You love the blog, so subscribe to the Beervana Podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud today!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Brand Dissection: Ninkasi Brewing

In the fifth part of this ongoing series, I consider Ninkasi Brewing's brand. If you want to read previous editions, follow this link.

Ninkasi has only been around since 2006, but it's already become one of the state's larger breweries. Co-founder Jamie Floyd was not new to either brewing or brewing in Eugene, having been with Steelhead for years before opening Ninkasi. (The other co-founder, Nikos Ridge, has a background in finance.) Floyd calls their approach the "Chico strategy" (after Sierra Nevada) to become the city beer of a smaller community and expand from there. Check. Now Ninkasi is expanding out, and actually sells more beer in Portland than Eugene. The brewery just installed a new 30 60-barrel system and has a new bottling line and lots and lots of capacity to grow.

The Name
Ninkasi is an obvious choice--so obvious I was amazed Floyd found it free of trademark. The name refers to the ancient Sumerian goddess of brewing, documented in a famous 4000-year-old hymn. But surely someone had already snatched it up? Someone had--Fritz Maytag, whose Anchor Brewery had used it for their Sumerian Beer Project. But, over the course of 15 years, the mark expired, and Floyd and Ridge were the first ones to discover its availability. It's a classic name, like Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing. Interestingly, Floyd says it has the dual virtue of still being slightly obscure ("a lot of people think it's Japanese")--familiarity to beer geeks, intrigue to those outside the loop.

Elements of the Brand
Back when I first started writing about beer, BridgePort had just changed their line-up from the old, iconic nature labels to one of consistent brand identity. A PR woman told me at the time that they wanted to get away from beer branding to brand branding. The idea was that people would just order a "BridgePort," ignoring the style of beer. It alerted me to just how hard that is. Breweries are known for certain beers--rarely does the brand permeate the full line-up. With Ninkasi, that's not true.

Everyone knows what Ninkasi beer is: hoppy. There are variations on a theme, but most of the core lineup features pale beers of vibrant hoppiness. For this, Ninkasi has earned the enmity of some beer geeks (a minority), but from a branding point of view, it's impressive and rare. You can just order a Ninkasi and have a good idea of what you'll get. (When I visited the brewery last week, they had a Berliner Weisse on draft at the tap room, and Floyd agreed with a laugh when I said I bet his customers were shocked when they tasted it.) This may not be the direction every brewery wants to go, but for Ninkasi it works: they're delighted to be known as the hophead's beer.

Interestingly, Floyd and Ridge decided not to use goddess iconography. There's no visual reference to the goddess, just the name. Instead, the logo is a starburst pattern surrounding the Ninkasi "N."
"The logo itself is based on an Egyptian revival mirror that used to hang in my house. All the original branding was done by me and my ex-wife [Brianna Jackson]. She's a graphic artist by profession and so we created a lot of that stuff together. We wanted something that was modern but timeless and had a Middle Eastern feel to it. It said a lot without really having to say a lot."
The rays of the logo are echoed in some of the labels as well--Radiant and Maiden the Shade. Although Floyd didn't mention it, this seems like a nod--perhaps unconscious--to the crunchy vibe of Eugene. There's a strong streak of tie-dye running through the city, and Ninkasi channels it in subtle ways.

Since Ninkasi doesn't do images, the brand relies on colors. Each label has a strong, clear field--almost like a flag--which is pretty much the only thing that distinguishes one beer from another. This intentionally stark scheme emerged as a way for customers to distinguish beers by looking at the tap handle, and Floyd likes the way it makes Ninkasi stand out on grocery shelves, too: "But when you walk up to look at a row of bottles, you see a blur of things, they don’t come out. In some cases our beers are next to each other, and in some cases they are separated by style--so it's easy to identify them." (I can speak to how easy they are to spot, too; I'm colorblind, and a lot of colors are muddy and indistinct--Ninkasi's have pure, saturated colors.)

Two of the beers are homages to heavy metal bands--which I've already written about (Maiden the Shade and Sleigh'r). I have wondered what this says about the brewery's tastes, and Floyd confessed that there were lots of resident metalheads there. But even these are part of the brand--Ninkasi has a side interest in promoting local bands and has even toyed with the idea of producing music. (Apparently they're big supporters of music in Boise, Idaho--which based on my youth there, could use it.)

Interestingly, the first beer Floyd ever brewed (at Steelhead) was called Starchild for the messiah figure in Parliament Funkadelic's mythology. So the link to music goes way back. Let me be the first to request that Dr. Hoppenstein be the next homage--funk's far cooler than metal. (Take it up in comments.)

Brand Success
Ninkasi's brand is consistent and distinctive, two clear markers of success. You don't mistake a Ninkasi label on a grocery shelf. But brands also reflect a company's identity, and the Ninkasi brand does a good job here, too. Ask ten beer fans what they think of Ninkasi, and I doubt you'll get a neutral opinion from more than one. The brewery knows what it's doing, and it doesn't wander in the weeds searching for direction. The brand is similarly confident and direct. I don't doubt that there are some who don't like it, but everyone recognizes it. In an increasingly crowded field, that's maybe the most important sign of success.


