By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Rivertap started out as a small pub in The Dalles and was more of an afterthought — a way to make use of a narrow space between a restaurant and a computer store. Today, it’s a lively gathering place for the community and out-of-towners alike, growing to five times its original size while also now contracting with a neighboring brewery to create its own custom beers.
The story begins in 2009 when Tom Wood, an experienced restaurateur, took a chance on a space that stayed vacant in what was the first new building in the downtown area of The Dalles in 23 years. That was the height of the recession, so it wasn’t uncommon to find empty storefronts throughout the state. But Wood saw an opportunity to give locals something they were lacking.
“People in town said we needed a pub,” Wood explained. The downtown was sleepy with little traffic. “No one wanted to risk it back then, so I decided to open one.”
From the beginning, Rivertap featured a strong, regional beer selection.
“This town wasn’t engaged at the time with craft brews,” said Wood. “But they’ve come to love our IPAs and our diverse selection of unique microbrews and ciders.”
Manager Angela Carter is passionate about craft beer. She’s been at Rivertap for the past five years after moving with her husband from Indiana in search of a small mountain town with plenty of sunshine and natural beauty. In her role, she’s passionate about researching new brews to add to the lineup.
“You never know what you’ll get here,” she said. Since they only have 12 taps, they cycle through product regularly.
Those handles now pour Rivertap’s signature beers. While there’s no brewhouse on premises, the business has gotten assistance from one of its neighbors. Last January, Freebridge Brewing opened across the street in a historic U.S. Mint building. Rivertap contracts with them for a few custom creations.
Carter said, “We have two of our own beers now: Rivertap IPA and Rivertap Blonde Ale. We also have a fresh hop on now made with Cascade hops called Fresh Cascade.”
Rivertap also likes to engage its customers with everything from meet-the-brewer sessions to tap takeovers. About three years ago, Carter launched Battle of the Brews, a blind tasting pitting similarly styled beers against one another in a bracket-like system that can last for months.
The facility also received a makeover in 2012 when Wood closed his franchise restaurant that was sharing the same building in order to focus on the bustling Rivertap. “In the evenings we would get to the pub and it was packed in way too tight,” he said.
The restaurant space wraps around the corner of the building and both exterior glass walls are garage doors that open on sunny days. A patio seats approximately 50 and often is the stage for live music.
This fall, Wood and his staff completely revamped the menu, refining and streamlining dishes to facilitate kitchen preparation. “We kept all the products our customers love,” he said. “But with these changes, our chefs have more time to focus on fresh sheets.” A few of the house favorites are bacon-wrapped jalapeno Yukon golds, fish tacos and fish and chips made with halibut cloaked in the Rivertap Blonde Ale batter.
“We constantly source local foods,” said Wood. They get fresh Klickitat salmon from the other side of the Columbia. “It comes from a glacial-fed river that’s always cold. We buy it from a local native and get it in the morning, right after it’s been caught.” Salmon bisque, one of their regular house-made soups, makes use of their abundant salmon supply.
There are now more signs of life in what was a sleepy downtown. Just up the street from Rivertap stands the Sunshine Mill Winery, which opened its doors the same year as the pub. And in addition to Freebridge, Sedition Brewing brought beer making back to The Dalles in 2016. Together, the businesses seem to be strengthening tourism, and the community, in this section of the Columbia River Gorge.
703 E. Second Ave., The Dalles
By Kirby Neumann-Rea
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Commercial brewing is returning to The Dalles for the first time since pre-Prohibition.
Freebridge Brewing, 710 E. Second St., is about to open in the historic Columbia River Gorge city. Steve and Laurie Light took over the historic Mint building and plan to open Freebridge to the public on Jan. 15. The name originated with the first bridge over the Deschutes River, which was crossed by pioneers traveling along the Oregon Trail. Legend has it that the “Freebridge” was blown up by the Moodys, who ran a toll bridge near the mouth of the Deschutes.
Steve is taking five years of intensive homebrewing experience and turning it into a second career. He’s now making beer on a larger level after spending 20 years as a fly fishing guide on the Deschutes River, which meets the Columbia 17 miles east of The Dalles. Laurie has worked in retail and industry supply over the years. She was born and raised in the city to a family of multigenerational wheat farmers.
