By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s the end of an era. Full Sail Brewing’s employees and founders voted in March to sell to Oregon Craft Brewers Co., which is a local investment group formed by Encore Consumer Capital, a San Francisco-based private equity firm. “The votes were returned confidentially to our ESOP attorney. It passed nearly unanimously,” said Full Sail founder and CEO Irene Firmat.
While this news is sure to not make as big a splash as the recent sales of 10 Barrel Brewing and Elysian Brewing Company, it is in many ways more important. Full Sail has been one of the industry’s pioneers and produced more beer (115,000 barrels) in 2014 than 10 Barrel (40,000 barrels) and Elysian (50,000 barrels) combined, making it the 25th largest craft brewer in the country.
Both 10 Barrel and Elysian are also examples of quick growth in a very short period of time, which may have been one of the reasons 10 Barrel was in a difficult financial position and willing to sell. Full Sail has experienced its ups and downs, but has largely avoided pitfalls and continued on a steady stream of growth by going its own direction. Ignoring trends like barrel aging, fresh hops, double IPAs and sour beers (for the most part, though the brewery certainly has dabbled); Full Sail instead focused its energy on recreating the craft lager and session beers, a move that was way ahead of its time. Full Sail’s location in Hood River is also undoubtedly responsible for the explosion in the number of breweries in the town and the entire Columbia River Gorge. Former Full Sail brewers have opened favorites like Double Mountain, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, pFriem Family Brewers and Everybody’s Brewing.
Full Sail’s growth has not always been smooth. In 1999 the company transitioned into an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) rather than be put up for sale. That model has worked well, with other breweries -- most notably New Belgium -- following in Full Sail’s footsteps. Then in 2012, Full Sail lost its Henry Weinhard’s beer contract, which it had held for 10 years with SABMiller. That investment allowed Full Sail to reinvest in its brewery, keep debt low and sustain growth. Full Sail was making so much Weinhard’s beer that the Weinhard’s brand alone was ranked as the seventh largest in Oregon. At that time I worried for the future of Full Sail, but the company re-upped its No. 1 in-house brand, Session.
The Session beer brand by Full Sail may have been the smartest and most successful product launch of any Oregon brewery since the start of the craft beer revolution. Short, stubby, highly-recognizable bottles of cheap (but still craft) tasty, light lager were a huge seller. And the brand has sustained with spin-offs Session Black, Session Fest and recently Session IPA. When growth started to go flat, Full Sail launched the beer into new markets and took Session beer to bar taps for the first time in a move the company said would never happen.
The pessimist might suspect the recent huge expansion of the Session brand was in anticipation of putting the brewery up for sale, driving up production numbers and the value of the company. Though Full Sail Chairman Irene Firmat says that the brewery was approached unsolicited last September, that doesn’t mean the brewery was not preparing for a buyer. Anheuser-Busch paid an estimated $400 per barrel times the annual 60,000 barrel production of Blue Point Brewing when it purchased that company in February of 2014. Given those figures, Full Sail’s estimated value would be $46 million.
As I mentioned before, a pessimist might also suspect that the Full Sail employee vote on approval of the sale was a formality and the sale was a foregone conclusion. Leaving the decision to the employees who own an estimated 58 percent of the company makes for a terrific PR move. Though that is a solid majority, founders Jamie Emmerson and Irene Firmat own 42 percent and would only need a small percentage of employees to agree to the sale. But according to Firmat, “The employee vote was not a sure deal. Jamie and I don’t have a majority position, so even though we felt that this was a very good offer for all our shareholders, it was not a sure thing until the votes were counted. We did an early reveal because once notices went out to 78 employees, we thought confidentiality would be difficult to maintain and it would be better to have the facts out to minimize speculation.”
Still, it would seem the deal was done since Firmat and Emmerson could reverse any “no” decision by the employees as they are the two sole trustees of the ESOP. Not that the deal is a bad thing for the employees who, based on their time at the company, will likely earn four to five figures in the buyout as well as keep their jobs. The other good news is that Full Sail would still be counted among the “craft” brewers as defined by the Brewers Association by selling to an equity firm rather than a macro brewer like Anheuser-Busch.
