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.