By Gail Oberst
You would think a woman at the helm of one of Oregon’s largest and most decorated breweries (300 medals and awards and counting) would rest a little on her laurels. Irene Firmat, owner of Full Sail Brewing, is not that woman.
“It never feels like you’ve made it,” said Firmat, sitting just a few feet from the bar where she has managed her Hood River brewery since 1987. Full Sail was the 25th-largest craft brewery in the U.S., according to 2013 statistics released by the Brewers Association.
Elegant white curls and an invitingly warm smile belie the powerful impact Firmat has had on Oregon’s brewing culture – and on the once-struggling timber town, Hood River. In 1987, there were just a handful of craft breweries in the U.S. and only three in Oregon. Hood River’s timber and fruit canning industries had left the town with empty manufacturing buildings, high unemployment and a dilapidated downtown. Today, there are nine craft breweries in the Hood River area. Although the Columbia Gorge is widely known for its scenic wineries, biking, hiking and water sports, at the end of the day, tourism officials say, the tourists wind up in the breweries and taphouses.
Full Sail has gone from 287 barrels in the first year to nearly 500 times that much in recent years, with a strong focus on bottling. Its success has required expansions and updates. In 1999, Full Sail became an employee-owned brewery when some of the original partners wanted out, and today, its 47 employees own 59.2 percent of the company. Firmat and her husband, Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, own the rest.
This month, Full Sail is finishing the conversion of a 1911 factory building into a three-story home to the bottling line and offices. The building is next door and connected to its current brewery, taphouse and tasting room. Offices were moved into the new building in April, with third-story views of the Columbia River. A new lab and a patio hop garden are also part of the new building, but the main reason for expansion was the 36,000 square feet of space added for the new bottling and boxing lines. Bottled beer from Full Sail now distributes to 25 states.
Firmat started life in Havana, Cuba, where she was born to parents who left for the U.S. when Castro took power. She turned 4 in New York City. By kindergarten, she had learned English and speaks it without a trace of an accent, although she said a little New York and a little Spanish still slips out now and then.
She visited a friend in Oregon after earning her marketing and business administration degree in college. She took a job at Meier & Frank in Portland. Irene enjoyed all the craft beers coming out of Portland, so she and a group of friends, got together and decided to produce bottled beer.
Why did she choose Hood River for a base 27 years ago?
“Oh, we thought Portland already had too many breweries then,” she laughed. “Guess we called that one wrong.”
Firmat doesn’t emphasize that there were challenges to her, because she is a woman.
“I didn’t start this with a husband or a boyfriend,” she said. “And I did it in a business that is twenty men to one woman.”
Part of her success in a male-dominated business stems from her attitude. “If you expect a negative reaction, there will be one,” she said.
And her leadership style?
“I call it collaboration with clarity,” Firmat said. “Decisions need to be made and they can’t always be inclusive.” Firmat said she tried to create a culture of respect in a low-drama atmosphere at Full Sail. It helps that employees participate in ownership. Some day, when she and Emmerson retire, Firmat said, employees will fully own the company.
“Right now, we’re just navigating the current environment, trying to make a splash among 3,000 breweries in the U.S.” Firmat said.
Full Sail Brewery
(a) 506 Columbia St, Hood River
(a) 0307 SW Montgomery St, Portland
Owner: Irene Firmat
Brewmaster: Jaime Emmerson
Tours: 1, 2, 3, and 4 pm daily.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.