Not All Breweries Are Built Alike
Note: some of the language cleaned up for clarity.
Nearly a month ago, Patrick Emerson and I took a long-overdue tour of the lower Willamette Valley. We managed four breweries in about 27 hours, which is by far the most condensed brewery-touring I've ever done. Eventually, I'll give separate write-ups about each one, but I wanted to do a meta post about an insight that came by virtue of doing all four.
Everyone who starts a craft brewery loves beer, but they don't all have the same goals and aspirations for their breweries. Some models call for multi-million dollar plants with scores of employees; others are tiny, shoestring-budget systems that employ one--the brewer. Some are designed around a restaurant/pub; others are industrial sites that may have a only a tasting room (or nothing at all). Some are maximized to produce idiosyncratic, one-off beers; others to produce consistent beers in a line, batch after batch.
These differences in goals became evident in our inadvertent scheduling of four very different models of breweries: the small production brewery, the large production brewery, the high-end brewpub, and the neighborhood local. They were very nearly a complete range of the types of models brewery owners shoot for when they start their businesses (I'd add the restaurant-brewpub, where beer is subsidiary to to the restaurant, as a final slot).*
Large Production Craft Brewery
From the very start, Ninkasi was designed to grow. Jamie Floyd had worked in a medium-sized brewpub (Eugene's Steelhead), and when he and Nikos Ridge set plans for Ninkasi, they very intentionally decided to create a "roduction brewery (a brewery producing bottled and kegged beer for wholesale--not a retail location with attached pub). The growth spurt Ninkasi has enjoyed wasn't probably in the plan, but Floyd and Ridge have been extremely aggressive in growing the brewery. As Jamie took us around the plant, it was pretty amazing to hear the hours he's worked.
The first step was spending long hours becoming the house beer of Eugene--a sizable market that fueled their first round of growth. Almost immediately, they expanded their brewhouse to a 30-barrel system. (Whenever you hear the size of a system, it means the size of a single batch of beer. A ten-barrel system is common for small breweries and brewpubs; in a single batch, they make just over 300 gallons. With a 30-barrel system, Ninkasi was making almost a thousand gallons a pop.)
The next frontier was Portland, which again meant more long hours promoting and selling around a town two hours north of their homes. Beer is a relationship business; breweries need to have good connections with distributors, retailers, and now, thanks to the avid beer scene in the NW, customers. Floyd picked up an apartment in Portland to save him a drive after long days selling beer. Portland has now eclipsed Eugene and accounts for about 45% of Ninkasi's production.
The next step is further market saturation and expansion. When we visited, Ninkasi was just completing a move to a 60-barrel brewhouse. They recently picked up a bottling line so they can sell both 22s and regular six-packs, and are busily adding massive tanks to condition the beer.
All of this is very high-risk, high-reward work. Ninkasi now employs dozens of people, and boasts impressive revenues. But it's also risky. Selling a lot of beer is enormously complicated: the plant is a huge industrial operation, which poses plenty of challenges itself, but there are also the distributors and retailers, the promotions operation, the ingredients, bottle, and equipment suppliers--and on and on. The bigger a company grows, the more small problems can trip it up. As Patrick and I got in the car after our tour, we were both exhausted. Jamie has been going pedal-to-the-floor for four years, with no end in sight. He seems to be working pretty much constantly. The reward may be one of the largest craft breweries in America (Ninkasi is already one of the larger Oregon breweries), but that will come only at the cost of enormous effort.
Small Production Craft Brewery
An ostensible competitor across town, Oakshire Brewing is about an eighth as big as Ninkasi. In many ways, though, size is really the distinguishing characteristic. Both are industrial plants--and in fact, Oakshire is in a more industrial area, and their brewery has only a provisional tasting space. (In its last remodel, Ninkasi added a haute tasting room.) Both produce kegs and 22s, with distribution mainly centered in Oregon.
But behind superficial similarities, there's a big difference in their goals: Oakshire doesn't seem to have aspirations to take on Widmer and Deschutes. Rather, it looks like the brewery is a vehicle for owner Jeff Althouse and brewer Matt Van Wyk to earn a decent living while making high-end beer. Matt told us his story, which started out as a teacher. Brewing seemed interesting, but he's not one of those guys who had his heart set on being a brewer. But ultimately he did end up in Chicago brewing, and was interested in coming to Oregon--but he didn't want to take a job for no money just to be here. He met Jeff and they were in discussion a while before it became clear that the Oakshire job would be a good fit. When it seemed like Oakshire could afford him, Matt moved out.
