Like most people, Charlie and Debbie Tierney spent the majority of their adult lives working for someone else. Debbie worked for Farmers Insurance in Vancouver, Wash., while Charlie traveled for his logging job.
But they wanted more.
“You always heard, ‘Take what you love to do and you have a passion for and make it your life’s work,’” Debbie Tierney said.
For the couple, both 57, that meant selling their possessions, moving to Ellensburg and starting a business. In February, the Tierneys opened Whipsaw Brewing, a three-barrel brewing operation in which the beer is brewed in much smaller batches than it is in larger breweries.
Whipsaw Brewing is one of four small breweries that have opened in Yakima and Kittitas counties in the last two years, contributing to the rapid growth of the craft beer industry and increasing the number of options for local beer lovers.
Four more are in the works.
Many new breweries start small to avoid a heavy financial burden starting out.
“We weren’t going to go for the big, ginormous loan,” Debbie Tierney said. “We want to pay cash for everything we could pay for cash. That was really important to us.”
The Tierneys spent just under $100,000 to open the brewery. While that sounds like a significant sum, startup costs — depending on the size of the brewing system — can go into the millions, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade association in Boulder, Colo.
The Brewers Association’s definition of “microbrewery” is any brewery that produces fewer than 15,000 barrels a year. But these new breweries are producing far less.
Many small breweries call themselves “nanobreweries,” but there isn’t a formal industry definition. The Brewers Association, however, estimates that out of about 2,400 microbreweries in operation as of the end of last year, roughly 1,180 — almost half — brew 500 or fewer barrels annually. About 400 microbreweries produce fewer than 100 barrels annually.
A full barrel equals 31 gallons of beer.
Several established local breweries, including Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg and Bale Breaker Brewing Co. near Moxee, are brewing thousands of barrels annually. But many others are limiting production to a few hundred.
Just about all the new brewery owners started out as home brewers.
“There’s a built-in training ground,” said Gatza. “People can learn about beer and become more passionate (about it) and learn the technical side long before they hop into a business.”
Indeed, Nathan Cooper, owner of Wandering Hop Brewery, a small brewery in the works in Yakima, was brewing beer when he wasn’t working at his father’s janitorial business.
So when the 32-year-old brainstormed ideas for his own business, a brewery quickly came to mind.
He and his wife, Whitney, spent several months visiting some 80 breweries through the U.S., getting ideas and inspiration.
Cooper’s favorite part of the process was talking to the brewery owners and touring their brewing facilities. One of the breweries he visited was Whipsaw Brewing, where he ended up chatting with the Tierneys for several hours.
Cooper wants to provide that same experience for his customers when he opens, which he hopes is by year’s end. “I want to give back and be there to meet with the customers and have the chats I’ve enjoyed with other brewers,” he said.
For many small brewers, multiple craft breweries in a community is beneficial.
“I would like to see Yakima have at least 15 (breweries),” said Doug Robinson, owner of Berchman’s Brewing Co., which started brewing in January 2014 and recently opened a taproom in downtown Yakima.
Map: Breweries in the Yakima Valley
This map plots the current and soon-to-come breweries in the Yakima Valley. Did we miss any? Email email@example.com
Robinson said his goal is to advance the craft beer movement, and he feels each brewery plays a different role in that effort.
“I don’t feel like I’m competing against the whole market,” he said. “I’m trying to create a beer people like and we like.”
And offerings can vary, especially because small breweries can experiment.
Cooper, the owner of Wandering Hop Brewery, said he’s interested in developing a beer with experimental hops.
If a beer doesn’t work out or sell well, there isn’t a whole lot of beer wasted, he said.
“You get to tweak the recipes and do unique things on a smaller scale because the risk isn’t as big,” he said.
Berchman’s offers popular beers such as the hoppy IPAs and pale ales, but his wife, Laurie, has been experimenting with different recipes.
“She’s playing around with sours,” he said, referring to the tangy, vinegar-like beer variety.
Of course, operating a brewery also has its challenges.
Small breweries often find themselves running up against logistics and regulations, which can prolong the startup process.
Chuck Redifer, co-owner of Redifer Brewing Co., a small brewery in the works in downtown Yakima, has pending approval for the brewery from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.
But that state approval is pending an OK from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates alcoholic businesses such as breweries.
“Last I checked, (the agency) was taking about five to six months to approve applications,” said Redifer, 38.
Many small breweries also are on a tight budget. They often have to wait for a good deal on brewery equipment to come along or spend several months, even years, saving up for equipment.
Brewers also have to consider trade-offs when trying to save costs. For example, Cooper had started out with a half-barrel brewing system because of its relatively low cost; such a system costs only a few thousand dollars.
But he quickly figured that such a small system would mean brewing several hours a day for several days a week to get to desired production levels. That prompted him to spend more money for a 3.5-barrel system.
“What is my time worth?” he said. “I recently married; I really didn’t want to put my wife through that.”
Such a system typically costs $20,000 to $35,000, but Cooper was able to spend considerably less — about $11,000 — by buying from other breweries.
Smaller brewers have a cost disadvantage when it comes to raw materials, especially hops, Gatza said. Hop growers have long-term contracts, usually with larger brewers, leaving smaller brewers to either pay more or have to trade hop varieties with other brewers.
“You don’t have those deep connections in the raw materials chain,” he said.
But most are willing to endure such challenges for the greater good.
“I’m just hoping it encourages others to try the same adventure,” said Robinson, the Berchman’s Brewing Co. owner. “There is enough room for a lot of us.”
Others simply want to pursue a long-held passion.
“I was tired of thinking about it or talking about it,” said Redifer, who works as an accountant for Solarity Credit Union. “I didn’t want to be the guy who wanted to do something but never did.”
And for others, that hard work is starting to pay off. Whipsaw Brewing Co. originally wasn’t planning to hire employees, but that quickly changed due to the volume of business the brewery has received.
“Five hundred barrels was the goal,” Debbie Tierney said. “I think we’re going to exceed that.”
Tierney also finds great satisfaction in showing their children — and grandchildren — what it looks like to follow their passion.
“We really wanted to leave a legacy,” she said.