By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Effective May 1, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing Company has a new leader. In her five years at the company, though, chief executive officer Cheryl Collins has already been an integral force shaping the brewery’s culture. Now she’ll set the company’s overall course.
“Our core purpose has been, and will always be, to perpetuate better living,” says Collins. “My chief role in guiding and molding Ninkasi will be to continue our pursuit of perpetuating better living by building an effective team that aims to create an exceptional customer experience by producing quality craft beers.”
Co-founder Nikos Ridge stepped down as CEO to take the role of president and will continue to serve on the board. “The first 10 years of Ninkasi were about inventing ourselves as a company,” says Ridge in a press release. “The next chapter of Ninkasi is about taking the capabilities and teams we’ve built and aligning them even more to better serve our customers and craft beer fans.”
Since its founding in 2006, the 11-year-old brewery has grown to 103 employees in Eugene and other states. In 2016 Ninkasi produced approximately 100,000 barrels of beer and had sales of $30 million, and the Brewers Association ranked Ninkasi the 33rd largest U.S. craft brewery, up from 36th in 2015.
With more than 10 years of organizational leadership and development experience, Collins began at Ninkasi in 2012. A recipient of the Recruiter of the Year award from the University of Oregon, Collins has also been recognized as Manager of the Year by the Willamette Chapter Credit Union Association, and she holds two national awards from the Credit Union National Association for development and execution of training programs. Industry publications look to her leadership on small business best practices, and in 2016 Collins was the keynote speaker at the Oregon Manufacturers’ Summit.
Her time at Ninkasi, though, awakened Collins to the joy underlying craft beer. “It started with Ninkasi, the first time I heard a brewer describe what they had made,” she explains. “You could feel the passion that went into it; they talked about it similar to an artist talking about a painting. It was contagious. As I expanded my palate and began visiting other breweries, I noticed this trend throughout the industry. There is such great passion we all have in craft beer, how could you not enjoy it?”
In her role as chief people officer, Collins shook up the company — and the industry — with a radical proposal: get rid of performance reviews. The company agreed, leading to an ongoing evolution in how Ninkasi employees and management collaborate on professional improvement. The change was just one of many ways Collins modified company policy and practices to ensure that they built and maintained a cohesive, mutually supportive company culture — instead of being mere tools of employee compliance.
“My background and education is rooted in understanding and building organizational cultures,” says Collins. “Above all else, if leaders do not understand the importance of impact of culture, then everything else becomes more challenging. By being able to lead the organization with respect to culture and how we operate as a business, we will be able to position ourselves in an even more viable position in the future.”
As vice president of organizational development and chief operations officer, Collins spearheaded implementation of both cultural and operational initiatives. She instituted programs for employee recruitment, training and onboarding programs; continuous improvement strategies and best practices across brewery operations; team-building activities to nurture organizational culture; safety protocols and initiatives; leadership development programs; employer branding; and overarching company strategies.
“Cheryl has worked closely with every department across Ninkasi and is a pivotal force in pushing our teams to their full potential,” says Ridge. “Her leadership, coaching and strategic focus make this transition an obvious step forward.”
Now Collins expands her role to direct and lead the company both in its day-to-day operations and to guide long-term strategy. “I look forward to continuing our commitment to our core purpose — perpetuate better living — and working with our teams to develop innovative approaches to how we do business,” says Collins. “The door is open for new and innovative methods for how we operate as a business. We a have a team of creative and dedicated people who have made Ninkasi what it is today, and I’m excited to continue to help us improve and remain leaders in the industry.”
The craft beer industry is experiencing upheavals. Some independent brewers have been acquired, others have closed. And Collins knows she’ll encounter hurdles during her tenure as CEO. “Of the many challenges we face in the industry, the ones prevalent right now are the increasing number of breweries in the market and the impact of localization, both of which present growth challenges for most breweries,” says Collins. “As the industry continues to shift and change we will navigate these challenges through staying true to who we are at Ninkasi and listening to what our customers are saying.”
Whatever challenges come, she knows she can rely on Ninkasi’s collaborative culture. “People — both women and men — are passionate about craft beer, and all of us strive to make the industry better.”
As she takes up her duties as CEO, Collins will continue to lead with a belief that operations and culture are interdependent, and that the success, growth and health of one depends on the other. “It’s inspiring to be a part of a community with the level of commitment and engagement we see here at Ninkasi,” explains Collins. “You feel, believe and know you are part of something bigger than yourself; that level of inspiration is what we strive for every day.”
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.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“The smallest amount of hops.”
Known for big, hoppy beers, that’s not something you normally hear from Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing Company. But balance and minimal hopping are part of the profile of Lux, a Munich-style helles — or craft lager. It’s been brewed not as a limited release from the primarily ale brewery, but as a year-round lager in Ninkasi’s six-beer 2015 Flagship Series.