“This has been a long time coming,” Steve said. “People around here talk about how this town of 17,000 has had no brewery, while Hood River, a smaller community, has five. People here in The Dalles also want good, local beer.”
The Dalles has had several outlets for regional craft ale, including Clock Tower Ales, Rivertap Pub, and the new Route 30 Bottles & Brews downtown. Now, with Freebridge starting operations and Sedition Brewing Company opening a few blocks away, The Dalles gets two new breweries at virtually the same time. The last place beer was made in The Dalles was the old Columbia Brewing building near the Columbia River.
“People have said, ‘What took you so long?’” joked Steve.
After charging up the glycol system on Dec. 13, White and master brewer Mike Boler dropped their first beer shortly before Christmas. They will focus on traditional styles, including pales, stouts and lagers, starting with pub and keg sales and adding bottles later this year.
“There aren’t many lager makers around. They’re more expensive and take longer, but we know there is a real desire for this style of beer. We vetted the demographic, spending a lot of time in the brewpubs in the Gorge and elsewhere,” Steve said.
Freebridge also plans on producing a Belgian saison, a pilsner and a German wheat, using local grain when possible (The Dalles being wheat country, after all). The brewery’s glistening new 10-barrel system was designed by JV Northwest of Canby. Freebridge debuted at Main Street Uncorked in October, with an American pale ale and an IPA that the Lights made at home. The brought their beers to the public again at a Chamber of Commerce event in December at Sunshine Mill, the beautifully refurbished winery and artisan plaza. That time, in addition to the pale ale, consumers got to sample a dry, bourbon-aged Irish stout. Steve “dry hopped” pieces of bourbon barrel wood after initial fermentation. The steeping process gave the beer a “creamy, silky quality,” he said.
“That definitely helped build some hype, but we have to say that our reception has been great. The support of the community of The Dalles, and the entire Gorge, has been really gratifying,” Laurie said.
The brewery will employ the Lights, two brewers and four or more pub workers once the operation is up and running. The pub will offer 10 taps, reserving some for guests and for cider.
“The pub will start simply — pub fare including sandwiches and soups, and we’ll expand as we get busier,” Laurie said. Look for charcuterie and cheeses from Olympia Provisions and Ancient Heritage Dairy. New furniture and some interior tweaks are planned, but guests will recognize the relaxing vibe created by the previous inhabitant, Erin Glenn Vineyards.
“We want people to see it — to have that connection to the making of the beer,” Steve said.
He said he’s refined his skills during the past five years, but bringing Boler on board was essential to the success of the Freebridge beers.
“Mike is a real student of the craft. He has the knowledge and skills to ensure we are successful,” Steve said.
The Dalles’ Second Street is shaping up into a destination neighborhood for the fermented arts, between the Freebridge, Sunshine Mill and the forthcoming Sedition Brewery. Sedition is planning on a February 2016 opening. Owners Aaron and Kelly Lee started out as Defiance Brewing Company, but they decided last month to formally change the name to avoid a trademark dispute with a company back east. But if you’re familiar with their raised fist logo, that will remain the same. It will fill one of the walls inside the pub.
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
The first time I made my strained ascent of Dog Mountain, the winds were howling, thick fog obscured the trail just several feet ahead and chilling temperatures kept me shivering every time I stopped to rest. The lauded wildflowers and breathtaking view? Nonexistent. But I still kicked that mountain’s ass that day and the post-trek beers at nearby Walking Man Brewing in Stevenson, Wash. never tasted so good because I’d earned them.
There’s something profoundly rewarding about completing a hike. The activity is beautifully simple. Hiking, after all, is walking. And to be stimulated for hours by nature alone is particularly noteworthy these days. Moreover, a hike is a physical and mental effort that you alone complete. It’s up to you to muster the courage to cross that logjam when the bridge has washed out. You rally to make it up those switchbacks. And when you’re soaked with sweat, walking on wobbly legs back to your car — breweries abound in Oregon, even near rural trailheads, and that rewarding pint awaits. Even when you’re far from the heart of the city, you’re usually just minutes away from really good beer.
