By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
You can romance the cans all you want, but they wouldn’t have kept the company going another 80 years.
The distinct labels that wrap around Oregon Fruit Products’ shiny metal containers certainly stand out on a store shelf. Brightly-colored berries pop on the black backdrop as a little bee hovers over the produce. Classic recipes for desserts like Oregon blueberry pie and flaming cherries jubilee that used to be printed on the back of the cans were the highlight of many a meal throughout the decades. But just because a product has a beloved history, doesn’t mean it’s bringing in enough money, long-term. And while the cans made by this Salem-based business are nowhere close to being abandoned, sales figures indicated it was time to diversify. And that’s, in part, how an 80-year-old fruit cannery found that it could make a product craft brewers would want while also ensuring some of the state’s bountiful harvest ends up in beer all across the country.
One afternoon in early August, a lone forklift operator darted among stacked pallets in a warehouse with ease. The scene at Oregon Fruit Products was starkly different from the factory grounds a few months ago. Multiple drivers would have been navigating an obstacle course of delivery trucks, berry crates and rows of metal drums. The delicate aroma of raspberries, blueberries and plums was likely mingling to build a powerful scent crescendo of fruit salad in a nearby building where workers draped in white lab coats and hair nets sorted through the produce. The processing, packing and labeling all happen to the rhythm and vibration of large machines that fill the patchwork of cavernous structures with the sound and sensation of urgency. After all, fruit has its own timeline — one that sets the schedule of some 200 people on the manufacturing floor during peak season.
CEO Chris Sarles had to describe what harvest would look like on the Salem campus since it was largely over in August. Hot temperatures pushed up picking time just as they did in 2015. This year, summer had hardly begun when he was eyeing the end of the season.
“So it was a good harvest in Oregon again this year, and a lot of great fruit. But it was just very early,” Sarles said. “By Fourth of July, we were already talking about, ‘I can’t believe we’re this far done.’”
While some of those crops end up in the traditional cans, a growing supply is devoted to Oregon Fruit Products’ purees, which are shipped to more than 125 breweries across the state and 500-plus nationwide. And those are the kind of numbers you’d want to see if you were part of a company that needed a new path to profits.
The purees’ success is no mystery if you think about it from a brewer’s perspective. Consumer demand for fruit beers continues to increase, but making them — and making them well — can be difficult and sticky. Those firm, red beautiful cherries also come with pesky stems, for instance. Gathering enough quality, in-season fruit for a brew can sometimes be a challenge on its own, but once you’ve amassed the goods, that supply still has to be prepped. The peeling, dicing and de-seeding can be pretty unappealing once you’re up to your elbows in peaches. The puree provides beer makers with the best part of the fruit while leaving the labor and mess to Sarles’ company. He pointed out another benefit — the 42-pound packages can be stored, unopened, without refrigeration for 18 months, freeing up valuable cooler space in breweries while giving brewers access to a variety of fruit, regardless of season.
Oregon Fruit Products aseptic packaging line makes all of that possible. The business actually acquired the equipment many years before Sarles came on board — he figures it must have been in the mid- to late-1980s. At the time, that owner also was looking for ways to branch out. But aseptic packaging of fruit for breweries wasn’t part of the agenda. Craft beer was still developing in the region, however, it didn’t take too long for a brewer to approach the cannery.
“I think a brewery phoned here and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some fruit. Is there anything you can do to help out?’ And … ‘Well, we’ve got a machine …’ The next thing you know, aseptic puree is born for the company,” Sarles said, estimating that call came in the mid-1990s.
From there, Oregon Fruit Products nurtured a small, but solid, base of customers. McMenamins was within the first 20 accounts, making it one of the company’s longest-standing relationships to this day. The star for its Ruby comes from Sarles’ company — raspberries are flash-heated to minimize bacteria before they’re quickly cooled and packaged. And when something works in the Northwest brewing community, news gets around since sharing is a practice most producers embrace.
“The business has continued to grow nicely. It’s really fun to watch one brewer tell another brewer tell another brewer,” Sarles explained. “And they only do it because they believe in what they’re using.”
