By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It wasn’t that long ago when the dirge for the American family business began to crescendo. Big box stores and transnational corporations had pushed and prodded small mom-and-pop operations ever closer to the grave. But there’s at least one industry where the family-run model has thrived — craft beer.
The business of brewing has long involved kin. For instance, Anheuser and Busch were joined by a hyphen only after the families joined in marriage. Closer to home, the most well-known relatives to start a brewery — Kurt and Rob Widmer — also helped launch the craft revolution in the 1980s. But they’re not the only brothers who’ve decided to make beer under the same roof. That duo is joined by the Hughes behind ColdFire Brewing; the Coombs, founders of Alesong Brewing & Blending; and Three Mugs Brewing Company had the Jennings (before the older brother departed); just to name a few.
While siblings seem abundant in the beer industry, one type of family pairing is rarer to find: the father-daughter team. Much of that is likely due to the fact that men still outnumber women employed in brewing. But that doesn’t seem to bother Lisa Allen, who joined her father Rick Allen at McMinnville-based Heater Allen in 2009. In fact, working closely with each other on a near daily basis in physically demanding roles has only strengthened their relationship over time. And while there certainly have been challenges along the way, right now both are more focused on Heater Allen’s big accomplishment — 10 years in business.
Lisa Allen never pictured herself hovering over her dad’s brew kettle or cleaning tanks as a full-time job. In fact, she didn’t even have full confidence that his mission to make good, local pilsner on a commercial level would ever take off.
“I remember thinking when my dad first started kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see how long this lasts,” she recounted. “When he first was working on recipes and stuff like that, I would come and brew a couple of times and that sort of stuff. I was interested in the process and I’d been interested in craft beer for a while, but I never really thought that I would actually be brewing.”
Instead, she was focused on a different fermented beverage: wine. Lisa Allen spent several years living the life of a vineyard vagabond. It’s not unusual to jump from tasting room to tasting room and even follow the harvest from the West Coast to the Southern Hemisphere since regular positions can be hard to come by. Lisa Allen guesses she moved at least once a year after finishing college, including stints getting grapes off their vines in California and New Zealand. Even her dad thought she was bound for a career in that industry.
“I have to admit my first thought was that she was going to dominate in another male-oriented field, and that’s wine,” said Rick Allen. “Because she’s always had a terrific palate and always been someone who basically could detect flaws and, you know, really kind of understand the whole sensory analysis side of things.”
But after a while, Lisa Allen discovered that brewing was more fulfilling than winemaking. The seasonal downtime with wine didn’t keep her as busy as she liked to be, so the year-round nature of the beer business was one plus. Another is the more hands-on nature of brewing — providing assistance to those microorganisms that complete the crucial task of turning sugars into alcohol.
“The thing that I really like about brewing is that you’re not just relying essentially on nature. You actually get to create something,” described Lisa Allen. “I mean, the one thing I always found coolest about wine was the fermentation process. I wasn’t actually as interested in the growing process and stuff like that. I was much more interested in the actual fermentation.”
Lisa Allen’s experience with winemaking helped her easily transition to the brewhouse. However, there were still obstacles.
“When we first started out, there was a certain amount of yelling and screaming and people going away mad,” said Rick Allen. “In the past, there have been a few times where things were thrown. I don’t think anything’s been thrown for a while,” he added with a laugh.
Aside from hurtling objects, working with a family member has several hazards — there are hurt feelings, head butting and moments of miscommunication. Not everyone would work well with a relative, particularly a parent or offspring. But with time, the Allens figured out how to pull it off.
“When my dad and I first started working together, I would say it took about a year to kind of know how we work together,” explained Lisa Allen. “I think part of the problem is that we are pretty similar in our personalities. We both kind of like being in control and doing things a certain way. And I still sometimes have to tell myself I take things too personally.”
Rick Allen said they’ve both become more sensitive to the way they give and receive feedback. And their similarities began to work in their favor. Rick Allen noticed areas where his daughter could improve were some of the same issues he once struggled with.
“It’s always easier to encourage them to spread their wings and understand their weaknesses or the things they need to work on a bit better,” Rick Allen said.
And that begins to touch on the unique benefits of working alongside a family member — you witness improvement and mastery over time. Few parents have that opportunity once their child reaches adulthood.
“You’ve got your own flesh and blood that you’re working with and they’re taking over and they’re taking more responsibility, and you get to see the growth up front and personal that you don’t normally get to see with your children,” Rick Allen described. “I don’t get to experience that with my son who’s off doing something else. But I can see that with Lisa.”
Both father and daughter take pride in the fact that they work a little harder and care a whole lot more about a brand that doesn’t just stand for quality beer. It also represents their family.
“It’s a family product, so I do think I have more investment in it than someone who would just work at a random brewery,” said Lisa Allen. “You know, it’s my name on the label as well, so I want that product to show really well.”
Lisa Allen is marking eight years with the brewery, and she knows she’s fortunate to have bypassed some of the discrimination other female brewers face — particularly those outside of Oregon. That’s not to say it never happens, though. There’s always the salesperson who wants to talk to a man at the brewery, the vendor who will only address Heater Allen’s male buyer instead of the woman who will actually make the purchasing decisions about equipment. And even getting singled out as a “woman in beer” can be a bit exhausting.
“I mean, it would be nice to just be seen as a brewer and not a woman brewer,” Lisa Allen said. “But because it’s a male-dominated field, that is going to happen. You are going to be seen as a woman brewer because there’s not that many of us.”
One way she’s reached out to support that industry minority is by participating in a group meetup that includes other female brewers from the Portland-metro area. They invite new women to join in order to share, learn or just seek camaraderie. While Lisa Allen described Oregon’s overall beer community as encouraging and helpful, she said meeting solely with women provides a safe space that’s free of judgement.
“It’s good for women to have a support group in a male-dominated field,” she said.
Many of those women are likely to pay the Allens a visit on Saturday, May 27 for the business’s 10th anniversary party. There will be a special zwickel beer tapping, a release of their kolsch in 500-milliliter bottles, commemorative half-liter ceramic mugs and possibly even a cake. Neither Lisa Allen nor her dad are ones to go on bragging about their milestone. But it has sunk in that they’ve done something pretty special in an industry that’s grown increasingly competitive.
“To think that it’s been 10 years is pretty amazing,” said Rick Allen, “because I really had no idea where this was going or how far it would go. But it’s gone further than I ever thought it would.”
“And I will say that even the impact on the Oregon beer culture too — no one else in Oregon made a craft pilsner before we started our Pilsner. And now there’s a bunch,” Lisa Allen said. “It’s really cool to think that we’ve been around for 10 years, so hopefully 10 — maybe 20 more.”
Heater Allen Brewing
907 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville
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
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.