Washington state is far away from most of the country, but to the lover of craft beer, this area of the United States holds special meaning. The Pacific Northwest is known as an area where a large percentage of hops- one of othe four main ingredients in all beer- are grown and it is home to a very large number of craft brewing operations. An individual could easily dedicate several vacations to craft beer exploration in the Washington/Oregon area and still not be able to visit all of the breweries and brewpubs in this two- state hotbed of craft brew.
One of the many different craft breweries in the state of Washington is 7 Seas Brewing, a small brewery located in Gig Harbor, not far from Tacoma. 7 Seas was founded in 2008 by Travis Guterson and Mike Runion and it has enjoyed much success and growth over the past few years. Great Beer Now caught up with co- owner and brewmaster Travis Guterson just recently and posed a few questions to him about 7 Seas Brewing and the craft brewing industry in general. Here are the questions and his candid response to each:
The craft brewing industry has made great gains in the past few years and there are now close to 2,000 breweries and brewpubs in the United States. Do you see the growth continuing or is the industry reaching a saturation point?
My guess is that the Craft-Beer industry will continue to grow at least in the immediate and near future. To what extent is difficult to say, but certainly the potential is major. It really depends on how many small craft-breweries are putting out a quality, consistent product. As the public develops a more educated, informed palate, some of the breweries surviving right now, may disappear. Which types of beer people enjoy drinking can be subjective, but quality and proper execution is not in my mind. Also, out of the 2,000 existing breweries out there, how many are essentially considered ‘Nanos’? Nano breweries may boost the numbers of registered breweries that can sell to the public, but they do nothing for increasing the percentage of craft beer sold overall. In other words, all this ‘growth’ can be a little misleading. I’m thrilled that our industry is strong and growing right now, but it can and will only continue through hard work, technically proficient brewing techniques, and an awareness for the business, marketing side of it all.
Large brewers like Anheuser- Busch, Miller, Coors, and others continue to dominate the market, even though their total share has fallen. How will their size and influence affect the craft beer industry in the coming years?
The big three breweries (Bud, Miller, Coors) will continue doing what they have always done. Which is to say, they will do anything, regardless of how shameful it is, to sell their beer. For companies like the big three, it doesn’t really matter what they’re selling, it’s all about how much of it they can sell. Therefore, they will continue their efforts to prevent the growth of craft beer because it means less of theirs is being sold. Whether that takes the shape of them creating fake ‘craft’ brands and products or lobbying efforts to make it more difficult for the small guys to sell beer in the marketplace. I am not opposed to drinking the occasional can of yellow, bland fizzy beer, but I think the authenticity and artisan aspect of craft beer will always resonate with the selective beer drinking public and we’ll be safe even in a down economy. Their efforts to inhibit craft beer can’t compete with the convictions, dedication, intelligence, and hard work of craft brewers.
With so many different craft breweries and so much beer from which to choose, how does a craft brewer distinguish itself from its competition?
Every craft brewery out there is a little different and that’s what inherently makes our industry so cool. When creating a new beer or a new brewery, follow your heart and your own preferences and being unique will follow automatically, making it easier to distinguish yourself in a fairly competitive market.
What, specifically, has 7 Seas Brewing done to make its products stand out in the craft beer crowd?
7 Seas Brewing Co. was the first craft brewery in Washington State to package beer in cans. Certainly, that was one thing that set us apart to a certain degree. However, myself and my business partner, Mike Runion recognized early on that we must not only brew great beer, but brand it and market it well too. We do our best to represent our product, which we’re proud of, in a manner that conveys that. For a company as small as we are, it’s incredible how much merchandise we sell. Maybe we got lucky, but I think many people in our area find our brand ‘cool’ in some way or another and want to represent it.
What was the inspiration behind the founding of 7 Seas Brewing? What do you like best about the art of brewing craft beer?
Before starting 7 Seas Brewing co., I worked at three other breweries throughout Oregon and Washington. It was always the goal for me to start my own someday because that’s the kind of person I am. I was lucky to meet Mike Runion and between his business background and my brewing experience we were able to start our own company. I enjoy brewing because it’s such a combination of things that go into it. ‘Craft,’ is indeed that best word to describe it. It’s creative, physical, a little science, and people appreciate what you do. That is a great feeling and makes it extra rewarding.
Some states have unusual and often bizarre laws on the books restricting beer and craft breweries. Does Washington have any such restrictions, or do the regulators generally stay out of the way?
I really don’t have a good answer for that. I wish that I did and I need to make it a goal to be a little more informed on that subject.
In what U.S. states are 7 Seas Brewing products currently sold? Is there a plan in place to expand to more states?
7 Seas produced only 1,200 BBL’s of beer in 2011. Consequently, the vast majority of our beer is sold in the three counties surrounding us. We just moved buildings and expanded our brewery from an 8.5 BBL brew house, to a 25 BBL system so we project a first calendar year of production around 3,500 BBLs with room to add tanks and grow in the future. However, we have no desire to distribute our beer outside of Washington State until we can’t sell any more beer in the State. It’s better for the beer and the environment to keep it as local as possible. Mike and I were both born and raised in Washington so our home state is and always will be the first priority.
7 Seas Brewing packages its products in cans. Do you foresee bottling at any point in the future or will cans and kegs remain the sole means for packaging?
We are dedicated to canning. Perhaps if we start a barrel program or produce some beers that lend themselves to bottle conditioning, I could see us do a limited release of some fancy, wax dipped, champagne type bottles, but we’re looking to expand our canned beer line-up first. Again, being from the Northwest, cans are best for taking beer to the mountains, out on the water, or any of the awesome outdoor recreations we have here.
7 Seas Brewing has a nice, diverse lineup of products. Are there any plans to expand the products further and venture into extreme beer or some other market niche?
We will always keep things fun, creative, and innovative. New beers are definitely a part of that. That being said, I would rather have four beers on tap that we’re 100% proud and satisfied with, than have twelve beers on tap and half of them are only average. The cool thing about expanding to a larger brew house, is that we were able to retain our old 8.5 BBL brew house so that will open up some opportunities for new beers and get some of the tap room staff involved in the brewing as well. We will see what happens, but personally, I’m really looking forward to brewing a couple Lagers. Mike and I are both big fans of barrel aged ‘sour’ beer as well, but that is an area that I have zero brewing experience in so that will be a big learning process for us and we will see how they eventually turn out.
Winning awards is always rewarding for a brewer. Which 7 Seas Brewing products have received awards and/or achieved some significant level of recognition?
We are a young company and haven’t entered many competitions yet. Winning an award at say, GABF or World Beer Cup would be a tremendous honor, but as a brewer you can’t let those things validate the quality of your beers. Some of our year round beers fit into a designated style better than others, but it’s never been our goal to brew exactly to style. We have won a couple ‘people’s choice’ awards at local festivals, but that’s about it so far. We just focus on trying to make the best beer we know how and brew what we enjoy, the rest we can’t control.
So, there you have it, words of wisdom from one of Washington states’ many craft brewing entreprenuers. If you happen to be in the Gig Harbor area, make it a point to stop by the 7 Seas Brewery and visit the tap room and beer garden. It is presently open Wednesday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. It is an up- and- coming brewery with many tasty hand- crafted brew for your drinking pleasure. Enjoy your visit, and tell them Great Beer Now sent you.