In 1993, Crayne Horton founded Fish Brewing Company, brewer of Fish Tale Ales in Olympia, Wash. For the last nine years, he has helped build the company into a leading environmental brewery with one of the world’s best-selling lines of certified organic beers. Today, he serves as vice president of marketing and sales.

Monday, 17 Jun 2002

OLYMPIA, Wash.

As I write it’s about 8 a.m. on a beautiful morning in Olympia, Wash. I just arrived at work after watering my veggie and fruit beds and then walking down the hill to the brewery. While walking, I considered what to write about for my first journal entry for Grist. Best to start at the beginning of my brewery’s comeback — that is, best to start on New Year’s Day 1998.

It was early in the morning and I had just woken up on the couch in my office, with a slight hangover. Time to take stock of the situation. First of all, it was very cold in my office; heat costs money and the company was broke. After the big expansion of our brewing capacity back in 1996, the bottom had fallen out of the craft beer business. The 40 percent annual growth rate which our industry had experienced for more than 10 years had come to a nearly complete halt, with 3 percent growth expected for 1998. Back in 1995, during happier times when we were planning an expansion, we had projected continued vigorous sales growth. We were relying on that growth to support all the physical plant investment and new overhead associated with the larger brewing facility we had committed to. Three years later, it was obvious that those projections had been a serious mistake. Business was flat, and our expenses far exceeded our income. In short, the company was in a lot of trouble.

After two years of trying to keep the ship afloat, those of us who were still around were not getting along well, to say the least. Fish Brewing Company was no longer a happy place to work. The friendly management team was falling apart and the brewing team was talking unionization. Things were clearly not going well in my domestic life either, or I would have woken up at home, rather than on a couch at work. My marriage to the company’s other founding partner would soon come to an end, the victim of too much work and too much stress.

No, things were not working out as planned. Admittedly I was very proud of the beers we were making. They were very strong and tasty, and widely appreciated by beer geeks. Our graphic presentation, logos, and intellectual properties were well done. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm for the business was waning. It was becoming very difficult to summon the motivation each morning to go forth and present the product to sullen bar owners in smoke-filled taverns. After all, it was only beer I was selling. The world would be no less rich if we went out of business. Lying there on the couch, the idea of just throwing in the towel had a certain appeal. The bank would probably make the decision for us soon anyway. Maybe the landlord would put a padlock on the building next week, or the city would shut off our water. So why not just face the facts and begin liquidating before someone else did it for us?

Unfortunately, there was that nagging problem of all those people who had invested in the company. Some were family and friends. Many of them lived in Olympia; their children went to school with my son. I did not want to move away. Best to keep trying to find a solution, stubbornly working to turn things around.

So there I was lying in the dark on that cold couch looking for answers. That’s when it started to come together, what I refer to as the “epiphany.” What we needed was a holistic solution. Some way of improving sales quickly by giving us a brand identity, bringing all of our employees back together, and giving me a better reason to go to work in the morning.

A simple plan began to take shape. We would introduce a new product, something more lightly flavored with broader appeal than our usual super-hop beers. A nice light beer that would be called “Wild Salmon Pale Ale.” We would find a worthy nonprofit organization and offer to donate a portion of the proceeds from each sale of Wild Salmon to their pro-environment efforts. In return, we would receive the good will of our customers and increased sales. This would also help us to better define our customers and establish a niche. Our target customers would be just like us: liberal, environmentally minded, gracefully aging Deadheads living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. We would put all our energy and marketing efforts into redefining the company as the leading environmentally friendly brewer — a super green eco-brewery. Did it work? Well … four years later and we’re still here.