After years in the fast-paced world of high technology, beer enthusiast and avid home brewer Jeff Winn turned his passion into a business. Winn started Yakima Craft Brewing Company in 2007, partnering with Yakima’s Chris Swedin and several family members to launch his dream.
On the tails of his 40th birthday, Winn and his family moved to Yakima from Portland to embark on the grand adventure of small business ownership. The craft brewing industry is on the rise around the nation, growing every year in part due to an interest in natural, sustainable and local goods.
Yakima was perfect for starting a brewery, located in the center of the nation’s hop growing region and vastly underserved when it comes to craft beer. Although several microbreweries are now within an easy drive, among them Ellensburg’s Iron Horse, Sunnyside’s Snipes Mountain and Prosser’s Whistran and Horse Heaven Hills, six years ago Yakima didn’t have a single microbrewery in the city limits.
“When you say ‘Yakima’ in beer circles, it means hops,” Winn said. “Yakima is perfectly poised for craft beer. It wasn’t a coincidence we named our brewery Yakima Craft.”
Through a connection at New Vision/Yakima County Development Association, Winn was introduced to local brewer Chris Swedin, the former Grant’s Brew Pub brewer, who learned from Bert Grant himself.
Winn and Swedin hit it off and formed a partnership. “Things gelled right away,” Swedin said. Swedin had access to Bert’s original all-copper brew kettle, which they still use today, crafting just 3.5 barrels of beer per batch in a small facility located in a Northwest Yakima industrial park.
“A brewery doesn’t need a fancy location — the more industrial the better for beer culture,” Winn said.
And industrial it was. Upon leasing space at 2920 River Road in early 2008, Winn spent the better part of two weeks standing on scaffolding to scrub the ceiling clean in preparation to move in brewing equipment.
Methodical and intensely detail-oriented, Winn was committed to starting off small: a small space, small batches of beer and a small tap room. As with most small-business owners, Winn wears multiple hats. He not only brews the beer, he also does the graphic design for labeling and signage, manages the financials and does the marketing. He also hits the streets selling his beer to restaurants and retail establishments. Yakima Craft can be found locally at a variety of locations including Rosauers, The Beer Shoppe, Red Robin, Gilbert Cellars and Birchfield Manor.
His dedication has paid off. In 2009, just one year into full operation, Beer Advocate magazine awarded Yakima Craft Brewing a rare A+ for its IPA.
“We like beer with body and character,” said Winn. “We think that every beer should be phenomenal and each one should represent you. We brew what we like and if people follow us and like it, that’s a good thing. At the end of the day, the beer is what’s important.”
With growing regional recognition and a loyal local following, the Yakima Craft team has grown to three full-time employees and two part-timers. They brew five days a week just to keep up with demand, and the tiny tap room serves up beer six days a week.
“Brewing is science and art,” Winn said. “Science is very important but the art is essential. I think it’s important to find what you’re good at and stick with it.”
Winn and Swedin are fanatical about the details. Each recipe is developed with precision and care. “It helps we have similar taste. Most of our beers tend toward a Northwest style, nice and hoppy,” said Swedin. And, he adds, they follow their recipes to a T.
With growth comes expansion, which is under way now. Slated to be finished in May 2013, Yakima Craft Brewing will go from brewing just 3.5 barrels (108 gallons) to 20 barrels (620 gallons) per batch — a 471 percent increase. The increase in production will allow the brewery to expand its reach over the Cascades and tap into the Seattle market.
Winn’s long-term hope is that Yakima will become a focal point regionally for beer tourism. And his dream might not be that far off. With the newly opened Bale Breaker Brewing Company in Moxee and Hop Central Brewing Company in the works for downtown Yakima, craft beer is making a name for itself in Yakima.
New Vision President and CEO Dave McFadden agrees; a thriving small business is good for the entire community.
“Jeff is a great guy who had a great idea that made a lot of sense,” McFadden said. “When I met him back in 2007, it was easy to see how he was going to get off the ground and be successful. It’s a great story for our community: Winn brought the microbrewery back.”
And beer culture, as Winn calls it, is an open collaborative community. Brewers often trade industry secrets, helping each other whenever possible. When Winn heard fellow home brewing enthusiasts were getting ready to make the plunge into the microbrew industry, he was quick to offer encouragement and insight.
“Yakima is a mecca for hops, yet why don’t we have more breweries?” said Carol Vanevenhoven, owner of Hop Central Brewing Company.
With encouragement from Winn and a second-place finish in New Vision’s new business competition, the Enterprise Challenge, Carol and her husband Karl have embarked on opening their own brewery. Planning to be up and running by the Fresh Hop Ale Festival this fall, the Vanevenhovens have long been committed to being a part of Yakima’s downtown revitalization.
“You don’t get into craft beer business unless you have a passion for it,” Winn said. “Every day I think to myself, ‘I love it; I wouldn’t want to do anything else.’”