Some 50 kids got coats through Operation Warm thanks to Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 and Ninkasi. Last September, $5 of every Ninkasi keg sold at Portland-area accounts was donated to the union, which funded several projects. Photo courtesy of Portland Firefighters Association Local 43
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Unless you have ties to the military or another organization with the mission to serve others, such as firefighters, the challenge coin may be a foreign phenomenon. The small tokens typically signify association with a particular entity, and they’re often engraved with an insignia or motto. The origin of the challenge coin is said to date back to World War I. After escaping his German captors, an American pilot managed to flee to France, where he was assumed to be a spy and faced execution, according to the U.S. Air Force. To prove his identity, the man revealed a medallion featuring the emblem of his flying squad. That little bronze circle saved his life, and some sources say the French even sent the pilot off with a bottle of wine.
Since then, the tradition of carrying challenge coins has spread. They represent more than just membership. Earning one means you’ve been embraced by that community and it sparks a sense of pride. So when Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 presented a Ninkasi employee with one of its challenge coins, the organization was building a camaraderie with the brewery.
“So the challenge coin is normally only allowed to be given to firefighters and essentially, it marks you as one of their own — as part of the family,” said Ryan Brentley, Ninkasi market manager for the Portland area and owner of the challenge coin.
Brentley is no firefighter, although he has gotten to ride in one of the rigs and ring the bell. He does, however, have the backs of the hardworking men and women of Local 43. Brentley launched the Funds for Firefighters campaign and managed to raise nearly $10,000 for the unit. Just as it happened in 2015, $5 of every keg of Ninkasi sold at Portland-area accounts will be donated to Local 43 during the month of September. Last year, the money then went to the union’s charitable organization, which was able to fund three projects. First and perhaps most importantly, 50 kids didn’t go cold during the winter because Local 43 provided them with coats through Operation Warm. The union was also able to start growing its Pipes and Drums Team, a bagpiping group that will perform at community events. And the third venture was particularly meaningful to Travis Chipman, secretary/treasurer of the union.
“And I would say Ninkasi’s money actually founded this program,” even though it’s been an idea the group has had for a long time, he explained. “But we’ve never had the opportunity to start it, and that’s called the Firefighter’s Memorial Platoon. And that Platoon is built specially for us to service and reach out to firefighters that have lost their lives in duty all across the nation.”
When Chipman first learned that Brentley reached out, he said the thought of partnering with a brewery was surprising but also exciting.
“For us it was a natural fit because Ninkasi is so — they’re all about community and so us, we’re all about community, too. That’s what we do on a daily basis is protect the people that we serve,” Chipman said.
That description helps explain why Brentley wanted to raise money for firefighters. After all, there is an endless list of causes he could’ve focused on. For example, partnering with any one of the 500 or so organizations supported by Ninkasi’s Beer is Love program in 2014 may have been an easy option. Additionally, Brentley is an advocate for plenty of personal projects and giving back is so important to him, if there were a level above Eagle Scout for adults he would surely be working to earn that badge. The former Boy Scout will tick off his interests with the zest of an ambassador at his first ribbon-cutting ceremony: animal activism, Friends of Trees and preserving the Hollywood Theatre, just to name a few.
“But I was trying to think, what organization or nonprofit locally could every single person in Portland get behind?” Brentley said. “And firefighters just naturally came to mind.”
Rallying behind the people who put their lives on the line to help others would seem like a straightforward pitch. But putting together Funds for Firefighters wasn’t without its challenges. On the Ninkasi side, Brentley didn’t have a lot of time or money to get the large-scale project off the ground. Fortunately, the company encourages any and all employees, not just the marketing team, to research and develop methods for giving back. When Brentley ran the plan past the higher-ups in Eugene, it was co-founder Nikos Ridge who stepped in and covered the startup costs. Brentley was taken aback and honored when he learned that one of the company’s CEOs was personally green-lighting his idea.
Brentley may have had a way to start the project at that point, but Local 43 still needed to give the go-ahead. Secretary/treasurer Chipman explained that some in the union were nervous about collaborating with a brewery since there have been instances of firefighters dealing with alcohol abuse in the past.
“I mean, being a firefighter is very stressful, and a lot of times people don’t know how to deal with that stress,” Chipman said. “So sometimes people do turn to drinking. And if we’re an organization that’s had some problems in the past, then why would we promote a fundraiser that’s alcohol-related?”
To address those concerns, Local 43 researched Ninkasi, its founders and Brentley, who said the union “really appreciated the fact that we already had this Beer is Love program that we donate a lot of money through nonprofits, grassroots level, to say ‘thank you’ to the communities that take care of us. It’s just one of those simple ways that we can give back.”
Chipman added that “it was an opportunity for us to go to the membership and say, ‘Remember, please continue to drink responsibly and make good choices.’”
