Salem, Oregon is home to four independent breweries and each has its own story and methods of differentiation. Today, we’re going to focus on Salem’s second oldest active independent brewery, Santiam Brewing.
You can’t tell the story of Santiam Brewing without talking about the founders who came together to create the now well-respected Salem brewing institution.
One co-founder’s story
To hear the story, I had the opportunity to sit down with co-founder and sales lead Matt Killikelly, originally from New York. Matt has a long-time love of beer and has a home brewing hobby that dates back to the 90’s. During his time in New York, he dreamed of owning a brewery and working full time in the beer industry. However, with a day job anchored in mortgage lending, he dabbled in home brewing until the housing crisis of 2008 caused the family to lose nearly everything.
It was then Matt and his wife Jennifer moved their young family to Oregon in a pursuit of the brewing dream. Matt settled in Salem and began to work within the beer scene in Oregon’s capital city and become a member of local homebrew clubs. Matt immersed himself in the brewing world by judging home-brew competitions, reviewing beers he’d buy from Capital Market on 12th Street in Salem, and home-brewing in cooperation with other brewers here in the city.
To achieve a formal education, Matt also enrolled in Siebel Institute online brewing classes and took classes at Chemeketa Community College as well. There he met Jerome Goodrow, who would eventually become Santiam’s head brewer.
Matt pounded the pavement in and around Salem. He quickly learned that the brewing community is very insular and can be hard to break into as a newcomer. Also, working as a brewer at a typical micro-brewery is a position that doesn’t pay enough to support a family. There are many young brewers and interns looking to gain experience and as a result, compensation can be low. Matt realized he needed to figure out a way to achieve ownership in a brewery.
Matt told me the story of trying to find work as an intern brewer, in which he was offering or very cheap labor to a brewery in exchange for mentorship and work experience. In his search from Corvallis to Portland, he only got one call back. His search was fruitless.
Through hard work and a roller derby connection with Dino Venti, a restaurateur in Salem, Oregon, Matt became active in Venti’s restaurant’s beer curators and established himself as a thought leader in the Salem brewing scene. Also during Matt’s constant hustle, he met Ian Croxall, a British ex-pat, who routinely hosted an event dubbed “Choir Practice”. However, no singing ever at the get-togethers – ‘choir practice’ was a weekly meetup for these hop heads to discuss and evaluate beer. It was out of a practice that the idea to start their own brewery was first initiated.
Santiam Brewing is born
Quickly, Matt made close friends with these beer nuts turned hops analysts that he’d eventually found Santiam Brewing with.
With a total of 9 initial investors, each putting forth $5,000 for a total of $45,000 seed capital money, Santiam Brewing was born in 2012. Typically, to start a brewery effectively, experts say $250,000 is needed to give the brewery a fighting chance. While Santiam didn’t start with a large cash store, the founders each brought expertise and drive that has made the venture grow steadily from the beginning. In the founding group, individuals emerged that brought forward talents to help establish the business. Experts in finance, management, brewing, sales and so forth came forward to help out in the business.
Out of the 9 co-founders, 4 individuals are most involved with the daily operations of Santiam Brewing.
Santiam Brewing’s lineup
It’s really hard to nail down Santiam’s ‘style’. It’s easy to pick up on the English influence as there are many English-style ales including a maibock, an amber dubbed Spitfire Amber and their flagship dark beer known as Pirate Stout. Santiam uses a high number of British, German and European hops and yeasts. Matt told me they try to be as authentic as possible and if they’re making a German Maibock for example, they use hand-selected ingredients (malts, barley, and hops) that are imported from Germany.
The core beers Santiam is known for include: Spitfire Amber, Cold porter, edelweiss , Infultrator Pils, Pirate Stout, Abbey Porter, 1859 Maibock, Coal Porter, Bloody Hell Imperial Grapefruit IPA, Tropical Daydream IPA.
Santiam Brewing is one of the few Oregon breweries to have a strong cask-ale program. On a constant basis, there are 3 or 4 cask-styles that are available only at their outstanding taproom in southeast Salem. What makes cask ale unique? Cask beers are unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that’s served by hand at room temperature – so the true flavor of the beer comes forward. These beers are naturally carbonated and are authentic to old-world recipes and flavors.
Expansion and growth
Through success and an excellent brewing line-up, Santiam has expanded and grown over the years. The company is currently completely self-distributed and has a footprint that extends north to Portland, all the way to the Oregon coast and east to Bend, Oregon.
Also, the taproom at Santiam’s home in Salem’s industrial district has seen expansion as well.
Brewing capacity expansion began in 2014 and 2015
Earlier in 2016, Santiam Brewing expanded the taproom, enabling 99 more patrons to sit at hand-made bench and table sitting. Made from salvaged lumber by Santiam staff, the benches are made of Oregon coastal redwood and the lounge tables are from black walnut. As Santiam’s brews is enriched by water drawn from Oregon’s Santiam River, it stands out to me that wood harvested from the state is part of the experience inside Santiam’s taproom.
As a part of the May 2016 expansion, Santiam’s capacity was boosted from the up to 200 barrels per month. Considering Santiam started with a 3.5 barrel system back in 2012, the expansion they’ve experienced is mind-boggling.
Matt showed me the backlot of Santiam’s brewing capability, including the ~150 oak barrels they’ve acquired for aging beer. Watching Matt and his colleagues tell their story is like watching a child light-up the day before Christmas. These beer enthusiasts are true pioneers…and their excitement is infectious.
On the taproom saving Santiam’s bacon
When they’re brewing beer, the Santiam team likes to make beers that are liked by many types of beer fans. And sometimes, the brewers want to get experimental and produce beers that aren’t typical, even in the eyes of Oregon beer snobs.
Matt told me that if you go to an average taphouse or bar in Oregon, most of the styles include amber ales, IPAs and porters – and he’s right. Having a successful taproom of their own enables Santiam Brewing to create styles such as a Scottish ale or a Welsh strong ale, that fall out of the buying bounds of a typical beer purchaser.
“The tasting room was really an afterthought. We had an L-shaped bar we built with three seats. To our surprise, from day one, our taproom was totally full of people and we reassessed the taproom’s importance”.
If you’re looking for Santiam’s beer in bottles at your local market, you’ll find Pirate Stout, 1859 Maibock, Spitfire Amber and Ecotopia IPA.
Excited for 2017 and beyond
As Santiam Brewing has expanded capacity, an established cask program and a new barrel aging program that’s about to start producing beer publicly soon, I’m excited for what’s next for Santiam in 2017.
Also, it looks like soon in 2017, Santiam is going to be selling beer beyond the Oregon state lines – as the company is about to begin selling beer in the Seattle metropolitan area.
The crew is anxious to make an impact and footprint in the mid-valley brewing scene and fans of local beer are awaiting, thirstily. 🙂