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Interviews

The Founder of Optimism Brewing Answers Our Burning Questions

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I visited the brand new Optimism Brewing on their grand opening date earlier this month and the space and brewery left me both excited, perplexed and confounded by some of the choices. It’s not everyday a brewery of this size and scale opens up, especially without any established industry names attached and in an expensive and trendy neighborhood of Seattle. Buzz about town was ironically skeptical of Optimism Brewing and while I entered with little expectations I left with many frustrations. Rather than write a bad review or nothing at all, I thought I would pose my problems as questions to the owners, and to their credit they happily answered them. (All photos in this article are courtesy of capitolhillseattle.com © 2015 Alex Garland)

 

Optimism Brewing is founded by husband and wife team Troy Hakala and Gay Gilmore. Ex-Microsoft employees, they are also rumored to have sold recipezaar.com for around 25 million. The money is upfront when you walk into their bright, open and shiny new space and 20bbl production brewery.

Co-owner/Founder Troy Hakala addresses my burning questions after my initial visit to the brewery and tasting room:

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Q: Coming from Microsoft, Why open a brewery and why so Optimistically huge a space?

Troy Hakala: We met at Microsoft but we left over 15 years ago to start our own software company — we came from the tech industry and from our own company. I make that point because in Seattle there’s a stigma associated with “Microsofties”, or now “Amazonians”, that just isn’t true about us. We didn’t get rich at Microsoft, we did well because we are hard-working, self-made and optimistic people who enjoy taking risks, trying difficult things and learning from our failures (to us, that defines Optimism). People who paint us with a broad brush as “Microsofties” are missing the true story and they are missing a big part about who we are and what Optimism is.

I have wanted to build a brewery since I was 19 because I fell in love with beer. But they’re very expensive to build and I am not good at seeking investors, so I didn’t have the means to do it (or the knowledge!). Fortunately, I also loved programming a computer and I started my career in that industry, which is much easier to break into. I learned to brew since getting out of college and practiced it and read about it outside of my career. Once we could afford a brewery, I decided I didn’t want to do software anymore.  I wanted to finally pursue my other passion of beer and build a brewery. Life is short, I want to do what I love to do and I want to challenge myself.

The space is large, but it’s not large because we made it large, the building was built that size in 1920 (we actually made it smaller by creating the area for food trucks). It was important to us to be on Capitol Hill because we live here, we want our kids to grow up here, we want our brewery to be a positive part of the community that we live in. We also wanted to be close to the people and get feedback from those who drink our beer so being in a populated area was important to us. Capitol Hill fits the bill in every way. However, finding a space in Capitol Hill that could house the brewing equipment is difficult, and after a few failed attempts to get a space, we lucked into this one and it’s perfect for a brewery — tall ceilings, one flat floor, room for growth. We also love that the person who built the building left the brewing industry to start a new business in a new industry (much like us in reverse) plus the amazing coincidence that he was business partners in the brewing industry with the man, Andrew Hemrich, whose house we live in! They made the original Rainier Beer before Prohibition. We love the connection to Seattle beer history.

Everyone with experience in the brewing industry we heard from or talked to had a consistent message: start with room for growth because it will be very difficult and much more expensive to grow later if you don’t. So, while we didn’t design and build the place to be big, it may be better for us in the long-term.

Q: Why no kitchen or food options when you have so much space and seemingly funding to work with?

Troy Hakala: Because we want to focus on making beer. Adding a kitchen and serving food is like starting two businesses at the same time: a brewery and a restaurant. It’s hard to do one business, let alone two, and we just don’t have a passion for building and running a restaurant, so the restaurant would likely get less attention from us and suffer as a result. I also go to lots of brewpubs for the beer but find the menus are generally “pub food”, which is great, but they too tend to focus on the beer and not on the food so the menus don’t change, so I often decide against going to those places even though I want the beer because I want different food. Food trucks are perfect, they’re always changing, they’re fantastic quality (and always improving), and we love and want to support those entrepreneurs starting their small businesses. With food trucks, we get an ever-changing menu so we can focus on making and serving beer. I think it’s a great relationship between us and the food trucks and I hope we can help those entrepreneurs grow and prosper too. It’s a win-win-win, in my opinion — the food trucks win, we win and the customers win.

