By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
For Colleen Sheehan and her husband Stephen, the choice was simple. They were tired of working “cubicle life jobs” for other people and wanted to work for themselves. So in 2010 they opened a food cart. Delacata became a Eugene sensation — but it also set the couple’s sights higher. In 2014 they opened Elk Horn Brewing and never looked back. The campus-area brewpub seats 150 inside and outside, has garnered accolades for being a local favorite and brewed 328 barrels of beer on their 20-barrel system last year.
“We live once. Let's try and enjoy this life to the fullest,” says Colleen Sheehan, “which for me, is experiencing the trials and tribulations of running your own business.”
Pub culture was nothing new to Sheehan. During her middle school years she and her family lived in London. After school her parents would take her to local pubs, where over a shandy she absorbed the English pub scene. “Nowadays, I enjoy all types of beers, depending mainly on the environment around me,” she says. “I like everything from a chewy stout to a bitter IPA to a summer wit. My husband and I have become real fans of sours in the last few years.”
Those travel experiences also broadened her perspective on the world and as an entrepreneur, helping Sheehan feel more willing to identify new possibilities and take chances. But the Eugene native and graduate of the University of Oregon also credits her education with instilling and honing the skills she needed to develop and implement her and Stephen’s business plan for Elk Horn.
“I do everything from payroll, accounting, scheduling, hiring, cooking, managing, to just making sure the daily operations are in order,” explains Sheehan. “My husband calls me the Oz behind the curtain.”
However, Sheehan also realized that her husband’s people and persuasion skills would be key in making Elk Horn not just a dream, but a reality. “Stephen is the sales guy — the schmoozer that brought in investors and made sure that the bank approved my plans,” says Sheehan. “I came up with the business plan and worked all the logistics of how, when, where and why the brewery would operate.” Despite her meticulous planning, Sheehan acknowledges that women entering business face hurdles based on sex and gender. “I honestly don't think I would have gotten investors or the bank loan needed without a man being involved.”
With Elk Horn now open for nearly two years, the Sheehans continue working as a team. “I excel in bookwork and planning, and he excels in running a solid staff and talking with the customers,” Sheehan explains. “We continually drive each other to work harder and be better at what we do.”
Sheehan knows that she is a woman who owns a brewery in a business dominated by men, but she sees that merely as an opportunity for more women to become involved. “I like beer as much as any man out there, so why not work with a medium that I love and enjoy.” However, she also hopes to be a pioneer who helps other women realize they can be part of a brewery, from the brewhouse to the boardroom. “Women just need to be more interested in the craft brewery scene,” says Sheehan. “The more they become interested and want to be a part of it, the more they can. I know when it comes to hiring more brewers when I expand, I'm going to, of course, give any woman with good experience a shot.”
Elk Horn currently has more than 40 employees, with plans to add more this summer. Providing economic opportunity and good jobs is one of the positives of owning a brewery, says Sheehan, as it is both personally fulfilling and improves the broader community. Another benefit of being a woman who owns the brewery? Closing the wage gap. “I set my wage, and I set others’ pay as well,” says Sheehan. “I am not biased when it comes to male or female and setting their pay based on gender. I believe in equal pay for individuals who do the same job, and then those who excel are paid accordingly.”
Sheehan sees the current craft beer industry as only just having scratched the surface of beer’s full potential. She and Stephen talk regularly with Elk Horn’s brewers to come up with a different take on beers, ciders and even meads. “It's cool to think of different bittering agents to use, different additions, what herbs can do, what fruits or vegetables can do, how different bacteria creates different mouth reactions,” says Sheehan. “It's a wonderful platform to tantalize your taste buds while giving you a buzz. It's so exciting to come up with a new flavor profile, watch it be executed and then watch a customer’s reaction to it.”
Sheehan plans more tastings and blending parties for women, and she and Stephen are at work to expand distribution from in-house to an expanded local and regional tap presence. They are hard at work on other plans too: their first child is due in August. For Sheehan, though, starting a family is another evolution for the brewery and another way to dovetail life and business.
“I love running a business” she says. “I love challenging, hard work. I love the ups and downs.”
As Sheehan keeps the brewery going day after day, while also planning for the future, she also sees craft beer as similar to man’s — or woman’s — best friend. “Craft beer is like having a dog,” she explains. “It eases a stressful day, it gives you something to do in the Oregon rain. It’s great to take to the beach during a hot summer, and it's always there for you when you need it.” And it’s something to look forward to.
“Right now my favorite beer is the non-alcoholic one, but once I have this baby, I'm really looking forward to our Wapiti Pilsner on a hot August day.”
Elk Horn Brewery
[a] 686 E. Broadway, Eugene
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.