Oregon has over 200 brewers, 80 in Portland alone. Predictions of market saturation have been made for years. Yet, new breweries open regularly. The number of breweries in the US passed 7,000 in 2016, with over 1,000 new ones in 2016 alone. What drives this next wave of brewing entrepreneurs?
We talked with three breweries that are part of the next wave. Each of these three has a different origin story, but for this group, brewing is a craft, a lifestyle and a family and community-based business. In some cases, owning and operating a brewery comes first and in others, brewing beer comes first, but for all of them, if the brewery can grow to be self-sustaining, it’s all the success they need.
Gateway Brewing – Commitment to the local community
Founded in 2015, Gateway Brewing is based on a shared passion for beer brewing, family and community. Karen and Joel Sheley, the owners and brewers of Gateway, saw a shortage of breweries in their Portland Gateway neighborhood east of I-205, and a shortage of family-friendly breweries city-wide. Veterans of the early days of craft brewing in Portland, Karen and Joel each have of years of experience working at breweries. Joel and Karen even met and married while working at craft brewing pioneer Widmer Brothers.
Joel, whose father was a home brewer, had always been interested in brewing. After a trip to Germany, Joel came home with a recipe for banana wine. Wisely, his father pointed him back to brewing. Good thing – the world still may not be ready for banana wine.
Joel started his career in the beer business at Nor’wester Brewing. He started at the bottom – cleaning kegs – and over time, learned all about the brewing business from the production side, attended brewing school, and eventually wound up at Widmer.
Karen’s love of brewing also came from a trip to Europe. She visited the hops growing region of the Czech Republic, and began her business career helping to transition state-owned Czechoslovakia-era brewers to private ownership. After briefly working in health care in Kentucky, Karen chose to follow her interest in brewing and relocated to Portland. Landing a job in production management at Widmer, Karen met Joel.
Joel and Karen soon drifted away from brewing. Joel, who missed the entrepreneurial spirit of the early days of craft brewing, started a bicycle delivery service, riding up to 80 miles per day hauling packages and ferrying the couple’s young daughter back and forth to school. Karen continued to work in production management outside of the brewing industry.
In 2015, Karen and Joel made the commitment to convert their garage in the Gateway neighborhood of Portland into a brewery. They missed the beer industry, and determined that a brewery that was family-friendly and emphasized neighborhood ties would resonate in their neighborhood, which is home to many young families. Joel chose to devote full time to developing the brewery; Karen also works in the family brewery business while maintaining her job at a technology company.
Karen and Joel consider themselves “beer people” and members of a close-knit community of Portland craft brewers. Part of the allure of the business is the people they meet in the industry, especially other brewers. Even with the competitiveness of the market, Joel and Karen know they can count on other brewers for expertise or even if they need to borrow some ingredients. It’s a big extended family.
Gateway Brewing beer is currently available in five restaurants in Portland. Joel and Karen also continue to explore new ways to bring their beer to more taps, especially in their Gateway neighborhood. For example, in summer 2016, Gateway sold beer through a pop-up at a local bike shop, and Joel and Karen are also active supporters of the under-construction Gateway Skatepark.
Leikam Brewing – Community-Supported Brewing
For Theo and Sonia Marie Leikam, brewing is all about family. Leikam Brewing is Portland’s first community-supported brewery (CSB) – think of a farm share program, but for beer. It’s also the only kosher-certified brewery west of New York.
Before starting Leikam, Theo and Sonia Marie were looking to gain more control over their lives. Theo, an accountant, traveled frequently for business, and they had three small children. Sonia Marie comes out of the non-profit world. Tired of the travel required of many accountants, and tired of working on other people’s finances, Theo and Sonia Marie considered several alternatives. For Theo as a home brewer, starting a microbrewery was an attractive option, allowing him to develop his craft brewing expertise, while permitting the couple to be close to their growing children.
Although it started as a part-time venture, Leikam has become a full-time business for Theo, while Sonia Maria still divides her time between the brewery and a local non-profit. Like many nanobrewers, Theo and Sonia Marie divide the responsibilities of the business. Theo is the principal brewer, while Sonia Marie is responsible for sales, social media and branding.
