Ninkasi at 10
How do you measure the modern era of American brewing? For me, there was a specific moment when the possibilities of the American tradition yawned in front of me like an almost unlimited chasm. I can date it to an exact moment, back in December 2006. I was attending the Holiday Ale Festival, and this new Eugene brewery with a lot of buzz brought a beer called Believer. Here's how I described it:
It had one of the most succulent aromas I've ever encountered--sweet, citrusy, with a little mint. I had four people give it a sniff and they all did the same thing: sniff, eyebrows up, head back down for another sniff.
That experience pretty well describes the transition from the second epoch in American brewing into the modern era. In my schema, the first epoch was marked by the pale-amber-porter period, lasting until the mid-90s; the second era was the transitional hops period, when brewers were going crazy for IBUs in their IPAs. The modern era dawned when brewers realized the true, full potential of the hop, one that lay more in the aromas and flavors rather than the bitterness. No brewery seized this flavor terrain as fully as Ninkasi did in its early years. For months, the only beers they had on the market were Believer (a red IPA, now retired), Total Domination (the flagship IPA), Quantum, a hoppy pale, and Tricerahops (a double IPA). Not only did they introduce our palates to this new way of brewing, they basically only made these kinds of beers.
The entire country has gone through palate shift, but each region has its pivotal products that initiated the change. In Oregon, Ninkasi was patient zero. Each one of those early beers bore the DNA of this new way of brewing, and Ninkasi, making a big, splashy debut, was the perfect delivery mechanism. Even though ten years ago seems fairly recent, it was actually the tail end of a long fallow period in beer. In 2006, there were still only 1,377 breweries in the country, and the craft segment of the market was just 3.4%. It was breweries like Ninkasi, bringing an exciting new version of hoppy ales to the market, that jump-started the current boom in brewing.
This had to do in part because of the beer, but the company's approach, ethos, and personnel were also a big factor. Jamie Floyd had been brewing for over a decade in Eugene when Ninkasi launched, and he had always been a huge proponent of hops. (I recall a heated debate in the late 90s he had with a Colorado brewery who derided hoppy ales--"all you do is throw a bunch of hops in the kettle; anyone can do that.") Floyd has an outsized personality, simultaneously big and gregarious but also small-d democratic. Ninkasi reflects Jamie, and even when it was the cool brewery, there was something approachable and everyman about it. Ninkasi has never been twee or hipsterish, and this was probably one of the reasons it grew so fast so early.
Their initial phase took Ninkasi through two brewery expansions and put them in six-packs on grocery shelves. They fueled that rise with variations on hoppy themes, introducing hoppy seasonals along with their flagships. Of course, no brewery stays in front of the novelty curve for long. Ninkasi therefore needed a second act, and it was a surprising one: traditional European lagers. It turns out that, in addition to his love of hops, Floyd also had an abiding love of classic, balanced lagers. (He may have shown his hand when Ninkasi put Schwag out early in their life; a light lager with a throwback style, it was a decade ahead of its time.) So while they were at the apex of their popularity, and still growing so fast that there were occasional diacetyl problems, Ninkasi released a pilsner and a helles, both straightforward, un-Oregonized examples, that seemed entirely at contrast with their brand.
I think the most startling was Helles Belles, the helles they released in the summer of 2011. It was a 5.1% beer with just a scant 22 IBUs of Hallertau and Spalt hopping. I loved it (of course), but it really threw people off. Drinkers were used to pulling whatever Ninkasi released off the shelf, assuming it would be a hoppy ale. I watched more than a few confused friends crack open a bottle of one of their lagers and wonder what they were drinking. But there was a perverse genius to it, too. Ninkasi has brought a lot of people into beer over the past decade. By offering a pilsner, helles, and Dortmunder, they introduced those same people back to the kinds of beers they thought they didn't like--and I think with quite a bit of success.
The metal shop.
This demonstrates something unusual about the brewery. The first is that Jamie Floyd and co-founder Nikos Ridge keep their own counsel. They don't work with outside marketers, brand folks, or PR people. Everything, including the artwork, is done in-house. Indeed, Ninkasi's commitment to the arts extends to sponsorship of local music, hosting an "artist in residence," and metal craft. They have both a music studio and metal shop onsite. If you visit the main offices, you can find a room with artists working on the next label or event art. Even though Ninkasi has grown to become the third-largest brewery in the state, it still has a bit of Eugene's DIY feel about it. In the case of the lagers, there was no one there to suggest this ran counter to brand. The brewery's instinct was pretty solid, though--just at the moment Ninkasi was investing heavily in lagers, craft beer was finding them newly interesting as well.
It's safe to say no Oregon brewery--and few American breweries--have had a better decade than Ninkasi. It has passed through its constant-growth cycle and now has a large and impressive campus in Eugene. It remains one of the strongest brands in the state (more than half the regular line-up date back to the first couple years of production), and acts as a great vehicle for Floyd and Ridge to do the extracurricular activities and philanthropic work they clearly enjoy.
But it's also at an inflection point. The lineup, though solid, is starting to look dated. Most people in Oregon now think of Total Domination as a "classic, old-school" IPA. Ninkasi has added a couple of trendy IPAs to their regular lineup (session and fruit), but debuted them well into the fads. They don't have much of a barrel program and have largely ignored kettle-souring. None of that is bad--and in fact, older breweries never look good chasing trends--but it does put a question mark on the future. A brewery making over 100,000 barrels doesn't have the flexibility to pursue trends and must support core brands, but it also needs to find a way to appear fresh and interesting. What will Ninkasi's third act look like?
Ninkasi has long been mentioned among likely targets for buy-out, and it certainly makes sense on paper. Having toured the brewery with Jamie and Nikos a couple of times, though, I'd be surprised about that. You don't spread your focus to non-bottom-line activities like the arts, philanthropy, and the environment. You do hire branding firms and spend money on strategic planning to boost sales and reach in anticipation of an acquisition. Anything is possible, especially when big enough sums are mentioned, but this doesn't look like a brewery that's looking to sell.
As one more piece of evidence, I'll recount what Jamie told me when I toured the brewery back in 2010. He talked about the feeling of place he got from the old regional breweries that used to scatter the Pacific Northwest, and how he thought that was a good goal for Ninkasi. The NW has a different feel and vibe than the rest of the country, and local companies were the only ones who really knew how to address it, he told me. He wanted to be a part of the region, an institution that both understood it and helped define it. No doubt people can change their minds, but that always struck me as such an unusual, Oregon goal. It put Ninkasi's approach into a context that the brewery has continued to live up to. And I do hope we can continue to write about them at twenty, thirty, and forty years as an Oregon institution.
Happy 10th, Ninkasi--
Beer flowing overhead, from one building to the next.