How the Pfriems Built a Real Family Brewery

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Busch, Coors, Miller, Pabst, Yuengling, Schlitz, Hamm, Stroh, Ballantine, Schell, Wiedemann, Blatz, Schaefer, Bell, Widmer.

For decades, beer drinkers have seen those names and thought of the beers in the cans and bottles emblazoned with them. They are all key pieces of the U.S. brewing legacy, but they're also the foundation for legacy brewing in the United States.

Forgive us if we sound like the crotchety old beer drinker, but we're just speaking the truth: In the earliest days of American brewing, brewers followed European tradition and gave their breweries the family's name with the intention of passing on their skills and business to ensuing generations.

Communities got a brewery and brewers they knew by name, while brewers got a family heirloom with a name that wouldn't require them to go to court and fight a copyright battle. Occasionally, those brewers would even name their beer after the style they brewed. When they didn't, they paid the price by waging long, drawn-out international spitting contests that continue to this day.

With few exceptions -- Larry Bell at Bell's in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Kurt and Rob Widmer at Widmer Brothers in Portland, Ore., for example -- craft brewers have generally shunned the family names associated with the light lagers of the past. Instead, they tend to favor regionally or thematically specific names designed to play to the emotions and tastes of the people drinking their beers.

That just wasn't going to work for Josh and Annie Pfriem, who opened their Pfriem Family Brewers in Hood River, Ore., in 2012. This is a couple for whom names and the stories behind them take precedence over almost all else. Their daughter, Sahale, is named for the 8,700-foot mountain in the Northern Cascades that the couple ascended on their first climb together. Their son, Watou, is named for the Belgian village in West Flanders that the couple and Sahale used as the center of their visits to the St. Bernardus, Van Eecke and Westvleteren Trappist breweries that helped inspire them to build their own facility.

Watou now occasionally helps his parents on the floor of a brewery that's brewing the Belgian styles of his namesake city and undergoing its third expansion after existing for little more than a year. The Pfriem brewpub that had a wait for tables during our late-morning Friday visit this month now has a play area for children in one of its far corners and a full city-built playground along the Columbia River waterfront just across the street.

Though it's never bottled or canned one of its beers, Pfriem now distributes to locations throughout Oregon and as far north as Seattle. It's a testament to the hustle of Josh Pfriem, who'd set up the brewery in the morning, go out on sales calls himself during the afternoon, host events until late in the evening and make a trek through the Columbia River gorge that sometimes forced him to pull over for a nap at 1 a.m. At the Oregon Brewers Festival in July, Pfriem was one of fewer than a handful of brewers on the floor in full brewery-branded gear shaking hands and handing out cards.

It's paid off not only in sales and expansion, but in the faith of those around him. Though Josh Pfriem spent much of the past decade formulating the beers that make up his regular lineup and working on them in his test brewery, his dedication was enough to convince business partners Ken Whiteman and Rudy Kellner to invest and his former Full Sail Brewing coworker and current brewmaster Dan Peterson to come along for the ride. Peterson had brewed at Magic Hat in Burlington, Vt., and helped Brooklyn Brewery develop its Local series line of big-bottle, small-batch beers while brewing there. Peterson had a family of his own and moved them out to Hood River to get his kids out of the 353-square-foot apartment he and his wife shared and to take a job at Full Sail, where he developed a Belgian IPA for the brewery's experimental batch program.

If the beer connection wasn't enough, Peterson and the Pfriems' children also attended the same pre-school in Hood River. That shared love of both Belgian beer and family led to the partnership, but also makes Pfriem Family Brewers feel more like home than a place laden with steel holding tanks, large hop freezers, elevated grain mills and towering pallets of kegs probably should. Annie Pfriem balances her Pfriem marketing and staffing duties with brewery and brewpub design incorporating reclaimed bits of farmhouses and wine barrels from the surrounding area, while Josh Pfriem still drags around pallet loaders laden with kegs of Blonde IPA, Wit and Belgian Dark Strong as if they are just tools in his garage.

Whether Peterson's or the Pfriems' children ever enter the family business is anybody's guess, but their parents' efforts and their brewery's ensuing growth look as if they'll keep Pfriem around long enough for them to make that decision. Josh and Annie Pfriem were kind enough to take some time out of a visibly hectic Friday afternoon of meetings, event-room setup, planning and brewing to talk with us about their family brewery. While their motivation and approach still seem novel in a fast-growing craft beer industry that seldom checks its rearview mirror, the importance of their legacy to the business around them makes us wonder why more brewers haven't taken a similar approach:

Josh, how did you start brewing and what eventually inspired you to start Pfriem Family Brewers?