Theo has always had neighborhood support for his brewing, and it seemed almost natural for the couple to build a brewery in their backyard. Early on, they introduced a Community-Supported Brewing program which allows their subscribers to pick up beer at the brewery. It’s a good way for Leikam to forecast at least part of their sales in advance and even out their cash flows. The CSB also builds the sense of community that is integral to their business. Customers pick up beer at Leikam’s backyard brewery, and sometimes will even just leave an empty growler as a not-so-subtle hint that it’s time for a refill.
Leikam also sells beer through more traditional channels. With a passionate customer base, Leikam’s reputation has grown beyond their community. Customers have spread the word, and Leikam’s beer is available at restaurants and taprooms across the Portland area. Their ability to brew small batches of beer has helped too, and they have been asked to create custom beers for John Gorham’s Mediterranean Exploration Company and Shalom Y’All.
Theo and Sonia Marie also cite support from the Portland craft brewing community as being critical for the success of their business. They have found the other brewers to be willing to meet and to share their successes and failures. Sonia Marie has found brewers who are women to be especially supportive, and was part of the Pink Boots Society of women beer professionals from an early stage.
Leikam is meeting the plan they set for their growing business, and they are looking at what’s next. Given the competitive brewery landscape in the Portland area, they know it will take time to become the next craft brewing success story, but they’re committed to it.
De Garde Brewing – It’s About the Beer
Trevor and Linsey Rogers’ award-winning De Garde Brewing is proof that craft brewers can be successful and maintain a balanced lifestyle. De Garde sells beer mostly from their brewery, hidden away near the Tillamook Airport, with limited distribution outside of the area. Their wild fermented beers are sought after by beer connoisseurs and despite the location; there’s frequently a line of de Garde fans at the door when they open their taproom to customers. De Garde was recently named seventh-best brewery in the world at the RateBeer awards, alongside top breweries from across the US and the world.
The brewery has become so successful that de Garde is opening a second tasting room in downtown Tillamook, where it will be easier to find them, although that’s never been an issue for devoted De Garde drinkers.
For Trevor and Linsey, De Garde started out as being all about the beer. Trevor was working as an Assistant Manager at the original Pelican Brewing in Pacific City, while Linsey was in business management at Tillamook Cheese. With his work at Pelican as inspiration, Trevor became an avid home brewer. He and Linsey tried lots of different brewing styles, but wild fermentation was the one that they liked the best, and they committed de Garde to making the best wild fermented beer around.
Trevor and Linsey opened de Garde Brewing in 2013. After testing locations up and down the Coast, they carefully selected Tillamook as the best site for brewing their wild fermented beer. Whether it’s the salt air, the moisture or the nearby Tillamook Dairy, their natural yeast grew better there. De Garde’s wild barrel-aged ales became immediately popular. The beers are sessionable, with low alcohol content. De Garde’s wild barrel-aged ales became immediately popular, and Trevor and Linsey never looked back. Linsey stayed at her prior position for another year, but as demand and the brewery grew, she took the leap and started working at the brewery full time. They now employ six people.
With success came new challenges. Early on, funding for the brewery was scarce. Despite their best efforts, Trevor and Linsey were unable to obtain outside financing, and de Garde was launched through a lot of personal debt. Those days are fortunately behind them. But the brewery’s growing fame raised the question of what’s next.
The beer’s distribution has been limited regionally, with availability only in Oregon, Washington and northern California. Trevor and Linsey have chosen to keep prices reasonable, so that their beer that doesn’t have to be reserved for a special occasion.
Trevor and Linsey enjoy brewing beer and operating the brewery, and it’s important to them to be actively involved in the process. De Garde beer is critically praised, and the brewery could develop to be another in the long list of Oregon breweries that have been bought by larger companies. For the time being, Trevor and Linsey are simply committed to making the best beer they can and doing what they love – working in the brewery.
The three breweries – Gateway, Leikam and de Garde – have different origin stories and different trajectories. Yet all three share a passion for good beer and the benefits to family and community that a smaller brewery can bring. Their next steps might differ as well, but all are dedicated to the proposition that, with focus and hard work, they can balance their values with the success they seek.