On Sunday, August 14, Ninkasi Brewing will host its 10thh Anniversary with a gathering at its brewery in Eugene, Oregon. For this milestone, one of country’s fastest growing breweries brewed a beer for this anniversary with N10 Imperial Blended Ale. Normally only available in a 22 oz. bottle, Ninkasi will be pouring this beer on draft during Sunday’s festivities.
Over ten years ago Jamie Floyd met Nikos Ridge through a mutual friend. Soon after this meeting the two were designing plans to open up their very own brewery. Ninkasi Brewing began its operations when there was a lull in the opening of new production breweries in Oregon. Ten years ago the forefathers of craft brewing controlled the production scene with beers from BridgePort Brewing, Widmer Brothers Brewing, Rogue Ales, Deschutes Brewery, Portland Brewing, and Full Sail Brewing.
Back in 2006 there were around 80 breweries in the state of Oregon. Ten years later this number now sits at over 260 breweries within the Beaver State. This sheer number is going to make competing in this market place even more challenging as these breweries continue to mature and age.
We recently had a phone conversation with both Floyd and Ridge and asked various questions on how the two met and started Ninkasi, how the beer industry has evolved, what the future holds and how the two felt about the recent sale of Hop Valley Brewing to Tenth and Blake, a division of MillerCoors.
How did the two of you meet and then decide to open a brewery in Eugene nearly ten years ago?
Nikos: So Jazz (Khalsa) who is a good friend of mine and is also our metal artist designer. I have known him for a long time and he got to know Jamie by being his neighbor at a certain point in the Eugene flow. Eugene is not a big town obviously so we were acquainted indirectly for a while. When I was living on the East Coast before I moved back to Eugene we would cross paths every so often. Then when I moved back to Eugene because I wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t sure what I was going to do. So Jazz told me that Jamie was hiring for an assistant brewer at Steelhead (Brewing) and I applied to be his assistant brewer there. He didn’t hire me so I had to figure something else out. The nice way that Jamie tells it is because he knew he was going to start his own brewery and he didn’t want to hire somebody with no experience at that time which I had none of. The we ran into each other at The Bier Stein some number of months later and just started talking, talking about potentially opening a brewery. My background is a little more in finance and on the business side and he ended up calling me and ended up calling me later on that day and that he was really thinking seriously about it. So we talked more and took it from there.
This combination of a strong business and brewing skill set is a great starting point. How do you think this relationship helped in the initial growth of Ninkasi?
Jamie: Its pretty awesome that Nikos and I have pretty similar philosophical beliefs in what we are doing. We are very different functioning people in terms of how we operate and our backgrounds as far as training. Even though as these times we have grown and to know and appreciate a lot about each others focuses as well. We were able to really have a broad vision of the entire company and be able to separately build a community around all of that stuff from our background. Just really good in terms of being really good support for each other in what we do.
Nikos: And the ability to have someone taking care of obviously the brewing focus and the critical production side and all of that and somebody making sure that the infrastructure was moving forward at the appropriate pace. I think that really differentiated us a lot of times. I don’t think that there is always that dynamic and you can really end up being production focused and then all of a sudden you hit a constraint and then you have to figure it out and before you can move forward. Or you don’t know about production and you have to kind of figure it out what you were doing but we were able to move both things forward simultaneously which I think was definitely a reason why we were able to grow as fast as we did. Especially in the beginning when it was kind of a constant expansion mode and continuously making beers and new beers and all of that fun stuff.
One of the challenges with any new brewery are the growing pains. You have definitely increased your production size. What is your current projected output for 2016?
Nikos: 2016, probably somewhere in the 110 thousand barrel range. Maybe a little under that.
One thing that sets your brand apart are its logo and the teal color. It is definitely eye catching. How did the logo and the teal color come about?
