By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Brewing craft beer is an art. Running a successful craft brewery is a balance of inputs and outputs. It’s the result of careful thought and planning, addressing each component of the business in the most efficient way possible. It’s undoubtedly a lot of work but one Oregon company has developed software that streamlines these processes, making it easier for craft breweries to focus on the part that we all love the most — the beer.
Beaverton-based Orchestra Software was started by Brad Windecker in 2008 to provide enterprise resource planning (ERP) software specifically for the craft beer industry. At the time, there were plenty of resources relating to brewing technology but nothing that addressed the business side of the equation — at least to the degree he intended. That intention was to provide true ERP, a comprehensive solution to run a business that would replace the various disparate tools and bootstrap solutions (i.e. QuickBooks, Peachtree, spreadsheets). Other companies were providing piecemeal offerings at a lower cost, but Brad aimed to offer a comprehensive package that was even more affordable as well as less complex — making it more approachable to craft breweries.
Identifying a need in the market is one thing and having the ability and know-how to implement a solution to address that need is another. So what put Brad in a position to go from idea to implementation? Growing up around a family business, Brad had always intended to be an entrepreneur and supported that plan by earning a business degree at San Francisco State University. Deciding not to take over the reins of the family business, it was somewhat of lucky chance that brought him into the craft beer fold. During his last year of college his girlfriend (and now wife) took him on a trip to Portland to attend the Oregon Brewers Festival. He was already enamored with craft beer, which could have landed him in a number of places, but during their visit he also fell in love with the city. From there, a path that combined his business background with a passion was forged.
The software Orchestra has created is similar to the kind that large enterprises utilize, but it has been brought down to an affordable level for small breweries or what Brad calls “democratizing technology.” It integrates purchasing and receiving, sales and shipments, production and packaging, quality control and inventory tracking while offering automated accounting and full reporting along with interfaces to third party systems.
Sound like a lot? It is, but it’s all part of what running the business side of a brewery entails. By addressing and successfully managing those things, businesses that utilize this software will not only run more efficiently, but will also have an advantage over those that are wasting time and resources on those same processes. By reducing the pressure of administrative tasks and allowing the focus to be placed on producing and selling product, Brad feels the industry as a whole is improving.
Starting with their early customers — Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Mississippi was the first, followed by Missouri’s Schlafly Beer and Firestone Walker Brewing Company in California — Brad says that, “word of mouth has been the biggest engine of growth since the beginning.” Brad sees an extension of that craft beer camaraderie in their Community Forum, an online resource where customers can ask for or offer help. It has not been uncommon for breweries that first connected in the Forum to go a step further and actually meet in person.
In addition to the always-available Community Forum, Orchestra offers an annual Orchestrate User Conference, yet another way to help their customers to get the most out of their software. At Orchestrate 2017: Level Up (Nov. 15-17), they are expecting 500 attendees who are there for the education and the networking.
Orchestra has come a long way since their inception and counts many Oregon breweries, including Buoy Beer Company, Cascade Brewing and Full Sail Brewery as customers. Their 40 percent year-over-year growth and 96 percent employee retention rate would make them highly attractive to many buyers, however, Brad isn’t interested in selling. He’s far more interested in continuing to grow and improve, changing craft beer on a global scale by expanding through the beer value chain. It may seem like a tall order, but based on how far they’ve already come it’s simply a matter of time before Orchestra is able to provide more avenues to help craft breweries run as efficiently as possible.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Growing, harvesting and processing hops can be a finicky pain in the cask. That’s why scientists, farmers, processors and startups are looking at how technology might increase production and quality. From flyover drones to LED grow lights in hydroponic greenhouses, the market is filled with more experimentation and innovation than ever — but not all new tech is created equal.
The challenges are many, says Jim Solberg, CEO of Indie Hops, a Portland-based hop merchant dedicated to working with craft brewers. Here’s a breakdown of some of the tech being examined:
Unproven and Unlikely
Hops and cannabis are botanical cousins. Cannabis has a history of being grown in climate-controlled greenhouses with LED lights and hydroponics — nutrient-rich solutions — instead of soil. Could hops be grown the same way?
