By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
You can romance the cans all you want, but they wouldn’t have kept the company going another 80 years.
The distinct labels that wrap around Oregon Fruit Products’ shiny metal containers certainly stand out on a store shelf. Brightly-colored berries pop on the black backdrop as a little bee hovers over the produce. Classic recipes for desserts like Oregon blueberry pie and flaming cherries jubilee that used to be printed on the back of the cans were the highlight of many a meal throughout the decades. But just because a product has a beloved history, doesn’t mean it’s bringing in enough money, long-term. And while the cans made by this Salem-based business are nowhere close to being abandoned, sales figures indicated it was time to diversify. And that’s, in part, how an 80-year-old fruit cannery found that it could make a product craft brewers would want while also ensuring some of the state’s bountiful harvest ends up in beer all across the country.
One afternoon in early August, a lone forklift operator darted among stacked pallets in a warehouse with ease. The scene at Oregon Fruit Products was starkly different from the factory grounds a few months ago. Multiple drivers would have been navigating an obstacle course of delivery trucks, berry crates and rows of metal drums. The delicate aroma of raspberries, blueberries and plums was likely mingling to build a powerful scent crescendo of fruit salad in a nearby building where workers draped in white lab coats and hair nets sorted through the produce. The processing, packing and labeling all happen to the rhythm and vibration of large machines that fill the patchwork of cavernous structures with the sound and sensation of urgency. After all, fruit has its own timeline — one that sets the schedule of some 200 people on the manufacturing floor during peak season.
CEO Chris Sarles had to describe what harvest would look like on the Salem campus since it was largely over in August. Hot temperatures pushed up picking time just as they did in 2015. This year, summer had hardly begun when he was eyeing the end of the season.
“So it was a good harvest in Oregon again this year, and a lot of great fruit. But it was just very early,” Sarles said. “By Fourth of July, we were already talking about, ‘I can’t believe we’re this far done.’”
While some of those crops end up in the traditional cans, a growing supply is devoted to Oregon Fruit Products’ purees, which are shipped to more than 125 breweries across the state and 500-plus nationwide. And those are the kind of numbers you’d want to see if you were part of a company that needed a new path to profits.
The purees’ success is no mystery if you think about it from a brewer’s perspective. Consumer demand for fruit beers continues to increase, but making them — and making them well — can be difficult and sticky. Those firm, red beautiful cherries also come with pesky stems, for instance. Gathering enough quality, in-season fruit for a brew can sometimes be a challenge on its own, but once you’ve amassed the goods, that supply still has to be prepped. The peeling, dicing and de-seeding can be pretty unappealing once you’re up to your elbows in peaches. The puree provides beer makers with the best part of the fruit while leaving the labor and mess to Sarles’ company. He pointed out another benefit — the 42-pound packages can be stored, unopened, without refrigeration for 18 months, freeing up valuable cooler space in breweries while giving brewers access to a variety of fruit, regardless of season.
Oregon Fruit Products aseptic packaging line makes all of that possible. The business actually acquired the equipment many years before Sarles came on board — he figures it must have been in the mid- to late-1980s. At the time, that owner also was looking for ways to branch out. But aseptic packaging of fruit for breweries wasn’t part of the agenda. Craft beer was still developing in the region, however, it didn’t take too long for a brewer to approach the cannery.
“I think a brewery phoned here and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some fruit. Is there anything you can do to help out?’ And … ‘Well, we’ve got a machine …’ The next thing you know, aseptic puree is born for the company,” Sarles said, estimating that call came in the mid-1990s.
From there, Oregon Fruit Products nurtured a small, but solid, base of customers. McMenamins was within the first 20 accounts, making it one of the company’s longest-standing relationships to this day. The star for its Ruby comes from Sarles’ company — raspberries are flash-heated to minimize bacteria before they’re quickly cooled and packaged. And when something works in the Northwest brewing community, news gets around since sharing is a practice most producers embrace.
“The business has continued to grow nicely. It’s really fun to watch one brewer tell another brewer tell another brewer,” Sarles explained. “And they only do it because they believe in what they’re using.”