Jamie: My ex-wife was a functional part early on in the company for doing design work for us. We sort of worked on that logo together. It is sort of based on a Egyptian revival mirror that actually hung in our house. We kind of were looking for something that had sort of a cool cultural vibe to it. Sort of a timeless, modern sort of situation. I think that one of the real strengths in Brianna’s design work for that was the non-attachment of the one part of the “N”. Just little subtleties like that, that really made it iconic graphic, which at the time of the industry was an important factor. Then the teal and the green and the black, those are my favorite colors. It certainly wasn’t reflective in the way that people thought about beer at the time. So all of those things kind of came together to kind of give us a distinguished look when we first started.
How do you think that helped bring on some early success?
Jamie: Well certainly once we went into the bottle format by using the simple color and sort of the iconic graphic logo template that we used it was really easy to see in a grocery store lineup. If you had any familiarity with us at all it was easy to see us in a wall full of color and busyness. I think that really helped us early on. It definitely gone over the years to do a much more illustrative format for our storytelling. But up front it was really just it. Was easy to see and easy to recognize.
With your new re-branding it has a outdoorsy feel to it. How do you attribute the development of this new branding to your in-house artists and production?
Nikos: So we had a great brand presence early on per Jamie’s comments. Then recently with the expansion of our internal art team and having artists in residence we really have a very strong creative team now internally. We realized that we had some opportunities to tell a little bit more engaging story via the art space we have on our packaging. So it was really a collaborative effort to put that all together and kind of represent the creative side and the crafted side of the brewery via the new art. I think its awesome and its actually been a very positive driver for some of our sale performance since its been released. So it seems like it is really resonating out there with others as well. So we are excited about it and it was time to freshen things up and evolve. I think the team did an awesome job with it.
It has to be nice to have the in-house creative department.
Nikos: It keeps the creativity flowing on many levels.
Jamie: It also ads by doing all of the work in-house it really allows for a lot of creativity that we can own. Its not the copy like it when using a marketing company that is going to use other people’s ideas to shed new light and stuff. Its great for us that way.
When it comes to growth, lately you have been opening up some newer markets. How many states are you currently distributing in?
Nikos: Thirteen states. Some of them like Texas are only a small part of Texas right now.
What plans do you have in the future regarding new markets?
Nikos: Still in development. No specific plans yet but we are starting to talk about that and take a look to see what might make sense or where we are interested in going or have some opportunities.
A few years back you took on a major expansion with a 55-barrel brewhouse and then a new 90-barrel brewhouse went online. What is the potential output for your brewhouse?
Nikos: Depending on product mix about 250,000 barrels. We have to do a packaging upgrade at some point along the way. The infrastructure is all built to support the brewhouse capacity and there is space for fermentation to add.
I’m aware of your distribution to British Columbia, are you in any other foreign markets? If so which ones and if not are there any that you plan on distributing to in the coming years?
Nikos: Not really. We have done some things festival wise in like the British Beer Festival and things like that but we are not really much into export.
Jamie: Technically Alberta too but they’re an incredibly small craft beer community. So they don’t purchase a lot of our beer.
This weekend on Sunday is Ninkasi’s tenth anniversary celebration. What should attendees expect?
Nikos: Its just going to be a celebration. Nothing too huge of a deal for Sunday. We will have some great beers on tap, some special stuff, food carts and music. Pretty casual but its a good way to get together here in Eugene and celebrate a milestone for us with some of our fans and partners. We are looking forward to it! Lets get everyone together and have some fun.
Jamie: Of course definitely having more ability to sample the N10 beer as well cause its had limited release so far. Its also a way for people to get a chance to taste the beer on draft and not just in the bottle. So I’m pretty excited about that too!
Looking back ten years, what would you have done differently?
Nikos: That’s a big question. We could be here a while. But generally, we grew pretty fast so I don’t know if that is something I would change but we are definitely catching up to some of that now. And I think we are doing a good job. You know we have done in ten years what I think historically a lot of people would have taken longer to do and so just building in that culture and community and operational stability to support it all. We built a new facility that we continue to work hard at everyday and we are getting better everyday. But it has all been a lot of positives in terms of learning.