Q: What is the size of the brewhouse and fermenters?

The brewhouse is 20-barrel and the fermenters are all 40-barrel

Q: How many barrels of beer are you planning to produce per month, how many annually?

That depends on how much we sell. 2,000 barrels in our first year would be wonderful.

Q: Are you setting up with a distributor soon?

No. We want to ramp up in a controlled way and not get too ahead of ourselves. The plan has always been to start thinking about distribution after the first year.

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Q: Why did you choose to not disclose your beers styles? It seems like they are brewed to styles but those styles are just not posted which just seems frustrating.

We came from the tech industry and I remember when computer-makers talked about “Megahertz” and “Gigahertz” and the make and model of the CPU and used ridiculous acronyms (they still do!) and use difficult-to-read combinations of letters and numbers to name their products. That just confused and frustrated customers. It made computers disliked and solely for “nerds” — naming things that way didn’t help the industry. Today, all that nonsense has almost disappeared and the computer industry and it is much larger and far more approachable.

Likewise, only a small percentage of beer-drinkers know or care about styles. I realize a lot of people today know “IPA” and probably even “Stout” and “Pilsner” just from familiarity (as computer buyers learned “Intel 386”, “486“, “Pentium”, etc.) but do they know the other 120 or so styles? I don’t think so. I’ve met brewers who don’t know most of the styles! I’m confident that most people don’t want to study and memorize an arcane style book so they can order a beer. The wine industry almost requires that and I find it intimidating to order wine at restaurants because I feel ignorant about the wines. I don’t want beer to turn into that and I don’t want our customers to feel too intimidated to order a beer or, worse, just go with the one style they’re comfortable ordering and never explore other types of beers. Beer is too diverse to pigeon-hole. It’s not good for beer or the customer. I’m confident that beer style geeks can see the photo of our beer, read the flavor descriptors and have a pretty good guess about what style it is. And I think most people find the lack of pretense about the styles refreshing and they like how we describe the flavors, which is really what they’re trying to get at with the style names. (Many style names are unappetizing or negative words, e.g.  “Sour”, “Bitter”, “Pale”, “Old Ale”, “Wee Heavy”, etc. Even if I thought categorizing beers into style was a good idea, I wouldn’t want to use many of those names.)

Guinness doesn’t call their beer a “stout”, other people call it a stout, and most people just call it “Guinness”. Budweiser doesn’t call their beer an “American Premium Light Lager” even though beer stylists do, they call it “Bud” or “Budweiser” and so do their customers. Pilsner Urquell, the original Pilsner, called it that because it’s made in Pilsen and because it is very popular, a small group of people felt they had to declare it a style and slapped “Pilsner” on it and started lumping other similar beers into that category. People in Pilsen don’t call their beers “Pilseners”, that’d be like Seattleites calling their beer “Seattlers”. 🙂  Why aren’t style names required for those very famous and popular beers but required for craft beer? Craft beer needs to be more approachable, not less, and using technical style names is not the way to go about it, in my opinion.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager didn’t fit into any style category when it came out, it was later categorized in a *new* “American Amber Lager” category. Sierra Nevada’s Seasonal Holiday beer, Celebration Ale, would taste the same but would be laughed at if they called it by what it really is, an English IPA, because “IPA” means super hoppy today. Is our Black a stout or a porter? If we call it a stout and you think it’s a porter, do you like it less? Of course not, so why try to start the debate? I hope styles disappear from the American beer industry and we go back to the better way to talk about different beers: by the flavor. Our web site (optimismbrewing.com) tap list explains the beers in more detail and talks about styles and how they fit or don’t fit if people really care about styles.

Our beers aren’t really brewed to styles. Moxee and Zest are obviously IPAs, Black is a stout or maybe it’s a porter (we’ll let others argue about that distinction), …Before The Dawn is kind of an Imperial Stout but the alcohol level is low so it probably wouldn’t be considered an Imperial Stout. One is probably an ESB, but I think it tastes maltier than most ESBs I drink, so not sure about that either. Yellow and Unicorn don’t fit any style that I know of. Yellow might be a Kolsch because it has a Kolsch yeast and uses German malt, but I can’t say for sure as I have yet to go to Cologne, Germany to try a “real Kolsch”. Unicorn is fermented with an American ale yeast, so it’s not a Pilsner although some have said it is. Our holiday seasonal beer, called “Cheer”, would be expected to be called a “Winter Warmer”, but it’s lower alcohol content would knock it out of that category.