What could seem like a strange move for Oregon’s fourth-largest brewery is actually part of the long game for Jamie Floyd, Ninkasi co-founder: “I have always wanted to have a lager out year round. It’s taken us eight years to get there.”
Floyd got his first taste of Bavarian-style lagers during his homebrewing days. “Not many craft breweries were bottling in the U.S. yet, so I tasted a lot of imported beer and fell in love with lagers. They epitomize balance and nuance, as their delicate flavors leave nothing for a brewer to hide behind.”
After founding Ninkasi in 2006 with Nikos Ridge, Floyd always kept working toward adding lagers. The fledgling brewery’s ninth and 10th batches were a Munchner-style helles and a Munchner-style dunkel. Ninkasi began developing limited lager releases, including Lux in 2011, under their now-discontinued Prismatic series. Their journey toward the right lager paid off at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), when Ninkasi’s Pravda won gold in the “Bohemian-Style Pilsner” category.
In order to step up lager production, Ninkasi needed dedicated space — no easy thing when a brewery can make four batches of ale in the time it takes to prepare one lager.
“Part of why we did our recent expansion was to build capacity large enough to allow us to have properly aged lager beer,” Floyd explains. “We also purchased our GEA brewhouse that is U.S. made and German designed by folks who have made breweries for lager makers for decades.”
Ninkasi’s expanded capacity, including nine 550-barrel combination brite/fermentation tanks, came online last year. Expanded lab space also made it possible to cultivate the multiple yeast strains needed to produce their ales and lagers.
Market realities and distribution logistics also prompted a decrease from four craft lagers to one. “We heard back from our wholesale and retail partners that switching out lagers every four months was tricky for them,” says Floyd. “A lot of work goes into resetting new beers on shelves, especially chain stores. We needed to look at what was best for the beer. Also, because these beers take six weeks to make, it can be hard to forecast how much to make.”
Ninkasi also understood that the dominance of pilsners in the market gave them an opportunity to do something different.
“We chose Lux for a few reasons,” Floyd says. “Helles is the Bavarian national beer, made originally in response to the relatively hoppier pilsners of Northern Germany and the Czech Republic. Helles defines balance and drinkability. Also, the ingredients for this beer are more reliable than some other styles.”
Contrary to what a certain Super Bowl ad might have insinuated, Floyd believes that “consumer tastes have become a lot more sophisticated.” He sees today’s craft beer drinker as wanting more diversity and nuance. “I love me some hoppy beers but I also love lagers too. A helles sits really well next to an IPA in a cooler at a barbecue in the park with friends.”
Now that Floyd’s lager dream is a reality, he’s not stopping at Lux. “We have some other draft lager surprises coming up too.”
(a) 272 Van Buren St., Eugene
The Eugene-based band, Blue Lotus, recently recorded an album at Ninkasi Brewing’s in-house studio and will hold a release party at the brewery in late June. They’ve developed a longstanding relationship with the beer maker since playing their first show on Ninkasi’s patio in 2010. Photo by AJ McGarry
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In 2010, guitarist and singer/songwriter Brandelyn Rose was organizing shows with her new band, Blue Lotus, based in Eugene. Their search for interesting venues led to a young brewery.
“Our first show was actually on Ninkasi's patio,” says Rose, but the band’s involvement with the brewery didn’t stop there.
Later, Blue Lotus organized a national tour but needed a trailer. “We didn't have any outside funding,” Rose recollects. “We went to Ninkasi and proposed a sponsorship, and they helped us purchase a trailer. Ninkasi also provided us with beer in trade for advertising.”
Fast-forward to 2015. After four albums and accolades including being named as one of Relix magazine’s "Bands on the Rise" in 2012 and 2013, Blue Lotus wanted to create their first full-length “live” album, with studio support. Ninkasi had recently opened an in-house production and recording studio, inside their new administrative headquarters.
“It just made sense to have them record us,” Rose says.
So it was time to talk to James Book.
The Man Behind the Music
Book came to Ninkasi after 25 years in the music business, much of it on the road. As part of American post-grunge group The Flys — whose 1998 "Got You (Where I Want You)” hit number five on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks — Book toured Europe. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was learning a lot about beer.”
After the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2002, Book decided “it was time to leave the party” in Hollywood. Now in Eugene with his family, Ninkasi’s brand and experiential marketing director revolves around imagination and fermentation. “From my experience, music is a lot like craft beer,” Book explains. “Both put an indelible stamp on the psyche. Think of the best things that ever happened to you in your life. Music and beer were probably there.”
The two are also in the midst of disruption. “Like beer, music is finding a revolution,” Book says. “The music business in the ‘90s got really locked down in the corporate world. But brewing and making music are pursuits of the heart that can’t be denied. Lots of today’s breweries are rooted in that.”
