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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Hopworks Retains Balanced Vision at 10

I first met Christian Ettinger about 15 years ago. He was head brewer at the original Laurelwood at the time. I stopped in to get a corny keg filled and we chatted informally. Several years later, he left to found Hopworks, which opened in 2008. I've interviewed him several times since. It's always an education.

On the occasion of Hopworks' 10th anniversary, I talked to Ettinger about where they've been and where they're headed. He's proud of the business they've built and the sustainable model they've followed since day one. He looks forward to the next 10 years.

"We folded the European balance of food and family and beer together at Hopworks and it's been a success. We have three pubs with another one coming on at the airport. I'm happy with where we are and looking forward to what's coming."

Ettinger can't decide which of the three pubs is his favorite, whether the original in Southeast Portland, the Bike Bar on North Williams or the Vancouver location. It figures.

"I think they balance and reinforce each other," he says. "The pubs are our best sampling point. People have a good experience there and it makes them more likely to pull our beer off a store shelf. The taprooms are a bit of a chore because they have food. I think food is important, but it isn’t completely necessary. It’s just what I believe in."

They're holding a few events to celebrate a decade in business, if you're wondering. The first of those, a retrospective event for family and friends, happened on Earth Day. Coming up in August, they'll host a Salmon-Safe IPA fest on the 25th, followed by a Dark Beer Festival in November.

"The IPA fest is going to be fun," Ettinger said. "We invited 20 breweries to imagine what IPA will look like in 10 years. Hazies kind of came out of nowhere. Now there's Brut IPA. That's today. It's going to be interesting to see what kind of vision these folks have for the future."

Of course, Hopworks has its own collection of standards and seasonals, including the recently released Totally Chill Hazy IPA (can shown above). The beer is available around town and fits in perfectly with the raging haze craze, like it or not.

The viability of the original Hopworks' concept was anything but assured. The flagship pub is located in an area many did not think ideal. There were a lot of rundown and seedy businesses nearby. It was a gamble purchasing the building and making a sizable investment in renovating it.

"Powell Blvd was probably not the most obvious place for a brewpub," Ettinger admits. "Strip clubs, check cashing businesses and convenience stores. But 45,000 cars cruise by here every day. And Eastbound traffic makes a right-hand turn into our parking lot. It's worked out nicely."

A big reason Hopworks wound up on Powell is that Ettinger was determined to purchase a building for his brewery and pub. He wanted plenty of space to grow into and didn't want to get stuck with a lease that could be pulled or increased. The place on Powell looked good to him.

"Maintaining our independence was another important factor," he said. "We had some goals with respect to sustainability and social responsibility that weren't necessarily conducive to quick profits. I figured the key to achieving those goals was independence."

Protecting that independence meant tapping into friends and family for financing early on. There was never any outside control connected to that. After a few years, early investors were paid back and Ettinger has moved on to traditional financing in recent times.

"One of the reasons our growth curve has been fairly gradual is we didn't get caught up in taking on substantial debt to expand. Sure we could have grown faster. But 30 percent growth, which you see a lot, is scary. I'm more comfortable with 10-15 percent, which is about where we are."

They intend to make some investments that will help drive future growth. In the pub, they're expanding the number of booths to make people more comfortable. They'll also introduce more vegetarian menu options. The brewery will get more efficient, not bigger.

"We'll bring in a system that extracts fermentables from any grain," Ettinger said. "It's not cheap, but it will allow us to produce wort in substantially less time, with less energy and water consumption. Plus, we get 20 percent more out of the malts we use. It will be a great upgrade."

Many will recall that Hopworks was an early adopter of aluminum cans. That may be seen as part of an innovative mindset, but Ettinger doesn't see it quite that way.

"Sure, we adopted cans early," he says. "We saw cans emerging as the most popular beverage container in the world. It may have been somewhat innovative in craft beer, which wasn't putting a lot of beer in cans when we started. Ultimately, it’s the beer that matters, not the packaging, though I do think the environmental footprint of cans is somewhat less than bottles."

The ultra-competitive market has Ettinger contemplating reasonable goals for beer production volumes. Does Hopworks need to substantially increase annual barrelage to stay relevant or is a moderate approach more realistic and ideal?

"We could simply choose to produce 14K of the best and most efficient barrels possible," Ettinger said. "That's about where we are now. I mean, 30K barrels is a neat target, but I'm not sure we need to get there anytime soon. Our focus on sustainability and social responsibility is more important."

That focus has sharpened as a result of becoming a B Corporation three years ago. Early on, the approach to sustainability and social responsibility was fairly basic. They had a green building, focused on organic sourcing and featured a variety of environmental efficiencies.

"When we became a B Corp, we found we weren't doing some things," Ettinger said. "We've had to tighten things up in some areas. We had to look more seriously at our governance and the work/life balance of employees. In some ways, things are simpler now."

As with any business, there have been twists and turns. Hopworks started out quite small and has made the transition to a much larger operation with countless employees and a reach that extends well beyond the Portland area.

"There are always challenges," Ettinger says. "I love coming to work. Building the team may be the most rewarding thing. As we've grown, the team has changed at each level. You discover you need people with expertise in different areas as you grow. For instance, we didn't think about the details of distribution in the early days. Now we have to."

I've not always been the biggest fan of Hopworks beers, which have evolved and improved. But I've always appreciated their mission. Maybe the most unique thing about Ettinger is that he's always thinking, always trying to figure out ways to do things smarter, more efficiently.

It's a vision thing. The next 10 years are sure to be interesting.

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