Another local business that sources fruit from Sarles is Worthy Brewing Company in Bend. It’s offered two new beers this summer — a peach saison and an IPA with mandarin orange and grapefruit purees — with Oregon Fruit Products getting a shout-out on their labels. Cider Riot, Ecliptic Brewing and Vagabond Brewing are also customers, and Sarles even does house calls for Ecliptic’s John Harris, when urgent.
“Yeah, I often haul fruit north in my car at night and meet him early the next morning if he’s in a pinch,” Sarles said. “I’ll always help a brewer out if they need it.”
And a number of those brewers are no stranger to Sarles, Harris included. The man who now oversees the processing and packaging of fruit actually worked in the beer industry for much of his career, which has helped him steer Oregon Fruit Products toward ramped up production of the brewing purees. Sarles left Columbia Distributing after 25 years when former owner Ed Maletis recruited him in 2014. Maletis bought Oregon Fruit Products three years earlier from the founders, the Gehler family. Sarles said the move was natural because the Maletises always treated him like family. But he also saw the challenge that moving industries would bring and it reignited his excitement for managing. Sarles could’ve easily settled into a comfortable retirement from Columbia in a few years rather than spending that time not only learning a new business, but also working to establish credibility with a group of people who didn’t know what to expect from him as a boss. Those are responsibilities not everyone would want to assume that far into a settled career. But maybe the decision was prompted by a flashback to Sarles’ feeling of accomplishment he got when he started his own beer and wine distributorship right out of college — the days of simultaneously carrying out the duties of chief toilet scrubber, head of sales and president/CEO. He definitely noticed that it was harder to feel like he was making a difference at Columbia with its growth. The effect of a single conductor diminishes when forced to share the stage with another symphony … and a choir … and a marching band meandering through the aisles.
“Understanding the importance of people in the overall business, I wanted the chance to go do that again,” Sarles explained. “And knowing that I had gotten to a place in a big business where I was one of 2,500 people in Columbia, you begin to see less of your own impact because it’s so big. And I really wanted the chance to go back and say, ‘I think I know what it takes to help create an opportunity for a company to succeed.’”
Sarles’ decision to make brewing purees more of a focus during the last two years has helped put the company on a path toward a more stable future. Oregon Fruit Products is planning on hiring a salesperson devoted to brewery accounts, a job that Sarles has effectively held. So the additional staff member will give him more time to do all of that important, CEO-type stuff. Additionally, this year’s new, limited-edition puree flavors have been snapped up quickly. Mango, which came out in May, saw incredible popularity, prompting Oregon Fruit Products to make a second batch.
“And pineapple sold so fast, we went through more than half — almost three-quarters of it — in two weeks,” Sarles said.
But beyond the numbers are the relationships, and Sarles seems to have that part of the business down as well. He underscored the importance of procuring fruit as close to home as possible. Many of the farms working with Oregon Fruit Products are a mere 20 minutes away, and some — like the plum growers in Forest Grove and Eugene — have been doing business with the company for generations.
That sense of commitment extends to employees as well. In a shifting economy where spending your entire career at a single company is increasingly rare, you’ll easily find people at Oregon Fruit Products who’ve been there for 20, 30 and 40 years. Sarles said one woman is marking 54 years at the business after starting there at the age of 16. It’s not uncommon for children who grew up with a parent processing or packing fruit there to join the team when they’re adults. At one point, three generations of men in the same family had positions at the Salem facility. Sarles knows it was critical to recognize these dynamics when he took over while proposing adaptations, which can be uncomfortable, at the same time.
“So how do you come in and gently support people for what they’ve done so well, yet nudge/push that we need to develop a change in order to not only survive, but thrive for years? And I think there’s a fine line there between somebody coming in and being a bully,” Sarles described, “and sort of being obnoxious when they come in as a new leader and somebody who takes their time — yet they’re firm enough to say, ‘We need change. Let’s do this together.’”
Collaboration with brewers is also key. You may wonder how Sarles comes up with new puree flavors like passion fruit and rhubarb. It all comes down to brewer requests. Research for the 2017 lineup of purees is still underway, but BackPedal Brewing Co. in Portland has already told Sarles they want to experiment with one of the new creations. Oregon Fruit Products has even developed puree for individual breweries by asking what flavor, texture and color they’re aiming for before sending samples and letting producers experiment from there. That process has led to several new beers, including a blood orange concoction from The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, Calif. Those projects gave Sarles the confidence that Oregon Fruit Products could set out on its own and develop purees without first partnering with a brewery.
