By Andi Prewitt
Life happens around the Leikam family’s dining room table. It’s where meals are shared, Halloween pumpkins are carved, and plans are made. When homebrewer Theo Leikam decided to enroll in Portland State University’s Business of Craft Brewing program, he would often watch lectures on his laptop at the dining room table. His wife and now business partner Sonia Marie Leikam sometimes took a seat and listened in. And the couple’s children would be nearby doing their best to steal their parents’ attention away from the online lessons.
Projects, both big and small, often get completed at the dining room table. Proof of a very big endeavor now sits just feet away in the Leikams’ backyard—the structure that will house their new brewery. And in the same way the dining room fulfills more than one need, so too will the family’s business. Leikam Brewing won’t just be a place to get beer. The couple also hopes to facilitate a sense of community among local beer drinkers. Two unique aspects of the brewery illustrate a concern for something beyond the bottom line: the community supported membership model and its kosher certification.
Now the one thing customers can’t do at the brewery is walk in and have a pint, which might not sound very community-oriented at first. There’s not much room for a tasting area to begin with, since the 5-barrel system is located in a detached building behind the Leikams’ Southeast Portland home. However, those who buy memberships to the brewery can find other benefits that might surpass simply having a seat at the bar. The community supported element is modeled after successful agriculture programs. Farmers sell directly to consumers who have provided payments ahead of time to help cover the costs of material and labor.
“We’re asking our subscribers to trust and support us and say we want to support your process and we want to support the good work you’re doing. So we’re going to give you the money in advance as a subscription and then over time you’ll get a variety of different beers,” explained Sonia Marie Leikam.
The model typically provides producers with more security and better prices. Members then get to build a relationship with the brewery that’s often not possible with larger businesses. Leikam is offering six-month or 12-month subscriptions on the brewery’s website at this point. A six-month membership allows a customer 12 growler fills during that period, which can be done by making an appointment at the brewery or going to a farmers market that offers Leikam beer.
“I think it just creates a deeper bond with the people who believe in the product and are willing to not just buy a pint and move on,” said Theo Leikam. “They’re willing to invest in it.”
There are also sign-up perks such as growlers and T-shirts, but after the business gets moving the Leikams would like to host events that allow members to become more familiar with the process of making beer and the business’s ethos. For example, the Leikams chose two hop farms to buy from in Hubbard and Woodburn because they have salmon-safe hops. It’s important to them that customers come out and hear why they made that decision and also see how the beer is made. Anyone who knows Sonia Marie Leikam would understand that encouraging learning would naturally be a part of any business she was involved with. She not only earned a master’s degree in education and spent time teaching in the classroom, but also worked as a Holocaust educator and anti-genocide activist. Of course beer is a vastly different subject, but still one that can command socially-significant discourse. Ultimately, Sonia Marie Leikam wants consumers to be knowledgeable about their purchases instead of mindlessly consuming.
“For us it’s really about the community and really being conscious of where our product is coming from and all of our ingredients,” noted Sonia Marie Leikam. “And to be able to have a place where people feel like they have a real sense of community. I think I mean that’s what I set out my job to be is a community-builder and an organizer and an educator. And if we can use beer as a vehicle for that then that’ll be really exciting.”
The Leikams also plan to reach out to members for suggestions about what styles of beer to make and names for some of their brews. To start off with, customers will be able to fill their growlers with a pale ale, an IPA, a porter, and a stout. The porter recipe actually originated when Theo Leikam brewed it as a celebratory beer to mark the birth of his youngest son. It’s been a practice he’s adhered to for all three of the couple’s boys.
Traditions bring people together and add meaning to our lives. Kosher production is one tradition the Leikams are bringing to their brewery. Theirs is an interfaith household—Sonia Marie Leikam is Jewish; Theo Leikam is not. But getting a kosher certification will ensure the inclusion of more people in the community as well as provide a way to balance family life since the Leikams won’t produce or sell beer on Shabbat, which runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.
“We want to model to our kids that the brewery’s important, but actually family’s really important too and resting and having that time to be with your community because that’s what we’ll do on Saturdays and Friday nights,” said Sonia Marie Leikam.
