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Crafting from the cauldron: A Q&A with Jim Mills from Caldera Brewing

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Jim Mills is the founder of Caldera Brewing in Ashland, OR. Having been in the business since the late 1990’s, he has been at the forefront of the craft brewing industry’s rise here in Oregon. Jim was nice enough to do a Q&A with Built Oregon on everything from microcanning to sustainability.

What was the original genesis of launching Caldera?

Incorporated in 1996, first brew July 4, 1997, first keg sold August 28, 1997.

Who thought of the name Caldera and what’s the backstory on how it came to be?

I did. It means boiling kettle or cauldron in Spanish. Where all the magic happens in the kettle.

Did you (or any of the other founders)  have a brewery background when you launched the business?

I am the only founder. I have some silent investors that have a small minority share of Caldera. I did learn quite a bit from homebrewing. I honed many of my recipes while homebrewing. I was brewing around 8-10 ten gallon batches per month. When I started working in the brewery at Rogue I learned more commercial techniques (moving liquid with pumps, hooking things up correctly, troubleshooting and fixing broken equipment, yeast management on a much larger scale, etc.). I did glean as much as I could from Rogue as I knew I would start my own brewery someday.

Talk a bit about Ashland – were you all from Ashland originally? Did you always know that Ashland would be home to Caldera?

I moved to Ashland in 1989 to finish college. Knew within 3 weeks that I wanted to live here. Mountains, lakes, rivers, great weather. Outdoor life and a plethora of activities.

What were the first beers you brewed and what were some of the early challenges you faced as you launched a craft brewery?

Pale Ale and Dry hop Red were the first brews I launched. I self distributed for the first 6 years. Was tough doing everything myself. Educated Southern Oregon beer drinkers about craft beers. Was pretty Bud/Coors based back in 97.

What were some of the bumps in the road and early successes as you scaled up your brewery and flagship line of beers?

Ashland Amber was originally trademarked by Rogue. I watched the expiration date like a hawk and when they didn’t renew it, I trademarked it. Only makes sense since Rogue pulled out of Ashland in 1997 before Caldera’s first brew was brewed. Ashland Amber was a hit from the get go. Most bars and restaurants that had draft beer systems put it on tap and soon it became the top selling beer in Ashland. It still is today out of Summit Beverage’s line up of beers they offer. That being said, it seemed like every time I was getting a little ahead, I had to purchase more equipment and take out more loans.

You made the decision in 2005 to can your own beer – what led to the decision to invest in the canning equipment and be a pioneer in the craft beer canning game?

I received a flyer about cans and busted out a calculator and saw they had potential. Numbers made sense. Again educating consumers that good beer could be put in cans was hardest obstacle to overcome. Nobody was canning back then.

How were the cans received both from a public and distributor standpoint?

Everybody thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I knew the benefits of cans outweighed the negatives by a long shot.

The growth you saw led to the new facility being built in Ashland – including a new canning machine. How has the expanded operation allowed you to make more of an impact both to the business itself and also the community from a jobs standpoint?

I had 10 employees before building the new brewery – 18 if you count the Tap House which I started in 2009. I now have 80 employees and a facility where we have some room to breathe. I discouraged the public from visiting the old brewery as it was simply a hazard for people to be walking around with all day fork lift traffic.caldera_new_brewery1

Sustainability seems to be something that is core to your business. How did this become a focus and talk a bit about choosing to do things this way from the start. 

I always laugh that we were green before green was the cool thing to do. It is something dear to my heart. To take care of the planet only makes sense. Growing up I saw how detrimental people treated the planet and it didn’t make sense to me at all. Especially when these people had kids and grandkids. Fresh clean water makes excellent beer (the main reason for choosing Ashland to start Caldera). Also what I didn’t understand growing up was not only the environmental benefit of taking care of the earth, but it also makes huge economic sense. You pay for garbage removal, but do not pay for recycling, so I recycled as much as possible. Also day lighting in any building will cut down on lighting costs. It seems like everything I did that had an environmental impact also had a huge economic impact as well. The two go hand in hand.

Has the massive increase in craft breweries affected your business at all? What are your thoughts on the overall growth of the industry?

It only makes everybody grow. My friends and I that had craft breweries back in the late 90’s always knew we were not competitors, but rather Bud/Coors were our competitors. The massive growth of craft breweries is due to more people discovering/enjoying a good quality beer. This only helps our market share. Plenty to go around for everybody.

In addition to the increased production, the bigger facility also gave you more space to  experiment – talk a bit about how important this is to craft brewers.

We had a small 10 barrel system at our old brewery. I knew that when we built the new brewery, I wanted to set up a 30 barrel system, but also keep the 10 barrel system for one off/pub beers. We brew unique beers for the Tap House and the restaurant at the brewery. Also some distributors get ahold of some of these beers. It keeps the public interested as the public wants new/ experimental beers.IMG_4796

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you see on the horizon?

Consolidation has been happening for a few years now with big breweries buying stakes in craft breweries. Also investment firms are getting into the scene. This can create some challenges as these craft breweries have even more of a presence via their distributors. There are many beers on the shelves these days which is a good thing, but also makes it more difficult to stay relevant to your customer base as there a more choices than ever now. On the flip side, there are mrs opportunities to get store placements because craft is widely accepted by the consumers.

If you could go back in time to when this journey started and tell yourself a piece of advice, what would it be?

My motto has been “Never sacrifice quality”. I would never change this, but I would have started the brewery with more money so I could have been where Caldera needed to be equipment wise rather than cash flowing and taking out multiple loans to get to that point. Then again who knows if I could have afforded the bigger payments. Kind of a catch 22.

How do you come up with the names for all the beers, and do you have a couple favorite names?

I think about new beers and names all the time. A couple of my favorites are:

Vas Deferens Ale

Hopportunity Knocks IPA

Hop Hash IPA (I was the first commercial brewer to ever use hop hash)

Mother Pucker Raspberry Sour

For more information, visit www.calderabrewing.com, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

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Mitch Daugherty