“I started feeling like we could begin making them [the purees] without them necessarily having to be collaborative projects. We seemed to have begun to understand a little bit about what we needed to do. In the beginning, I wasn’t certain that we were on the right track,” Sarles said. “And now I think we understand it. But if there’s ever — as I’ve said, anytime somebody’s got an idea, if they want to come to us and experiment with us, we’re always game to make sure it goes top of the list and then try and work with them.”
Even if that includes more unusual produce like kiwi (there’s a guy who grows them in Eugene, according to Sarles) or prickly pear.
By spring of 2018, Oregon Fruit Products will have moved out of its aging warehouses and started operating in a brand-new plant, not far from its original footprint in Salem. If anyone is concerned that all of this progress will cause what’s still been a very quaint company to lose its personal, family-run touch — you only need to look to the pallets of brewing puree for assurance. Sarles will continue to uphold that ethos by including a hand-written thank-you note with every new shipment of puree to a brewery, just as he’s done since he started.
“I feel honored to be just sort of this caretaker of inheriting this rich tradition and legacy business and being able to make sure that I do everything — gives me little goosebumps — do everything I can to make sure there’s another 80 years for other people to not only work here, but also enjoy the fruits of our labor in the process,” Sarles said.
Literally, the fruits of their labor — the phrase just naturally slipped out, illustrating how connected the man has become with what’s inside of the can while moving the company forward.
A discussion on brewery distribution took place during Portland Beer Week in June. Panelists included (from left to right) Derek Hass from Columbia Distributing, Eric Banzer-Lausberg from Migration Brewing, Marty Ochs from E3 Craft Strategies and Bob Repp from General Distributors. Photo by Patty Mamula
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Any brewer who’s considering distribution needs a solid plan, said Derek Hass, director of craft and import at Columbia Distributing. Hass was one of four panelists at the “Distribution: The Struggle is Real!” workshop, held at The Labrewatory in Portland during Portland Beer Week in June.
More than 40 people crowded into the brewery testing lab and bar to get the inside story on distribution. About half the brewers there were self-distributing, while others had a distributor or didn’t distribute at all. Several were in the planning stage of a brewery and four of them were anywhere from a few months to a year away from opening.
Panel moderator Marty Ochs was the vice president of sales at Ninkasi Brewing Company and now heads up E3 Craft Strategies to help startups with marketing and distribution.
Ochs works with 10-15 breweries a year. “Not one has an operating budget,” he said. “You can’t go to market if you don’t know what you’re going to spend when you go to market.” He emphasized that brewers should conduct a thorough market survey when considering entry into a new market. “Spend weeks, months figuring where you want to sell, what the competitions looks like, determining a budget.”
Bob Repp, vice president of craft/specialty beverage for General Distributors, also stressed the importance of planning. “What’s your budget? Capacity? How will you differentiate your brand? When looking at opening a new market, vet the distributor there. Go out and talk to buyers at bars and retailers,” he said.
Eric Banzer-Lausberg, co-owner of Migration Brewing, represented the small, independent brewer and self-distributor. “We opened in 2010 without a budget when the economy was shit. We did all the buildout ourselves. We knew we could succeed and our beer got better and better. After a year or so, we started to distribute kegs in an old 1983 Mercedes with a door that didn’t work. It was an exciting time because it was our own beer and our own investment in distribution,” he said.
Ochs asked Hass and Repp, “How do you walk new breweries through the process, step by step?”
They said there was no formula, no handbook.
Hass said, “Every brewery we talk to is a different situation. You might have good beer, but shitty packaging or vice versa. We help you navigate the waters of the beer business.”
Repp said, “Know what your distribution and volume goals are. Do you want to be mainstream or entry level? What does success look like for you?”
Migration’s Banzer-Lausberg said, “Know who you are and where you want to go. Everyone was chasing IPA when we started. We decided to make pale ale our niche. That was our starting point. We focused internally and worked on the pub first and self-distribution second.”
