Empty red, white and blue cans of Buoy Beer Co.’s India pale ale streamed along a conveyor belt inside the brewery on the Astoria Riverwalk. A small crew of workers helped cap and fill about 85 cans a minute, stacking the finished six-packs on pallets destined for stores around Oregon and southwest Washington.
Amid a rapid expansion since opening three years ago, Buoy Beer has gained the notice of Gov. Kate Brown and Business Oregon, which recently announced a loan of $150,000 from the agency’s strategic reserve fund to purchase more storage tanks as the company continues to ramp up capacity.
While a nod of support to Buoy Beer’s job creation and manufacturing, the state’s donation is a relative drop in the bucket among the several million dollars the company has spent on its brewhouse and restaurant inside the former Bornstein Seafoods cannery.
Supported by about 20 initial investors, Buoy Beer’s founding team includes General Manager Dave Kroening, Bornstein Seafoods co-owner Andrew Bornstein, founding brewer Dan Hamilton and Luke Colvin, who also runs Arbor Care Tree Specialists.
Since opening in 2014, Colvin said, expansion has been nearly continual.
“We totally underestimated how busy the restaurant was going to be,” he said, adding the company doubled the size of its kitchen to cut down on wait times.
Buoy Beer still uses the 20-barrel system it started with three years ago. While several brews can be done in a day, Colvin said, beers can take anywhere between two and six weeks to fully condition, limiting production. Since opening, the brewery has expanded three separate times, adding fermenting and bright tanks to increase capacity and taking out much of the former cannery’s second floor in the process.
This spring, the brewery installed a canning line, used to export its India pale ale, Pilsner and cream ale. Much of the upstairs in the former cannery is filled with kegs and cans. Buoy Beer orders 200,000 cans at a time for each variety of beer it exports. The brewery also uses a mobile bottler for its India pale ale, Pilsner and Northwest red ale.
Buoy Beer’s forgivable loan is part of a $4.8 million investment announced this month by Business Oregon, whose regional development officers act as liaisons with growing companies. Working with Buoy Beer was Regional Development Officer Melanie Olson.
“I met with the company, and we talked about their needs,” Olson said. “We decided they were creating jobs and growing their business.”
In 2010, Business Oregon provided Astoria’s Fort George Brewery a similar forgivable $150,000 loan to help expand its brewery and install a canning line. The state had hoped to help with Buoy Beer’s new canning line, but will instead help buy about eight new storage tanks, Olson said.
Nathan Buehler, a spokesman for Business Oregon, said the loan’s forgiveness — still being finalized in a contract with Buoy Beer — depends on the company creating the equivalent of five more full-time jobs and reaching 20,000 barrels of production annually by June 2020.
Jobs and beer
Buehler said the goals, reached through a negotiation, seemed fair for Buoy Beer, which has exponentially grown its beer production and employment over the past three years.
Kroening said Buoy Beer employed the equivalent of about 34 full-time employees in the summer of 2014. The company now employs about 98 people, with the equivalent of 64 full time. The Oregon Employment Department reported that 220 breweries statewide accounted for more than 6,700 jobs last year.
In its first year, Buoy Beer reported to the state about 940 barrels of beer sold, the 68th highest among Oregon-based breweries. That increased to nearly 2,900 barrels in 2015 and more than 5,300 in 2016. Through June of this year, more than 3,500 barrels have been sold, the 22nd highest among Oregon breweries, and Colvin said the brewery anticipates reaching 10,000 barrels.
Kroening said Buoy Beer can now be found as far north as Castle Rock, Washington, south to the California border and throughout most of Oregon. The brewery already struggles to keep up with orders, he said, and is focusing on going deeper into its existing markets rather than expanding geographically.
Colvin and Kroening said Buoy Beer anticipates maxing out the capacity at its current location within a couple of years, while reaching the 20,000-barrel annual benchmark.
While the rate of growth has been rapid, Colvin said, the company always thought it “had a really good team and product.”