Hood River’s craft beer boom


0213 Brewing 02Premium ingredients, great location, experience and the “Full Sail” effect have turned Hood River into one of the country’s hottest brewing towns.

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BY MATT WERBACH

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Above: David Logsdon of Logsdon Farmhouse Ales spent over 20 years studying yeast and fermentation.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

In the 25 years since Full Sail Brewing Company crafted its first beers, the quaint mountain town of Hood River has amassed an impressive array of high-quality breweries and brewpubs. Hood River is home to fewer than 8,000 residents, but within the city, five breweries thrive, and just outside the city ,the towns of White Salmon, Wash., and Parkdale each have a sought-after brewery born from Hood River’s brewing tradition. Full Sail’s success laid the groundwork for a large piece of Hood River’s future as a craft-beer-producing mecca.

Last winter, when Darrek Smith became the brewer at Big Horse Brew Pub in downtown Hood River, he also became the first and only of the area’s seven head brewers to come from outside the Full Sail system. Full Sail and Big Horse opened in the same year with far different intentions. Brewing was not in the original plans for Big Horse, which was set up as a restaurant. The Full Sail founders were focused on becoming a major player in the beer world, and that meant converting consumers of fizzy, yellow American beers like Budweiser to craft beers with more robust tastes and a higher price.

Today the vast majority of beer drinkers are still not craft-beer drinkers, even in Oregon, but Full Sail has largely succeeded in its task, even if the battle is ongoing. In its first year of production, Full Sail brewed 287 barrels of beer. “I remember each one,” jokes Irene Firmat, the company’s CEO and founder. Last year,Full Sail brewed 150,000 barrels as it watched former employees prepare to open three new breweries in the area.

 


 

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Above: Double Mountain Brewery was founded in 2007 by Charlie Devereux and Matt Swihart.
Below: Devereux and Swihart brew agressive, comples, robust beers.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
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The success of the Hood River brewing industry comes from the melding of experienced brewers with premium beer ingredients. Thanks to Full Sail, Hood River has had plenty of skilled brewers for the last quarter century. “I think they are all exceptionally well trained,” says Brian Butenschoen, the executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild, a nonprofit trade organization that represents the state’s breweries.

“Full Sail hires pretty stinking smart and ambitious folks,” says Josh Pfriem, brewer and part owner of Pfriem Family Brewers, Hood River’s newest. Firmat says Full Sail believes in hiring brewers with an entrepreneurial spirit. The company is and always has been employee owned, so as brewers, these employees were provided more access to the inner workings of the company than would be traditional.

Experience alone would not yield the high-quality beers the region is producing, and that is where the access to premium ingredients comes into play. Each of the town’s brewers uses the best of what Hood River and its Northwest neighbors have to offer. “We’re in such a great location,” says Jamie Emmerson, executive brewmaster at Full Sail. “We are situated between the two great hop-producing areas of the U.S.”

The Hood River brewing teams use grains from the Northwest, Idaho and Southern Canada. The hops are grown almost entirely in either the Yakima or Willamette valleys, with a few foreign exceptions for rare strains or seasonal needs. When the grains and hops meet, it is in water pulled from three springs on the northern slopes of Mount Hood, less than 20 miles south of downtown Hood River. “It’s the best water in the world,” Pfriem says. 


 

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Above: Ken Whiteman’s strong engineering and entrepreneurial background served him well in helping open Pfriem Family Brewers.
Below: Pfriem offers several glass styles to accommodate their stable of clean, layered beers.
// Photos by Joseph Eastburn
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Despite their common roots and ingredients, each of the area’s breweries provides an experience that little resembles Full Sail. Not only is the delicate, organic, multiyeasted Seizoen from Logsdon Farmhouse Ales impossible to compare and contrast with Double Mountain’s unfiltered, robust India Red Ale or Pfriem’s balanced and clean Belgian Strong Blonde, but their tasting rooms, business plans, personalities and menus all differ starkly from Full Sail’s and from each other. “We all make our own beers,” says Doug Ellenberger, brewer and part owner at Everybody’s Brewing. “We all have our own take on it.”

Locals and tourists can sample a wide swath of the current craft beer market in a few close stops. This allows brewers to work together to provide a broader range of experience without stepping beyond their comfort zones. “I absolutely love that [Pfriem] is doing more Belgian stuff, because it takes the heat off me,” Ellenberger says.

Creating a well-rounded Hood River beer menu is not an intentional collaboration, but the stark differences in brewers’ preferences makes for almost no overlap in taste or style. “When you have a bunch of breweries you can do more unique things,” Pfriem says. He notes that each crafter brews what they would want to drink. Their differing tastes allow them to fill the voids in the market while keeping direct head-to-head competition at bay. It is a far more supportive than competitive market — for now.

Logsdon was the founding brewer at Full Sail after he moved to Hood River in 1985. He may be the clearest example of a brewer doing what he loves the way he wants to do it. In February 2011, Logsdon and his co-op brewery partners launched a farmhouse ale operation out of an old red barn in the sloping mountains that create the Hood River Valley’s eastern border. They are the only brewery with no employees and no pub, yet they aim to brew and distribute 3,000 to 5,000 barrels of organic, elegant and somewhat expensive beer annually throughout the West. After a 200-barrel first year, “We became profitable in the last quarter,” Logsdon says. “Things have worked as expected for the most part.”

 


 

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Above: Irene Firmat’s former employees are working to advance a market she and her co-founders at Full Sail Brewing helped create in Hood River.
// Photo by Denise Farwell
Below: David Logsdon was the founding brewer at Full Sail in 1987.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn
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For many of the other breweries, things have not worked as they planned, because the local market is booming. While trying to please hundreds of draft accounts at bars and restaurants throughout the Northwest, Double Mountain, Everybody’s, Solera and Pfriem have all been burdened by the unexpected success in their pubs. It is a combination of local loyalty and proximity to Portland that has filled the restaurants, and the brewers simply cannot make enough beer to meet the demand beyond Hood River’s borders.

When Double Mountain opened their tasting room in 2007, they hoped to be bottling soon after, but owners Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux had to sell their 1975 bottling machine they dubbed the “boat anchor” because they needed room in the pub. “You don’t really expect it,” Devereux says. “When you start growing at a consistent clip, you have to start thinking about what happens if that continues.” In their case, the growth meant a large expansion of the brewery, a sizable pub expansion, a new bottling line, a new bottle reusing program and a staff of almost 30 year-round employees.

Their story hardly differs from the others, where brewers have had to put off some of their ambitions just to crank out enough beer to supply pub patrons. Ellenberger, Pfriem and Swihart all had trouble meeting beer demand at the end of the 2012 summer season. In most cases, far more staff than was originally intended had to be hired for the restaurant side of their businesses. Everybody’s employs 26 full-timers to keep up with the restaurant demand. Pfriem has already had to purchase 4,000 square feet of additional storage and refrigeration space since their opening last summer.

 


 

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Logsdon Farmhouse Ales are sold, like wine, in elegant 750ml bottles.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

Years ago these brewers would have had shoulder seasons and quiet weekdays to help meet demand, since Hood River tourism had been largely a weekend affair, but the breweries themselves have helped turn area tourism into a year-round reality. Each brewery now reports a noticeable rise in weekday and off-season tourism over years past. “Every week there are beer nerds driving out here from Portland on what might otherwise be a slow day,” says Jason Kahler, Solera Brewery’s brewer and part owner.

With the region’s beer reputation solidifying, brewers are looking for continued growth in Portland, Seattle and other major markets that are crucial to long-term success. Double Mountain’s new bottling and bottle-return program launched in October 2012. Logsdon is widely distributed and continues to look for new outlets, while Pfriem begins to push hard into the wholesale and production side of the business, looking to soon brew and distribute about 9,000 barrels annually. Everybody’s and Solera are looking to move further into the wholesale game as they catch up to the local demand and space constraints that hold them back. Kahler knows that Double Mountain and Pfriem are working hard in the Portland market now, and he is fine with letting them do the legwork of spreading the Hood River name and driving visitors to the area to experience the beers.

If the growth continues, the niches in the local market will narrow. For now, the brewers and owners believe strongly in the quality of their neighbors’ beers and breweries, and it makes promoting the area as a whole a painless prospect. The opening of a low-quality brewery or a new brewery that competes directly with the styles and atmosphere of one of the establishment may rock the boat, but for now, a high tide raises all ships.

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Matt Werbach is a journalist based in Hood River. He last wrote on Turtle Island Foods for Oregon Business. He can be reached at [email protected].