By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Surrounded by fans of The Bier Stein taking in the game or beering up for their own football festivities, Troy Potter can hardly believe that a few months ago he wasn't the new owner of Eugene's The Bier Stein. Working in sales at Ninkasi Brewing Company, Potter was happy where he was.
“I didn’t have a desire to be a business owner,” says Potter, “unless the perfect situation came up.”
Then it did.
At the 2016 Oregon Country Fair, Potter was having a beer with his longtime friends Kristina and Chip Hardy, founders of The Bier Stein. “Around one in the morning, I happened to mention, ‘If you ever want to sell, please talk to me first,’” says Potter. “They stopped, they giggled and said they’d been considering selling the place.”
The Hardys felt ready to pursue non-business interests, but didn’t want to be absentee owners. For the next year, when Potter wasn’t working as part of Ninkasi’s national sales team and managing accounts on the East Coast, he quietly evaluated buying the business.
“I was happy, making good money at a good job,” says Potter, “but when this opportunity came up, my wife and I talked about it and realized it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.”
On Aug. 1, 2017, Potter and silent partner Jon Farah officially became owners of The Bier Stein.
A Long Way From Cleveland
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Potter was 21 when in 1991 he grabbed his backpack and bought a one-way Amtrak ticket to Portland.
“I fell in love with craft beer, day one,” says Potter. “I spent six months drinking Widmer Hefeweizen with lemon, then Full Sail Amber, then Deschutes Black Butte Porter. But Bridgeport IPA was a game changer. I’ve been in love with IPAs ever since.”
After working as bar manager at an Italian restaurant and Kells Irish Pub, Potter’s interest in craft beer led him to jobs with McMenamins and Rogue. In 2007, his wife was about to graduate from Reed College, and they’d heard about a new brewery in Eugene. The day after graduation they moved south, where Potter became one of Ninkasi’s first employees. Fast-forward 10 years, Potter was learning how to be an owner.
Potter and Farah began working with a bank to navigate the “long, drawn-out process” of getting a Small Business Administration loan. Potter also worked side-by-side with the Hardys to understand day-to-day operations and get advice. Along with respecting the Hardy’s wishes to keep the sale quiet, Potter had signed a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say anything to his colleagues. Then, finally, “the bank put everything in writing, and I gave my 30-day notice,” says Potter. “It was a surprise at Ninkasi.”
Smooth Transition, Strong Future
Founded in 2005, The Bier Stein began as a 2,100-square-foot bottle shop and beer bar between downtown Eugene and the University of Oregon campus. In 2012, The Bier Stein moved to a 12,000-square-foot building. Now offering more than 1,000 beers in bottles and from 30-plus taps, The Bier Stein seats 185 and has 50 employees. And that, says Potter, is how he wants things to be.
“The staff and managers are amazing, and everyone was excited to stay on,” says Potter. “I didn’t change one thing. Not the menu, not the beer. That turnkey aspect was in its truest form. Why change something that’s working perfectly?”
Potter is at the shop each day, working with managers and on marketing, advertising and overall operations. “I’ve also been bussing tables, running food. I intend to work in the kitchen and the bar too — keep my finger on the pulse and connect with customers,” says Potter. “The Bier Stein is about the best beer and the best customer experience. That’s what will keep The Bier Stein strong.”
Plans include growing The Bier Stein’s reputation as a destination and craft beer institution. “About 35 percent of our customers come from outside of Eugene, based on word of mouth.”
Increased customer education is also a priority. Potter wants all staff — including himself — to have Level Two Cicerone Certifications. “New customers come in, and they might know a little about beer, but it can be hard to come up to those cooler doors and pick a beer,” says Potter. “Something we can make better is to be there with customers and help them make that bottle purchase.”
Overall, Potter sees his role not as a game changer, but as the next generation. “My goal coming into The Bier Stein is not to change anything,” he explains. “My goal is to grab that torch that Chip and Kristina created and carry it forward. We’re going to keep it about the beer.”
