Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 67 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
What do you know about the beer business? How familiar are you with things like three-tier distribution systems; local, state, and federal excise taxes; and the Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations regarding beer labels?
If these terms and concepts come up in your barstool bull sessions, then you probably already know a hell of a lot more about the industry than Greg Parker, his father Gary, and Ross Chalstrom did when they took over Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg, Washington.
All Greg Parker knew was that he liked beer.
The Parkers, who are co-owners of Iron Horse with Chalstrom recently becoming an equity partner although he has been a part of the team since the start, did not take the traditional route toward brewery ownership. Even for similarly inexperienced industry newcomers, the process of opening a brewery or a brewpub is lengthy and informative. Neophytes develop relationships with distributors, equipment manufacturers, and the government as they maneuver through the intricacies of getting started. Many more seek out other brewers as consultants or tour other breweries in the area to get a sense of what is required.
Instead of going through those formative steps, Greg Parker went straight into business by purchasing an already operational location. He was working at a deli counter in Montana and mulling a return to college when he came across a notice for a brewery for sale.
“At the time I was making beer in my garage in Montana, and saw that the brewery came for sale,” Parker said. “I was able to talk my dad into helping my buy a brewery, even though neither for us had any commercial brewing experience.”
The brewery was a small operation called Iron Horse that was owned and founded by Jim Quilter in the summer of 2004.
“He liked the beer, but he didn’t wasn’t big into selling beer,” Parker said of Quilter. “He kind of hung out and waited for people to show up and not enough showed up for him.”
The Parkers came in and took over management of Iron Horse in March of 2007. By July of the same year, they were the outright owners. Greg was going to lead the day-to-day operations charge, but they brought in Chalstron, a college friend of Greg’s, to manage sales – despite the fact that he had as much experience in sales as he did in the beer industry, which was none.
“It was kind of random. We had been friends for a long time and after him getting married and moving to Montana we didn’t talk that much,” Chalstron said. “I helped him move (back to Washington) when I was trying to get into a graduate program because I was trying to be a professor. I helped him move and he told me what he was doing. At that point I liked craft beer and stuff, but for the most part I was a neophyte… About the time I met up with Greg and all that stuff at least I was aware of it. I look back and think of how little I knew.
“I think for me it was a little different just because I focus mostly on sales. I brewed a little bit, but if I was brewing our beer we’d never sell any beer. The learning curve for me was more that I had never really sold anything. I tried to understand what is it about craft beer that makes it unique, and what’s a good way to go about it. The learning curve was more watching other people who had done a good job and how they did it.”
According to Parker, the move to Washington and the financial hardships that followed nearly split him from his wife, Natalia, who was eight months pregnant with their second child at the time.
“Apparently she’s got as bad of judgment as I do,” Parker said with a laugh. “I think probably she’s a selfless person and realized I had a job I didn’t like and I had identified a career path that was of interest to me. Even though it wasn’t good timing or necessarily a guaranteed path to success, she wanted me to pursue it.”
The couple stuck it out, and so did the business. When Parker took over in 2007, Iron Horse produced about 500 bbl per year. Now, it makes more than that in a month. Although he acknowledged things would have been easier had he entered the business with more experience in the industry, he credits his and Chalstrom’s inexperience and fresh perspective as crucial to the growth and success.
“We stumbled through the logistical side of it, the distributor relationships and behind-the scenes stuff,” Parker said. “We fumbled more than we scored. But I think the things we did right was we were able to bring fresh sets of perspectives to the business. Rather than coming from inside and wanting to do things the established way, we didn’t know what it was, so we just did it our way.
“I think that really made the difference because we took beers to market that didn’t have styles, didn’t meet expectations and were kind of their own thing. It allowed us to create a signature. We recognized that as our greatest strength in that we didn’t know what we were doing. You have to learn something unless you want to keep suffering, but we try to ignore as much as we can about the industry and continue to put our take on it rather than the industry take.”
The same went for Chalstrom, who was trying to introduce himself to the community while learning the ins and outs of salesmanship.
“It’s changed now, there’s more of a kind of a developed idea of how you sell beer and how you market it,” Chalstrom said. “I remember when we started, not many breweries had sales reps. I think by getting out there, a lot more people understood that we were young and we were unpolished and a little different. That gave us some uniqueness a little in the beginning.”
Rules? What Rules?
If you want to taste a refined Czech Pilsner, or a superb English Porter, then Iron Horse Brewery is not for you.
“We don’t try to hit styles necessarily,” head brewer Tyson Read said. “We try to do things that are a little different that don’t quite get a category.”
That unique approach includes is perhaps best typified by Iron Horse’s top-selling beer: a tribute to the brewery’s founder, Quilter’s Irish Death. Not quite a porter, not quite a stout, the beer defies classification.
“It’s kind of an anomaly beer,” Read said. “It doesn’t really fit anywhere. It’s got some of everything in it. Low hoppiness, dark in color. A lot of people like it, especially people who are new to craft beer. Even though it’s dark they generally like it probably because it’s fairly sweet, and low in hoppiness and alcohol – so it’s fairly drinkable for everybody.”
That isn’t to say that Iron Horse doesn’t make recognizable beers – they brew their versions of IPA, Cream Stout, Pale Ale, and so on. And Read, who unlike his employers was trained in brewing at UC Davis and was no stranger to the industry when he became the head brewer at Iron Horse in 2010, executes these beers well. Still, with Parker at the helm, Read is able to experiment and stretch the limits of what styles should look like.
That’s just the way they do things at Iron Horse. Don’t blame them though, they don’t know any better.
Sean Lewis is a freelance journalist, a home brewer, and is currently working on his first book for St. Martin’s Press.