Ochs said there’s a perception you’ll make tons of money self-distributing. There are, of course, advantages but also some disadvantages. Pros to self-distributing are close control of product and message, said Repp. “You can control all aspects, including when and where you will grow. And you retain your margins.” Cons are trucks, storage, cash, accounts receivable, liability, kegs and the labor to move them around. “When you’re brewing and distributing, you’re running two breweries. Still, if your goal is hyper-local, go for it,” he said.
Hass agreed and said that the mechanics, the delivery and the labor all cost money. With distribution you lose some — around 30 percent — but that’s the cost of doing business.
The watchword for the group was planning.
Ochs said, “Come to a distributor with a plan, a vision. Be honest about it. What support tools do you have? Ask what you might be missing? Tell me what you’re looking for in a brand.”
Repp said, “Know what your pricing will be. Know how much your beer costs to make. Take that pricing and build a calendar of brands with several seasonals and one-offs. Communicate to the distributor what the release calendar looks like. What incentives will you use to get the sales reps to sell your beer?”
“Know your business. We won’t be experts on your business,” said Columbia’s Hass.
Migration’s co-owner told participants the beer has to be good when building your brand. “Do not send out mediocre beer. Make sure you have ingredients. Hops. Everyone wants Northwest hops. You have to secure them now. We have ours contracted for five years. Yes, it’s scary to think this is what we’re going to make for the next five years. Cooler space is crucial. If we have a bad week of sales and don’t have cooler space, we’re in trouble. If we brew and keg it, we have to sell it.”
Sales and distribution is connected to everything, said Ochs. “Know what success is to you. Oakshire Brewing was going down a rabbit hole for eight years. Then they realized they didn’t want to be Ninkasi. Get to the level that’s right for you. Volume is not the metric. It’s about the gross profits that you bring in on the beer.”
The final tip, and maybe the best in keeping with the adage of saving the best for last, was to invest in your brand. Hass said, “Invest like you want your distributor to invest in you. Put some feet on the street.”
Ochs elaborated on this idea. “The brewery’s job is to create customers at two levels, the end consumer and the retailers.” He advised hiring someone to make marketing calls.
Hass described this as a partnership. “We need you, the brewer, to educate — to tell the story. That way you can tell the distributor that the bars want your beer. The customers want it.”
As the craft beer field becomes saturated with more and more choices, it’s increasingly important to find ways to stand out in a crowded field. Working with your distributor to market your beer will help you both sell more beer.
Q: As a brewer in Portland, why would I make another double IPA?
Migration: Because they sell. IPAs sell 4 to 1. That’s why we do it.
Columbia: Do we want more IPAs? Not necessarily. We don’t want to sell an IPA-only brewery. We can’t predict the future and it’s tricky to know. Not a lot of breweries have a flagship beer that’s an imperial expensive IPA.
General: Find your niche. Everybody comes to us with IPAs. We’re a small distributor. We work with 50 breweries now. Bar owners now are looking for sessionable beers.
Moderator: Don’t follow the market. If you’re following the market, you’re too late.
Q: Can you do some self-distribution if you have a distributor?
Moderator: Yes. Your agreement with a distributor might define an area that you want to self distribute and the area you want them to distribute. Ninkasi self-distributes in Eugene. You can have distribution by county.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
A decade of hindsight later, it must have been a sign.
After months of planning, construction and delays, on July 5, 2005, Chip Hardy was finally ready to open the doors of Eugene’s The Bier Stein to the public. Soon, people would be able to purchase bottled beers and specialty craft beverages from all over the world.
There was just one problem.
“Cases of beer were everywhere,” says Hardy. “We had received a very huge order from Columbia Distributing.” So Hardy did the only thing he could: got the taps open instead. “We sold a lot of draft beer that day.”
A Sign of Things to Come
Co-owners and founders Hardy and his wife Kristina Measells had different plans, though. “The Bier Stein was originally supposed to be a craft beer store that you could eat and drink in,” explains Hardy. “Now we are a craft beer bar and restaurant that sells beer to go. What we have become wasn't our original intention, but we went with what our customers wanted, and it has been very successful.”