  1. I have a couple thoughts on this statement..

    "Everyone knows what Ninkasi beer is: hoppy. There are variations on a theme, but most of the core lineup features pale beers of vibrant hoppiness. For this, Ninkasi has earned the enmity of some beer geeks (a minority), but from a branding point of view, it's impressive and rare. "

    I know what you're saying about Ninkasi Branding the hoppiness, but "RARE?" Are you kidding? It's NW! The NW has branded the entire region as HOPPY. When people from out of state talk about the NW, the first they think is HOPPY BEERS, period.

    With the exception of Widmer's hefe Weizen which is more within the Budmilloors market, the NW trademark is hoppy beers. I'm not going to list all the breweries that sell or brew a vast number of hoppy beers... The list would be long compared to those who are brewing outside the Hoppy realm.

    Curious what your thoughts are this kind of REGIONAL BRANDING? Is it OK to be type-casted as a region for Hoppy beers or should we shoot for something more?

  2. dr wort: sure, the NW is branded as hoppy, but a specific brewery? Deschutes? HUB? Rogue? Upright? Bridgeport? Laurelwood? No other brewery (that I can think of) is nearly as hop-centric as Ninkasi. Sure, just about every other brewery in town (or in Oregon, for that matter), has any number hoppy beers, but Ninkasi does it pretty much completely across the board.

  3. @Shawn

    I agree with Ninkasi Hoppy branding. That wasn't my question. I was asking Jeff what he thought of the whole NW being branded for hoppy beers.

    Ninkasi having all hoppy beers and branding that way is fine, but if the NW has branded itself as Hop Haven does Ninkasi become just another Hoppy NW brewery?

    I remember when many people thought Sierra Nevada made nothing but Hoppy Beers too. Not true then, nor now, but as Jeff is talking about branding.... It's how you can pigeon hole yourself into a corner by the way you brand yourself.

    Whether it be Deschutes, Laurelwood, Rogue or like... Although you and I know that all their beers are NOT HOPPED to the hilt... All these breweries are known for their large selection of Hoppy beers. I'm looking from the outside, looking into the NW. ;-}

  4. It's not possible for every brewery to brand "hoppy" as their identity, but it may be possible for one or two. Ninkasi is fortunate to enter the market so late--Jamie knows exactly which beers sell. No casting about. So they can effectively capture that identity.

    Every brewery has an identity, but some didn't pick them. Widmer didn't set out to be the American Hef house. Descutes probably wasn't aiming at porters.

    But breweries that came along later could. Ninkasi's one example, but look at Upright--they've got a brand going on based on their beers.

    This is pretty normal. Pick any brewery over 50 years old, and it likely is known basically for a single style.

  5. Ninkasi is known for the donations to local causes, esp. local environmental causes. As a hop enthusiast, a Eugenian, and an environmentalist, this is an important aspect in my decision to choose Ninkasi.

    - Leif

  6. @Jeff

    You still haven't answered my question. ;-}

  7. Am I seriously the first person to notice you mispelled Ninkasi in the title?! "Nikasi". Oh how far the #1 beer blog has fallen...

  8. @SA

    I noticed.... but wasn't going to say anything..

  9. Interestingly, we recently actually installed a 60 barrel system.

  10. I know Zappa beers have been done before (Lagunitas, Upright), but I think Ninkasi should make a hoppy Zappa beer...

    'Amarillo Brillo

    or Titties & Beer...
    or Didja Get Any Onja?

    or... Enema Bandit Brown Ale... :)


  11. Anonymous NiNkasian: sorry about the 30 barrel thing. And I was JUST there, looking into that swimming pool you call a mash tun.

    Doc, are you asking about the NW being branded for hops? I don't think a region can be branded. What I think is that if a region is very lucky, residents develop a hankering for certain kinds of beer, and beer culture emerges naturally. So it's "flat and warm" in London and wild in Brussels and very, very proper and clean in Berlin.

    In Oregon, it's hoppy. I have spoken to literally dozens of brewers whose best-selling beer is IPA who wish they could turn folks onto other stuff. Just last week, when I was at Block 15, Nick said his best-seller is an IPA, and this is a brewery with 14 taps and some pretty interesting beers. Folks like Alex Ganum, bless his soul, refuse to put out an IPA, but he does it knowing that 50% of the people will just walk by his beer.

    You can say this is bad and rail against it, but it is the sign of a healthy beer region. And since 4,323 beers are brewed here, you should be able to manage.

  12. I heard a rumor that Ninkasi is coming out with 6-packs in January.

  13. I know they're hoping to get their 12-oz bottle line up in 2011. That'd be nice...