When Nikos Ridge and and Jamie Floyd began brewing in June of 2006 they knew they wanted to do things differently, both in their community and in the industry. Brewing world-class beer while fostering a rich community was their mission. Eight years later the duo is living that mission with numerous expansions and a constantly evolving team of like-minded individuals. I had the chance to sit down with Jamie and talk all things Ninkasi including the future of the company and the brewery’s recent inclusion in Sierra Nevada’s massive Beer Camp project.
You’ve spent the past nearly eight years building Ninkasi through three expansions. That’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Is it any easier today than it was when you started out?
I think in some respects it’s easier in that we’ve learned to cope with a constantly changing reality, but with this most recent expansion, we actually built new buildings, so there’s different work that goes into a project starting from scratch than there is adapting a previously built property into new and functioning things. There’s kind of a shift in all that, and the scope of this one is a lot bigger, so we have to use a bigger group of people as a team to do that. It requires a lot of communication, but I think in some ways it’s kind of the same as it’s always been. Since we started, we’ve always been in some form of expansion.
When you met Nikos (CEO and Co-founder of Ninkasi), what beer were you serving that led to the decision to start the brewery?
I worked at Steelhead as the head brewer for 11 years, 10 of which I was in the brewery, and had already planned on starting a brewery. It was more about when the right time was and meeting the right people. We led with Total Domination IPA. I was known for making IPAs and stouts and old ales and such, and certainly back then—it seems kind of different now or hard to imagine—but eight years ago, especially in Oregon, brewpubs were all making IPAs, but there wasn’t a lot of access to IPAs in the marketplace. So it was a different opportunity for us to fill a niche that really hadn’t been covered yet. And that played a part in making decisions to have Total Domination be the first beer we made.
Out of the whole Ninkasi lineup, do you have a particular favorite?
You know, I get asked that question a lot and I really don’t because I always studied world beer styles and have been a fan of everything. Our batch number 8 of Ninaksi was a Helles and batch 9 was a Dunkel, and I certainly made a lot of lagers leading up to the time at which we opened. Because of our rapid growth, we had to change that and not be able to brew lagers quite as frequently. A big part of what we were trying to do to create the Prismatic lager series is to be able to offer up year-round lagers.
Are there any favorites on the market that you’re currently drinking?
I actually do spend a lot of time drinking everybody else’s beer and sharing in the joy of all of that. It’s a big part of who we are as a company to make sure that we encourage that with all our staff. When I’m out and about, I’m actually sampling all beers all the time.
There’s a lot going on in the West Coast beer community right now. Are you seeing any styles of beer that are gaining popularity, and is there a particular beer you’re interested in brewing at the moment?
We kind of have our own pace, and we try not to get too bogged down in all the trends. There’s definitely been a move for the India session ale, an IPA at low alcohol strength, we haven’t been a big pusher of the Belgian IPA style or really even the Cascadia dark ale. We are doing sort of a session, dark wheat beer for the Sasquatch Legacy Project in which we have all the scholarship recipients for the Glenn Hay Falconer foundation come to the brewery and make a beer. They wanted to use some of the dark crystal wheat and a bunch of Falconers Flight hops and make sort of an ISA that way. I think the IPA category has opened up into all these new things where there’s white IPAs and black IPAs and IPAs that utilize sugar in the kettle and all that. But it’s always interesting to see how things open up and change.
You’ve collaborated with breweries like 21st Amendment, Speakeasy, and now Sierra Nevada. How does the process get started, and are the collaboration beers more for marketing or a way to just connect with other brewers?
We’ve done a number of collaborations; it’s just that a bunch of them haven’t been followed. For me, collaborations start with friendships principally. It definitely has to be someone I do know like 21st Amendment. Nico Freccia (Co-Founder of 21st Amendment Brewing) and I have known each other for a very, very long time, and so it’s the serious bro-down situation, and also the crew at Speakeasy I’ve know for a very long time as well. We did that one with Sean Paxton as well, and the Homebrew Chef is a good friend of ours and did some stuff for SF Beer Week. If there’s a brewery I want to collaborate with, or they want to collaborate together, that’s something I like to do during Beer Week or before Beer Week.
Up in Vancouver with Parallel 49, we did that collaboration leading up to the Vancouver Craft Beer Week last year. This year, four of us—it will be gigantic—are going to make a beer up at Central City that we’re going to put in barrels for next year’s beer week. And every year for the next four years, we’ll travel around to one of our breweries to make a beer either during or leading up to the event.
Tell me a little more about the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp project. Did Sierra contact you to get the ball rolling, and have you worked with Ken Grossman and the team before?