Josh Pfriem: My brewing career started when I was in college. I was studying business marketing at the time at Western Washington University and absolutely fell in love with craft beer. So much so that I started homebrewing immediately thereafter. At 20 years old, after the first batch I brewed, I knew I wanted to own my own brewery and become a brewmaster.

After that, I geared my business degree to that and picked up science on the side and kept home brewing. After I graduated, I dove into brewing literature and brewing science and landed my first brewing job down in Utah. I was ski bumming down there at the time and though it would be a good time to start my career in brewing, and I got a great first brewing job at Utah Brewers Cooperative in Salt Lake City doing production for Squatters and Wasatch beers. I got to work with a very talented group of guys and gals and they really took me in, brought me up and let me shine.

Meanwhile, I kept building up my little test brewery at home: Experimenting with things, tweaking things, trying to push the limits of what you can do with beer from raw ingredients to engineering to science while brewing day-to-day.

After we left Utah we went back to go up to Bellingham, Wash., to help Will Kemper get started on the Chuckanut Brewery. That was great experience. Will had about 30 years of brewing experience at the time with a strong chemical engineering and brewing science background. I was the head brewer there and we did a lot of great things pushing the limits of beer. Our big claim to fame that first year was that we won Small Brewpub of the Year at the Great American Brewers Festival in our first year entering, which is one of the highest honors you can win in brewing.

From there, I wanted to get a little more big-brewery production experience, so I had a great opportunity to come here to Hood River and work for Full Sail. I got to run the gauntlet of working with the brew crew, training, working the lab, doing wastewater treatment on the engineering side of things as well. It was great to get some very good technical experience at a larger craft brewery.

All the while, as I was brewing test brewing, I always had a business plan in my back pocket. Pfriem Family Brewers is plan No. 4, 4.0? All the other ones were put on the shelf, but this was the one where it seemed like it was the right place at the right time. All the beers and everything -- the uniqueness, the quality -- it was perfect in such a beautiful landscape that's also one of the most saturated beer markets in the world. In Hood River alone, we're brewery No. 4 in a town of 7,000 people, so it's about a brewery for every 1,800 or so people, which is pretty awesome.

But our beer is very different from other people's here and others in the Northwest, and that was the point. It was an area where people are exposed to beer, drink a lot of beer and really enjoy quality things and their quality of life, and it was a great place for us to raise our family. We found our business partners here through our preschool -- the Cooperative Preschool -- and came up with a vision to make awesome beer and create a family brewery.

We were able to get together funds personally and through traditional business loans and be a bootstrap startup and bunch of entrepreneurs. Basically Pfriem for life.

Getting those funds together couldn't have been easy, given the economy you decided to open your brewery in. Did that present an obstacle, or was the local lending community helpful?

Josh Pfriem: No, it was pretty awesome.

Once again, this was the fourth business plan I'd written, and both of my business partners had great business backgrounds as well. We really polished up the business plan, took it full-on and went to our local community bank. They told us it was one of the best business plans they'd ever seen in their careers. Even though it was hard lending times, they believed in us and helped us get off the ground.

So when did work on the brewery begin?

Josh Pfriem: Ken and I pushed "go" on this in September 2011 and by Dec. 1, 2011, we had our finances put together, we had the lease signed on this building and then we broke ground in about February 2012. The first batch of beer, I believe, was June 10, 2012.

I'd be remiss if we delved any deeper into this without getting Annie's portion of the story. You told us a story earlier about how you met while working as mountain guides, and I'm just trying to figure out how Point A got to Point B between mountaineering and brewing.

Josh Pfriem: Do you want me to tell it an you fill in the gaps?

Annie Pfriem: Yeah, you can do that. Because in his whole story of brewing, I was in the background. I can do that part. But go ahead, you start out and I'll let you talk a little more.

Josh Pfriem: Annie and I met in the British Columbia coastal mountain range as mountaineering guides. We actually weren't very fond of each other at first. I was young and arrogant and she was feisty and young and we had a clash, but it wasn't until after our first summer guiding with each other that we made amends over beers. It was from that point on that we realized ...

Annie Pfriem: At the end of the first summer we had beers and it was like "Oh, wait, maybe I don't think you're kind of a jerk."

Josh Pfriem: "Why don't we go climb mountains and ski together this winter." That's definitely how our journey started into a friendship based around beer, mountains and good people. Our mantra back in those days was "All I need is beer and gear and everything in between." The love of beer has been driven less around the beer itself and more around the people that it brings, the stories that it brings and how it brings people together. We always thought that if you're going to drink beer with your friends, they deserve the best. That's always been the driving thing and the most fun part about making beer ... sharing it with your family, with your friends, your wife and your family and new friends.

