ELLENSBURG — By the end of 2010, Iron Horse Brewery was running out of space, reaching brewing capacity at its 2,000-square-foot space at the Ellensburg Business Incubator at 1000 Prospect St.
The brewery spent nearly three years finding a new building and securing financing for the purchase, testing the patience of co-owner and general manager Greg Parker.
The long wait ended in September, when Iron Horse moved equipment from its old location to its new home, a 12,000-square-foot concrete building at 1621 Vantage Highway, a few miles east of Central Washington University.
The new building symbolizes the growth the brewery has seen in the last six years — growth it hopes will continue.
Iron Horse Brewery has likely benefited from the overall growth of craft brewers, which is defined as an independent brewery that produces fewer than 6 million barrels a year and incorporates traditional ingredients to enhance the flavor and complexity of its beer. Sales of craft brewers during the first half of 2012 increased by 14 percent from the year-earlier period, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association for small independent brewers.
When Jim Quilter opened Iron Horse Brewery in 2005, the college town was eager for its own brewery. Quilter developed Irish Death, a dark ale that remains Iron Horse Brewery’s most popular brew.
Quilter, who died in 2009, sold the company to Parker and his father, Gary, in November 2006. Parker runs the business and jokes that his father is the “not-so-silent partner.” (Today, sales manager Ross Chalstrom is also a part-owner.)
But seriously, he adds, his father provides much-needed insight. “(My father’s) been in business for 30 years and had the wisdom,” Greg Parker said.
The transition to new ownership is never easy, but Ralph Olson, a fixture in the Yakima Valley hop industry, said the current owners have met with success.
“They kept striving to be better and somewhere down the line things started to click,” Olson said.
Today, 22 employees produce brews that are sold at about 2,000 retailers and restaurants throughout Washington state and North Idaho. Last year, the company generated about $2 million in revenue.
With the installation of several new fermenters and conditioning tanks at the new location, Iron Horse will brew about 9,000 barrels this year, well above the 6,000 barrel max it could brew at its former facility.
Along with increasing capacity, Iron Horse has been focused on implementing new technology to improve brewing efficiency and sent head brewer Tyson Read to the University of California-Davis for additional training.
Despite the growth, Iron Horse still has the feel of a hometown brand.
There’s the intimate taproom in downtown Ellensburg, and a taproom is also in the works at the new brewery, too.
And as it has done for several years, Iron Horse’s brewers will spend part of their busy schedule developing an anniversary brew for The Beer Shoppe in downtown Yakima this fall.
While Iron Horse does distribute to big markets such as Seattle, Parker said beer lovers on the east side of the mountains have contributed to much of their success.
A few years back, there were few craft brewers in the area, so Yakima beer lovers were more than willing to support Iron Horse, said Jeff Clemmons, owner of The Beer Shoppe.
These days, the region is home to several breweries, including Snipes Mountain Brewing in Sunnyside; Yakima Craft Brewing Co. in Yakima; Horse Heaven Hills Brewing and Whitstran Brewing in Prosser; and Bale Breaker Brewing Co., a brewery in the works in the Moxee area.
Clemmons said that while Iron Horse has expanded into bigger markets, service has not been compromised. “They have been very consistent with their product (and have been) putting out good product, batch after batch,” he said.
That loyalty isn’t lost on Parker. In volume, the Yakima area ranks only behind Seattle and Spokane.
“Yakima is an incredibly supportive market,” he said.
Parker’s long-term goal for Iron Horse Brewery is to one day brew 60,000 barrels a year. That will take some major capital investment, as the current brewery’s maximum capacity is just 13,000 barrels.
But he isn’t only focused on the numbers.
Rather than simply expanding into more markets — it added Bellingham and Everett last year and is expanding to the Vancouver, Wash., area — Iron Horse is focused on building depth to its existing markets.
That means getting more variety to restaurant tap lines. While Irish Death continues to be one of Iron Horse’s most popular brews, Parker wants to gain more traction on two other year-round brews, High Five Hefe, a wheat beer flavored with honey and ginger, and Iron Horse IPA, its take on the popular hop-filled beer.
Parker also wants to start offering six-packs to retailers, something that beer drinkers demand.
All these efforts, Parker said, will help Iron Horse Brewery rise up the ranks and raise the profile of Washington craft breweries, similar to what Deschutes and Rogue did for the Oregon craft brewing industry.
“We want to be the go-to brand,” he said.
• Mai Hoang can be reached at 509-759-7851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.