Below is a guide of just some of the state’s stellar hikes along with the best brewery pairings.
Levels of Difficulty Key:
Easy: Paul Blart, mall cop
Moderate: Bear Grylls, notorious faker
Difficult: Indiana Jones
Strenuous: Ron Swanson, would rebuild trail himself to improve it before hiking
Drift Creek Falls: One Sweet Suspension Bridge
Distance: 3-3.5 miles
Difficulty: Paul Blart
Trailhead: At the Highway 101 and Highway 18 junction, travel east 4.5 miles on Highway 18. Turn onto Bear Creek County Road for 3.5 miles. Continue 7 miles on Forest Service Road 17 to the trailhead.
When I was a kid, I dreamed of fighting off attackers on a treacherous rope bridge like Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The Drift Creek Falls Suspension Bridge is the closest thing I’ve found in Oregon and while it can’t be cut in half with a sword, you can get it swinging from side to side to up the excitement level. Most impressive, though, is the view — not just from the bridge, but of the bridge as well. It’s an impressive span at 240 feet long and imagining the construction process is awe-inspiring. Materials had to be helicoptered in to the remote site. One-hundred feet below lies the canyon floor and a 75-foot falls, which served as the bridge’s namesake.
The hike to reach the span is relatively easy. The forest is thick with towering alder and maple trees that provide plenty of shade throughout. Giant ferns carpet the ground and a stream winds near the path from time to time. To add a bit of length to this hike and a slightly moderate climb, take the North Loop trail when you reach the fork. The approximately half-mile trek is thick with plants that are starting to grow over the trail in some areas. This side trip can also serve as a respite on more crowded days, as most follow the direct route. Once you’ve completed the loop, you’re almost to the bridge. Cross it and continue down to the water for a front-row seat on a rock to an amazingly new perspective of the waterfall and bridge. It’s a peaceful place for a snack, provided there aren’t any parents bellowing down at their children from the bridge because they’re too lazy to make the hike down and back up again to retrieve them.
At the bridge’s entrance, you may notice a plaque honoring Scott Paul, a Forest Service construction foreman. He died in a rigging accident while working on the project. The co-owner of a company dedicated to construction of swing bridges and trails, who was one of Paul’s associates, stepped in to help finish the bridge as a tribute.
Post-Trail Ale: You’re almost to Lincoln City, so might as well make a full day of it and head into town. Rusty Truck Brewing Co. (4649 SE Highway 101, Lincoln City) might be easy to miss because it’s tucked into the same property as Roadhouse 101. Just look for the old red pickup in the parking lot and you’ll know you’re in the right place and the beers are worth seeking out. The dining room tends to be packed with tourists, so to steer clear of the crowds head to the bar. There’s live music in the evenings and typically locals at the bar. And with all of the neon and auto-themed decor, it’s like hanging out in your drag racing-obsessed uncle’s dream garage. With a stage. And taps set aside for craft beer.
Saddle Mountain: Giddy Up for a Great View
Distance: About 5 miles
Difficulty: Indiana Jones
Trailhead: Travel west on Highway 26 until approximately milepost 10, where you take a right turn heading north after a state park sign for Saddle Mountain. From there head 7 miles up a mostly paved road to the trailhead at the road’s end.
It’s hard to miss Saddle Mountain and you don’t even have to be in the area to catch a glimpse of it. The massive rock off of Highway 26 can be seen from coastal cities and Gorge-area mountaintops. Lewis and Clark even made note of the peak in their journals. Given that it’s so visible, you know it’s going to have a killer view. The question that remains is whether your legs or your lungs will give out before you get there. Most of the trail is challenging and steep. Keep in mind that you don’t have to enjoy every second of the 1,640 foot rise in elevation over 2.5 miles. You won’t. But there’s enough scenic variation along the way to provide some much-needed distraction.
Early on, you’ll be clambering up the mountain through a thick forest setting. Eventually, you’ll reach open fields that are exploding with colorful blossoms during the right time of year. A fun fact overheard while passing three aging hippies — who were not only discussing the plant life but also smoking it — was that many of the flowers in that swath of land are quite rare because they’re leftover from the Oregon Coast Range’s Ice Age. What had once been mostly grassland has now given way to the forests we’re familiar with.
