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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Twenty Five Years of Full Sailing

Although craft brewing dates back to the 1970s, the years before 1985 saw relatively few new arrivals.  In 1985, the country had just 105 breweries total (five in Oregon)--a few more than it had in 1980.  In 1990, though, it jumped to 286.  It was during that period that Full Sail came into being--officially, a quarter century ago today.  It followed the defunct Cartright, McMenamins, BridgePort, Widmer, the McMenamins, and Portland Brewing (and of course, Henry Weinhard).  I tend to recall that being a time of amazing growth in the industry, but even by the end of the decade, only Oregon Trail (also 25 this year), Deschutes, Rogue, and Wild River would be in existence.  Full Sail, the first Oregon micro outside Portland, was one of the key founders of what would become Beervana.

We'll trot through the highlights in a moment, but since I'm an elderly gentleman with actual memory of these times (I actually started sneaking into McMenamins the same year Full Sail was founded), I thought I'd pull up the wayback machine.  It is difficult in a time when people know specific hop varietals to imagine a time when people didn't know the difference between lagers and ales.  That time was 1987.  Breweries had the unenviable task of selling people a product they were unfamiliar with.  Even the idea of "ale" required a moment of song and dance.

In my little world, Full Sail was the first brewery to embrace the hop.  It is difficult to imagine it now, but Amber seemed like rocket fuel.  One of the theories about craft beer was that it couldn't be too aggressive or too weird.  Ambers had the virtue of a sweetish caramel backbone to soothe the fears of the uninitiated, and they were a big deal.  Full Sail's, though, was not a sweet bomb--it had quite vivid hopping.  That alone illustrates how different things were.  I recall sitting in the back yard of a friend drinking Full Sails, one after another, marveling at how good our fortune was.  A little later on, the brewery started making a beer called Equinox ESB, which was almost iridescent green in its hoppiness.  (In my early days as a beer writer, I called it Oregon's best hoppy ale.)

Here's another odd fact: in 1987, none of the Oregon breweries were bottling their beer.  Full Sail had the distinction of being the first--not with Amber, but a beer called Golden Ale.  (Breweriana geeks take note.)  Full Sail took occupancy of the old Diamond Fruit cannery (abandoned 15 years earlier) and installed their brewery, including a wicked little bottling line.  That little speedster did six bottles a minute--but it was the second fastest line in the state. The brewery was a rather optimistic 15-barrel set-up, though, and this positioned the brewery to grow.

After Golden Ale came Imperial Porter and Wassail (interestingly, Jubelale was one of Deschutes' first beers, too--Oregonians are drawn to winter beers).  Amber, the brewery's fourth beer, didn't come until 1989, but it debuted with a splash.  Not only was it an instant hit in Oregon, it won the gold in that year's GABF.  In that era from the mid-80s to the mid-90s--call it BIPA, before IPA)--two styles of beer dominated sales, hefeweizen and amber.

(The story of American amber ale is worthy of its own post, but for now, let this thumbnail suffice.  In a geography marked out by colors--golden, pale, brown, black--amber was an obvious invention.  The beer itself is really just a pale ale, but in the US, the two styles forked.  Pales are lighter bodied and hoppier, ambers thicker and sweeter.  Pales highlight hops, ambers find a balance point closer to the malt, but always with characteristic American hopping.  You could say American amber is really just a strong bitter, but because of its density and those hops, the two styles don't taste all that much alike.)

James Emmerson and Irene Firmat (courtesy Full Sail)
In the 90s, Full Sail's fortunes swung wildly.  It was one of the mid-sized breweries that dropped a lot of money into a huge expansion, building a 210-barrel brewhouse in 1995.  That was at the moment the market was oversaturated with beer, lots of it made badly by opportunists trying to cash in on "microbrew," and Full Sail stumbled.  In the late 1990s, Full Sail survived a takeover bid by Vijay Mallya, the Indian beer magnate, and became employee-owned.  Those were grim times not just for Full Sail, but everyone in craft brewing.  Watching Mallya circle the company like a vulture for months seemed like a metaphor for the industry. Of course, Full Sail persevered and managed to restructure as an employee-owned company.  That, too, seemed metaphoric, and soon Full Sail and the industry would be humming again.