Another local business that sources fruit from Sarles is Worthy Brewing Company in Bend. It’s offered two new beers this summer — a peach saison and an IPA with mandarin orange and grapefruit purees — with Oregon Fruit Products getting a shout-out on their labels. Cider Riot, Ecliptic Brewing and Vagabond Brewing are also customers, and Sarles even does house calls for Ecliptic’s John Harris, when urgent.
“Yeah, I often haul fruit north in my car at night and meet him early the next morning if he’s in a pinch,” Sarles said. “I’ll always help a brewer out if they need it.”
And a number of those brewers are no stranger to Sarles, Harris included. The man who now oversees the processing and packaging of fruit actually worked in the beer industry for much of his career, which has helped him steer Oregon Fruit Products toward ramped up production of the brewing purees. Sarles left Columbia Distributing after 25 years when former owner Ed Maletis recruited him in 2014. Maletis bought Oregon Fruit Products three years earlier from the founders, the Gehler family. Sarles said the move was natural because the Maletises always treated him like family. But he also saw the challenge that moving industries would bring and it reignited his excitement for managing. Sarles could’ve easily settled into a comfortable retirement from Columbia in a few years rather than spending that time not only learning a new business, but also working to establish credibility with a group of people who didn’t know what to expect from him as a boss. Those are responsibilities not everyone would want to assume that far into a settled career. But maybe the decision was prompted by a flashback to Sarles’ feeling of accomplishment he got when he started his own beer and wine distributorship right out of college — the days of simultaneously carrying out the duties of chief toilet scrubber, head of sales and president/CEO. He definitely noticed that it was harder to feel like he was making a difference at Columbia with its growth. The effect of a single conductor diminishes when forced to share the stage with another symphony … and a choir … and a marching band meandering through the aisles.
“Understanding the importance of people in the overall business, I wanted the chance to go do that again,” Sarles explained. “And knowing that I had gotten to a place in a big business where I was one of 2,500 people in Columbia, you begin to see less of your own impact because it’s so big. And I really wanted the chance to go back and say, ‘I think I know what it takes to help create an opportunity for a company to succeed.’”
Sarles’ decision to make brewing purees more of a focus during the last two years has helped put the company on a path toward a more stable future. Oregon Fruit Products is planning on hiring a salesperson devoted to brewery accounts, a job that Sarles has effectively held. So the additional staff member will give him more time to do all of that important, CEO-type stuff. Additionally, this year’s new, limited-edition puree flavors have been snapped up quickly. Mango, which came out in May, saw incredible popularity, prompting Oregon Fruit Products to make a second batch.
“And pineapple sold so fast, we went through more than half — almost three-quarters of it — in two weeks,” Sarles said.
But beyond the numbers are the relationships, and Sarles seems to have that part of the business down as well. He underscored the importance of procuring fruit as close to home as possible. Many of the farms working with Oregon Fruit Products are a mere 20 minutes away, and some — like the plum growers in Forest Grove and Eugene — have been doing business with the company for generations.
That sense of commitment extends to employees as well. In a shifting economy where spending your entire career at a single company is increasingly rare, you’ll easily find people at Oregon Fruit Products who’ve been there for 20, 30 and 40 years. Sarles said one woman is marking 54 years at the business after starting there at the age of 16. It’s not uncommon for children who grew up with a parent processing or packing fruit there to join the team when they’re adults. At one point, three generations of men in the same family had positions at the Salem facility. Sarles knows it was critical to recognize these dynamics when he took over while proposing adaptations, which can be uncomfortable, at the same time.
“So how do you come in and gently support people for what they’ve done so well, yet nudge/push that we need to develop a change in order to not only survive, but thrive for years? And I think there’s a fine line there between somebody coming in and being a bully,” Sarles described, “and sort of being obnoxious when they come in as a new leader and somebody who takes their time — yet they’re firm enough to say, ‘We need change. Let’s do this together.’”