Listening to what customers wanted became an overall theme for how Hardy and Measells steered their course. Originally opening in a 2,100-square-foot space at 11th Avenue and Mill Street near the University of Oregon campus, it wasn’t easy to cram in 10 beer coolers, a kitchen, the 10-tap bar (later expanded to 12 taps) and seating. The Bier Stein quickly filled up with bottles, customers — and complaints: there just wasn’t enough room. “We had customers that stopped coming because it was too hard to find a seat,” says Hardy.
On April 15, 2013, The Bier Stein moved to a new location at 1591 Willamette St. The fully remodeled 12,000-square-foot bottle shop and restaurant features a large central bar, 18 LED-lit bottle coolers, 30 taps (and social media updates on tap changes), one cask engine, a private function area (with a separate 6-tap bar), a larger kitchen, and, above all, seating for 150.
The expansion made for other big changes too. Originally opening with a staff of three, The Bier Stein now employs 55, which “makes for a lot of HR work,” Hardy says.
More Breweries, More Selection, More Customers
Today, The Bier Stein is one of the largest beer bars on the West Coast, with a selection of more than a thousand beers, ciders, meads and other craft beverages. Its large selection and ongoing evolution is a response to a local and national craft beer scene that changes at a rapid pace.
“In the past 10 years, there are more breweries, more beer styles and better selection,” says Hardy. “We are able to give those breweries a showplace.”
However, trying to carry everything has to be balanced with tapping only what you can empty. “My sense on taps was only to have enough that we could sell and keep fresh,” explains Hardy. “We constantly rotate. Staying relevant means having an always-changing tap and bottle list, and the beer community has become more educated on what beer is.”
Public regard for The Bier Stein has also translated into accolades. In local newspaper Eugene Weekly’s annual “Best of Eugene” people’s choice awards, The Bier Stein regularly takes top slots for categories such as “Best Beers on Tap.” Readers of CraftBeer.com, the Brewers Association (BA) website for beer lovers, have also twice awarded “Great American Beer Bar” status to The Bier Stein for the Pacific region, as well as “Overall Great American Beer Bar” status in 2014.
“Winning this has given our place a sense of legitimacy,” says Hardy. “We are doing the right thing in the craft beer community: teaching, educating and tasting.”
Staying the Course
As The Bier Stein heads into its next decade, it’s time to celebrate — but also to stay true to their mission and customers. “We like having one location and doing it to the best of our ability,” says Hardy. “We’ll continue to provide our area with some of the best craft beers we can get a hold of and continue being one of the best beer bars in the country.”
July 6 marked the anniversary. A special selection of beers was available, including collaboration beers brewed with Agrarian Ales and Hop Valley. Anniversary plans also include “a large outdoor event” to be held later this summer.
For Hardy, marking The Bier Stein’s first decade is a big step on a long path that winds along with the larger community. “We are very happy the local craft beer community has supported us over the past 10 years, and we are also happy that our employees are so awesome,” he says. “The Bier Stein wouldn't be what it is today without them.”
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The craft beer universe continues to expand with an ever-larger array of new beers in assorted colors, flavors, strengths and potency. So many brews. But which one to choose?
A certified Cicerone can help with that decision. Cicerone certification is a trademarked program, introduced in 2008, that identifies people with significant knowledge and skills in beer sales and service.
Ray Daniels, a longtime beer expert from Chicago who worked for the Brewers Association as a magazine editor, book publisher, and promoter of craft beer, created the certification program. “It’s not a unique concept for people familiar with the hospitality and restaurant industry,” he said.
Although a Cicerone is to beer like a sommelier is to wine, Daniels avoided examining the sommelier training program when developing his. “Beer people didn’t want certification to be a stepson to the wine program. They didn’t want it to be parallel in structure,” he explained.
He reviewed most of the content in the beer world and determined which portions were relevant to which jobs, such as front-line servers and consultants, then developed the tests.
There are three levels of expertise, beginning with Certified Beer Server, then Certified Cicerone and finally the Master Cicerone, the most difficult level achieved by fewer than ten people nationwide.