One of the trickier parts of the trail is negotiating the metal grating covering the rocks. However, once you reach this section you’re nearing the saddle or dip in the mountain. With one final, vigorous push uphill, you’ll have arrived at the summit. Spend some time catching your breath and just observe. On a clear day, the ocean stretches out in front of you on one side. The mighty Cascades arise from the horizon on the other. Before you head back, remember: it’s all downhill from there (mostly).
Post-Trail Ale: Cool off at the coast, which is only 35 minutes away. Seaside Brewing (851 Broadway St., Seaside) has a second-story patio and, of course, plenty of indoor seating in what used to be the building that housed the drunkards, among other lawbreakers. The old City Jail was completed in 1914 and you can still see the remnants of a cell behind the bar.
Sauvie Island Warrior Rock: Beyond Nude Beaches
Distance: About 6 miles
Difficulty: Paul Blart
Trailhead: Take Highway 30 west to Northwest Sauvie Island Road/Northwest Sauvie Island Bridge and turn right. Take a left on Northwest Gillihan Road and then right onto Northwest Reeder Road, which you’ll follow for 6 miles until you hit a dead end at Collins Beach.
There are two things Sauvie Island is best known for: its clothes-free sanctioned spaces on the shoreline and the bountiful U-pick farms that the crowds descend upon regularly in fall like migrating birds. But this chunk of land also boasts Oregon’s smallest lighthouse and a lovely out-and-back hike that offers a close-up view of that structure at the turnaround point of the route.
At the trailhead, do your best to ignore the trash bins, which are likely overflowing with city beach bum detritus: empty cans of light beer and fast food wrappers. Set out toward the sandy beach where you’ll stand out not only because you’re sober; you’re also fully clothed. While this isn’t one of the nude-optional areas, topless sunbathing isn’t an uncommon recreational activity here along with binge drinking flavorless lagers.
Rest assured, you won’t be mingling with the beachgoers for long. Shortly after spotting a giant bird nest on some pilings and the weathered remains of a boat, you’ll head inland to the trail that will take you to the lighthouse. Much of the hike is shaded, but you’ll find a few clearings and, in late summer, sections of the path nearly swallowed by thick, tall grass. The Warrior Rock lighthouse is at the north end of Sauvie Island and serves as a great place to snack while sitting on some logs and watching river traffic. Before heading back, explore a clearing near the lighthouse where you’ll find an old fireplace and chimney that are now sprouting plants. You can play archaeologist by investigating other scattered signs of what was likely a farmer’s dwelling.
Post-Trail Ale: On the way back into town on Highway 30, head across the Fremont Bridge to Widmer Brothers Gasthaus Pub (929 N. Russell St., Portland). The smell of the grains from the nearby brewery will hit you from at least a block away. It’ll then be impossible to resist the stop.
Triple Falls/Oneonta Gorge: Oregon’s Natural Obstacle Course
Distance: About 6 miles
Difficulty: Bear Grylls
Trailhead: From I-84, take Exit 35/Ainsworth and head west on the Historic Columbia River Highway for approximately 2.9 miles to the trailhead on your left/south. Parking is on the right/north.
We’re all familiar with those runs where you scramble over walls and plunge into ice baths. You also pay a ridiculously large participation fee to be tortured. Well, some of the same experiences await with these two hikes for the cost of the gas to get there. Triple Falls and Oneonta Gorge are easy to combine because they’re so close together. You’ll actually pass over the gorge on the first hike. And while Oneonta Gorge is a short trek, there’s nothing else like it because the trail is a river. That’s right: you get to walk through what’s essentially the coolest natural water park around.
Start with the dry hike — Triple Falls, where the first falling water you’ll see is actually Horsetail Falls at the trailhead. Leave the crowd behind and make a gradual climb among the trees and make a right onto the Gorge Trail. At about .2 miles in, you’ll reach Ponytail Falls, an 80-foot powerful blast of water that you can walk behind for a refreshing mist.
