Southwest Florida Brewery Co. Inc. plans to brew 100,000 barrels per year, the equivalent of about 15 million bottles of beer.
AVE MARIA — You may yet get the opportunity to sip a bottle of locally brewed Montenegro beer. But no need to make space in the fridge just yet.
Once Ernest Sittenfeld's company gets started with constructing the brewery — the owners hope to build in Ave Maria — it will take about two years before the first keg rolls off the line, he said.
Sittenfeld is president of Southwest Florida Brewery Co. Inc., and his plan is to brew 100,000 barrels per year, the equivalent of about 15 million bottles of beer.
"It might take three years to get sales up to where we need that much," Sittenfeld said.
The German-born engineer has built breweries for other brewers all over the world, he said from his office, and now hopes to build this one for his own firm, and for the area as a whole.
"You've tasted Tecate and Dos Equis. We built breweries in Mexico for them, and in Jamaica for Red Stripe," he said, along with "every country in Central America," the Philippines, Portugal and Spain, among others.
"I've lived here for 25 years. In a wild moment, it occurred to me that I'd like to do something for the community," he said. "Since this is what I know, that's the way we went. The Immokalee area certainly could benefit from employment. Plus, I do have a profit motive."
Sittenfeld estimates the 40,000-square-foot brewery initially would employ 60 people, making an average of $18 per hour.
"This doesn't exist in the area," he said of the brewing industry, "not that there's no beer here. It's a very clean industry. There is no pollution involved, and no chemical byproducts."
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Sittenfeld said the making of beer involves only four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water.
"We've had micro breweries, or brew pubs here, but we're not that. We want to build a factory," he said.
This would be a perfect example, he said, of the non-polluting light industry that civic leaders are constantly calling for to expand the area's economic base.
In addition to their own product, which he hopes to distribute statewide, Sittenfeld said his facility could do contract brewing for other beer manufacturers, using their formulas, and perhaps their brewmaster.
Currently, Sittenfeld works as the broker for Ixora Realty in North Naples. He and his brother, Curtis Sittenfeld, are the principals of SW Florida Brewing, and their challenge is to raise the $40 million they say it will cost to open.
"We have commitments for about $20 million, but we don't want to start anything until we have all of it. The local people – investors – have not come forward," said Ernest Sittenfeld, adding that some of their investors are European, but he isn't at liberty to divulge their identities. "Obviously it's a tough business climate, and after the disbanding of the EDC (Collier County Economic Development Council) we haven't gotten much help from the county, either."
Initially, the company was looking to lease land near the Immokalee airport from the Collier County Airport Authority, but changed its plans to purchasing land in Ave Maria when talks with the Airport Authority bogged down.
While the concept of a brewery around the corner from a Catholic university has raised some eyebrows, Sittenfeld said he sees no conflict.
"We don't get people drunk on purpose," he said. "We've never spoken to Ave Maria University, but throughout history, brewing was always in the hands of religious orders."
He noted that monasteries have made not only beer, but wine and brandy.
"Anyone who thinks the two don't go together is a fanatic," he said of Ave Maria and the brewery.
The Sittenfelds have spoken to the Barron Collier Companies, which owns vast tracts of land in the area.
"We're dealing with a real commercial entity," he said. "Barron Collier has agreed to take stock in the company, basically for the value of the land."
The budget for the project is about $40 million, which includes building a 40,000-square-foot brewery and other start-up costs. Initially, the brewery could employ 60 people, making an average of $18 an hour.
Brian Goguen, senior vice president for the Barron Collier Companies, said he wouldn't confirm if there is an arrangement for Southwest Florida Brewing to acquire the land, but did say that talks had taken place.
"That hasn't been finalized. We would like to have them at Ave Maria," Goguen said. "I haven't seen their final plan, but we are providing land at an affordable price.
"Ernest is a great guy, and we're looking forward to working with him. It would be great to have a brewery in Collier County," he said.
Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, in whose district the brewery would sit, met with the Sittenfelds early on, but hadn't heard news of the project in months, he said.
"That's wonderful news, very encouraging," said Coletta, when told of the reported commitment for a $20 million investment. "A lot of projects come up, and don't go all the way forward. This brewery would be another feather in the cap for Ave Maria, and for Collier County."
While Ernest Sittenfeld said the initial planned product of the brewery, a "Heineken-style, European light lager," would be called Montenegro, Coletta had another idea:
"Maybe we could call it Holy Water Beer."