The bad news is that brewery sales to private equity firms might have a worse track record than those sold to SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch. While the previously mentioned companies’ business is at least making and selling beer, both are only concerned with making money. However, an equity firm will quickly sell off companies to make a buck and has no interest in continuing the products. That seems to be the case here. The formation of a new company called Oregon Craft Brewers Co. distracts from the fact that the real owners are Encore Consumer Capital, a group that holds no other breweries or beverage companies. Oregon Craft Brewers Co. is a brand new formation that also has no history in the industry. While Full Sail posits that its buyer’s lack of experience guarantees the current employees jobs (which may be true), it also underscores a potential turn toward primarily profit-driven endeavors. That could mean cutting costs and raising profit margins on products and perhaps launching into more states or countries.
After raising the value further, Full Sail could be sold off again, following the path of Portland Brewing/MacTarnahan’s, which has been bought and sold a few times and is now owned by a Costa Rican conglomerate. Encore Consumer Capital has an established track record of buying and selling companies a few years later. It has been alternately reported that Emmerson and Firmat would either plan their immediate exit or stay with the company. Firmat clarified this: “We have committed to stay a year to insure that this transition goes smoothly. After that we will see.” After seeing Full Sail through the transition, I think we can expect little substantial change immediately, but I worry what will happen in a few years after they continue to develop the Session brand. Will we see a day in the future where a craft brewery on the East Coast is contract brewing Full Sail beer as it becomes a version of the formerly-prestigious Henry Weinhard’s?
Firmat admits, “It is what they do, but they have a track record of holding on to companies for a longer period of time and, in the meantime, they invest to grow it. Our distributor alignments make a purchase by a big brewer very difficult and more expensive and they are very aware of that.”
Let’s hope she is right. At the very least, Firmat and Emmerson have followed through with their commitment to employee owners, giving them a nice bonus to their 401Ks while making a happy exit for themselves. That is much better than what Anheuser-Busch is offering to the casualties of its acquisitions.
This article originally appeared in The New School.
By Alethea Smartt LaRowe
Big Horse Brew Pub
115 W. State St., Hood River
This small brewery is one of the oldest in the Gorge. Owners Randy and Susan Orzeck opened the business as a fine dining destination under the name Horsefeathers but have gradually evolved over the years, with Randy, a self-taught brewer, acting as the original brewmaster.
Current brewmaster Darrek Smith has been working at Big Horse for almost three years. He took over when Jason Kahler left to start up Solera. The 4-barrel brewery is a one-man show, producing five regular beers, including a rotating series of IPAs called Strictly Rude, and a variety of seasonals that are served at the pub on the upper level of the three-story building with great views over downtown Hood River and the Columbia River. Smith jokes that one of the unique things about the brewery is that “every keg is hauled up three flights of stairs.”
As the brewery doesn’t package or distribute, Smith has more flexibility in choosing what beers to make. His favorite styles are traditional German lagers, funky sour beers, and really hoppy beers. Smith usually partners with the restaurant’s chef to create a few special menu items to pair with any new beers he releases. New beers in the works are a nut brown ale, a chocolate stout, and a Munich dunkel as well as a Berliner Weisse-style beer made with sour mash.
Next spring, the brewery will double in size as the building’s footprint expands farther north toward State Street. Smith will still be brewing on the 4-barrel system, but will gain a malt room and a barrel room. He plans to start a barrel-aging project and will focus on making some stronger beers next year.
Double Mountain Brewery
8 4th St., Hood River
Business is booming at Double Mountain. In 2013, the brewery doubled in production and pub space and now employs 75 people. They also have an offsite warehouse which includes space for keg storage, malt storage, an 8,000-square-foot cooler, and a cask room. Double Mountain makes four year-round beers and seven annual ales, all packaged in reusable glass bottles.
Matt Swihart, owner of the 20-barrel brewery, takes great pride in sourcing the best ingredients from all over the world in order to make the best beer possible. These include two-row pilsner malts from British Columbia, Belgian yeast strains, and Northwest hops. “Our brewmasters thrive in creating robust, yet drinkable beers by focusing on the end product rather than being wedded to stylistic guidelines,” Swihart says.
