PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Without adapting, flexing and going where the competition won't, there's no way Full Sail Brewing would have hung around for 27 years.
Co-founder and Chief Executive Irene Firmat left a job as a buyer for the Meier & Frank department store chain in New York and headed across country in 1987 to Hood River, Ore., to open a brewery. At the time, only a few brewers including Olympia, Rainier and Henry Weinhard's still existed in the Pacific Northwest, while small brewers including Widmer Brothers, BridgePort and Rogue Ales were just finding their footing in Oregon.
Firmat and her partners opened Full Sail in an old, long-vacant Diamond Fruit canning facility in Hood River. They brewed 287 barrels their first year in new equipment bought with borrowed money. The next year, they began bottling on old wine bottling equipment and taking their first steps into the greater market.
The old cannery facility would later expand into adjacent buildings; the old wine bottler would eventually give way to a 600-bottle-a-minute line; the colorful, triangular gear of sailboarders seen from Full Sail's brewpub deck would yield to crescent-chuted kite boarders; and a brewery that produced less than 300 barrels would produce more than 100,000 each year starting in 2010. Last year, Full Sail made 115,000 barrels of beer and distributed it to 31 states.
It wasn't all worth drinking to. In 1998, members of Full Sail's board opted to put the brewery up for sale. Firmat and her executive brewmaster and husband, Jaime Emmerson, pushed to sell shares to the brewery's 47 employees to keep it running independently. By mid-1999, Full Sail was employee owned.
In 2005, as much of the small brewing community began turning toward big bottles of more intense, alcohol-heavy beers, Full Sail went in the other direction and produced snub-nosed bottles of low-alcohol Session Lager. As much at home in supermarkets and dive bars as it was in tap rooms and bottle shops, Session was that year's fastest-growing brand and took home the title of "World's Best Premium Lager" in 2007. It is now a pillar of Full Sail's fairly narrow beer portfolio that Emmerson parallels to Apple's mobile device color scheme -- you get black and you get white, but both are going to sell really well.
When the dairy farms in the Columbia River Gorge that used Full Sail's wet, spent grain as cattle feed began closing and Full Sail was forced to ship that grain more than 130 miles to Tilamook Dairy on the Oregon Coast, the brewery looked to Belgium for help. As a result, they became the second brewery in the U.S. -- with remote Alaskan Brewing in Anchorage being the first -- to buy a Meura Mash Filter that uses inflatable bladders to press more moisture out of grain and cut spent-grain transportation costs. It has the benefit of producing a clear, extremely sweet wort that requires less water to produce without losing any flavor or quality.