Collaboration with brewers is also key. You may wonder how Sarles comes up with new puree flavors like passion fruit and rhubarb. It all comes down to brewer requests. Research for the 2017 lineup of purees is still underway, but BackPedal Brewing Co. in Portland has already told Sarles they want to experiment with one of the new creations. Oregon Fruit Products has even developed puree for individual breweries by asking what flavor, texture and color they’re aiming for before sending samples and letting producers experiment from there. That process has led to several new beers, including a blood orange concoction from The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, Calif. Those projects gave Sarles the confidence that Oregon Fruit Products could set out on its own and develop purees without first partnering with a brewery.
“I started feeling like we could begin making them [the purees] without them necessarily having to be collaborative projects. We seemed to have begun to understand a little bit about what we needed to do. In the beginning, I wasn’t certain that we were on the right track,” Sarles said. “And now I think we understand it. But if there’s ever — as I’ve said, anytime somebody’s got an idea, if they want to come to us and experiment with us, we’re always game to make sure it goes top of the list and then try and work with them.”
Even if that includes more unusual produce like kiwi (there’s a guy who grows them in Eugene, according to Sarles) or prickly pear.
By spring of 2018, Oregon Fruit Products will have moved out of its aging warehouses and started operating in a brand-new plant, not far from its original footprint in Salem. If anyone is concerned that all of this progress will cause what’s still been a very quaint company to lose its personal, family-run touch — you only need to look to the pallets of brewing puree for assurance. Sarles will continue to uphold that ethos by including a hand-written thank-you note with every new shipment of puree to a brewery, just as he’s done since he started.
“I feel honored to be just sort of this caretaker of inheriting this rich tradition and legacy business and being able to make sure that I do everything — gives me little goosebumps — do everything I can to make sure there’s another 80 years for other people to not only work here, but also enjoy the fruits of our labor in the process,” Sarles said.
Literally, the fruits of their labor — the phrase just naturally slipped out, illustrating how connected the man has become with what’s inside of the can while moving the company forward.
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Dave Logsdon has been a key player in the craft beer world for more than 30 years. And for all that time, Hood River has been his home base.
His involvement with Full Sail Brewing Company is well known. He co-founded the brewery in 1987 and was the main brewer for a few years. But even before that in 1985 he founded Wyeast Laboratories, selling yeast cultures and other fermentation ingredients.
His newest brewing experiment is Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, founded in 2009. The 15-barrel brewery is in the barn on his rural property south of downtown Hood River off Highway 35. “The beer is influenced immensely by the terroir,” said Erika Huston, general manager of Logsdon Barrel House & Taproom. For example, The Conversion Northwest sour ale is brewed the traditional way by allowing the liquid to cool in an open, shallow vessel, resulting in spontaneous fermentation with wild yeast.
Huston said, “Our main challenge is to educate people to the palate about this style of beer. One of the first questions we hear is, ‘What is your IPA?’ We don’t have one.”
Logsdon characterizes these beers as Belgian saisons. Traditionally, they are malt forward with some fruit tastes and a dry, tart carbonated finish. Historically, they were brewed in the winter and served in the summer to farmworkers. Saisons have a very clean finish, but are complex to brew.
Last fall, The Logsdon Barrel House & Taproom opened in downtown Hood River. The idea for a taproom evolved as the reputation of the farmhouse ales grew. The brewery on his rural property was considered agricultural land and not eligible to host a taproom, according to Hood River zoning laws.
The Barrel House & Taproom was designed to resemble a Belgian-style brasserie café. Dave’s wife Judith Bams-Logsdon, a native of Flanders in Belgium, is in charge of the menu. Huston said, “She is very passionate about food. The menu was designed to be like what you would find in a Belgian cafe, and the beer and food share complementary flavors.”
The menu includes items like broodjes, Belgian sandwiches, and croque-monsieur, toasted ham and cheese on white bread. There are also seasonal entrees, such as a classic Flanders beef stew, Belgian waffles and crepes for dessert.
“We are definitely interested in spreading the word about the Belgian food emphasis here. It’s unique. There’s nothing else like it in Hood River,” said Huston.
The taproom has 12 rotating taps; one is a guest tap. “Logsdon beers are very unique. You won’t find them regularly in Portland. People are excited about our taster trays. They like sampling what they won’t normally see.”