So Annie and my love of mountains turned into a love of beer, and it became everything our family was based around. Our kids have grown up in a very beery world, and Annie's always been working alongside me at different breweries, helping out with social media and marketing ...

Annie Pfriem: I've also worked a few not-so-awesome jobs so that he could be a brewer. As we all know, getting started in the beer world, the wages are pretty low, but that's something I've been honored to be a part of ... to work that second job, whether it was bringing our daughter alongside or nannying other kids just to pay the bills so that we could pursue this dream.

At Chuckanut, Josh was on the brewery side, but I really kind of started their marketing department and ran all that stuff. It was a good time.

Josh Pfriem: It was the beginning of Annie becoming "Brewmama," as she's now professionally known. She's always been known to have a phone in her hand, a kid on her hip and running around straightening everything up. She's taking pictures and always buzzing and moving around to make sure everything looks how it is supposed to and that all the gaps are filled in behind me.

When we went to create Pfriem, one of the hardest things when you create a brewery or business is to communicate to people what your vision is for the brewing company. Our vision was so much more than just about the business of our company, it was basically creating something that was going to be here long term. It brought up how we feel about life, what we believe and where we want life to go.

There's a brewery opening up at least one a day right now and there's lots of trends and lots of fads, but the tradition of beer has been around for centuries. When you look back through the years, most breweries -- especially those brewing in the European tradition or even in the early American tradition -- were named after the founding brewer and the brewer's family. It was the stamp of approval and commitment to quality that said "I'm going to put my name on it and do anything I can to make the best beer possible and the best business possible, take care of my employees, take care of my family and then give me something I can pass on to my children and their children's' children."

That becomes a family affair and right now it is a family affair. Annie's always running around with the kids in the brewery. My little boy Watou comes in on the weekends with me and helps me stock the keg cooler and do gravities. He loves to grab a beaker or a test tube or hydrometer or hold the hose for a minute just to be a part of it. It truly is Pfriem because of our commitment to the beer and Pfriem because of our commitment to our family and our employees.

One of the better side notes of the Pfriem story is the origin of you son Watou's name. Can you explain how that came to be and the role beer played in it?

Josh Pfriem: We're very passionate and we like to name our kids after things we are passionate about.

Our daughter was named after Mount Sahale in the North Cascades, which was the first mountain that Annie and I summited together and skied down at sunset on a brilliant spring day. With Mr. Watou ...

Annie Pfriem: First, we both thought Sahale was a beautiful name, but I'll tell the woman's side of it. You don't tell the man you're dating that you just thought of a name for your daughter. Josh was in the same realm, where he wasn't going to tell this woman he was dating the name he just thought of for our daughter.

When we got married and decided it was OK to start talking about children's names, we both kind of, at the same time, said "What would you think about Sahale for a girl?"

Josh Pfriem: Likewise for Watou. He was named after a pretty epic and monumental event in our lives.

In 2008, we had an awesome opportunity to not only travel the whole country of Belgium on our bikes, but we were able to stay and study with brewers and brewmasters along the way. It was a pretty pivotal trip in my life as a brewer and where we're at here today with Pfriem.

To be over in such a nostalgic beer country, there's such a deep, rich heritage and culture that is built into the day-to-day life that surrounds beer -- from the craftsmen and the quality to how much food, beer and family are all just one and part of the natural way things function for generations.

You go to these breweries and whoever is brewing is third-, fourth-, fifth- or sixth-generation brewer of the family. That was amazing, that side of it, and the beer side of it was just incredible as well. To travel from each little region -- spending time in lambic land, drinking the great sour beers of the country, the farmhouse-style beers, the saison-style beers, the abbey beers -- it was a trip made up of many monumental experiences.

One of our favorite, very special experiences came when we were in the little town of Watou, Belgium -- which is in the hop-growing region of the country just right on the edge of the agricultural side of the country. It is also home to three or four world-class breweries including Westvleteren, St. Bernardus and Van Eecke, and one of the most nostalgic restaurants in the world for preparing beer and food, Hommelhof, lies right in this little town. It's a very special little place.

While we were there, we were taken in by locals, fed lobster dinners, drank world-class beers ...

Annie Pfriem: And dined with their children also. Their children were part of the whole thing and it wasn't like "Well, we're going to get a babysitter for the kids." They can eat these fine foods. We went out to this amazing dinner and kids were eating everything we were eating. We were drinking beers and the beers paired perfectly.

It was like "This is what we want ... and we want more kids! This is awesome!"

People always ask us "So ... was Watou conceived there?" and I always say the idea of Watou was conceived there. It was a good thing he was a boy, because we didn't have any girl names picked out and probably would have been Watou still.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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