Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Tale of Four Businesses. Part 2: Oakshire

Matt Van Wyk
 
As part 2 of my recap of my trip down south to visit four brewing businesses, I am going to profile Oakshire, the 'other' Eugene bottling brewery.  Lately Oakshire has been on a tear, producing a line up of stellar regular beers (standouts include Watershed IPA and Overcast Espresso Stout) and wonderful one offs including a small beer (the Well Mannered Gnome) and an English Ale made with Willamette hops (Willamette Dammit - the best beer name ever in the history of the world, if not the cosmos). 

Just a little smaller than Ninkasi

It is impossible to talk about Oakshire without also mentioning Ninkasi.  And not just because of their shared hometown. For if Ninkasi is all about seasoned pros with an ambitious business plan, Oakshire is about a homebrewer turning pro: turning hobby into a business and slowly building a business.  And it is for this reason that I suspect many readers are more interested in Oakshire's path to success than Ninkasi's.

Ninkasi was a pro outfit from the start.  Jamie Floyd had a long resume as a professional brewer and was ready with perfected recipes and a clear idea of the distinctive character that would be their hallmark.  Throw in a finance guy with a head for business and a well-researched plan and the result - spectacular growth - is no accident but the result of all of these ingredients with a very healthy dose of hard work.  But if Ninkasi is all spit and polish, Oakshire is, by contrast, the scrappy little guy out by the railroad tracks that is making diamonds in the rough getting slowly bigger and growing a loyal following.

Re-purposing and old boiler

Oakshire (né Willamette Brewing) was started by Chris and Jeff Althouse and launched with its Amber Ale which was, as I understand, a perfected homebrew recipe.  And here the story could have stared and finished as while Amber is a perfectly fine beer it does not stand out in the NW craft brewing scene.  After some coaxing, mostly involving maturing the business to the point that it looked like it has legs, Jeff convinced experienced brewer Matt Van Wyk to relocate from Chicago to Eugene and take charge of the brewing while Jeff concentrated on the business. This proved to be a masterstroke as Matt has created a line up of truly exceptional beers which have gained the admiration of the beer geeks and casual craft beer fans alike.  Matt is just getting started and I was amazed at the number of special beers that in currently in the works.  They are all winners as far as I can tell (though Matt was suspicious of my ability to spot a winner from a green Zwickel - alas he has no faith in me, but I maintain faith in his beer!).

Oakshire started as Willamette Brewing
To find Oakshire is not easy.  Luckily I was manning the iPhone and Google Maps while Jeff piloted the Pius, uh I mean Prius (his, not mine). Oakshire is located in a small light industrial zone by the railroad tracks on Bethel Drive, NW of the downtown area.  You would never find it unless you were looking for it but it is exactly the type of location - cheap - that you would expect a packaging brewery to start.  Simple space in which to brew beer.  Over time the space has been gussied up and they now have a tasting room and a nice outdoor area with picnic tables and even a garden in the lot adjacent to the brewery.  Once there the space they have created for fans is really quite nice.

Matt and Jeff

But such a low profile means that they have to hustle for shelf space and tap handles and create their reputation in slow incremental steps.  What this means to the business is that Oakshire has to brew excellent and distinctive beers, come out more frequently with special beers and, well, be scrappy.  You have to create the loyal following by continuing to experiment and, at the same time you can do so by being smaller and more flexible. Ninkasi has to spend something like 60% of their time brewing only Total Domination IPA - they need to grow fast and so they need to flog their big three beers.  Oakshire, on the other hand can spend more time experimenting, brewing special beers only for kegs and brewing less typical NW beers like schwarzbier.  Of course the rewards are more modest as well.  

Coming soon - barrel aged beer!

Oakshire has grown slow and steadily, adding newly acquired, but generally used, equipment as they grow but doing so in a considered fashion.  It is still not clear to me how the craft beer industry will shake out but some of Oakshire's competitors are, it seems to me, the ever growing list of brewpubs that package their beer.  Places like Laurelwood and HUB are selling great beer but also have the advantage of an identifiable pub - a public presence that has its own rep.  Oakshire will have to continue to build on its loyal following as well as continue to catch the market's attention with new and interesting beer.  Economies of scale are huge in the industry and as more and more of these packaging breweries grow it will be interesting if a shake out is inevitable.  If so, I think Oakshire stands a good chance to be one of the survivors because in the end, great beer will prevail and Oakshire beer is great.

Yum

And though in some respects Ninkasi and Oakshire are competitors - fighting for shelf space, tap handles and sales - I think the existence of Ninksai is mostly good for Oakshire.  Because of Ninkasi people pay more attention to what is going on in Eugene and Oakshire can play off Ninkasi and be the scrappy little guy that people cheer for and want to succeed (they are the self-proclaimed 'Humble Brewers of Delicious Beers). I think many retailers and publicans know about Oakshire thanks to Ninkasi but I also think that as Ninkasi gets bigger there will be a counter trend that will support smaller and more local. 

In short Oakshire seems to me a perfect example of successfully turning a hobby into a business - where Ninkasi is about making a big business of craft beer.  The beauty is that there is space for both types of businesses and that, in fact, they both create space for each other.  In the end we are all better off for having both around (especially those in Eugene) and it is nice to see both achieving success.

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