The four core beers, available year round on draft and in 375-milliliter and 750-milliliter bottles, are Kili Wit, Seizoen, Seizoen Bretta and Straffe Drieling Tripel. “We’ll be adding the newest one, The Conversion Wit, like the regular but with wild yeast.”
Logsdon’s ales have won several awards, including a gold for the Seizon Bretta at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival, and are now available in local restaurants. Initially self-distributed, the ales are now distributed by Maletis.
“Many people have the idea that all Belgian beers are the same. The challenge is getting people to expand their horizons,” said Huston.
She has been a fan of Logsdon’s beer for several years. She previously worked at Saraveza in North Portland as a beer buyer and coordinator of the Portland Farmhouse & Wild Festival, usually held the last weekend in March. She met Dave and Judith in 2013 and loved their beer. When the opportunity came up to manage the taproom, she took it and moved to Hood River last October.
Last summer there was talk of a sale and move to Portland that never materialized. Logsdon and company are more firmly part of Hood River than ever before. Future plans are to “become a stronghold in the community,” said Huston. Logsdon is involved with Breweries in the Gorge, which is a nonprofit that promotes the beer makers in that region. The program is similar to the Bend Ale Trail, where customers can get stamps at each brewery they visit. And even though the founder hopes to step away from day-to-day operations, he will continue to oversee quality, develop new beers and participate fully in the Hood River community.
Some 50 kids got coats through Operation Warm thanks to Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 and Ninkasi. Last September, $5 of every Ninkasi keg sold at Portland-area accounts was donated to the union, which funded several projects. Photo courtesy of Portland Firefighters Association Local 43
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Unless you have ties to the military or another organization with the mission to serve others, such as firefighters, the challenge coin may be a foreign phenomenon. The small tokens typically signify association with a particular entity, and they’re often engraved with an insignia or motto. The origin of the challenge coin is said to date back to World War I. After escaping his German captors, an American pilot managed to flee to France, where he was assumed to be a spy and faced execution, according to the U.S. Air Force. To prove his identity, the man revealed a medallion featuring the emblem of his flying squad. That little bronze circle saved his life, and some sources say the French even sent the pilot off with a bottle of wine.
Since then, the tradition of carrying challenge coins has spread. They represent more than just membership. Earning one means you’ve been embraced by that community and it sparks a sense of pride. So when Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 presented a Ninkasi employee with one of its challenge coins, the organization was building a camaraderie with the brewery.
“So the challenge coin is normally only allowed to be given to firefighters and essentially, it marks you as one of their own — as part of the family,” said Ryan Brentley, Ninkasi market manager for the Portland area and owner of the challenge coin.
Brentley is no firefighter, although he has gotten to ride in one of the rigs and ring the bell. He does, however, have the backs of the hardworking men and women of Local 43. Brentley launched the Funds for Firefighters campaign and managed to raise nearly $10,000 for the unit. Just as it happened in 2015, $5 of every keg of Ninkasi sold at Portland-area accounts will be donated to Local 43 during the month of September. Last year, the money then went to the union’s charitable organization, which was able to fund three projects. First and perhaps most importantly, 50 kids didn’t go cold during the winter because Local 43 provided them with coats through Operation Warm. The union was also able to start growing its Pipes and Drums Team, a bagpiping group that will perform at community events. And the third venture was particularly meaningful to Travis Chipman, secretary/treasurer of the union.
“And I would say Ninkasi’s money actually founded this program,” even though it’s been an idea the group has had for a long time, he explained. “But we’ve never had the opportunity to start it, and that’s called the Firefighter’s Memorial Platoon. And that Platoon is built specially for us to service and reach out to firefighters that have lost their lives in duty all across the nation.”
When Chipman first learned that Brentley reached out, he said the thought of partnering with a brewery was surprising but also exciting.
“For us it was a natural fit because Ninkasi is so — they’re all about community and so us, we’re all about community, too. That’s what we do on a daily basis is protect the people that we serve,” Chipman said.