In the middle of the hike, there are moderate elevation gains and about halfway through you’ll find yourself on a bridge overlooking the water-filled Oneonta Gorge. There’s one additional waterfall, Middle Oneonta Falls, before you get to the turnaround point at Triple Falls. The unique-looking water feature is created by a cliff that separates the creek into three streams. Another bridge leads to the creek above the falls, which is a perfect place to refuel before you return.
A short walk down the Historic Columbia River Highway brings you to the Oneonta Gorge entrance. You’ll head off the road once you see a bridge and almost immediately run into a giant logjam, which is the giant jungle gym on the hike. After you’ve traversed it, and do so carefully when it’s slippery, begin your wade. The water gets deeper as you progress and the canyon walls, which are thick with emerald green moss, tower above. Sometimes the gorge is wide enough for several people to walk down and then minutes later it will narrow to the point where you can almost touch both sides. Fallen logs crisscross the gully floor. Depending on how tall you are, the final pool before the waterfall could put you in over your head, so carry any packs above you. The water is cold — as in make-you-scream-if-you-could-catch-your-breath cold. But once you’re acclimated, the dip won’t seem so bad going back.
Post-Trail Ale: A brewery with one of the best views in the Columbia River Gorge is Thunder Island Brewing Co. (515 NW Portage Road, Cascade Locks), and it’s always busy but never too crowded. The team there is constantly making improvements to the venue, including upgrading the outdoor seating and adding a kitchen. There are even stadium-style benches facing the Columbia River where you can sometimes catch the Sternwheeler docking next door.
Ramona Falls: Basalt Water Beauty
Distance: About 7 miles
Difficulty: Somewhere between Paul Blart and Bear Grylls
There’s no shortage of waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest. Whether they gently cascade across the rocks or powerfully thunder off a cliff, we’re never bored by moving water. Yet some tend to stand out more than others, like Ramona Falls.
Not far into the trail in the Mount Hood Wilderness, you’ll be walking above the Sandy River and signs of the deep gash it can cut into the cliff sides when running at full blast. In fact, the swift current washed out a hiking bridge about a mile in last year and is hasn’t been replaced. Currently, there are a few logs that are wide enough to inch your way across, but this could all change next season. Be careful to watch your footing and avoid the distracting view of a giant mountain in the background. On a clear day, this is a perfect location for a beautiful vantage point of Hood.
After crossing the river, stick to the left and look for sticks and rocks that fellow hikers have turned into signposts along the trail in a large, sandy area. About .25 miles later, the path splits. The better scenery is to the left, so save it as the reward on the return. Veer right to join the Pacific Crest Trail and you’ll begin a gradual climb in a forested area that looks more like Central Oregon with shorter, dried-out pines and little shade. Once you reach a horse gate, you’ve arrived. Ramona Falls spills across the wide span of a jagged rock face and there’s plenty of room to sit down nearby and eat. You might also run into some PCT hikers who are hungry for conversation and new people. They’ll stand out because of the abundance of gear on their backs and hair on their faces.
Cross the bridge in front of the falls to head back. You’ll be following what looks like a babbling brook that Disney animators might use for inspiration. Giant andesite cliffs suddenly emerge on your right, the colors of which change from pink to tan to gray, depending on the lighting. This backdrop also looks like it’s part of a movie set — like someone could yell “Cut!” in the middle of your hike.
Post-Trail Ale: Mount Hood Brewing Company (87304 E. Government Camp Loop, Government Camp) is the perfect place to cool down after a hike or warm up after snowshoeing in this area. There’s a roomy patio and a cozy fireplace along with hearty food that is a few notches above the average pub fare. The business, which has been brewing on site since 1992, has been renovated fairly recently and is only about 15 minutes east of Zigzag.
Silver Falls State Park: Chasing Waterfalls along Silver Creek
Distance: About 9 miles
Difficulty: Bear Grylls
Trailhead: From I-5, take Exit 253 in Salem, drive 10 miles east on North Santiam Highway 22, turn left at a sign for Silver Falls Park, and follow Highway 214 for 16 miles to the park entrance sign at South Falls.