“People don’t necessarily think about the differences between the perennial nature of hops and the annual nature of cannabis,” says Solberg.
Hops have one growth and harvest cycle per year. “After the growing period, the rhizomes need a dormancy period,” explains Solberg. “There is a sort of cleaning up the rhizome does. It’s like us with how sleep helps us function. Hops need overwintering to help them do that. To take that same plant and force it through compressed growth and dormancy cycles at a commercial scale, there are just too many problems and costs to make it viable.”
Cannabis plants are often grown to only a few feet tall, but hops can easily surpass 20 feet. As a result, hops require exponentially more greenhouse space, nutrients, lighting and temperature control. Those factors add up to sky-high economic costs — plus, pests and disease could be an even greater problem in an enclosed space.
“For commercial hop growers, it makes no sense,” says Solberg, but he’s glad that people are trying things out on a small scale. “They might learn something that affects development in a big way.”
Not all ideas are duds though, and farmers and processors are willing to invest in new technologies.
Since farm labor continues to be a challenge, engineers are improving machines that aid with picking, cleaning, drying. At this point, expensive newer machines are only viable for large operations — but Solberg sees the potential to help farmers realize “big savings during the labor of the picking and cleaning process.”
Farmers are also working on how they monitor and adjust plant nutrition. Environmental conditions change every year, affecting both yield and brewing qualities. “You’re trying to optimize the plant’s health, influence its growth habits,” says Solberg. “Advances give more rapid testing of plant material that give a sense nutritionally of what’s going on in the plant. There have been improvements that help stabilize production from a hop standpoint. It doesn’t make it uniform, there are variations, but it does have a positive influence.”
Visitors to a hop field may also see drones flying overhead. Drone-snapped aerial images help farmers evaluate stresses on plants and make adjustments to irrigation or nutrients.
A persistent challenge is field testing hops to know when they are at the optimal condition for harvesting. “In the wine world, they focus on refractometers — they measure the sugar. It’s quick, but there isn’t anything like that for hops,” says Solberg. While there is still no “quick-and-dirty field instrument” for hops, Solberg is hopeful that one could be developed.
Most exciting to Solberg are advances in hop drying and processing. U.S. commercial processors usually dry hops in a 24–30-inch thick layer, laid on a screen floor. Furnaces below the mesh put out heated air that rises, drying the cones. Monitoring moisture levels and temperature has been difficult. “If you let it get too hot, the hop oils can degrade,” explains Solberg. “And these thick beds of hops, there’s not a way to have them mixed through the process. Hops on the bottom don’t get moved, so the bottom of the bed gets warmer than the top, so you have uneven drying.”
Large-scale, variable-speed fans, sensors and mode cells placed on and in the hop bed and along the floor connect to software and provide crucial data. “They can record the weight of the whole floor of hops, and then factor in the weight change for an accurate view of how much moisture has evaporated,” says Solberg.
Hop breeding programs such as Oregon State University’s are also testing varieties that can thrive in drought conditions and still provide a brewing-quality crop. “Water is a larger and larger issue,” says Solberg. “If new hop varieties have both great brewing characteristics but take less water to grow, that could be compelling.”
At a recent global hops symposium at OSU, experts from around the world presented new findings on some of the hundreds of compounds — most as yet unresearched — that comprise any given hop cone.
“Hops are way more complex and interactive than anybody would have imagined. The contribution hops give to beer isn’t just a linear thing,” says Solberg. “There are a lot of so-called hop aroma precursors that don’t contribute in their natural form. During the brewing process and during fermentation, the yeast can help the hop release an aroma component. It’s not present before brewing, but later it releases a clear flavor or aroma component in the beer. Some hops actually do release their aroma compounds during boil, which we used to think wasn’t the case.”
The symposium has given brewers “tremendous ideas,” says Solberg, just as he, farmers and other processors are hopeful for new ideas and innovations.