Swihart found another way to showcase the brewery this summer when he purchased a 1950 Chevy panel truck he found in Los Angeles. Other than replacing the engine, transmission and brakes, modifying the paint job, and adding four taps on one side, little has been done to modernize the vehicle.
Double Mountain beers will be featured at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort for several events throughout the winter. The brewery will also be releasing two new beers early next year. In January, look for Pale Death, a Belgian-style Imperial IPA. Later in the spring they will release Gypsy Stumper, an IPA.
According to Swihart, the brewery’s future plans will focus on “organic growth at our own pace. We’ll continue to make delicious beer, serve up quality food, and enjoy the ride for as long as we can.”
Pfriem Family Brewers
707 Portway Ave., Suite 101, Hood River
Along with friends and business partners Ken Whiteman and Rudy Kellner, Josh and Annie Pfriem opened this family-run 15-barrel brewery two years ago with the primary focus of producing artisanal, high quality beers. Housed in a silver LEED-certified building, the brewery has already doubled their space from 6,000 to 12,500 square feet. Forthcoming additions of four 90-barrel fermenters, two 90-barrel brite tanks, a dedicated mash tun, a second grain silo and plenty of other equipment will all serve to boost quality and increase capacity from 5,000 to 10,000 barrels per year.
Even on the current system, Pfriem has been able to release approximately one new beer every week, and will brew more than 50 different beers this year. In addition to six year-round offerings, the brewery makes a wide variety of seasonal beers, and has recently released a Winter Ale, a Cascadian Dark Ale, and a Belgian Christmas Ale for the holidays.
Other forthcoming beers are a Flanders blonde and red that have been aging for the past year and a half in French oak barrels. Further barrel aging plans incorporate two newly-acquired 40-hectoliter foeders from Bordeaux, France as well as some bourbon and gin barrels. Three wine tanks will be used for fruit aging beers next summer.
Pfriem plans to start bottling in March 2015. Their six year-round beers will be at the forefront of packaged options, although they are generally going to avoid the traditional model and will put hop-forward beers and lagers in 500-milliliter capped bottles while Belgian-style and barrel-aged beers will undergo secondary fermentation in 375-milliliter bottles.
Full Sail Brewery
506 Columbia St., Hood River
Full Sail is an employee-owned company (since 1999) whose CEO and Founder Irene Firmat is not only a pioneer of the craft beer industry; she also blazed the trail uniquely as a woman from Cuba. Her husband, Jamie Emmerson, is executive brewmaster.
Full Sail laid the foundation for most of the Gorge breweries in business today. The majority of the other brewers mentioned in this article have worked at Full Sail at some point in their careers, gaining valuable knowledge and experience along with the business connections and confidence to take a leap of faith and strike out on their own.
The brewery continues to win awards for its beers and sustainable business model. One of the many accolades they have received was being named Beverage World Magazine’s Craft Brewer of the Year 2014. At this year’s U.S. Beer Open they won gold medals for Session Premium Lager and Session Black Lager.
Besides the two Session beers, Full Sail makes their flagship Amber Ale and IPA as year-round offerings in six-packs and on draft. The company has also now added its pilsner to this year-round lineup. There are also rotating seasonal varieties in the Pub Series, the LTD Lager Series and the Brewer’s Share Series. The brewery recently released a special beer as part of their Brewmaster Reserve series: 27 Wheatwine Ale, brewed with 100% wheat malt to celebrate their 27th anniversary. For this holiday season, they have already released Wassail, Wreck the Halls and Session Fest.
Full Sail offers informative, enjoyable, and complimentary brewery tours at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily. The tour takes about 30 minutes and is a great introduction to the art and science of crafting beer.
Logsdon Farmhouse Ales
4785 Booth Hill Rd., Hood River
Located on David Logsdon and Judith Logsdon-Bams’ picturesque 10-acre estate off Highway 35, complete with assorted animals and 400 cherry trees, this brewery is unique in that it’s a cooperative owned by six partners who can make their own beers. The Farmhouse Brewer, Charles Porter, has already released his first beer in his own “Bergschrund Signature Series.” Aberrant, an Organic Farmhouse Golden Ale, debuted in June 2013.
