There has been a large increase in the number of craft distilleries over the past few years, and new ones can be seen from Ashland to Portland.
But there aren’t many whose roots run three generations deep in Northeast Oregon, and are linked directly to the raw materials that go into making exceptional spirits.
The Stein family settled in Joseph, OR in the late 1890’s and relied on the land and wildlife for survival. They became wheat farmers, and for many decades, the focus was on traditional crop growing and selling.
But the agriculture business is never easy.
Grain prices started to fall and the family was looking for ways to produce crops for alternate means, and with the ability to grow really good wheat, rye, and barley, the idea for a distillery was hatched, and enter Austin and Heather Stein.
Austin and Heather are 4th generation Steins, both of whom wanted to carry on the hard-working tradition of their families and small town communities whose residents share some core values, and with many of them running family owned businesses.
They both achieved engineering degrees in college, and eventually wanted to use them for the greater good, and as Heather points out, they saw that opportunity present itself in 2005.
“We noticed 2 lots on Joseph’s main street for sale, and decided it was now or never. We had the know-how in the family to distill, to build, to manufacture and to manage. All the pieces were there to run a business. “
As with many small town families, the Steins also had a construction business, which gave them the wherewithal to know how to develop these lots into something that could bring new jobs and resources to the community.
So the plan was launched with the ability to develop the property, and the engineering backgrounds to assist in the distillery setup.
But Heather and Austin were focused on creating craft spirits that were both representative of their family’s farming heritage, and world class in taste from the start. This led them down the knowledge and education path.
“ We went to a distilling class in April 2006, offered by Bavarian Holstein, and learned how to distill using manufactured equipment. We decided to order the equipment after 3-years of obtaining licensing from both state and federal governments. After receiving the equipment in March 2009, it took 4 months to perfect the grain to starch conversion process. Once perfected, we distilled vodka right off the bat and then cordials, and then started distilling and barreling whiskey for aging.”
The ability to distill high quality vodka and cordials from the outset allowed them build the brand. The team did tastings, worked on distribution, and started to create the story around Stein Distillery. A story centered around making high quality spirits from their own grain – truly farm to bottle distilling.
The vodka and cordial sales also brought in much needed revenue to this young craft distillery. But, as Austin states, there was always a goal on producing another product line.
“ The vision has always been aged whiskey. We needed to get unique vodka and cordials to the market first to start making a name for ourselves and bring in revenue. But the ultimate goal was always aged Oregon whiskey made from true-Oregon grain. “
In addition, the Steins had the intention to set themselves apart from other micro-distilleries in Oregon, as well as bring back some famous cocktails of yesteryear. To do this, they decided to grow their own rye for use in the vodka, and whiskey as an addition to their family grown wheat.
But the focus on uniqueness didn’t end there. The Steins knew they could distinguish their whiskeys even more by adding another unique grain, and so they started growing barley as well. Even with the ability and knowhow to grow wheat, rye, and barley, they were still in need of one other ingredient, an ingredient they would need to source – corn.
“We knew we couldn’t and shouldn’t compete with Hermiston corn so we decided to source corn from a cousin already growing it in Hermiston. Knowing exactly where the raw material is from and how it is grown, and knowing careful and meticulous Stein hands have been in the process from start to finish, ensures a consistent high quality product to our consumer.”
And getting the product to the consumer started in Joseph and Wallowa County – not necessarily the center of the craft spirits movement. To the Stein’s knowledge, the closest distilleries to theirs would be in the Tri-City area, Spokane or Boise – over 3 hours away. But being the sole distillery in a large area did create opportunities for not only the business, but also the community.
“ We would say that having the distillery in Joseph has created talk/interest for alternate uses for grain/agriculture in general, as there are still many family farms on the Eastern side of the state. Our distillery has brought additional tourism to Joseph which is a major industry for Wallowa County, and we hope to continue to attract people to this beautiful area.”
With the tasting room thriving, raw materials growing and a mix of products that includes vodka, rye whiskey, whiskey, bourbon, cordials and “steinshine” (based on a family bourbon recipe), one might think that the Stein Distillery would be content.
Not so much. It’s time for expansion.
The distillery is currently in the early stages of designing a barrel aging warehouse to their distillery in Joseph. This will not only allow more space for the barrel products to age, but will also free up manufacturing space to increase production.
In addition to the expansion in Joseph, they recently opened a tasting room in the Progress Ridge are of Beaverton. A move they know helps to build the brand equity in new areas.
“ Having a tasting room allows the consumer to be able to sample the spirit before making the decision to buy. It gives us the opportunity to educate the consumer on how spirits are made, what they should be tasting and why they should care about it. We find consumers are also interested in our story and our supportive of our small family business.”
And this growth has led to some new challenges and opportunities in the business.
“ Being of engineering and manufacturing brains, we are not naturally the first ones to market/advertise/sell but obviously these activities are critical to any business, and so we will be looking to add expertise and opportunity in these areas. These actions will help us continue to move nationally and internationally with our products. Meanwhile, we do foresee the current demand picking up in 2016, therefore expanding our production capability will also be critical.”
With a hard working legacy of 4 generations of Oregonians supporting their efforts, the Stein family is well prepared to weather the entrepreneurial storm, but offer this simple bit of advice for others making the leap.
“Be prepared for a long journey.”