Free Cupcakes! A 3-Year Check-In with ColdFire Brewing

(Or: Shut the Hell Up and Make More Cumulus)

This weekend, January 18-20, Eugene’s ColdFire Brewing will celebrate its third birthday. It seems hard to believe, they grow up so fast! Fortunately they’re still fun as they mature, and will offer free cupcakes each day (while supplies last) with the purchase of a beer. Each day will also see a special barrel-aged beer tapping and live music. See the end of the article for all of those details.

This year also marks the debut of ColdFire’s Publican Club, a membership that offers club-exclusive bottles of beer and discounts at the tap. Those interested can inquire at the taproom.

Stephen and Dan Hughes, just before opening day at ColdFire Brewing in 2016.

Three years may not be that long, but it seemed like a reasonable time to get the founding brothers, Stephen and Dan Hughes, to look back on their learning experiences. (So ya know: I’ve brewed several collaboration beers with ColdFire.)

The first beers came out in January of 2016. St. James IRA and Northwest Ale are what I recall tasting first. I was thrilled to hear they were using a Kölsch yeast (because I’m obsessed with Kölsch), but it was not to last.

“I love the simplicity of it,” says Stephen, the head brewer. However, he quickly learned that the yeast doesn’t take well to dry-hopping, is slow to clear out, and is more difficult to harvest than others. He moved on to other yeasts quickly. “We didn’t see the forest through the trees,” he says, referring to the brewery’s need to balance its approach to brewing with the business end.

Stephen and Dan had been homebrewing for some time, honing the German and Belgian styles they hoped to showcase. The reality of craft beer in the U.S. made itself apparent quickly; hops are king, and IPA was a necessary tool to add to the kit. Stephen was reticent, but got on board with his characteristic thoughtfulness:

“I guide things by my flavor preference; a brewer’s signature is important. But people want things in a particular way. How do you create the thing they want? If I was going to drink a hazy IPA, what would that look like?” It looks like the two current hop sensations at the brewery: Cumulus Tropicalus and Tangle of Tigers IPAs. Even this lager-lover (me) will take in the sunshine these beers provide.

One of the first release parties, at Tap & Growler. Left to right: Tyler Tannenbaum (assistant brewer), Todd Friedman (Hop Valley), Stephen Hughes, Toby Schock (now at The Wheel), Dan Hughes, Matt Van Wyk (Alesong)

While preparing to open the brewery, Stephen reduced his hours at his lab job at Peace Health. He spent the extra time brewing, volunteering with Tonya Cornett at 10 Barrel, Toby Schock (formerly) at Agrarian Ales, and Dave Marliave at Flat Tail. “I learned the major bullet points,” he says of his self-education with these three very different brewers. He also availed himself of information from Matt Van Wyk and Brian Coombs, who started Alesong Brewing & Blending in 2016. “Those guys have been awesome and super helpful.”

In three years, ColdFire has produced around 4,000 barrels of beer, and released 80-100  unique beers. As the business manager, Dan has been through the ringer. The biggest surprise, shortly after opening ColdFire, was “the sheer cost of running a brewery. Margins are razor thin. Prices are rising. We take care of our employees, and there’s a cost to that.” The brothers put in 70-80 hours a week for the first year or so, and took minimal pay as they reinvested profits into the business. Only in the last year have they been able to step back and lock in a production schedule, invest time in a laboratory, and focus on pet projects.

Had he his druthers, Stephen “would focus on lager and saison and West Coast pale ale.” The lagers are coming along, as the Czech Pils recently got a spot on the shelf, in 16oz. cans. The saisons are a longer game, as anybody who glances through the door from the taproom into the barrel-aging and packaging room will see. Less visible is a large oak foudre, which is essentially a saison solera project; when beer is taken out, fresh beer is added back in, creating a depth of complexity that will span years. Many other barrels hold iterations of saison and Belgian ales and imperial stouts, waiting for their day in the blending tank.

For their favorite releases to date, “Seeds of Infinity is at the top of my list,” says Stephen of the oak-aged, dry-hopped Brett Saison that was one of their first bottle releases in 2018. “It’s all about balance. It’s a beginning. It’s perpetual blending with intention.” Beers like that will be at the core of the new Publican Club. “This is not a rush over here,” says Stephen, pointing toward the barrels.

There’s more news on the horizon: the building across the parking lot from the brewery, currently used for storage, will be developed into a multi-story building, with a retail space and restaurant on the first floor to become ColdFire’s main outlet. That project won’t be complete until late 2020, and construction has not yet begun.

“We need to grow a little bit – just a little bit,” says Dan. “Stephen and I have been overwhelmed by the response from the local community. We brewed 1,400 barrels in 2018, and 1,000 of those went to local customers. We’ll probably grow to 2,000-2,500 barrels. That’ll allow for a diverse portfolio.” He prefers to keep the beer as close to home as possible. “What you do resonates differently in your community. You’re better off when listening to your customer,” than reading reviews on beer rating sites.

The future looks bright (if not also hazy) for ColdFire. The brewery earned a tied runner-up mention next to Upright and Baerlic in the “Most Underrated Brewery” category in The New School’s year-end survey of industry professionals (note: not my nomination). St. James IRA took a silver medal for Double Red Ale at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. The Witbier was the only US-brewed beer to beat a Belgian counterpart in the 2017 Battle of the Belgians at the late Bazi Beerbrasserie. More importantly, the taproom is consistently busy, whether for trivia nights, live music, a nonprofit benefit, or just some tasty pints with friends. Stephen sums”Community and beer in balance – those things have to be equal.”.  ~~~~~~

coldfire pils

3rd Anniversary Weekend Details, press release:

ColdFire Brewing company will celebrate its third anniversary party in style on the weekend of January 18th through the 20th. Come joins us for live music each day, beer specials, barrel aged beer releases and cupcakes made by Polly’s Cakes and Pastries.

Friday 1/18

The day starts off with half priced Cumulus Tropicalus IPA from noon to 4. This is our way of saying thanks to all the fans of this delicious, fresh and hoppy beer! We will be giving out cupcakes made with cumulus and minute after midnight with the purchase of a beverage. Try the suggested pairing or find something unique on your own. Bonus: mini cupcakes for the kids. Stick around and hear one of our favorite local bands, Dirty Spoon, as they bring their hills stomping, knee thumping good tunes to our taproom. Music starts at 6pm. Kids welcome until 9pm. Food Trucks: Twisted Tako and Sly Dogs. Barrel Aged Beer tapped: Seeds of Infinity, keg conditioned with pear juice

Saturday 1/19

Day 2 gets started with more cupcakes, this time made with St. James India Red Ale and our Yuzu Cream Ale. We managed to book one of our all-time favorite musicians, Mark Alan. Mark’s soulful acoustic guitar and singing will pair nicely with that dinner, desert and bourbon barrel aged beer in your hand. Music starts at 6pm. Kids welcome until 9pm. Mini cupcakes available for the kids. Food Trucks: Twisted Tako and Sly Dogs. Barrel Aged Beer tapped: The Bourbon Council

Sunday 1/20

Day 3 caps the fun and celebration with another round of cupcakes, this time made with our Koyo Marzen. Live music will start at 3pm with the Buddeke Family and their folks style band. Bring the kiddos and get the last cupcake fix before it’s over. Food Trucks: Sammitch Barrel Aged Beer tapped: Cellar Muse.  

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