Production breweries have less flexibility than brewpubs for tinkering with their line. Putting beer in a bottle is an arduous process that involves art design, printing, and a federal label-approving process. Breweries can't easily just throw out a one-off beer and take it to the grocery store. Ninkasi's beers are almost all in their regular line-up, with few deviations. Oakshire, though, can afford to tinker. They have a barrel room and they talk a lot with Nick Arzner at Block 15 (see below) about souring and aging. Matt, who hails from Iowa, has the Midwest love of lagers, and they have both a doppelbock and a schwarzbier in tanks. When we were there, they had an absolutely perfect small beer they made from Ill-Tempered Gnome. All of these will go into kegs, and they can easily find distribution for these small quantities around town (so much so that I note with pique that they don't often come up I-5 to Portland).
Some brewers like to tinker, and some breweries like to have lots of fun projects going on. And not everyone is willing to work 80-hour weeks. There's real money in brewing, even in small breweries like Oakshire. I'm not enough of a brewer ever to take up the mash paddle myself, but if I were, this is the kind of job that would appeal to me.
This may be more of an Oregon thing, but some of the breweries producing the best beer in the state are brewpubs. Pelican, Double Mountain, and Cascade spring to mind. I think there was once an idea that production breweries were for serious brewers and brewpubs were more a gimmick--a restaurant with beer. But this may be exactly backwards: brewpubs offer a creative brewer the opportunity to brew almost any beer she wants, in the way she wants.
This is clearly the case with Corvallis' Block 15, the basement of which was referred to as the "fermentation wonderland" by someone on our trip. Block 15 is in many ways the standard brewpub. Owner/brewer Nick Arzner has a background in food service and understood the restaurant side of things. It has standard taps and pretty standard menu. On the brewery side of things, he wanted to hit the ground running with high-quality, clean beers. He had only homebrewed himself, so Block 15 hired Steve Van Rossem, a brewer with nearly two decades of commercial experience. Block 15 has a regular menu of a dozen or more beers, and Steve mans these regular brews.
Nick, meanwhile, tinkers in the fermentorium down in the basement. Over time, they have expanded out, underneath adjacent businesses, and now the cellar is a riot of grundies, hoses, and oak barrels, all nested in warrens of small rooms. (If he could figure out how to fit people down there, Nick could sell it on ambiance alone for its prohibition vibe.) Here, Nick can follow his bliss. When we visited, he let us sample souring beers from the barrel, and then unveiled some absolutely stunning beers he's got in bottles--a soured wit, a very dry saison, and some of that La Ferme’ de Demons from Cheers to Belgian Beers (it's aged beautifully). He's fiddling with quite a few others, as well. Oh, and he picked up a coolship recently, too, so he can start spontaneous fermentation.
So long as Block 15 stays where it is, it won't be producing vast amounts of beer. Nick said they'll do 1200 barrels this year, which is quite robust for a brewpub. But unlike production breweries, these little guys are just not built for quantity. Instead, Nick has the freedom to brew absolutely anything that comes into his mind.
The Neighborhood Local
The final model is an idiosyncratic one, and one I didn't fully understand until I visited Brewer's Union Local 180. From my distant vantage point of Portland, I regarded owner/brewer Ted Sobel as "the cask guy." Indeed, the conceit of his brewpub is that all his beer is served cask conditioned. He has a few guest taps on regular CO2, but his beers go only into firkins. As a huge cask fan myself, I have seen Ted as a kindred spirit, the Johnny Appleseed of real ale.
But to visit the pub is to understand Ted's plan more fully. His real aspiration--the reason he quit his tech job to start the pub in the first place--was to create in Oakridge, Oregon the kind of local pub he found in Wales. He wanted to create a town living room, a place where everyone (6 to 86) can come, have a basket of fish and chips, and enjoy each others' company. Cask beer--this is the path, not the destination. Ted sees it as part of the holistic nature a pub plays in a community. Some people open a bakery because the innate wholesomeness of fresh bread seems like an end in itself. Cask ale is like that, particularly as it's the glue that holds neighborhoods together.
Whether Oakridge, Oregon (population 3000--though Ted said, indignantly, that it's 4400 if you include the whole Westfir-Oakridge metro area) has the population to support that is a different matter. We got there on a dark, cold Wednesday in November and the place was humming with life (until about 8:30), so let's hope so. It's a beautiful little pub.
If Kevin's numbers are right, Ted has a shot at hitting triple digits this year (100 barrels!), so he's clearly not in this to get rich selling beer. Going from Ninkasi to Brewer's Union caused a bit of whiplash, but it was also revealing. Jame and Ted are both brewers, but man, do their goals differ.
*The numbers I'm working with in this post are unverified, but they look like this. Annual production 2010: Ninkasi - 20,000 bbls, Oakshire - 3,500 bbls, Block 15 - 1200 bbls, and Brewer's Union - 100 bbls.