Logsdon currently brews four regular beers plus a range of seasonals. Their Peche ‘n Brett recently won Silver at GABF while Cerasus won Gold at the 2014 World Beer Cup. Look for the release of 2014 Cerasus at Volcanic Bottle Shoppe in Hood River this month. It was expected to debut Thanksgiving weekend.
The brewery has recently installed two new 40-hectoliter Hungarian oak casks in the cave, an arched structure installed in a hillside and covered with soil. The larger casks take the place of the original 55-gallon ones, which will be used for a new sour beer program. In early November, they took delivery of a coolship which will be used for traditional wild fermentations.
The brewery will celebrate its four-year anniversary in February and is planning to open an offsite tap room and barrel house sometime in the spring. Note that the current tasting room is closed for the winter months.
4945 Baseline Dr., Mount Hood Parkdale
Co-owners John Hitt and Jason Kahler are always happy to welcome you to their cozy brewpub, which will celebrate its three-year anniversary in April. Just off Highway 35 in Parkdale, Solera is the perfect pre- or post-skiing watering hole. The vibe is always laid-back and you’ll probably meet several of the locals if you hang out at the bar for a while. With spectacular views of orchards and Mt Hood, the brewery is a wonderful place to grab a picnic table and soak up the sunshine on a clear day. This winter, look for themed events like an ugly sweater party in December and an ‘80s ski party in January.
Hitt handles the front-of-house responsibilities while Kahler, previously of Full Sail and Big Horse, operates the 7-barrel system he inherited from Elliot Glacier Public House, the building’s previous occupant. The name of the brewery comes from the unique process, called “solera,” in which beers of varying ages are stored in barrels. Portions of the contents of the oldest barrels are removed and added to contents of newer barrels, creating a blend.
While Kahler doesn’t make all of his beers using the solera method, he has been barrel aging since the end of 2012 and will soon be ready to release the brewery’s first solera-style beers in 750-milliliter bottles. These will be limited editions of approximately 250 bottles per batch that will only be available at the brewery. In the meantime, you can usually find their Hedonist IPA on tap in the pub, along with a variety of rotating seasonal beers.
Thunder Island Brewing
515 S.W. Portage Rd., Cascade Locks
This new brewery just celebrated its first anniversary in October. Started by business partners Dave Lipps and Dan Hynes, it is uniquely located alongside the Columbia River near the Bridge of the Gods and the Pacific Crest Trail. With views of namesake Thunder Island from the large outdoor patio, the brewery is a year-round destination for adventure lovers of all types and serves as a gathering spot for the local community.
Thunder Island started operations on a 2-barrel system and is now transitioning to 7-barrel system. Hynes, the brewmaster, is already anticipating making the first beer, a double chocolate stout, on the new system. As they expand production, the brewery will start limited distribution. They also hope to expand their current food offerings.
In addition to their standby beer, a Scotch Porter, Thunder Island features a rotating selection of brews that appeal to their broad customer base. These include a Mosaic-hopped pale ale, an easy drinking cream ale, and a Northwest-style IPA. They have a small barrel-aging program and have already released a few “dinosour” beers. They have also collaborated with Beers Made by Walking on a number of beers featuring wild harvested ingredients from their backyard.
By Gail Oberst
Can we expect a hop shortage in the near future, driving Oregon IBUs down and prices for your pint up?
That was certainly the buzz a few months ago, when an article in the Wall Street Journal, followed by a lemming-like response from other writers, heralded gloom and doom for “small” brewers – producers of less than 15,000 barrels per year, thus, all but about seven of Oregon’s 170 breweries. Suggesting that a hop shortage is looming, the article warned that our beloved hoppy beers would soon cost too much for anyone to drink or give way to – Baccus forbid! – low-hop beverages like lagers or lambics or even meads and ciders.
But is there truly a nationwide – possibly world- wide – shortage brought on by your intense love of hoppy beers?
Psych! No there isn’t!
In a word, no, there’s no hop shortage, according to national and local experts.