Once both sides were on board, it was already the first week of August, which left little time before the launch of Funds for Firefighters. That’s when Brentley enlisted the help of some off-duty firefighters to drum up support at area businesses. And aside from the days where they’re saving lives on the job, Chipman said his members really shine when they’re making connections in a low-key environment.
“Anytime there’s an opportunity to interact with the public in a casual setting is the best,” he explained. “Because firefighters are just normal, average people and, you know, for the most part we don’t do well in suits and those type of events. But we do well with just talking to people one-on-one and asking their concerns and seeing how they’re doing and explaining to them, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’”
Brentley said the outpouring of gratitude at these businesses was one of his favorite aspects of the project.
“Just seeing the thanks from every single person that came into contact with these firefighters and just how gracious and thankful they were — that, you know, these men and women are out there taking care of us every single day. I think that was, by far, the best part.”
Close to 1,000 accounts bought Ninkasi beer to sell that September. Brentley didn’t get to talk about Funds for Firefighters with all of the businesses he wanted to in 2015, so he’s hoping to bring even more on board and possibly double last year’s numbers. Brentley noted that Maletis Beverage also played a pivotal role promoting the program.
In January, the Ninkasi-Local 43 camaraderie continued to build when some of the firefighters, who were in Eugene for a statewide union meeting, got a tour of the brewing facilities and administrative building. The experience was one that still brings a smile to their faces when they describe it.
“Well for a lot of people, they had never been to a brewery before,” said Chipman. “And there’s some people on our executive board that I would say are connoisseurs of beer. They understand every aspect of every type and flavor, so for them it was — I would equate it and I kept saying it that night: it was like going to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for them.”
To thank Ninkasi, the union did something it never had before; firefighters gave the brewery a hand-crafted gift. They dyed old water hoses red and blue and then placed them in the shape of an American flag. Local 43’s symbol is ringed by stars in the upper-left-hand corner. One of the members built the natural-wood frame.
“It was just a heartwarming moment that they also gave back to us saying, ‘Thank you for the partnership,’” Brentley described.
In a way, it was like awarding the entire Ninkasi team with its very own extra-large challenge coin.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Oregon’s craft beer boom isn’t limited to larger urban areas. An hour south of Eugene, the approximately 22,000 people of Roseburg have taken notice of the beer world beyond standard American lagers. One of their own, K.C. Mckillip, has been behind the bar and hovering over the brew kettle since 2012 as founder of Backside Brewing Co. Just as the community shows its growing support for craft beers such as Backside’s, Mckillip has also got the community’s back.
“We could’ve gone to Portland or Bend where there’s more support. But being from here, I love it,” says Mckillip, 27. “Any brewer that’s born and raised in the place where they open their brewery, what gets that small business off the ground is that support.”
Growing up southwest of Roseburg in Tenmile, Mckillip is newer to brewing but no stranger to business. After graduating Douglas High School, Mckillip moved to Arizona to pursue a dream of motocross racing. Spending part of the year in Oregon, he also started pest control and asphalt businesses.
The businesses were doing well, but “I was not passionate about what I was doing,” he explains. “I enjoy business, but it was getting stale. I wanted to do something different.” At 22, Mckillip had begun homebrewing and at 24 realized he wanted to go pro. He sold the pest control business and has used the proceeds to help fund startup costs. “My business background helped me a lot, especially with networking,” says Mckillip. “I had a good support team of business owners that I could fall back on. From there it took off and I focused, and I’m still passionate about it. Working behind the bar, brewing, being at the events — it’s fun. It’s long days and a lot of hours, but it’s worth it.”
As for the name, Backside is about anything but butts. “I was originally going to run something out from my parents’ property outside of Roseburg,” says Mckillip. “‘Backside’ came from backside of the mountain, backside of town.” But he realizes that if he has the name, then someday he might as well do something cheeky. “We haven’t done a play on it yet, but eventually we’re going to with logos or something."
Acting on advice to start in a larger space, however, Mckillip was able to set up shop in the former home of Gerretsen Building Supply, an 18,000-square-foot property on a full acre. A bike shop occupies 3,300 square feet. Backside takes up the remainder with the brewery, a public bar and restaurant space, a wood-fired brick oven (for pizzas and toasted sandwiches) and a 10,000 square-foot warehouse that gives Backside ample room to grow.
Inside the brewery, Mckillip has help from a business partner and various family and friends. Backside currently has seven employees, with plans to increase staff to 10–12 for the restaurant and brewery, as well as for a full-time bottling line employee and a full-time salesperson to grow distribution beyond the Roseburg area.
In addition to a recent bottling line purchase, Mckillip has been upgrading equipment for the 7-barrel system. In 2015, Backside produced 200 barrels, and Mckillip estimates that 2016 production will be 350–400 barrels.