That description helps explain why Brentley wanted to raise money for firefighters. After all, there is an endless list of causes he could’ve focused on. For example, partnering with any one of the 500 or so organizations supported by Ninkasi’s Beer is Love program in 2014 may have been an easy option. Additionally, Brentley is an advocate for plenty of personal projects and giving back is so important to him, if there were a level above Eagle Scout for adults he would surely be working to earn that badge. The former Boy Scout will tick off his interests with the zest of an ambassador at his first ribbon-cutting ceremony: animal activism, Friends of Trees and preserving the Hollywood Theatre, just to name a few.
“But I was trying to think, what organization or nonprofit locally could every single person in Portland get behind?” Brentley said. “And firefighters just naturally came to mind.”
Rallying behind the people who put their lives on the line to help others would seem like a straightforward pitch. But putting together Funds for Firefighters wasn’t without its challenges. On the Ninkasi side, Brentley didn’t have a lot of time or money to get the large-scale project off the ground. Fortunately, the company encourages any and all employees, not just the marketing team, to research and develop methods for giving back. When Brentley ran the plan past the higher-ups in Eugene, it was co-founder Nikos Ridge who stepped in and covered the startup costs. Brentley was taken aback and honored when he learned that one of the company’s CEOs was personally green-lighting his idea.
Brentley may have had a way to start the project at that point, but Local 43 still needed to give the go-ahead. Secretary/treasurer Chipman explained that some in the union were nervous about collaborating with a brewery since there have been instances of firefighters dealing with alcohol abuse in the past.
“I mean, being a firefighter is very stressful, and a lot of times people don’t know how to deal with that stress,” Chipman said. “So sometimes people do turn to drinking. And if we’re an organization that’s had some problems in the past, then why would we promote a fundraiser that’s alcohol-related?”
To address those concerns, Local 43 researched Ninkasi, its founders and Brentley, who said the union “really appreciated the fact that we already had this Beer is Love program that we donate a lot of money through nonprofits, grassroots level, to say ‘thank you’ to the communities that take care of us. It’s just one of those simple ways that we can give back.”
Chipman added that “it was an opportunity for us to go to the membership and say, ‘Remember, please continue to drink responsibly and make good choices.’”
Once both sides were on board, it was already the first week of August, which left little time before the launch of Funds for Firefighters. That’s when Brentley enlisted the help of some off-duty firefighters to drum up support at area businesses. And aside from the days where they’re saving lives on the job, Chipman said his members really shine when they’re making connections in a low-key environment.
“Anytime there’s an opportunity to interact with the public in a casual setting is the best,” he explained. “Because firefighters are just normal, average people and, you know, for the most part we don’t do well in suits and those type of events. But we do well with just talking to people one-on-one and asking their concerns and seeing how they’re doing and explaining to them, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’”
Brentley said the outpouring of gratitude at these businesses was one of his favorite aspects of the project.
“Just seeing the thanks from every single person that came into contact with these firefighters and just how gracious and thankful they were — that, you know, these men and women are out there taking care of us every single day. I think that was, by far, the best part.”
Close to 1,000 accounts bought Ninkasi beer to sell that September. Brentley didn’t get to talk about Funds for Firefighters with all of the businesses he wanted to in 2015, so he’s hoping to bring even more on board and possibly double last year’s numbers. Brentley noted that Maletis Beverage also played a pivotal role promoting the program.
In January, the Ninkasi-Local 43 camaraderie continued to build when some of the firefighters, who were in Eugene for a statewide union meeting, got a tour of the brewing facilities and administrative building. The experience was one that still brings a smile to their faces when they describe it.
“Well for a lot of people, they had never been to a brewery before,” said Chipman. “And there’s some people on our executive board that I would say are connoisseurs of beer. They understand every aspect of every type and flavor, so for them it was — I would equate it and I kept saying it that night: it was like going to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for them.”
To thank Ninkasi, the union did something it never had before; firefighters gave the brewery a hand-crafted gift. They dyed old water hoses red and blue and then placed them in the shape of an American flag. Local 43’s symbol is ringed by stars in the upper-left-hand corner. One of the members built the natural-wood frame.
“It was just a heartwarming moment that they also gave back to us saying, ‘Thank you for the partnership,’” Brentley described.
In a way, it was like awarding the entire Ninkasi team with its very own extra-large challenge coin.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.