Craft Brewer of the Year: Full Sail Brewing Co.

When you visit Hood River, Ore. it’s easy to forget that you’re barely an hour from a major Pacific Northwest city and its international airport. You are likely to spot one of two elements immediately, depending on the direction of your approach. There’s the Columbia River Gorge lined with evergreens and (this time of year) white-powdered peaks standing guard over a body of water perpetually gushing with activity (the town sits where the Columbia River and its namesake body of water meet). And then, of course, just off in the very immediate distance, there’s the looming snowcapped wonder that’s so postcard-perfect that you’re almost convinced that someone Photoshopped it onto the horizon. It’s a foregone conclusion that any out-of-town visitor to the region—say, a writer from the American Northeast—will experience a sudden drop of the jaw when first gazing upon the majesty of Mount Hood.

With a setting like that, it’s no wonder that any business that calls Hood River home would want to do as little as possible to disturb what nature has so impeccably wrought. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Full Sail Brewing Co., which calls the town of around 7,000 home, has some of the most celebrated eco-cred in the beer category. That’s just one of the reasons we’ve named the company, operating since 1987 and employee-owned since 1999, Craft Brewer of the Year.  

“Our idea of being sustainable is what our grandparents used to call being cheap,” laughs Full Sail founder and CEO Irene Firmat. “And that’s how we really like to talk about it because sometimes it can feel so esoteric, like ‘you can’t afford to do this, or that.’ But part of it for us is that because we’re an employee-owned company, things have to make financial sense. And all of the things we do from a sustainability point of view are sustainable not just for the environment, but financially as well. That’s where it gets interesting because you can engage a lot of people and not have it be, ‘I’m holier than thou’ or ‘I’m this green purist.’ No, it’s really good for business.”

And it can be a lot simpler than many make it out to be. Executive brew master (and Firmat’s husband) Jamie Emmerson, who’s been with the company since it was barely a year old, says there are so many little adjustments that can be made at the outset that don’t necessarily take any serious investment.

“I tend to tell people there are a lot of low-hanging fruit before you do some of the gilded-lily things like photovoltaics on the roof or something like that,” Emmerson notes. “Internally, gas use, hot water use, lights, all of those things matter and add up. The little things all add up to the big things.”

They Did the Mash
Sustainability has been part of the brewery’s DNA since its humble beginnings, but Full Sail made an especially eco-conscious effort when it moved into its current home in 1995. An obvious target was Full Sail’s use of beer’s biggest ingredient.

“We were in a small town,” recalls Emmerson, who was the key designer of its current facility. “Part of being a big water user, a big waste generator in a small town is that we wanted to be a good partner with the city. When we started, we tried to minimize wastewater usage from the get-go.”

The brewery had managed to get its water use ratio down below 3.5 gallons for every gallon of beer produced. An impressive number by any eco-minded beverage producer’s standards to be sure, but Full Sail wasn’t content to keep it there. Then it installed a mash filter manufactured by Belgian equipment supplier Meura and changed its own water conservation game.  

The vertical leaf pressure filter works as an alternative to a lauter tun, which is more of a giant strainer. “The vertical leaf filter,” Emmerson explains, “operates under pressure, so when you’re done, you literally squeeze the liquid out of the last bits of grain, which normally would be dumped in a lauter tun…It’s the difference between setting spaghetti in a strainer or putting it under weights.”

A good lauter tun, he notes, will drop 80 percent moisture—you’ll get 2,000 pounds of residual dust and about 8,000 pounds of water from the mash. “The mash filter basically starts at 70 percent and goes down from there,” Emmerson says. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of water, but for us it was nearly 800 gallons of water per brew that we didn’t use at 8 pounds a gallon.”

For those keeping score at home, that’s 6,400 pounds water that’s not being wasted. The brewery since has managed to get its usage ratio down below 2.5 to 1, just from the addition of the Meura filter. And that has benefits beyond just the actual liquid that’s being saved. It also has logistical advantages. That’s more than three tons of extraneous weight that’s not going on trucks when the spent grain is being shipped to farms as livestock feed—even though the brewery is using the same amount of grain in the mash.

That aspect was a key consideration for the brewery when it decided to go with the mash filter. Consolidation in the dairy sector—which has been a prime beneficiary of the spent grain for cattle feed—meant more stress on the shipping system. “As local dairies got consumed by bigger local dairies, we had to start shipping spent grain farther and farther,” Emmerson recalls. “When diesel prices got up to $4 a gallon, we had to start paying to get rid of spent grain. Eventually you’re coming to a point where you’re paying a lot…And that’s not a good place to be because we generate a lot.”

It’s especially an issue for a brewery that prides itself on sourcing 99.8 of its raw materials locally—its hop and malt suppliers all are within 100 miles of Hood River. Installing the filter has enabled Full Sail to cut loads of spent grain by the equivalent of 77 trucks in a single year—that’s about 1.5 a week.

Beyond the operational efficiencies, Firmat points out that the filter has enhanced the quality of the beer produced. The modern agricultural reality is that less and less barley is planted every year. “Because of the economic dynamics with the corn subsidies, ethanol and all that stuff, the quality of the barley has a lot of fluctuations right now,” Firmat explains.
The better filtration from the machine versus a lauter tun means not having to rely on the malt’s husk quality. There sometimes can be a husky, not-so-pleasant flavor in a brew if the operation lacks an optimal filtration bed. “So you have a buffer there for the fluctuations in quality, which we think is a huge thing going forward,” Firmat says.