Fortunately for those who follow Jewish dietary laws and love a good brew, most beer is acceptable to consume. But don’t expect the Leikams to turn out a milk stout or an oyster stout because those are two examples of beers that would violate the rules. However, just because the beer is kosher doesn’t mean the business automatically gets certified. Once the Leikam facility is completed, it will need to be inspected and blessed by a rabbi. Additionally, the two have had to prove to a certifying body that all of their suppliers are kosher. The process does cost the business extra money and it’s not easy. One further complexity is the issue of brewery ownership on Passover. Since Sonia Marie Leikam is Jewish, she can’t possess the business’s grains during the observance. Therefore, at least one week a year Theo Leikam will be the sole owner since his wife will sell him her half of the brewery. Once Passover has ended, Sonia Marie Leikam will buy back her part of the business.
These ancient laws may not resonate with everyone and could prove challenging if the brewery grows and opens a tasting room or pub down the road. But production of the beer itself can remain kosher. And the Leikams’ reason for doing it all this way should still hold meaning for anyone—even those who don’t abide by Jewish laws.
“The act of keeping kosher is about for me being conscious and aware of where your product is coming from and that it was created for a purpose—to sustain you or to feed you or whatever it might be,” explained Sonia Marie Leikam.
Building a kosher brewery is just the latest project this husband-and-wife team has launched in what’s become a very longstanding partnership. How long? The two weren’t even in their teens when they met in middle school in California. They may have started as awkward friends but later became high school sweethearts. And they’ve been together ever since. In fact, it’s been so long that they’re not quite sure whether it’s been 15 years since their first date. But it was around that time when Sonia Marie Leikam broke up with her boyfriend, who was kind of a jerk, and Theo Leikam declared that he could do better than that guy. She was single for all of two hours.
After high school the two came to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark College and later went on to Portland State University for post-baccalaureate work. Sonia Maria Leikam taught before becoming executive director of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, a position she left in July in part to devote more time to the brewery. Theo Leikam became a certified public accountant and started homebrewing about eight years ago after a housemate told him he should look into it. That was followed up with a homebrewing book as a birthday present. Theo Leikam was then the recipient of a Mr. Beer kit that had sat untouched in someone else’s garage for 10 years, the fate of most Mr. Beer kits, it would seem. And finally when another friend gave him some more advanced equipment it was as if the universe was telling Theo it was his time to brew. The hobby-turned-profession complements Theo Leikam’s skills. As an accountant, he has to be very precise and methodical, which is also important when brewing. But Theo Leikam found his artistic needs were going unfulfilled until he started making beer.
“It’s kind of a balance of the creative side and the exact-with-the-numbers kind of thing, which you need both for brewing,” Theo Leikam observed.
Launching from homebrewer to a business operator takes more than just good beer, though. Some of that extra effort needed to get off the ground might come from Theo Leikam’s passion for the project, which his wife said has “fueled him in a way that’s not ever been seen before.” And some of it might come from Sonia Marie Leikam’s determination to live life with no regrets and embrace the idea that if they must fail at this—fail spectacularly.
After 15 years together, they’ve also helped each other grow. A more reserved and thoughtful Theo Leikam said he’s taught his wife patience and how to relax a bit more. An animated Sonia Marie Leikam believes she’s encouraged her husband to become more aggressive and nudged him outside of his comfort zone. But when it comes down to it, support is what pushes people to accomplish extraordinary things. Initially, Theo thought his wife would see the brewery as his project and take a hands-off approach. It might have come as a surprise, then, when Sonia Marie Leikam decided she wanted a bigger role in helping him fulfill his dream. The realization came last year when she was halfway across the world in Israel and pregnant while working on a program at the Holocaust museum. Theo Liekam was home with their two young sons. It was another example of his unwavering support for her career and she wanted nothing less for her husband and best friend, whom she’d watch grow from adolescent to adult.
“I feel like I do for him what he’s done for me. I think there came that moment when I was in Israel and I was like, huh. This is really his dream and we’re really going to do this,” said Sonia Marie Leikam. “And we’re a team effort so that we can succeed. Otherwise there’s no other way to do it.”
[a] 1718 SE 32nd Place, Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.