Most people wouldn’t stand in front of a derelict fruit cannery and envision a microbrewery—much less so in 1987 when the chances of success were about as good as finding gold in the Cascades—but that’s exactly how Full Sail got its humble start in Hood River, Ore. “At that point, there were already three breweries in Portland, and we couldn’t imagine that there could be any more,” explains co-founder Irene Firmat before she adds with a laugh, “Right now in the state of Oregon there are something like 60 breweries, so obviously our reading was a little off.” With Mt. Hood looming in the distance, she and a few friends found the location to start their venture, but Firmat, who worked as a buyer for a department store, realized the next challenge was to find a brewer. She found a brew school graduate, Jamie Emmerson, and he jumped at the chance to kick off the venture.
Full Sail started to make ripples, brewing for both the locals and the windsurfers who had flocked to the Columbia River Gorge. “We were under the radar for a long time, which was a good thing,” recounts Firmat.
One of the biggest challenges for Full Sail was when it changed its course in 1999 and became an independent, employee-owned company. Shares of the company were put on the auction block, and when the dust settled, Full Sail had 47 employee-owners. Then, a domino effect of changes began with the aim of increasing efficiency while implementing green practices. Some of the brewery’s programs include extensive recycling, wastewater treatment, use of locally grown ingredients and a four-day workweek. “We live in a small town and it really does matter how we develop within the community,” says Firmat.
For instance, the company Christmas party went from an adult office function like any other to a new effort to aid local families. “We spent a lot of money on [the party], but what we wanted to do instead was help some families out for Christmas,” recalls Firmat. So the brewery teamed up with several community groups to use the funds to buy, wrap and deliver presents for families in need.
Not the kind of company to rest on its laurels, Full Sail looks to the near future. Aside from adding the finishing touches to a pub renovation and increasing its distribution network to Florida, the first state to offer Full Sail on the East Coast, Emmerson has cooked up some seasonal brews called the LTD Series. He explains that “It’s ‘limited,’ but also stands for ‘living the dream,’ which is kind of where we’re at.”