As you can see, we don’t believe that styles are a great way to describe the beers. Styles were created solely for beer judging competitions out of necessity — you can’t judge all beers together, you have to group them somehow. Styles were never intended to be used in the marketplace. Beer has not been classified this way for 300+ years and I don’t see a good reason for it. At best, it’s a shorthand and useful when you need to fit a description into a tiny space on a tap list, but I find it too restrictive and just leads to pointless arguments. This is why we have large screens for our tap lists so we can give more information, including a photo and flavor descriptors. It would certainly be easier on us to name the beers by style, or cross-style names, but we want to make it easier on the customer. I admit that we need to get better at describing the flavors and we have been talking about it quite a bit and we welcome feedback or ideas, but falling back to the problems of style names just because it’s easy is not how we like to approach challenges. If we have to talk to customers more to describe the beer, we think that’s great and that’s why we have great beer servers (who are all Cicerone-certified beer servers) who welcome conversations about the beers.

Q: I have heard of non-tipping and cash only bars, but credit only? I guess cash is no longer king. Why no cash?

To clarify, we accept debit and credit cards, just not cash.  We will have gift cards and will accept Apple Pay and Google Pay in the future. Lots of successful business don’t accept cash, such as Amazon, iTunes, Facebook, Google, etc. I agree with you that cash is no longer king or, at least, the king is not long for this world. Progress requires change and sometimes change is scary at the beginning.

We don’t accept cash because cash is full of problems. It’s slow to process and make change, we have to keep it on hand and carry it to the bank, which is a danger to our staff — we were surprised at how often cash businesses are robbed and we fear exposing our staff to that risk. We can’t find a good reason to use cash. We’ll see how it goes (and it’s been no problem at all so far), but it’s better to not have cash on Day One and add it later than it is to accept cash and one day stop accepting it. We hope we never have to.

Q: An argument could be made that your excluding those who dont like the banks or perhaps dont even have bank accounts and credit cards. Why turn their business away?

We haven’t turned a single customer away yet. Some people assumed we could take cash and when told we don’t, they immediately pull out a card. Maybe there’s people who just don’t even come in because they already know we don’t accept cash, we’ll never know. We looked at the statistics and found that the vast majority of people can use cards, there are very few all-cash people, especially in Seattle.

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Q: There has been a lot of talk about your unique communal bathrooms. What was the inspiration with that setup?

I hate waiting in lines and there’s no line worse than a line for a bathroom, in my opinion. If I don’t like doing something, why should I expect or require others to like it? This is the most-efficient way to design a bathroom. If we had gender-based bathrooms and the place had more men in it, then half the bathrooms would be empty while there’s a line for the men. We’re software geeks and you can’t make software without constantly thinking about efficiencies and making things better, so that’s the inspiration.

It’s unusual, but realize that America used to require 4 separate-but-equal bathrooms in a public place. I’m sure people thought it was unusual, even scary, when they started to see just 2, one for men and one for women of any race. Now, some are surprised to see just 1 but we believe it’s the future. We believe people of different genders can get along sharing a bathroom, we do it in our house.

It’s a huge plus that people going through gender-transformations are also finally welcomed in a bathroom. We’ve already had people thanking us (one was in tears as they thanked us) and telling us that it’s the first time they’ve felt comfortable in a bathroom or were not directed to the wrong bathroom by someone who thought they were a different gender or to a gender they don’t identify with.

It is a boon to families as well.  Parents can now feel comfortable escorting their opposite gender children to the restroom.

Q: What can we expect from Optimism Brewing next year?

More varieties of beers and more celebrations of optimism and optimists who have made and are making the world a better place.

Optimism Brewing

Open 4pm to 11pm Thursdays and Fridays
Noon to Midnight on Saturdays and Sundays
1158 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122

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