Portrait of a Pacific NW Brewery with Full Sail's Irene Firmat

Full Sail's Irene Firmat and Jamie Emmerson
Monday's news that Henry Weinhard's beers would no longer be produced in Oregon as parent company MillerCoors is not renewing its brewing contract with Full Sail Brewing got me talking to co-Founder and CEO Irene Firmat, and her story alone warrants an entirely separate article.

Full Sail Brewing is one of Oregon's biggest and best craft brewers, one of our proudest achievements, really, because it's a company like few others. In addition to being employee-owned, the brewery has also helped to pioneer Barrel-Aged beers with its Black Gold and Top Sail series and fresh hop beers with the Lupulin series. The company operates 2 brewpubs and a test brewery that let world famous brewer John Harris play with his own devices until his recent departure. Lastly, Full Sail has reaped profits from contract brewing Henry Weinhard's beers and its own popular brands that allowed it to invest into energy, time, and cost saving sustainable features like the incredible Mash Filtration System that processes water more efficiently and creates less waste.

However, over the last 2 years I feel like I have seen and heard less from Full Sail than ever before. One blow was news earlier this year that Brewmaster John Harris was leaving the company after 10 years to start his own brewery. Before that Full Sail had axed most of the Brewmasters series of beers that often put out the company's most interesting brews. Recently I was disappointed to learn Full Sail would not be brewing any of the Lupulin series of fresh hop beers this year. Now top that all off with the news that MillerCoors is pulling the plug on contracting out to Full Sail and it makes me wonder what is up. Happily, Irene's Firmat is happy to talk about these things and is one of the easiest top 25 brewery CEO's to get a hold of.

Talking to Full Sail's Irene Firmat both last week over the phone and in person on Monday's Hop Bus to Sodbuster Farms, I can easily be swayed into rediscovering a love for Full Sail's company. Irene's super friendly demeanor and intelligent, poignant, and honest discussion of the craft beer business is one of a kind.

"We have always been really conservative about how we run the company and we believe growth should come organically. Considering how long we have been around the number of markets we are in is not that large. For us it's really about not chasing business, we don't build a business plan that says we have to grow 30% to pay our bills."

When I first heard that FS was to lose the Henry Weinhard's contract, I feared for the business. After all, Full Sail produces about as much Henry's beer as its own, but perhaps the impact seems larger on paper.

"it's really gone down over the course of the contract as they moved onto other things. So it's actually a really smooth transition for us, our own barrels have been growing as theirs have been declining. So with the contracts we have been able to invest in the brewery that makes a lot of sense for us....it is something we new and planned on, it's not a surprise and it's certainly not jarring for us."

Oregon is not a contract brewing state for some reason, and I think that is a good thing. Many of our brewing neighbors in California and Washington contract out their beers to larger production breweries for the benefit of affordability and perhaps wider distribution. Some great examples of this are Drakes Brewery in Berkeley, CA, which is now brewing Mikkeller beers from Denmark amongst others. Bison Brewery, also in Berkeley, lost its brewery years ago and now contracts out its brews. The new startup ChurchKey Brewing, which is supposedly located in Portland, instead has all of its beer brewed at Dick's in Washington. This is not to mention the gypsy brewers who travel from brewer to brewer doing batches here and there. Full Sail Brewing is the first and best example I can think of an Oregon brewer making a big business contract brewing. Contract brewing is a double edged sword, it has helped Full Sail significantly by raising money for the company to build its own infrastructure, but the loss of a brand can hurt big time.

"we never were really looking for a contract, we turned down every one we have been offered over the years. Miller is the only one we really looked at just because it worked well for us. We get to do fun things right now, we are going to be 25 years in September and we decided to do a beer that has a whole lot of aging time and we have the luxury to do that. We are really into lagers right now and lagers need more time, this way we can give all our beers that luxury have time and still have viable production schedules and a steady slate."

It had never really occurred to me until Irene mentioned it, but Full Sail must be Oregon's largest brewer of lager beers.

"we are really exploring all these lagers for our seasonal program. Which I think is this really interesting whole set of beers that don't get a lot of time or attention. You know, 95% of the beers drank in the world are lagers and there is this whole history and heritage about them. We personally like exploring them...probably half the beers we make are lagers right now. For our 25th birthday beer we are doing a Pale Doppelbock, that's a beer that takes lots of time and we are pretty excited with how it came out."