Through the years, Sierra Nevada has been one of my biggest role models in terms of brewing quality but also just a whole lot of different things. Ken Grossman is definitely a hero of mine. Through the years I really tried to make a point to acknowledge the fact that they’ve been a really crucial part of looking at how to run a business and sustainability and a lot of different things. It’s funny, I’m on the technical committee for the brewers association that Ken’s a part of and used to be the chair of. We had a meeting earlier that day talking about subcommittees for the group. When he asked if I had time to chat later on, I figured it was in relation to that. When Brian (Grossman) and Ken and Joe Whitney called and started to say what was going on, I was kind of beside myself. To have Ken Grossman say you’re doing an excellent job is a pretty amazing moment in your career for sure. For us to be selected as a part of all this is a wonderful experience.
Are you brewing in-house and shipping bottles to Sierra Nevada, or will they brew and bottle the beer in Chico, California.
Basically we put together a recipe that was based on a beer I used to make over a dozen years ago and shipped it off to Sierra Nevada. Originally Nikos and I drove down to be a part of the original gathering of all the brewers. Ten of the 12 were there, and we had a roundtable and talked about the beers we were going to do. That was just a wonderful process. A room full of amazing, in some cases, friends and other cases new friends. There are some incredible breweries, and that was just a great period of time when we realized we were really a part of this and truly one of the most incredible projects I’ve ever heard of for sure. When I called Nikos when I got off the phone [with Ken and team] I said: “This is the first thing I’ve heard of where I’m glad we didn’t think of it.” There’s always those things where people beat you to something and you’re like “good on them.” This is definitely one of those times when I said I’m glad I don’t have to execute what they’re about to do.
Brewers Paul Cook, Mark Henion, and I went down to do a test batch on the beer camp system, which was sampled out at the craft brews conference at their announcement event. I actually just got off the phone with them, and they did the first of the production series a few days ago and it has all been doing really well. It’s been a really exciting process so far.
The outreach program Beer Is Love has grown with the expansions and I hear you now have two full-time employees dedicated to it alone. What was your favorite project from the past year that you worked on?
There’s so much fun stuff. One of my favorites was Habitat for Humanity. Last year we took existing properties and made them nicer. I was a part of a group that got to go out and repaint and reside a mobile home in west Eugene, Oregon. This woman who lived out there for 20 years and raised children as a single mother was in need, and we just wanted the place to look nicer. Over the course of a couple of days, we were able to go in and make it beautiful. That was just really fun because it was definitely hands-on and not just supporting it from the outside.
Back to the brewing process. You now have the Prismatic series, and your R&D (Rare & Delicious) line. How many R&D beers do you plan to brew in 2014, and are there plans to bottle them like the Prismatic series or keep it strictly on tap in Eugene?
The R&D beers go outside of Eugene for sure in limited batches. There are certain areas where we fist enter that we don’t necessarily send all the R&D beers to people who haven’t even had our regular beers yet. A lot of our stuff functions that way. Our single-hop program, they all start as R&D beers where we make smaller batches—draft only—and then we select from those beers which ones we want to bottle. Any beer we make for commercial production will start out as an R&D beer. Even Dawn of the Red started out as an IRA, so typically our R&D beers don’t have personality names and we need to make small adjustments. We made a Belgian Tripel last year that we’ll definitely brew again at some point, and then of course we just keep doing new and different beers all the time as well. So with all the expansion stuff, it has slowed down a little bit with each brewer, but all the brewers here get a chance to make their own recipes when it works out for them to. I create some recipes, and Paul and Mark make some recipes, so there’s definitely a lot of creativity going on.
Where do you see Ninkasi in the next five years? Are there any plans to expand into other regions like the Midwest?
Our goal after this expansion is to reach 160,000 barrels in as few states as possible. We’re in Reno and Las Vegas as of this month. Sometime not too far off, we could probably add Hawaii or something like that. We plan on being a Western Super-Regional brewery. Nikos spent a lot of time in New York in college. For a very special deal, we’re shipping a few pallets of beer out to New York City for some events this summer, not to have full distribution out there. We’ve been able to sort of make that arrangement. We don’t have any plans to put a brewery on the East Coast or Midwest, and we’ll always have fun and never try to be hypocrites and say we’ll never do anything, but we’re not trying to spread our beer just as far as we can all over the place. We’re committed to being just as deep as we are in the community as much as we can.
For more information on Ninkasi Brewing, visit ninkasibrewing.com. You can find Ninkasi Brewing in most West Coast retailers (Locator), and for those outside the market, Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp project will give you the unique opportunity to drink Ninkasi beer in your home state.