Picture, for a moment, the image that pops into your head when I say, “Founder of a craft brewery”.
How about if I extrapolate: “Founder of one of the fastest growing craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest”?
I’m willing to bet a dollar for every reader of this article (so, we’re talking millions, naturally) that what’s in your mind’s eye is light years away from the stylishly dressed, poised figure who met me in the parking lot of her brewery in Ballard, WA a couple of weeks ago.
Sara Nelson, co-founder of Seattle’s Fremont Brewing Co., greeted me with a brisk handshake and an apology for running slightly late.
“You’re so gracious to wait – I was stuck at a political event downtown,” she said, closing the trunk to her Prius, a “Stronger Together” sticker proudly positioned on its bumper. “But you met Matt?”
Nelson was referring to Matt Lincecum, her husband and co-founder of Fremont, the attorney-turned-home-brewer who, with Nelson, started a brewery with $10,000 and a lot of gall at the height of the 2008 recession.
“As a woman in business you often get invited to political events, especially if you work in an industry people easily relate to, like beer. And especially if it’s election season!” Nelson said, as she opened the door to Fremont’s recently opened 80,000-square-foot brewery in Ballard, a suburb of Seattle that sits right next door to the neighborhood of Fremont, after which the brewery is named.
“The legal name of our company is actually Green Lake Brewing Company,” Nelson told me. “We incorporated before we had a physical space, and Green Lake is the neighbourhood we live in. But it would have been silly to open Green Lake Brewing Company in Fremont. The heron on our packaging is from Green Lake though.”
Just as Sara Nelson cuts an altogether more chic and understated figure than your typical craft brewer, so does Fremont’s look and feel stand the brand apart from its peers. The ubiquitous heron set against a vibrant blue and green background, combined with the brewery’s use of warm natural wood and sparse white walls in their taproom, creates a vibe reminiscent of an expensive organic food store, or perhaps an environmentally self-sufficient boutique hotel.
“It’s all the vision of Dan Stuckey, an artist who was our next-door neighbor in Green Lake. We asked him for a logo and told him we wanted a heron – which is the official bird of Seattle – and he gave us his design from an artist’s perspective. It has 12 colors in it, so not at all practical from a graphics point of view. But we fell in love with it so that’s defined our aesthetic ever since.”
As we toured the busy and tidy brewery, I wanted to explore the idea of start-up culture further. Despite its youth, Fremont is fast becoming a regional powerhouse, at 25,000 barrels output in 2015 sold in just three states, and employing 48 staff.
An even more significant marker is that I was able to enjoy a can of the brewery’s Universale Pale Ale on my Delta flight from LA to Seattle. (A sign of a cracking beer, by the way, is that you can smell a clear hop aroma at 30,000 feet.)
Is it hard, I asked, to maintain a small company culture and hold on to your vision as you grow?
“Growing pains are a real thing, certainly,” Nelson answered. “Our goal is to grow responsibly. The biggest cultural problem I’m dealing with at the moment is retaining a collegiate, family atmosphere across two sites. And I’m working to adapt our policy around donations and community partnerships, which is of enormous importance to us.”
Apart from its beautiful packaging, the other thing that really marks Fremont Brewing out is its utter commitment to community and sustainability. Both Nelson and Lincecum are long-time community activists; and a big hint is dropped on their logo which advertises the beer’s provenance as “Fremont, Earth”.
“As our reputation has grown the requests for donations have reached an almost overwhelming level,” Nelson explained. “But our commitment to the three pillars of social justice, environment and education is hard-wired into the company’s DNA. We just need to be more choiceful, and also more forward-thinking in how we allocate resources toward our community efforts.”
“Seemingly minor aspects, like our carbon-dioxide emissions, can keep me up at night,” Nelson said. “It’s ridiculous that we’re sending all this carbon-dioxide into the air as we brew and then using more carbon-dioxide when we package our beer. The existing CO2 recapture systems cost at least a million dollars, which isn’t practical for us. But we live in the heart of a tech and innovation community, so I’m reaching out to people asking, why can’t we design a more practical, affordable solution to make us CO2 neutral?”
The zeal with which Nelson speaks on community and sustainability is not terribly surprising given her background as a PhD in cultural anthropology followed by 12 years in public policy. She left me in no doubt about the brewery’s extra-curricular corporate mission.
Does Fremont have good beer too? Absolutely – a fantastic range of hop-forward beers, an extensive fresh hop program (especially the lauded Field To Ferment single hop series) and award-winning and increasingly traded barrel-aged beers. But as the craft beer industry grows, great beer is table stakes.
One suspects continued success will come to the breweries that bring something else to the table, and those with a bit of an X factor.
If so, Fremont Brewing is exceptionally well-positioned. If my visit taught me anything, it’s that this is not your typical craft brewery.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Sara Nelson, Co-Founder & Special Ops, Fremont Brewing Company
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
We make delicious beer as sustainably as possible.
- How long have you worked here?
Well, I was there when my husband was making beer in the garage, but technically we incorporated in 2008 and made our first commercial beer in 2009. I’ve been full-time on and off ever since
- How and why did you come to be here?
