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Ossie Bladine  |  obladine@newsregister.com

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Building an Organic Empire: Hopworks at 10

 

It’s almost hard to believe. Hopworks is 10. The flagship brewpub on Southeast Powell Boulevard opened in 2008. Today, founder Christian Ettinger is planning for the next decade, cognizant of increased competition in the market, still dedicated to the values Hopworks is known for.


“We folded the European balance of food and family and beer together in a sustainable model and it’s been a success. We have the three pubs [flagship, Bike Bar, Vancouver] with another one coming on at the airport. I’m happy with where we are and looking forward to what’s coming.”


They’re holding a few events to celebrate a decade in business. The first of those, a retrospective for family and friends, happened on Earth Day in April. Coming up this summer, they’ll host a Salmon-Safe IPA Fest on Aug. 25, followed by Cascadian Beer Fest Nov. 10.


“The IPA fest is going to be fun,” Ettinger said. “We invited 20 breweries to imagine what IPA will look like in 10 years. Hazies kind of came out of nowhere. Now there’s Brut IPA. That’s today. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of vision these folks have for the future.”


The viability of the original Hopworks’ concept was anything but assured. The flagship pub is in an area many did not think was ideal. It was a gamble purchasing the building surrounded by rundown and seedy businesses. Moreover, it took a sizable investment to renovate it.
“Powell Boulevard was probably not the most obvious place for a brewpub,” Ettinger admits. “Strip clubs, check cashing businesses and convenience stores. But 45,000 cars cruise by here every day. And eastbound traffic makes a right-hand turn into our parking lot. It’s worked out nicely.”

 

A big reason Hopworks wound up on Powell is that Ettinger was determined to purchase a building for his brewery and pub. He wanted plenty of space to grow and didn’t want to get stuck with a lease that could be pulled or increased.


“Maintaining our independence was another crucial factor,” he said. “We had goals with respect to sustainability and social responsibility that weren’t necessarily conducive to quick profits. I figured the key to achieving those goals was independence.”


Protecting that independence meant tapping into friends and family for financing early on. There was never any outside control connected to that. After a few years, early investors were paid back and Ettinger has moved on to traditional financing in recent times.


“One of the reasons our growth curve has been fairly gradual is we didn’t get caught up in taking on substantial debt to expand. Sure, we could have grown faster. But 30 percent growth, which you see a lot, is scary. I’m more comfortable with 10 to 15 percent, which is about where we are.”


They intend to make some investments that will help drive future growth. In the pub, expect the number of booths to increase in an effort to make people more comfortable. They’ll also introduce more vegetarian menu options. The brewery is going to get more efficient, not bigger.
“We’ll bring in a system that extracts fermentables from any grain,” Ettinger said. “It’s not cheap, but it will allow us to produce wort in substantially less time, with less energy and lower water consumption. Plus, we’ll get 20 percent more out of the malts we use. It will be a great upgrade.”


Some beer fans will recall that Hopworks was an early adopter of aluminum cans. That may be perceived as being part of an innovative mindset, but Ettinger doesn’t see it quite that way.
“We saw cans emerging as the most popular beverage container in the world. It may have been somewhat innovative in craft beer, which wasn’t putting a lot of beer in cans when we started. Ultimately, it’s the beer that matters, not the packaging, though I do think the environmental footprint of cans is somewhat less than bottles.”


The ultra-competitive market has Ettinger contemplating reasonable goals for beer production volumes. Does Hopworks need to substantially increase annual barrelage to stay relevant or is a moderate approach more realistic and ideal?

 
“We could simply choose to produce 14K of the best and most-efficient barrels possible,” Ettinger said. “That’s about where we are now. I mean, 30K barrels is a neat target, but I’m not sure we need to get there anytime soon. Our focus on sustainability and social responsibility is more important.”


That focus has sharpened since Hopworks became a B Corporation three years ago. Early on, the approach to sustainability and social responsibility was basic. They had a green building, focused on organic sourcing and featured a variety of environmental efficiencies.


“When we became a B Corp, we found we weren’t doing some things,” Ettinger said. “We’ve had to tighten up our efforts in some areas. We had look more seriously at our governance and the work/life balance of employees. In some ways, things are simpler now.”


As with any business, there have been twists and turns. Hopworks started out quite small and has made the transition to a much larger operation with a reach that extends well beyond the Portland area.

 

“There are always challenges,” Ettinger says. “I love coming to work. Building the team may be the most rewarding thing. As we’ve grown, the team has changed at each level. You discover you need people with expertise in different areas as you grow. For instance, we didn’t think much about the details of distribution in the early days. Now we have to.”


It may not be universally appreciated, but perhaps the most unique thing about Ettinger is that he’s always thinking, always trying to figure out ways to do things smarter, more efficiently. It’s a vision thing.


The next 10 years are sure to be interesting at Hopworks. •
 

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