The online program is readily accessible. “It does not require you to take a class,” said Daniels. He compared the written exam for Certified Beer Server to taking the SAT exam for college. “It allows you to demonstrate knowledge you already possess. You can learn what you need in a variety of ways.” The web site cicerone.org lists numerous study resources, a syllabus and an optional study class.
The Certified Beer Server exam costs $69 and it’s completed online. The Certified and Master Cicerone exams are more expensive and extensive, involve written and tasting components and are scheduled at specific sites around the country.
Daniels said that the certification program didn’t really take off nationally until 2009. Stone Brewing in Southern California was one of the first to embrace it and was active about talking it up, especially with beer distributors. Oregon was slow to adopt it.
But that’s changing. Today, there are more than 800 Certified Beer Servers with Oregon addresses and 34 Certified Cicerones.
Deschutes, Widmer and Columbia Distributing are some of the larger companies that support and encourage their employees to complete at least the first level of certification. Since the certification is relatively affordable and accessible, many interested individuals, brewers and sales personnel are pursuing certification.
Pat Gerhart is the human resources director at Deschutes in charge of training and educational opportunities. She said that when Deschutes went to a stock-option program a few years ago and changed to partial employee ownership “we started planning for offering the Cicerone Certification.”
“We developed our own curriculum and organized study groups that could work together and go out for tastings. We used many of the references and resources from the Cicerone web site. We felt like people would be more successful with the group learning and we’re a pretty social company.”
About 60 percent of all employees are Certified Beer Servers, a distinction that covers proper beer storage, beer styles, beer tasting and flavors, brewing ingredients and processes and pairing beer with food. Two Deschutes employees are Certified Cicerones — 10 are working toward it — and two people are working towards the Master level.
Gerhart said, “The impetus for funding the certification came from our employees. As people were getting certified, more and more were interested. Now it’s an open invitation for all.”
Both experienced and novice beer drinkers appreciate the expertise and knowledge they can gain from Cicerones. “It’s important as people make the transition into craft beers and our beer in particular, that they get what they want,” said Gerhart. “We want to provide that for our friends and customers.”
For some, the certification and training represent a competitive advantage. For others, it’s background material necessary for a good beer ambassador. But most consider it a piece of their personal beer journey.
Would You Pass the Test to Become a Certified Beer Server?
Sample Quiz, Courtesy of the Cicerone Certification Program
(Answers After Question 10)
1. English hops are often associated with which flavor attributes?
A. Oaky, vanilla
B. Herbal, earthy
C. Citrus, resiny
D. Flowery, perfumey
2. Which of the following is most likely to help preserve the freshness and flavor of bottled beer?
A. Fluorescent light
B. Room temperature storage
C. Carrying it around in the trunk of your car
D. Refrigerated storage
3. What role does “choker line” play in a draft system?
A. Prevent too much beer from flowing to the tap when it is first opened
B. Make the tap system look more attractive
C. Provides resistance to bring the system into balance
D. Reduces bitterness of beers by “choking back” the bitter components
4. Compared to a Bohemian (Czech) pilsner, a German pilsner will usually be:
A. Lighter bodied
B. Much darker in colo
C. One percent ABV higher in alcohol
D. None of the above
5. Which beer style is likely to have the highest alcohol content?
A. Scottish Ale
B. Scotch Ale
C. Dry Stout
D. English Bitter
6. A normal-strength beer that has been stored at room temperature for nine months would most likely exhibit what off-flavor?
7. How much beer is contained in a standard half-barrel U.S. keg?
A. 10 gallons
B. 13.25 gallons
C. 15.5 gallons
D. 31 gallons
8. In which of the following beers would haze be a sign of a likely problem with the beer?
A. Bavarian hefeweizen
B. German pilsner
C. Belgian wit
D. American wheat
9. The clove or nutmeg flavors associated with four-vinyl guaiacol (a phenol) are typically found in what style of beer?
D. American wheat
10. Which of the following is an off-flavor commonly associated with over-sparging?
1. Herbal, earthy
2. Refrigerated storage
3. Provides resistance to bring the system into balance
4. Lighter bodied
5. Scotch Ale
7. 15.5 gallons
8. German Pilsner
OBG Blog Archives
Welcome to our archive pages! Read stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler from June 2012 to January 2018. For newer stories, please visit our new website at: