For months, a group of guys in Salem, Oregon, would meet up on Thursday nights, jokingly calling it “choir practice,” but much of the time the talk turned to one topic: beer.
Most of them were brewing on their own and thought their beers were not only pretty good, but also better than a lot of the craft brews on the market.
“We were basically sitting around daring each other to do this,” says Matt Killikelly, now one of the owners of Santiam Brewing. “Eventually you run out of excuses.”
Santiam Brewing launched in July 2012 with nine locals as equal partners in the business, most of them also serving as employees.
The craft brewery, now one of six in Salem, makes many varieties of beer, as well as a number of cask ales and oak-barrel-aged beers.
Though the choir practice guys had drive and plenty of ideas, it was a quick process once they took the dare.
“It was about 18 months from when we decided to start a brewery to when we served our first glass,” says Killikelly.
As quickly as they started, they found success.
In 2013 and 2014, its Pirate Stout has won the Oregon Garden People’s Choice Award. Its the product of one of Santiam’s other specialties, barrel-aged beers. This one is aged in barrels that once contained Rogue Distillery Dark Rum and also has a “brief encounter” with some coconut before its placed in kegs.
Brew more beer
Santiam’s partners each have a role in the business, but basically each of them is an equal, whether they’re the head brewer, the manager of the tasting room, the legal adviser or, as Killikelly is, the sales manager.
The lack of titles may be seen as unusual, but it’s worked for them. Almost since its opening, Santiam Brewing has been in expansion mode.
“Once you start a brewery, it’s a neverending growth curve,” says Killikelly. “You make more beer, you get a bigger clientele, and bigger market share … so you make more beer.”
To that end, in October, the brewery converted to a ten-barrel system, and its three-and-a-half barrel system sits in its workspace off McGilchrist and 19th streets, waiting to be sold to a new owner. Meanwhile, the shiny new tanks reach toward the ceiling, dominating the space and serving as a symbol for the greater demand for Santiam’s brews.
“We started out as a brewpub that sold some beer on wholesale,” says Killikelly. “Now we’re turning into a production brewery with a tasting room.”
Their expanded space includes the tasting room, the physical plant containing the brewing equipment, and a grain room that’s walled off to keep the dust from the barley contained. There’s also a laboratory where samples are tested for yeast production, among other things. In another building across the way, Santiam has office space and product storage.
The art of the cask
But the real work is done in the tanks, and—for its most specialized brews—the casks and the barrels.
“The cask-conditioned ales and barrel-conditioned ales and sours are ‘beer geek treats,’ that is, things that make beer geeks happy,” Killikelly says. “We love beer, so we go the extra mile to make unusual beers.”
Santiam’s tasting room typically offers four cask-conditioned ales, and they’re the real deal.
“We create it the old way,” Killikelly says. “We put it in the cask with a little extra sugar and yeast and let it do its thing.”
“Its thing” is a secondary fermentation that naturally carbonates the beer without having to force carbon dioxide into it and allows it to be served at 52 degrees instead of chilled down to numbing refrigerator temperatures.
Not everyone who claims to be selling such brews is telling the truth.
“It’s annoying to us that others are selling ‘cask-conditioned’ beers and then filling them with carbon dioxide in a bright tank,” Killikelly says. “If I just get clear bright beer, it’s not conditioned. You want to see sediment from secondary fermentation.”
Every bit of extra time and energy is worth it to create Santiam’s small, carefully attended batches.
“There is a differential, whether your taste buds appreciate it or not,” Killikelly says. “There is a lot of flavor for the same amount of product.”
Getting the chance to taste these flavors in all their many varieties is driving a change in the beer market — and not just the craft beer market, he adds.
Variety is the spice of life
“Craft beer drinkers want to try different beers, not drink the same thing over and over again,” Killikelly says. “Brand loyalty drinkers are going down.”
For proof, look no further than the supermarket shelves, where even Budweiser, Coors and Miller are starting to vary their products in response to this demand.
“They have the market share, for now, but not the future.”
Santiam’s own market looks to be continuing its growth curve.
“The next big thing is our Golden Sultan being accepted for the Portland Holiday Ale Festival,” Killikelly says of the event, which ran December 3-7, 2014, at Pioneer Courthouse Square. “It’s a very big deal to get a beer into that event.”
But on a larger scale, Santiam Brewing has a bigger dare in mind: to help build Salem’s reputation as a craft beer town.
“Portland has a great reputation, of course,” Killikelly says, “and then Eugene is growing and Bend, too. Salem didn’t, but now we’re getting the news out.”
One of the first steps is working with the other brewers in town to revive the Salem Brewery Association, which went quiet in the 1950s or so. The group started meeting again in early November.
Next is to create a Salem brew festival—to complement, not compete with the existing Cinco de Micro and Oregon Garden’s Brewfest—and to put the proceeds toward a “Drink Local” campaign.
“We’re trying to carve out that reputation here,” Killikelly says.