I think we started at a good time as well. Jamie was pretty intentional when he wanted to get into the brewing industry after having been through a couple of the cycles. And so I think we came into it at a great time. I think self-distributing when we started was really important to our success. And we continue to distribute our beer here in Eugene still. We were draft only for a long time, I think that worked for us. That was more by necessity than anything else. So we started with our local market in Eugene and expanded out from there. We didn’t open up a ton of territory and we still haven’t opened up a ton of territory. We are trying to be methodical about that which I think has been good. Otherwise I think all of the mistakes we have made have only allowed us to learn and get stronger. So I think it all ends up being valuable over time. Just got to keep things moving forward.
Jamie: To echo what Nikos is saying, I think in retrospect you can always make adjustments to stuff but honestly there was maybe some initiative or projects we could have started early but I can’t imagine that we would have actually had the time back then start them so kind of anecdotal in a way. To Nikos’ point we got kind of an amazing amount done. I also think we entered the market at the right time. I had looked at starting a brewery a couple of different times before that. Both of those other times were still probably more opportunistic times to start a brewery than in a field of 5300 now. I think with the impact of the changing of the industry continually that the opportunity has shifted a little bit as far as that goes. It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be more breweries opening by any means but that the challenge and expectations certainly would be different.
Do you feel that the challenge is more on the production brewery that packages versus a brewpub?
Jamie: If you’re selling all of your beer on site you’re definitely not have to face a lot of the changes that happen in the brewing industry because you’re selling all of your beer onsite. At that point it really comes down to most of the similarities with the restaurant business as a whole. If you pick the right location, if you’ve got a good business model, if you can sweat three or four years in the red before black there is certainly good ways of doing that. But so many people are starting their breweries at a pretty small pace trying to enter all venues where they are operating a brewpub and trying to operate a small canning or bottling machine and taking on a lot of projects up front.
Its a good idea to test your brand out early on too. Not just go fully deep cause you might have to make some adjustments up front too. Until you get your brewing processes down your shelf life stability is going to be pretty negligible until you work on the beer for a long time. Easier to sort through problems if you take them one at a time instead of taking on all of the problems and trying to simplify them.
One last question. The other week news broke that Hop Valley sold a majority interest to Tenth and Blake a division of MillerCoors. How do you feel that this will affect the Eugene and Oregon and more broader the Pacific Northwest craft beer market?
Nikos: We already kind of had our sort of initial shock to the system here in the Northwest with 10 Barrel and Elysian. So I don’t know how much of an impact it going to have. For the Eugene market there is definitely a dialogue going on around for what’s important to people and their choice of craft beer. And its always interesting to be a part of that conversation and see where people’s thoughts are at and whether craft beer just means that you make beer in the style of a craft brewery or if craft beer means you have a certain set of values that you also believe are important and instill into your business practices. I am a believer in the latter of those two but I’m not sure that all customers feel the same way.
Jamie: It will be interesting to see if it has an impact on the Eugeneians that are pretty quirky but we will see. Certainly the expected impact that I think a lot of people had with 10 Barrel was probably not the expected outcome. That in the end they are selling a lot of beer and people who said they were upset about it are wearing 10 Barrel hats happily serving the beer. There’s a lot to go on with that but we will see.
On Sunday, August 14, Ninkasi Brewing will host its 10th anniversary celebration from Noon until 9:00pm. Ninkasi will celebrate 10 great years of brewing in Eugene. All day long Ninkasi will be showing its appreciation to all of Eugene.
During the day celebrate with a few great food carts that includes Red Five Hotdog Company and I Scream For Waffles. There will also be giveaways, a photo booth and so many beers from Ninkasi that will be pouring that includes its N10 Imperial Blended Ale.
D.J. is a Portland, Oregon based writer that spent his formative years in the Midwest. With over 20 years under his belt of drinking beer at festivals across America and the world, he has developed a strong appreciation and understanding of craft beer and the industry that surrounds it. He can be found in any of the great breweries or beer bars that make Portland the best beer city in the world. His writing can also be found in Northwest Brewing News and can be followed on Twitter at @hopapalooza.