If one waterfall isn’t enough to impress you, a trail of ten should satisfy your hunt for falling water. Most people have heard of Silver Falls and plenty will go to the park to photograph the easily accessible South Falls. However, the hike across the parking lot is about all of the exercise many are willing to put into the experience. For a view of nine more falls, continue on a series of trails that loop through the area.
The waterfall naming committee was really on its game when it came to this state park as you’ll see an abundance of wildly creative titles like “Lower North,” “Middle North,” and “North,” just to name a few. But the variation among the waterfalls themselves make them much more memorable. Some make dramatic plunges into deep pools, others have created damp grottos you can walk into and then there are falls that split in two or create a curtain of water you can walk behind. As you make your way between the waterfalls, you’re often following a stream surrounded by towering Douglas firs, western hemlock and a thick floor of vegetation that thrives in the temperate rainforest.
It might sound a bit odd to say there’s a dull part of this hike, but if you take the traditional loop starting at South Falls, there isn’t much worth noting on the trail after you’ve visited Upper North Falls, the last in the circuit. There’s one great view back at North Falls across the forest, but otherwise the route doesn’t feature any spectacular visuals unless you consider Highway 214 easy on the eyes. To get this section over with earlier and end at a swimming hole, park at the North Falls lot and hike toward South Falls using the Rim Trail. You’ll then finish at Upper North Falls, which has a large pool. And since you’ll be near your car, you don’t have to worry about making a final long slog in wet shoes.
Post-Trail Ale: While at Silver Falls, it only seems appropriate to refuel and relax in Silverton, which is less than 30 minutes away and known as the “gateway” to the great state park. Seven Brides Brewing (990 N. First St., Silverton) has a sprawling bar top and beers named after the brewers’ daughters. The brewery’s title actually arose from those kids. Between three of the founders, they have seven daughters. The men noted that the rising cost of weddings meant they needed to sell enough beer to pay for all of those ceremonies. Therefore, every time you buy a pint, you’re contributing to the wedding fund — unless they all end up eloping.
Neahkahnie Mountain/Cape Falcon and Bill’s Tavern and Brewhouse
Tryon Creek State Park and Sasquatch Brewing Company
Tamanawas Falls and Solera Brewing
Opal Creek and Vagabond Brewing
By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s the end of an era. Full Sail Brewing’s employees and founders voted in March to sell to Oregon Craft Brewers Co., which is a local investment group formed by Encore Consumer Capital, a San Francisco-based private equity firm. “The votes were returned confidentially to our ESOP attorney. It passed nearly unanimously,” said Full Sail founder and CEO Irene Firmat.
While this news is sure to not make as big a splash as the recent sales of 10 Barrel Brewing and Elysian Brewing Company, it is in many ways more important. Full Sail has been one of the industry’s pioneers and produced more beer (115,000 barrels) in 2014 than 10 Barrel (40,000 barrels) and Elysian (50,000 barrels) combined, making it the 25th largest craft brewer in the country.
Both 10 Barrel and Elysian are also examples of quick growth in a very short period of time, which may have been one of the reasons 10 Barrel was in a difficult financial position and willing to sell. Full Sail has experienced its ups and downs, but has largely avoided pitfalls and continued on a steady stream of growth by going its own direction. Ignoring trends like barrel aging, fresh hops, double IPAs and sour beers (for the most part, though the brewery certainly has dabbled); Full Sail instead focused its energy on recreating the craft lager and session beers, a move that was way ahead of its time. Full Sail’s location in Hood River is also undoubtedly responsible for the explosion in the number of breweries in the town and the entire Columbia River Gorge. Former Full Sail brewers have opened favorites like Double Mountain, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, pFriem Family Brewers and Everybody’s Brewing.
Full Sail’s growth has not always been smooth. In 1999 the company transitioned into an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) rather than be put up for sale. That model has worked well, with other breweries -- most notably New Belgium -- following in Full Sail’s footsteps. Then in 2012, Full Sail lost its Henry Weinhard’s beer contract, which it had held for 10 years with SABMiller. That investment allowed Full Sail to reinvest in its brewery, keep debt low and sustain growth. Full Sail was making so much Weinhard’s beer that the Weinhard’s brand alone was ranked as the seventh largest in Oregon. At that time I worried for the future of Full Sail, but the company re-upped its No. 1 in-house brand, Session.