One Way (Or Another)
The success of the mash filter has been a major sustainability boon on the production side for Full Sail. The brewery also reports some encouraging early results from a key investment on the distribution side: one-way kegs.
When it comes to steel cooperage, the one major headache the industry hears about the most is loss or theft. Few, however, talk about those associated with actually getting all of those kegs back.

“It’s just one of those archaic things that have been done for a long time,” Firmat admits. “People don’t think about it, but kegs come back and then you have to wash them and that takes energy and that takes chemicals and all that.”
And then there’s the freight.

“Having a truck come back full of those empty kegs, which is basically shipping air, just seems to be such a waste,” Emmerson offers.

Full Sail has integrated 100 percent recyclable one-way plastic units from European supplier Petainer into its existing (still predominantly metal-based) keg inventory for select markets—specifically Portland, Ore. and Seattle.  

Getting the program up and running has been a highly collaborative process between Full Sail and Petainer, as well as Kapstone, the manufacturer of the box that holds the keg—which needed to be designed from scratch.

“Our volume [of one-way kegs] is still not high,” Firmat concedes, “but we can see there’s a lot of opportunity here.”  
And that carries over to its partners across the beverage alcohol supply chain.

“[It’s a chance to] bring something new for the distributor, restaurant, bar owner to look at and see how they relate to it,” says Emmerson. “And so far the feedback’s been really good because the kegs themselves are so light and they don’t stack up dirty when they’re done because you can recycle them.”

In fact, Portland and Seattle both have approved the kegs—which weigh a scant 200 grams empty—for curbside recycling.
The brewery is now about to open its third, fourth and fifth markets for the containers.

“We’re still in the process of ramping this up and we’ve been very cautious because we are so on the front end of this,” notes Firmat. “We’ve been opening markets really slowly.”

The People Have the Power
Beyond a brewer’s energy, water and raw materials usage, there’s one resource that’s essential to a sustainable operation: its people. That’s why, for the past 15 years, Full Sail has been entirely employee-owned.

It was the late ’90s and what had come to be known as craft beer was at a crossroads. The explosive growth of the initial wave had slowed down considerably and many in the segment had exited just as quickly as they had entered. Those that persevered were looking to take their businesses to the next level, which meant different things to different breweries.

“Everybody thought there was so much money to be had and some of them wanted to sell,” recalls Firmat. “And it was the option of what that selling looked like, for Jamie and for me, that was kind of what broke our hearts. We just couldn’t do it. We had started it with so little money that it was the people who worked side by side with us who were going to get screwed.”
In the eyes of Firmat and Emmerson, Full Sail was about shared destiny.

“When you have a dream of what this was going to be and then people start working here, your dream becomes their dream,” Emmerson says. “If we just sold the brewery, the brand would just go somewhere. The production facility would close.”

And that’s definitely something the company didn’t want to see happen to the beer business like it had in the ’70s and ’80s when so many legacy breweries, those that had defined a particular city or region, had shuttered. “We just lost those breweries,” Firmat says. “I take a lot of pride in craft breweries having brought that back and didn’t want to lose that again.”
Now, Firmat and Emmerson take pride in the fact that those ultimately responsible for making the major decisions associated with running a business all work side-by-side. There are no investment groups to call for approval. “There’s nobody we have to call in New York or San Francisco or Hong Kong and say, ‘This is the money we want to invest, this is what we want to do,’” Firmat explains. “We’re very close to the consequences of our decisions and we’re going to have to live with them. I think, for me, that is the most exciting part about employee ownership.”

Quality and Consistency
In its 27 years of existence, Full Sail has gained a reputation for its consistent product quality and brewing best practices, as well as its steady growth—not the hard-to-sustain, explosive high-double and triple-digit growth of some in the segment, but a reliable, profitable climb.

“That’s part of the overall plan,” reveals Emmerson. “Slow and steady.”

The company is well regarded among its distributor partners in the more than 30 states in which its beers are available—especially Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Distributing, which has carried Full Sail products for more than two decades.
“Full Sail Brewery is highly regarded in our Northwest market and considered as one of the foundation breweries that helped build the industry into what it is today,” says Gregg Christiansen, chairman and CEO of Columbia Distributing. “The entire Full Sail team plays an active role in giving back to the community. We have an excellent partnership with Full Sail. They play a very active role with our team from start to finish, through strategic planning to execution. Communications is excellent which is critical in any partnership. Columbia is proud to be a partner and looks forward to many more years.”

The brewery, which expects to produce about 120,000 barrels this year, is known for its products and business ethos more than its antics—something for which more than a handful of today’s craft brewers are known. And that’s just the way its team likes it.

“I think if you interview a lot of people from the ’80s, they’ll probably tell you the same kind of story that we were really trying to bring this more sophisticated flavor profile and really try to create a beer that had some of that core lifestyle piece that we really fell in love with when we experienced it in Europe,” says Firmat. “Now, [the craft scene] feels like it’s really a lot of just, ‘Let’s see how loud we can be to get as much attention as possible.’”

That doesn’t mean attention has eluded the brewery. Quite the contrary. More than a quarter-century after its founding, its beers manage to attract acclaim on a worldwide stage. As recently as late 2013, Full Sail has garnered some pretty prestigious accolades. Its flagship Full Sail Amber, first brewed in 1989, was named “World’s Best” in the American brown ale-dark beer category at the World Beer Awards. Its stubby-bottled, pre-Prohibition-style Session Lager, introduced in 2005, was anointed “The Americas’ Best” in the helles lager category.

All-in-all the brewery has collected more than 300 awards over the years, including 120 gold medals.
“Given the number of breweries and beers being made in this day and age,” raves Firmat, “the fact that we can get that level of achievement is really huge.”

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