The Session series now comprises 2 popular year rounds, regular Session red and Session Black, as well as the seasonal Session Fest that debuted last year. Strangely these unique bottles barely carry the Full Sail logo and are marketed almost as completely their own brand. In addition to the Session lineup, there is also the ever-growing LTD series of lagers, which has its 6th iteration, a dark/black lager, coming out soon that I got to sample early on Monday. Full Sail's unique approach to Session also takes a stand for bottles by being packed exclusively in stubbies without any draft.

"we were the first Oregon brewery to bottle successfully, it really was our business plan. Everyone else was so focused on draft and we thought there was such an opportunity in bottles. I think it's a challenge right now on premise with how you identify your brand and how people remember it with so much constant change its hard for the bartenders and staff to know what's on draft and to know about it."

 In fact, FS seems to be moving away from draft beers in general for branding reasons:

"I think the whole concept of draft is very complicated. It's very difficult to get a lot of recognition for whats on draft. With session we get the opportunity to be in a bar with a really iconic bottle that people remember what it is, and hopefully that translates when they are going to a party and they think about a beer that's a connection that they make. Putting it on draft where it's another anonymous beer poured in a pint it doesn't really add value to it right now. That bottle in a bucket of ice, that's as appealing as you can get."

For many it might seem that Full Sail is a brewery out of touch. Looking at the lineup, it's a host of classic English and German beer interpretations and doesn't follow up on current craft beer trends. Irene Firmat, however, does not believe in following the trends; she is a master at playing the long game.

"it's important for us to be organic and not one-offs. We have never been into the one-off thing. Either making a beer that's one off or just being in the market for a short period of time or relationship with a retail account or a short period of time. We think its much more important to look at it for the long term. We have never chased the fads. That's who we have always been and we have been fortunate to run this company in a way that always had that independence, not having to do things for financial numbers or to please an investment group."

Full Sail's brewing crew in Hood River
From my perspective, the craft beer industry is in a serious state of fluctuation with the constant buying and selling of brands and distributors. I have speculated before that bottled beer is going to become much more competitive in the supermarket. One-off brews, experimental, extreme, and seasonal beers are what is hot right now and getting all the attention. While the craft beer business is booming, overall beer sales are still down. Most people think the only ones hurting will be the macros, but I wanted to hear Irene Firmat's thoughts on the subject:

"It's important to have a sense of perspective on beer. It is very much what you're saying and those numbers aren't true for just the last couple of years, they have been true now for years.  
All the increase of craft beer from day one has not been equal to the decline of overall beer buying, and I think that's really important for people to remember."

The tidbits of wisdom Irene drops casually extend to her thoughts on fresh hop beer and how craft brewers give up ground to vintners:

"I think really getting people to connect with the romance of the agriculture. We give that up too readily to the wineries as brewers and I think that's a terrible mistake" 

Her thoughts on the dedication to the product:

"For us as craft brewers, we are asking people to make a big leap here. They are spending more money to buy our beers than other beers, so part of that is we want to give them a sense of security that these beers are going to be worth it"

And even her honest and frank feelings towards the recent controversy surrounding a lawsuit with Grey Sail Brewing over similarities in their trademark logos:

"Our whole feeling is that we aren't people who like to go down a legal path. We have never sued anybody in 25 years and this was a really painful process getting sued after one conversation on the phone. We are close to a solution that works for both of us which is all we wanted in the first place. I think it is important for everybody to understand there are over 2,000 breweries right now and everybody has sooo many SKU's, but a trademark is as much a brewer's property as their recipes or their fermenters. We have always been very respectful of other people, you know sometimes we have stepped into something and gotten a phone call and worked it out and we have done the reverse. It really matters for people to be aware of trademarks, they are there for a reason and creating consumer confusion is not good for anyone...we are not a commodity, we are all unique and all have stories behind our brands and they are important."

Regardless of how well you like Full Sail Brewing's beers, whether you're chasing a trend or prefer the classics, you have to respect what the brewery has done. New brewers may be wise to take note and lend an ear when Irene Firmat speaks. She has 25 years in the business, and that requires more than simply riding the craft beer wave.

Full Sail celebrates its 25th Anniversary on September 27th at the world famous Horse Brass Pub.


  1. I wonder if Full Sail would be able to produce more beer for the local beer drinker if they weren't trying to get their beer into Midwest and East Coast markets.

    1. What do you mean more beer for the local drinker. From what I have seen Full Sail has never had an out of stock issue like some of the brewery's from California and Colorado. These it looks like they take care of Oregon first then the rest of the US. So make a comment like this make no sense.

    2. yeah I am confused, Irene specifically states they are not trying to push or expand distribution. Did you just not read the article or are you disputing her statement?

  2. Great article Ezra, and it brings good perspective to the craft brewing industry in general. Irene's really one of the sharpest people in the industry.


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