The Session beer brand by Full Sail may have been the smartest and most successful product launch of any Oregon brewery since the start of the craft beer revolution. Short, stubby, highly-recognizable bottles of cheap (but still craft) tasty, light lager were a huge seller. And the brand has sustained with spin-offs Session Black, Session Fest and recently Session IPA. When growth started to go flat, Full Sail launched the beer into new markets and took Session beer to bar taps for the first time in a move the company said would never happen.
The pessimist might suspect the recent huge expansion of the Session brand was in anticipation of putting the brewery up for sale, driving up production numbers and the value of the company. Though Full Sail Chairman Irene Firmat says that the brewery was approached unsolicited last September, that doesn’t mean the brewery was not preparing for a buyer. Anheuser-Busch paid an estimated $400 per barrel times the annual 60,000 barrel production of Blue Point Brewing when it purchased that company in February of 2014. Given those figures, Full Sail’s estimated value would be $46 million.
As I mentioned before, a pessimist might also suspect that the Full Sail employee vote on approval of the sale was a formality and the sale was a foregone conclusion. Leaving the decision to the employees who own an estimated 58 percent of the company makes for a terrific PR move. Though that is a solid majority, founders Jamie Emmerson and Irene Firmat own 42 percent and would only need a small percentage of employees to agree to the sale. But according to Firmat, “The employee vote was not a sure deal. Jamie and I don’t have a majority position, so even though we felt that this was a very good offer for all our shareholders, it was not a sure thing until the votes were counted. We did an early reveal because once notices went out to 78 employees, we thought confidentiality would be difficult to maintain and it would be better to have the facts out to minimize speculation.”
Still, it would seem the deal was done since Firmat and Emmerson could reverse any “no” decision by the employees as they are the two sole trustees of the ESOP. Not that the deal is a bad thing for the employees who, based on their time at the company, will likely earn four to five figures in the buyout as well as keep their jobs. The other good news is that Full Sail would still be counted among the “craft” brewers as defined by the Brewers Association by selling to an equity firm rather than a macro brewer like Anheuser-Busch.
The bad news is that brewery sales to private equity firms might have a worse track record than those sold to SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch. While the previously mentioned companies’ business is at least making and selling beer, both are only concerned with making money. However, an equity firm will quickly sell off companies to make a buck and has no interest in continuing the products. That seems to be the case here. The formation of a new company called Oregon Craft Brewers Co. distracts from the fact that the real owners are Encore Consumer Capital, a group that holds no other breweries or beverage companies. Oregon Craft Brewers Co. is a brand new formation that also has no history in the industry. While Full Sail posits that its buyer’s lack of experience guarantees the current employees jobs (which may be true), it also underscores a potential turn toward primarily profit-driven endeavors. That could mean cutting costs and raising profit margins on products and perhaps launching into more states or countries.
After raising the value further, Full Sail could be sold off again, following the path of Portland Brewing/MacTarnahan’s, which has been bought and sold a few times and is now owned by a Costa Rican conglomerate. Encore Consumer Capital has an established track record of buying and selling companies a few years later. It has been alternately reported that Emmerson and Firmat would either plan their immediate exit or stay with the company. Firmat clarified this: “We have committed to stay a year to insure that this transition goes smoothly. After that we will see.” After seeing Full Sail through the transition, I think we can expect little substantial change immediately, but I worry what will happen in a few years after they continue to develop the Session brand. Will we see a day in the future where a craft brewery on the East Coast is contract brewing Full Sail beer as it becomes a version of the formerly-prestigious Henry Weinhard’s?
Firmat admits, “It is what they do, but they have a track record of holding on to companies for a longer period of time and, in the meantime, they invest to grow it. Our distributor alignments make a purchase by a big brewer very difficult and more expensive and they are very aware of that.”
Let’s hope she is right. At the very least, Firmat and Emmerson have followed through with their commitment to employee owners, giving them a nice bonus to their 401Ks while making a happy exit for themselves. That is much better than what Anheuser-Busch is offering to the casualties of its acquisitions.
This article originally appeared in The New School.
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