With 12 house beers pouring — such as Axeman Red Ale, The Bitter Truth Imperial IPA, and OSP (a nod to the Oregon State Police) — Mckillip wants to increase that to 20 by fall. A house root beer provides an option for kids and customers who don’t drink alcohol. Mckillip also realizes that he is a craft brewer in an area where standard American lagers are the mainstay. In addition to having some of those available, Backside produces a German-style “middle of the road, basic lager” that Mckillip sees as a good introductory beer. “It gets them into the craft beer world with something light, and then they realize they’re having a great time.”
Inside the brewpub, a stage accommodates a regular schedule of live music. People enjoy beer and wood-fired pizzas under the glow of bare light bulbs suspended from the ceiling in angled mason jars. Outside, a large parking lot and covered area provides space for the events that have been Backside’s way of showing it has the community’s back. “What goes around comes around. When you focus more on getting people in for their event, as opposed to getting people into your place, people appreciate that a lot.”
Backside supports local causes through various events, such as the recent Hops for K9 Cops open house. Officers with the Roseburg Police Department and deputies with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department brought in their K9 partners to the brewery so the public could meet and better understand the law enforcement, investigative and search-and-rescue functions that the dogs perform.
Backside has also done fundraisers for local schools, such as Douglas High School, and the Taylor/Hatfield Memorial Fund, which helps disabled children and adults in Douglas County. In the aftermath of the October 2015 shooting at Umpqua Community College, Backside held raffles and auctions. To raise funds for the UCC Relief Fund, Backside brewed Umpqua Strong Ale with four other Roseburg breweries and Eugene’s Hop Valley Brewing, raising approximately $30,000 to aid victims and loved ones.
Breweries have a unique way to appeal to the public. “We can easily market to a broader demographic, and that helps them even more. It brings more awareness of their cause.”
For Mckillip, giving back to the community is both good business and the right thing to do. “The biggest hurdle is getting people to realize how much breweries support the local area,” says Mckillip, who talks with people every week who seek Backside’s support. “We are trying to shift people’s mindsets. We try to educate and influence people and get them to come back. We want to maintain what we’ve got going, keep the momentum going and make sure that things continue to be fun and enjoyable for everyone who works here and who comes in for a beer.”
Backside Brewing Co.
[a] 1640 NE Odell Ave., Roseburg
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
From Vancouver, British Columbia, to San Diego, Calif., in 2014, Eugene-based Ninkasi Brewing Company donated 120,000 pints of Ninkasi beer, worth approximately $150,000, to causes throughout its distribution area. Donations were managed through the company’s Beer is Love program, established in 2012.
“Beer is Love is a core piece to Ninkasi’s company culture, value system and method of business,” says Nicole Nelson, Beer is Love Northwest program manager. “It is beyond worthwhile to make positive steps toward a better community and offer support in any way we can.”
During 2014, Beer is Love supported more than 500 organizations. Through 90 “Pints for a Cause” nights, the program also raised $22,456 for nonprofit and community organizations in the Eugene/Springfield area.
“We look for sustained meaningful partnerships and general alignment with our own beliefs about community partnership,” Nelson explains. “We support organizations primarily through in-kind product donation and volunteer hours. We have open conversations with our partners about how to best work together and create the best situation possible for each donation and event.”
Nelson recalls one of Ninkasi’s early donations: contributing beer to downtown Eugene’s New Zone Gallery in 2009. Though Ninkasi’s efforts have grown substantially since those first kegs, Ninkasi still donates to New Zone monthly for Eugene’s First Friday Art Walk.
As more requests came in and more support went out, Ninkasi realized they needed a formal program and an organized process to manage donations and relationships with community organizations. It also helped them manage expectations on what projects they could and could not support. Today, the expansive program is part of Ninkasi’s entire distribution area, encompassing events at the Eugene tasting room, national sales, and point-of-purchase programs. “We are looking to contribute to causes in every way possible,” Nelson says.
The company also allows employees to use paid work days to support local causes of their choice. Ninkasi employees have created literacy kits for United Way, assembled mailers for the School Garden Project and The Service Board, walked dogs at Luvable Dog Rescue, volunteered in their children’s elementary schools, and planted native species for the McKenzie River Trust and Berggren Demonstration Farm.
Ninkasi has also had an evolving relationship with Springfield/Eugene Habitat for Humanity. “Habitat affiliates turned out to be wonderfully reciprocal enthusiastic partners,” Nelson explains, “and Ninkasi became more and more involved with the cause. Eugene/Springfield is our local affiliate and Jean Stover, the resource development coordinator there, has become part of the Ninkasi family.”
As part of their most recent assistance, Ninkasi has sponsored construction of a Habitat house in Springfield. “We contributed financially to the project,” says Nelson, “and also are sending teams to help build, probably 12 employees total so far.”
As of press time, Ninkasi did not yet have projections for its 2015 Beer is Love donations, but they expect the program to continue serving more causes. “We believe in community and working together for positive results,” says Nelson. “As our regions grow, so does the program.”
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