The Business Sense of a Brewery Studio
Ninkasi mixes sounds and suds as a combination of passion, personalities, business sense and favorable laws. At its most practical level, Book says, “states such as Oregon allow us to also support for-profit organizations such as bands.”
Along with Ninkasi co-founders Jamie Floyd and Nikos Ridge, and chief financial officer Nigel Francisco, Book has worked on focusing Ninkasi’s sponsorship efforts around things the founders and employees are personally passionate about. “We’re still able to do the things we love and use them as our marketing, whether it’s music, or outdoor sports such as climbing, surfing or fishing,” Book explains. “We sponsor everything from pro kayakers to musicians, the kinds of niche activities that we like to participate in.”
Ninkasi’s musician support takes many forms: co-branding merchandise that bands can sell, supporting tours, designing album covers through Ninkasi’s in-house art department and showcasing bands at the South by Southwest (SXSW) annual festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
“The primary way this year has been helping musicians record or produce albums in Ninkasi’s studio,” Book says. Since opening the studio last year, Ninkasi has worked on recordings and production with 12 artists. “We tailor support for each band individually, since no two bands need the same thing.”
While Ninkasi supports bands, they only work with musicians who have a clear sense of purpose and goals. “We get a lot of bands that say ‘sponsor me,’ but they have no idea what they want from us. That usually stems from them not knowing what they want for themselves, from their own careers,” Book explains. “We aren’t here to design their goals for them, we want to help them reach their own goals.”
Inside the Creative Cave
The studio can be toured by the public but booked only by musicians Ninkasi sponsors. Once inside, you find creative caves, complete with a live room, isolation, a control room, a digital audio workstation called Pro Tools and Class A mic preamps.
Book beams at what’s ahead: installing an API console, what many consider the greatest mixing board. “There have been more gold and platinum records from that board than any other,” Book says.
The studio has capabilities similar to a label: Book produces and presses albums, and Ninkasi’s marketing team facilitates publicity. “While our logo might appear on the back of the record, the album and the intellectual property of the songs are the property of the artist, not us,” Book explains. “We never take revenue from any of the albums that are sold. That all goes to the artist.”
Blue Lotus Blossoming
As Blue Lotus and Book put the finishing touches on the new album, Brandelyn Rose is excited about the band and the brewery’s continued progress.
“I love that we can support Ninkasi,” Rose says. “We have watched each other grow from seedlings to where we are now. I love that James has incorporated his love of music into his work. I think it is brilliant. Who loves to drink beer? Bar goers, music lovers, bands. By sponsoring the music and becoming a part of the music scene, Ninkasi has created a ‘music culture’ around the beer.”
Book’s outlook is similar. “Watching Blue Lotus merge live and studio art forms before my very eyes has been exciting.” Steeped both in the music and brewing businesses, he understands that what really matters is passion, authenticity and doing what you love.
“Any brewery can sponsor bands,” Book points out, “but having a studio at the brewery campus? It’s a way for us to authentically be involved in the artists we support. We make music with them, producing them or just enabling them to make the music they want. Authenticity cannot be replaced in music, beer or any line of business.”
Then it’s time to get back to work. Blue Lotus plans to release their new album, “Across the Canyon,” later this month — with a release party at Ninkasi.
Above, Ninkasi launched its yeast aboard an amateur rocket hoping to activate it in space. Due to faulty tracking devices, it was not retrieved from the Black Rock Desert in time to find the yeast viable. Mission One was a learning experience. Ninkasi is now planning Mission Two.
Photo courtesy of Ninkasi Brewing Co.
By Anthony St. Clair
On July 14, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing launched the Ninkasi Space Program (NSP). An amateur rocket packed with 16 strains of brewer’s yeast was launched high into the atmosphere. Ninkasi was hoping to later retrieve the yeast and brew a batch of “space beer.”
Twenty-seven days after launch, the payload was retrieved from Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Due to a lengthy search time, the result of the failure of tracking devices, the yeast was not viable for brewing.
“This was an opportunity that came about through a combination of relationships and timing,” says Ninkasi co-founder Nikos Ridge. “The mix of science, engineering, rockets, yeast, and space has been a really cool experience. Watching a rocket launch into space is actually cooler than you expect. We thought it would be fun, it turned out to be amazing. There is something pretty deep about reaching out beyond the earth. This was only the second amateur rocket ever launched into space, and set a host of new records for amateur space flight, such as speed, height, and first amateur picture taken in space.”
While the first launch did not result in viable yeast, Ninkasi already has plans for a second attempt. “We will have the opportunity to launch again in late October,” says Ridge. “After learning from some of the experiences from the first launch, we hope to get back viable yeast.”
Updates about the Ninkasi Space Program can be found at nsp.ninkasibrewing.com or on Ninkasi’s Facebook page.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.