The Bier Stein
1591 Willamette St., Eugene
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
A decade of hindsight later, it must have been a sign.
After months of planning, construction and delays, on July 5, 2005, Chip Hardy was finally ready to open the doors of Eugene’s The Bier Stein to the public. Soon, people would be able to purchase bottled beers and specialty craft beverages from all over the world.
There was just one problem.
“Cases of beer were everywhere,” says Hardy. “We had received a very huge order from Columbia Distributing.” So Hardy did the only thing he could: got the taps open instead. “We sold a lot of draft beer that day.”
A Sign of Things to Come
Co-owners and founders Hardy and his wife Kristina Measells had different plans, though. “The Bier Stein was originally supposed to be a craft beer store that you could eat and drink in,” explains Hardy. “Now we are a craft beer bar and restaurant that sells beer to go. What we have become wasn't our original intention, but we went with what our customers wanted, and it has been very successful.”
Listening to what customers wanted became an overall theme for how Hardy and Measells steered their course. Originally opening in a 2,100-square-foot space at 11th Avenue and Mill Street near the University of Oregon campus, it wasn’t easy to cram in 10 beer coolers, a kitchen, the 10-tap bar (later expanded to 12 taps) and seating. The Bier Stein quickly filled up with bottles, customers — and complaints: there just wasn’t enough room. “We had customers that stopped coming because it was too hard to find a seat,” says Hardy.
On April 15, 2013, The Bier Stein moved to a new location at 1591 Willamette St. The fully remodeled 12,000-square-foot bottle shop and restaurant features a large central bar, 18 LED-lit bottle coolers, 30 taps (and social media updates on tap changes), one cask engine, a private function area (with a separate 6-tap bar), a larger kitchen, and, above all, seating for 150.
The expansion made for other big changes too. Originally opening with a staff of three, The Bier Stein now employs 55, which “makes for a lot of HR work,” Hardy says.
More Breweries, More Selection, More Customers
Today, The Bier Stein is one of the largest beer bars on the West Coast, with a selection of more than a thousand beers, ciders, meads and other craft beverages. Its large selection and ongoing evolution is a response to a local and national craft beer scene that changes at a rapid pace.
“In the past 10 years, there are more breweries, more beer styles and better selection,” says Hardy. “We are able to give those breweries a showplace.”
However, trying to carry everything has to be balanced with tapping only what you can empty. “My sense on taps was only to have enough that we could sell and keep fresh,” explains Hardy. “We constantly rotate. Staying relevant means having an always-changing tap and bottle list, and the beer community has become more educated on what beer is.”
Public regard for The Bier Stein has also translated into accolades. In local newspaper Eugene Weekly’s annual “Best of Eugene” people’s choice awards, The Bier Stein regularly takes top slots for categories such as “Best Beers on Tap.” Readers of CraftBeer.com, the Brewers Association (BA) website for beer lovers, have also twice awarded “Great American Beer Bar” status to The Bier Stein for the Pacific region, as well as “Overall Great American Beer Bar” status in 2014.
“Winning this has given our place a sense of legitimacy,” says Hardy. “We are doing the right thing in the craft beer community: teaching, educating and tasting.”
Staying the Course
As The Bier Stein heads into its next decade, it’s time to celebrate — but also to stay true to their mission and customers. “We like having one location and doing it to the best of our ability,” says Hardy. “We’ll continue to provide our area with some of the best craft beers we can get a hold of and continue being one of the best beer bars in the country.”
July 6 marked the anniversary. A special selection of beers was available, including collaboration beers brewed with Agrarian Ales and Hop Valley. Anniversary plans also include “a large outdoor event” to be held later this summer.
For Hardy, marking The Bier Stein’s first decade is a big step on a long path that winds along with the larger community. “We are very happy the local craft beer community has supported us over the past 10 years, and we are also happy that our employees are so awesome,” he says. “The Bier Stein wouldn't be what it is today without them.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.