Other highlights:
  • In 1998, following a visit by Macallan's master distiller, Full Sail began their barrel-aging program.  For those of foggy memory, that was quite early.
  • In 1999, Full Sail brewed their first fresh hop ale (also very early).
  • In 2005, the brewery released Session Lager, a pretty radical move for a craft brewery--but a prescient anticipation of where the market was headed.  They added Session Black in 2009.
  • In 2006, Full Sail continued its lager experimentation with the LTD series.  (For old timers like me who remember the brewery's early days, the lager development was really unexpected.)
  • Began the Brewer's Share program in 2008, again anticipating the interest in seasonals and offbeat beers.
  • Installed a mash filter in 2010.  This may be insider baseball to some, but for brewing nerds, it's pretty amazing.  Read about it here.

The mash filter.
Breweries are, in the aggregate, very good corporate citizens.  Full Sail has always been a leader in that sphere.  They're one of the greenest breweries around and have won several awards for their sustainability.  Thanks in part to the mash filter, they now only use 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of beer they make, well below the industry standard of about 7 to 1.  They're not only employee-owned, but also regularly cited as one of the best places to work.  It is part of the nature of craft breweries to be generous and collegial with one another, but Full Sail goes even one step beyond that.  When head brewer Matt Swihart decided to open Double Mountain literally a stone's throw from Full Sail, he was encouraged and supported by his erstwhile employer.  I think it's no coincidence that Hood River (pop: 7200) has eight breweries in or nearby the town.  Another alum, Jason Kahler, recently opened Solera in Parkdale just down the road.

I've been rattling on for quite awhile here, so I'll stop.  Feel free to add your own memories, additions, and thoughts in the comments.  And if you're near the Horse Brass or in Hood River tonight, consider joining one of the celebrations.  They'll be kicking things off at 5pm in the Tasting Room in Hood River, and have a big line-up of beers, including the new anniversary doppelbock, at the Brass starting at 6pm.

John Harris joined Full Sail in '92 and left this year.


  1. @Jeff -- This line doesn't seem right: "It followed the defunct McMenamins, BridgePort, Widmer, the McMenamins, and Portland Brewing (and of course, Henry Weinhard)." McMenamins defunct?

  2. Somehow I lost the word "Cartright." thanks!

  3. "Full Sail, the first Oregon micro outside Oregon"

    I assume you mean outside Portland.

  4. I didn't arrive here until early 1989, but I recollect your points about Full Sail being the first to bottle and the Amber being quite hoppy for its day. People today have no clue what Full Sail and the other early guys were up against...essentially begging people to try their carefully crafted but unfamiliar product. This is what the early festivals, including the OBF, were all about. It seems unfathomable today, as beer fans gladly try almost anything that lands in front of them. We've come a relatively long way.

  5. Great writeup. Fills in some gaps for this relatively (9 years) new arrival.

  6. Nice write up Jeff. It does remind me how far we've come in the NW. Full Sail Amber may be dismissed by modern beer geeks, but it's worth remembering why it's a classic among NW beers.

    I just hope Mike comments so I can find out where your scholarship and research is lacking in this otherwise factual post. Doubtless there are sources in English that you willfully ignored which disprove much of what you stated. I just hope he can save the day in time before the rest of us are taken in by your yarns and flights of beer fancy...

  7. John Harris shoutout: he received the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing around 2001.
    -Craig H.

  8. This synchronicity thing is getting scary. I asked that this post today but wrote it last week knowing I'd be out of town.

    As for what we were each doing in '87, I always forget how much more elderly you are. And how much more gentlemanly.

  9. You were sixteen in '87? You ain't no spring chicken, either. By my calculation, that puts you north of forty. Two old men, two old men!

  10. I wrote that a bit confusingly, but the math is still accurate. The EP came out in '87. I saw them in concert for the first time in '89. My friend's mom drove b/c I wasn't 16 (I was 15). That gives me 3 years til I hit "north of" 40 (and 2 until I run into that brick wall). But my body still insists I'm an old man.