Irene Firmat, founder and chief executive officer of Full Sail Brewing Co., Hood River, Ore., was inspired by the beer varieties she encountered during European travels and wanted to introduce more American consumers to the concept of high-quality beer. The former department store buyer started the craft brewery in September 1987, with help from now Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, who has an organic chemistry undergraduate degree and master’s in brewing from Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy. Along the way, the pair fell in love and have been married for more than 20 years.

Their personal relationship provided a clear focus for a business that is dedicated to better beer with a portfolio of six SKUs. Under its namesake brand, the company offers Full Sail Amber, India Pale Ale, Pale Ale and a rotating selection of lagers under the Ltd. series. It also offers the Session brand, which is packaged in 11-ounce stubby bottles, in Session Lager and Session Black varieties.

“I think Session is probably one of the more innovative things that has happened in craft beers,” Firmat says. “It really opens up the world of craft beer to people who normally would not be so comfortable with it because it’s very approachable packaging. We’re making beers that are really balanced and very elegant.”

The brewery has distribution in Colorado and the remainder of the western United States, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

“We are in the Top 8 on the SymphonyIRI [data] as a brewery nationally, even though we’re in less than half the states,” Firmat says. “But not one of our beers is in the Top 100, which shows it’s about our portfolio, and we think that’s really important. If you’re going to take retail space and distributor space with your products, they better all turn, which at the end of the day is all better for the quality of the beer because what the consumer is getting is beer that’s fresh.”

The small portfolio allows Emmerson to brew most beers each week, and usually most beer is shipped within seven days from the packaging date, he says.

Full Sail Brewing showcases its portfolio at its brewpub in Hood River, which overlooks the Columbia River Gorge. To promote its products, the brewery offers four tours a day.

“In the month of July we had over 22,000 people visit the pub, which is a lot,” she says. “It gives us the ability to touch people in a really unique way. We’re a very small company so we cannot compete with the big global companies that we have to compete with on the shelf every day. We can’t do Super Bowl ads, we don’t do billboards, we don’t do all that stuff, but what we do is a lot of one-on-one connection with customers.”

The Pacific Northwest has provided the company with inspiration from the start. Firmat initially intended to name the brewery Sasquatch, the regional name for Big Foot. However, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. already had a product called Big Foot and issued the nascent business with a warning regarding the use of a similar name, she says. The company had returned to the drawing board when a representative from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau suggested calling the brewery Full Sail.

“There’s a ton of meaning around that term,” Firmat says. “It isn’t just sailing terminology. Obviously we’re in one of the meccas for board sailing, kite surfing and all that stuff, but it also is that whole sense that the wind is at your back and your sail is full and life is rich and lovely.”

The region also provides access to integral beer ingredients. Full Sail Brewing sources almost 99 percent of its beer ingredients from within 200 miles of the brewery from farmers with whom they have relationships.

“We buy our malt from Great Western, which is in Vancouver, Wash., 60 miles from the brewery, and I know those guys very well — I ride bikes with one of the maltsters,” Emmerson says. “So you get a heads up when stuff is changing or in flux; it’s not just a truck showing up at the brewery. The same thing with the hops … we know the hop growers and we hear about new things or problems.”

In 1999, Full Sail Brewing became an employee-owned company, which influences its long-term strategy, she explains.

“What we’re looking forward to in the next few years is just getting our roots deeper,” she says. “We made the decision not to enter any new markets for a while. We really want to focus on the markets we’re in and make sure that we have a sustainable presence in each market. We have the luxury of being employee-owned, which means we don’t have any hedge fund or venture capital group to be demanding some sort of return on investment every year, and we can really do stuff that makes sense for the beer, the company and our employees.” BI