“Science, research and tech will have some big impact over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Over time, new things will come of it.”
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The sparkling idea old Joe Priestley had back in 1767 didn't reach its most useful purpose until 2014.
It was 247 years ago when the chemist, who lived next to a brewery and began experimenting with their gas in Leeds, England, made carbonated water. But he stopped there. Making draft beer portable would have to wait.
As you know, beer naturally carbonates during fermentation; yeast eats sugar, making alcohol and carbon dioxide. Problem is that when you take the beer out of the barrel, air gets in and spoils the brew. So to take Joe’s discovery a step further, someone would need to fill that empty space in a barrel with what was called “fixed air” and preserve the freshness. Eventually this would lead to kegs — big kegs for taverns and pubs, pony kegs, Cornelius kegs, none of which are very portable. They are heavy and require attached external devices to get the beer out. But jump ahead to modern times at a bar in Portland and you’ll find another option.
“To keep good beer from going bad.” That’s what I told the guy on the stool next to me when he asked why I paid $149 for the stainless steel uKeg the ponytailed bartender at the Widmer Pub in North Portland was filling with Altbier. When I went on to explain that the uKeg is easy to use and keeps beer fresh for up to two weeks, he chuckled and said, “Who keeps beer around that long?” So, I asked him, “Haven't you ever had a beer you wanted to enjoy a little at a time, a seasonal release or, maybe, after you fill a growler you don’t feel like drinking it all in a couple of days?” “Well,” he said, “how do they keep beer fresh in that big can?”
This is where a trip to an Oregon beach comes in.
“I brought a glass growler and a cooler.” Standing in the front office of GrowlerWerks in Southeast Portland, Shawn Huff recalls how inspiration for the uKeg came from the good beer he’d put in his glass growler. “It was a Boneyard RPM IPA. I drank it one day, put it down, didn't drink the second day and then pulled it back out on the third day. It was flat. It was oxidized. All the work the brewer put into that IPA was ruined.”
So, I was thinking — pressurized growler,” Shawn Huff explains. “I saw some other people were doing it, but no one really from an engineering design perspective.”
Engineers! Brewers get a lot of attention. But who knows the engineers? Meet three you should know: Huff, Brian Sonnichsen and Evan Rege. (Evan was at a manufacturing plant in China when I visited the GrowlerWerks research-and-development warehouse.) Brian explains they met while working for ClearEdge Power, an alternative-energy company. He says Shawn’s idea for a pressurized growler came at just the right time.
“ClearEdge Power went out of business as we were working on this as an after-hours hobby, trying to figure out how to make it work.” Brian has a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 13 patents to his credit. Evan has a UC Berkeley degree in mechanical design and knows how to build fuel cells. Shawn owns four patents and is a chemical engineer; but, just as important, he won a business plan competition in college. All of that schooling and experience set them up for a dive into entrepreneurship. Brian says they figured, “What the heck? Let’s try this for six months because we can. There’s a program in Oregon that will let you start a business and you don’t have to look for a job for six months. It worked out fantastically.”
Some of the technology involved in making the uKeg is confidential and now being patented in both the U.S. and overseas. But when Brian and Shawn share what they can about how the uKeg works, it sounds simple.
“This is a double-walled, insulated vessel, so it keeps beer cold.” Shawn points out the first thing you’ll probably notice about the uKeg is a brass pipe climbing from the bottom of the vessel to a mini-tap at the top. “We go through the vessel so the beer exits from the bottom.”
Putting the tap on top means they can store a CO2 cartridge inside the variable pressure-regulation cap. “What that allows is you can put the top on, and once it is on you can set this dial and it automatically maintains your carbonation level. So all you have to do is pour.”
Thumbing through the owner’s manual that comes with the uKeg, Brian points out various carbonation settings, from 6 pounds per square inch (PSI) for stout, porter and cream ale to 12 PSI for lager, pilsner or even kombucha. A window on what they call the “sight tube” shows how much beer is in the uKeg. You can check it before you grab the brass handle provided for making your fresh draft beer portable.