At first I became involved because I wanted to support Matt’s vision. So I quit my public policy job to do that for a couple of years. But it’s become my full time job.
It’s important to me to be there for the “ground game” for this company, to make sure it has the right culture and knows the values that it was founded upon.
The company has actually enabled me to merge my interests in community and sustainability with my and Matt’s passion for the beer itself. It’s become a bit of a political soapbox for me. I’ve always believed that the private sector needs to step up, and the company has given me the opportunity to actually do that.
I’m on the Government Affairs Committee for the Brewers Association and on the Advisory Committee for EnviroStars, and I get to do these things that can make a difference while also, hopefully, building a company with a great culture and making a product that people enjoy.
- What is your daily routine?
In the morning it’s about looking at all the things in my inbox that I might have let slip through the cracks the day before. Mainly email and phone calls I need to make, people I need to get back to. After I feel caught up I’ll work on whichever projects we have going that I think need good writing, or smart strategic thinking.
As the day wears on I’ll start cruising around, talking to people, doing the water cooler thing. That’s often how I’ll pick up new jobs to do.
Towards the end of the afternoon I’ll head over to the Fremont space to work on donation requests. I go there because the servers in our taproom are the front line of our business, and a lot of requests go directly to them.
OK, I’ll be honest, it’s also a way I can have a beer in the afternoon, and stay in touch with the folks based at that site and our customers. It’s fun to have a place where everyone knows your name – does that make me sound old?
Then I go home!
Weekend work and travel is much more relaxed than it used to be. Matt or I only tend to work in the taproom if it’s a crazy bottle release or a special event. And I tend to prioritise my travel to just CBC, GABF and Savor in the spring, if we get in. And I do the BA’s Hill Climb. I go to Olympia [Washington State Capital] to do the same thing for the Guild. Matt also goes to Colorado quite a lot to work with Crooked Stave, our distributor there.
Outside of work I have two side projects: one is named Nelson and is 12, and the other is named Gabe and is 11. They take up a lot of my time away from the brewery as you might imagine.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
I worry a lot. I am not an entrepreneur – I love working for the man! – but this is now our family business and it’s very important to my life and the lives of the people I care most about. I am risk-averse and big changes are difficult for me, Sara Nelson.
Matt’s the other way round, and if you asked him the same question he would probably say making sure the canning line is working efficiently, or how are we going to launch a wild fermentation program.
Matt’s mental energy goes on the operational and creative side of things, and I put mine into keeping it together.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Consistent quality. Most people would say, “Great tasting beer”, but consumers need to know they’re going to get the same good beer every time. We have invested a lot recently in our lab, and our lab equipment, and creating space in our process for sensory panels and a lot of quality checks.
This is a big thing for the BA now. Craft is now on the map, and we can’t afford to get shoddy. It may sound like a boring answer, but I think inconsistency is a reason breweries could start to fail.
You also need to balance consistency with a spirit of experimentation, and adventure and not getting stuck in a rut. That keeps people happy inside and outside the brewery.
- What is success for you?
For me, personally, the end result is that everyone here likes working here. So how do you get there?
First you have to have the money to pay people, so you need some level of growth. You need to give people the room and the environment to grow professionally, and to feel fulfilled. And you need to maintain the spirit of why you got started in the first place, which is about values and community and a sense of adventure. You can’t let things get stale.
I don’t have any kind of bottom-line target for what success is, though I would really like not to fail. But success is about responsible growth while staying true to our roots, and for all our employees to feel good about working here.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
To level the playing field between big beer and craft. Big beer has such a huge, unfair advantage when it comes to distribution and ingredient procurement, and we’re starting to feel the restrictions in both areas.
I mean, the best thing is now the worst thing, which is that craft is on the map and capturing market share so we’re in their sights now. And they keep coming up with new ways to stop us taking away any more of their business. ABI is buying up craft breweries so they have a legitimate craft portfolio, and they’re buying distributorships to keeping independent craft beer off tap lists and grocery shelves. Which makes it harder for craft beers to get in front of people.
At Fremont we really have to hustle every sale and focus on relationships, because we just can’t match the kind of scale that ABI can.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- I’m a mushroom hunter so I’ll often end up at some 7-Eleven in the middle of nowhere. And my go-to in that situation is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s what I fell in love with at college. I don’t get to drink it as much as I’d like because there’s so much diversity nowadays.
- Second and third choice will just be any good fresh hop beer. They’re becoming fashionable, which is great because more people are making them and more people are making them well. The work that goes into them is quite amazing – you’re dealing with a live thing. It may be psychological, but to me they feel more natural and genuine.
10.Apart from your taproom, where’s the best place to get a beer in Seattle?
Because I have two kids, I don’t get out much but when I do it’s to make a fool of myself singing really bad karaoke with friends. So I’m not the best person to ask.
Brouwers and Chuck’s Hop Shop have phenomenal tap lists. The Latona Pub is one of our oldest accounts and they’re a Seattle institution when it comes to craft beer. Our employees track new breweries and two new ones they like are Holy Mountain and Cloudburst.
But the choices are pretty much endless – Seattle is full of great beer.