By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“Willamette Brewery of Eugene will begin brewing beer at its production facility this coming winter. The brewery will not have an attached restaurant but will have production capacity to distribute kegged beer throughout Eugene and other locations in the Willamette Valley. The company's founders, Willamette Valley natives, share a love of Oregon and a commitment to the local economy.”
Taken from the brewery’s original website, the above was the plan for Jeff and Chris Althouse, the brothers who founded what is now known as Oakshire Brewing. It was 2006. Instead of the 4,500-plus breweries currently in the U.S., there were 1,460 (more than a thousand of which were brewpubs). Yet two homebrewers in the southern Willamette Valley thought they could make and sell some darn good beer, no pub required.
So far so good. Integral in the Oregon beer boom, and with beers that have attained national recognition, Oakshire recently celebrated its first decade. What’s in store for the next 10 years?
When Oakshire brewed its first six barrels in late 2006, it was just the brothers. They hoped to make enough Oakshire Amber to have a profitable business and make a decent living. Today Oakshire has 23 employees across its production, public house and administrative teams. On pace to brew 8,500 barrels of up to 80 beers for 2016, Oakshire’s beers can be found in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Denver, Alaska and Vermont.
“We wanted to create good beer experiences by giving access to our beer wherever people were most comfortable drinking it.,” explains CEO Jeff Althouse. “We were Eugene’s beer then, and I think we’re Eugene’s beer now — Eugene’s brewery. There are wonderful breweries here, but our intentions now and then were always clear. The number one thing I’ve learned in 10 years of operating Oakshire Brewing, is that our No. 1 resource is our people — not just people who work here, but the people who drink the beer too.”
Self-described as “opposed to high risk,” Althouse has focused on measured, tactical, strategic growth. “Once something worked, it made sense to grow it and change incrementally, and even take a step back when we needed to,” he says. “There’s plenty of stuff we’ve gotten wrong too. We look at it, we learn, we pivot.”
That’s applied to equipment growth, such as adding labeling machines, a canning line and, more recently, a heat exchanger for kettle souring. It’s also key in Althouse’s ongoing strategy around distribution. Oakshire markets three categories of beers: Core (year-round and seasonal sellers), Pilot (single- and small-batch beers) and Vintage (bottle-conditioned, barrel-aged, wild and high-ABV beers).
In the next 10 years, “we might have a hundred different metropolitan areas where we sell Vintage beers, and there’s a chance we‘ll sell our Core beers only in Oregon,” says Althouse. “It‘ll be neat if we’re tightening the geography on beers that should be drunk fresh and broadening it on beers that are meant to be aged.”
One of Oakshire’s biggest changes has been adding the Public House (though they rely on food carts for grub), which opened in 2013 in Eugene’s brewery-packed Whiteaker neighborhood. In 2012, the tasting room at the production brewery was taking up room needed for a canning line. The Public House both increased space (and freed up the brewery for production, packaging and shipping), and helped Oakshire stabilize profits. “We’re a tricky size. We have the overhead of a larger brewery, but the gross profit of a small brewery,” explains Althouse. “We needed to have the additional revenue and gross profit associated with the public house operation.”
For example, Pilot beers are a popular and distinctive part of the brand, but it was hard to profitably factor them in to the company’s distribution. Now, even the smallest batches — sometimes just one keg — can be tapped exclusively at the Public House. As an additional benefit, customers can give direct feedback to pub staff and brewers. Now, Oakshire fans hit the Public House every Tuesday at 6 p.m., when a new Pilot beer is tapped.
The Public House also anchors its community presence, from partnering with Lane United Football Club to its Wednesday Oakshire Inspires program, where $1 of every beer sold benefits a different local nonprofit. The brewery’s growth also enabled it to enact a “1% for Watersheds” program, where one percent of local revenue from Watershed IPA sales goes to the McKenzie River Trust. Given the success of the Public House, when Althouse looks ahead at Oakshire’s next decade, he sees potentially opening a second location — but doesn’t know where yet.
What he does know is that Oakshire will continue to grow in its own independent, strategic, committed way. “Our vision was not complicated. We wanted to run a nice brewing company that involved the community,” says Althouse. “We brewed for a small area, and we wanted to be able to make a living the right way — a just and sustainable business. That hasn’t changed.”
Oakshire Brewing Public House
207 Madison St., Eugene
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.