“Our brand,” Brian reminds us, “is keeping beer fresh and being able to take it with you.”
Joe Priestley would be proud.
The GrowlerWerks trio has encountered some interesting liquor laws as they’ve moved into new markets. In Florida, there was a law allowing for gallon-sized growler fills, but not half-gallon sizes. In another state, the tap on a freshly filled growler had to be shrink-wrapped to prevent customers from pouring while driving. And when beer drinkers in Japan received the growlers they were due as part of the Kickstarter campaign, they found that Japanese law does not allow for growler fills.
For more information on the uKeg, go to growlerwerks.com.
By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The craft beer industry in Central Oregon has shown no signs of slowing down.
Neither has the growler industry that has grown up alongside it.
Just three years ago, DrinkTanks was an idea on Kickstarter. Now, the Bend-based growler company is a rapidly growing and recently expanded business by partnering with one of the largest outdoor retailers in the country.
“I didn’t think the growth would happen this quickly,” DrinkTanks founder Nicholas Hill said, sitting in his company’s new office on the east side of Bend. “It’s something I envisioned, but we’re definitely growing at a fast pace. You have to be careful because growing at a rapid pace can be just as dangerous as not growing at all.”
The idea behind DrinkTanks — and other similar products on the market — is no longer new to the beer world. High-end growlers that keep beer cold, carbonated and fresh are available at pretty much any brewery and growler fill station around.
DrinkTanks’ double-walled, vacuum-insulated growlers have become a staple of the craft beer industry following an unassuming start as a Kickstarter campaign. But things haven’t slowed down much since the beginning for DrinkTanks — in less than a year, the company has nearly doubled in size.
This summer DrinkTanks moved into a new facility, with 18,000 square feet of production and office space. It also employs 35 people, nearly double the number working there a year ago.
“This should sustain us for a while,” Hill said, smiling, noting that an adjacent lot could provide room for additional growth.
The biggest change, however, is that the company is more than just a hit in the world of beer. That’s not to say that sales in the world of beer have slowed. Hill noted that the company was up 170 percent year over year and is on pace for similar growth in 2016. Now, however, the business has revenue coming from an entirely different source.
“When we started, the low-hanging fruit was craft beer, growlers — it was an easy to enter into the craft industry,” Hill said. “And we’ve done a really good job transforming over into the outdoor industry, because it’s a natural fit.
“A lot of people that like to do outdoors activities — hiking, biking, skiing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding — all associate, at some level, with some sort of beverage, whether it’s beer, or margaritas or water,” Hill continued. “So our vessel does very well crossing over to that channel.”
Getting into that world was facilitated by outdoor gear and clothing co-op REI. What began as a planned five-minute meeting at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City turned into a full-blown relationship with REI. Starting in July of this year, DrinkTanks is now in all of REI’s stores and also sold on its website.
But much of the core of the company remains the same. While the vessels themselves are manufactured overseas, the rest of the business — from powder coating, to custom engraving, to assembly and shipping — all happens in Bend.
New this year for DrinkTanks will be the Kegulator, an auto-regulating keg cap that turns a DrinkTanks growler into a mini-kegerator. It uses a CO2 cartridge and purge valve to keep beer fresh.
The product was actually supposed to go to market earlier this year, but Hill said he wanted to wait.
“We refused to compromise on the quality and the functionality of the product,” he said, noting he wouldn’t send the Kegulator into the field without being sure it would work exactly as he intended.
The Kegulator should be available this fall, in time for the Christmas season, Hill said. He also said there would be some new offerings from DrinkTanks in 2017, without divulging what they would be.
All of that might mean DrinkTanks might see even more growth in the immediate future.
The Coolest Cooler broke all Kickstarter records when it was funded last August. But the idea for this party in a box had humble beginnings. Its Portland-based inventor once used parts from a weed whacker to power a blender to bring to the beach. He later thought of adding speakers to a cooler. Photo courtesy of Coolest Cooler
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“One year someone gave me an old weed whacker and I had no lawn,” says Ryan Grepper, Portland-based inventor of the Coolest Cooler. “I’m all about efficiency and a lifelong inventor, so I was inspired to take that weed whacker and use it to power a blender for cool drinks at the beach.”