Or to be more precise, there is no shortage of hops in the real sense, as it was in 2007-2008 when – for various reasons both environmental and economic – we suffered a real shortage, making the current situation far too mild to be called a “shortage.” But without a doubt, demand for hoppy beers has changed the market and brewers would be smart to plan.
Growers are doing their best to respond to a heavy demand for aroma hops, especially Cascades, the workhorse of the IPA and other hop-centric beers, said Nancy Sites, executive director of the Oregon Hop Commission. And they are doing a great job of it. Oregon’s potential harvest this year is nearly 800 acres more than it was last year and more than 570 of those acres are strung up with Cascades, the mother of aroma hops. Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Golding, Crystal, Mt. Hood, Perle, Sterling and Willamette all saw increases in acreage this year in Oregon. If you were a brewer counting on Nugget – currently Oregon’s largest acreage hops – you might be looking at a tight market, as acreage fell by just under 300 as demand shifts to other types. But replacement hops were plentiful. And Washington, which has 29,021 acres in hops this year (to Oregon’s has 5,559), has grown by nearly 2,000 acres since last year. “Shortage” is a word you would use when hop acreage falls from 17,000 acres to 5,700 acres, as it did in 1954. Even Idaho, with its 3,812 acres of hops, is up by more than 400 acres this year. Hardly the numbers of shortages, points out Chris Swersey of the Brewers Association.
So where does the Wall Street Journal get its idea that there’s a “shortage” of hops?
The word is sometimes used when prices rise, which they are apt to do as demand and values increase. And there has been a drop in the number of acres devoted to bittering or alpha acid hops – Galena, Nugget, Millenium — as brewers replace them with the aroma hops – Cascades and Centennials. And, as large brewers follow the consumer demand for aroma hops, those may quickly disappear from the open market, making contracts even more important for the small brewery.
The Job’s Not Done Until the Paperwork Is...
Perhaps those local brewers who chose not to enter into contracts or those newer brewers who haven’t established relationships with hop growers and distributors may find themselves short in some cases, Swersey said. More than 90 percent of Brewers Association members maintain contracts for hops, guaranteeing them product and reducing the chance of “shortages.” Many brewers establish hop contracts long before they even brew their first professional beers. These agreements are safeguards for big and small breweries, Swersey added.
In Oregon, some varieties are in short supply, but these are mostly privately licensed varieties where owners are maintaining higher prices to avoid oversupply, Sites said.
Sites said there’s reason to believe aroma hop acreage, as opposed to bittering hops, will continue to expand in 2015. “We are also trying to get a handle on how many acres are being grown in other parts of the U.S., and are still working on surveying those growers,” she said.
Doubtless, she said, the market is tight. “It sounds like ‘spot market’ hops for some varieties are a little harder to find and the price is higher right now because there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’ out there that are not spoken for in the form of contracts. Many brewers now are contracting for their hops two to three years out to ensure they get the amount and varieties that they need. Brewers that do contract usually end up paying a little less than brewers that wait to buy on the spot market,” she said.
But enough shop talk, what about my beer?
Whether rising hop prices will impact the price of your beer will depend on what kind of a business your brewery owner is running. Rogue brewers without contracts (not the brewery, which smartly grows its own hops), might find themselves paying a lot for hops and passing the cost on to you.
But, more than likely, your brewer is like Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi or Irene Firmat of Full Sail, who stay in touch by visiting Sodbuster Farms and other growers each year with a busload of curious employees and beer drinkers. Or your brewery is like McMenamins, whose team of hopped-up brewers actually makes a tradition of picking up their fresh hops straight from the grower, called “The Running of the Hops,” aimed at getting the freshest hops to the brewhouse on the same day they are stripped from the bines.
Stuff like that is unlikely to happen anywhere near Wall Street.
Which might explain some of the disconnect (I’m being kind) between Wall Street and Beervana. Let’s just say they don’t know chit about where beer comes from. But now you do. It really is a Northwest thing.
Here’s Gail’s Wall Street hint for the day: Hops, my boy. Invest in hops. And by that I mean begin your investment by accumulating those delicious resins in your belly. If there’s going to be a hop shortage, it’s up to you, Oregon drinker, to contribute to it.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.