old, who penned “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” No, this is one escape artist who may never be found.

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