Another idea — put a car speaker in a cooler for portable sound — made Grepper realize the cooler could be more than just a cooler. It could be a party in a box.
“The response from my friends was incredible,” says Grepper. “I began to think that I might have a real product on my hands.”
From there — and after both failure and a record-breaking success — the Coolest was born.
Birth of the Coolest
The idea behind Coolest became finding a way to have a cooler combine shindig essentials.
“People want higher-quality and more features in a cooler beyond just hauling ice,” says Grepper. “No one wants fewer blended drinks on a hot day out with friends and family.”
That’s where Grepper found his sweet spot. The colorful cooler (available in Classic Coolest Orange, Coolest Blue Moon and Coolest Margarita Green) is smartly designed to compactly include a lot in one 55-quart, 26 inches long, 21 inches wide, 19 inches high package:
--Bottle opener with magnetic cap catcher
--Built-in ice-crushing blender with BPA-free plastic pitcher (makes a pitcher of cocktails in about 15 seconds, for approximately 16 pitchers per charge)
--Removable splash-proof Bluetooth/auxiliary jack speaker with resonating panel, protected by a silicon shell, and powered by a separate, built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery (eight hours of audio per charge)
--Custom-made rechargeable battery pack (powers blender, USB charging port and built-in LED task light)
--Prep area complete with plates, a ceramic paring knife and a cutting board
Rugged wheels and an extendable suitcase-style handle means the cooler is made for easy-anywhere transport, and a “Done in One” retractable bungee tie-down straps things to the top of the Coolest. Combined weight (with gadgets but without ice or your favorite Oregon craft beer) is about 30 pounds.
Oh, it keeps stuff cold too.
At $485 (MSRP), it’s “the Coolest cooler,” not “the cheapest cooler.” But for the serious shindig fan who doesn’t want to assemble and haul these components separately, and who knows they can use the all-inclusive design to the fullest, it will be cool cash well spent.
First-Time Failure, Second-Time Success
Once Grepper had a viable product, in November 2013 he launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $125,000. Backers committed $100,000 — but under Kickstarter’s goals, falling short means no funding.
Grepper went back to the drawing board. After improving features and design, on July 8, 2014, Grepper launched a new Kickstarter campaign, this time for only $50,000.
Less than 36 hours later, Coolest had met its funding goal — and within 48 hours had raised more than $1 million.
“It’s not only cool … it cools. Get it?” That was the word from Bill Nye the Science Guy, who in a YouTube video discussed his support and admiration for the design and innovation behind Coolest.
By the time the campaign ended on Aug. 29, 2014, 62,642 backers had funded Coolest with $13,285,226 — breaking Kickstarter records.
Which led to a new set of problems.
“Coming in at 26,000 percent to goal is a challenge, but it's a good problem to have,” says Grepper. “We’ve had to quickly scale up and bring in outside experts to help us execute on every stage of this process, and it's been a challenge moving at full speed while managing the process. In the end, we're all very proud of achieving such a high level of quality in such a short time.”
One challenge was scaling up production, which meant delaying when Coolests could be shipped to Kickstarter backers. Instead of February 2015, backers began receiving Coolests in August.
By November, Grepper expects all Kickstarter backers to have their Coolests. The company is also at work to fulfill the additional 200,000 orders on their waiting list. The public should be able to order online from Coolest.com beginning in November. The company is also exploring distribution and retail options for 2016.
“We’re pushing our suppliers hard to scale up production speed while keeping tight reigns on quality,” explains Grepper.
However, Coolests are out there. “We're seeing camping trips, family reunions, tailgating, you name it,” says Grepper. “It’s been so rewarding to hear the praise coming from people as they first get a chance to use their Coolest. My favorite quote so far has been someone saying it should get the Pulitzer Prize for party coolers.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.