Stemma Brewing Company opens in Bellingham
Zoe Hayes, a Stemma bartender, prepares 32 ounce cans called crowlers, which are ordered to go at Stemma Brewing Co. on July 10. // Photo by Alex Moreno
Situated in the heart of the Roosevelt district, Bellingham welcomes Stemma Brewing Company, owned and operated by husband and wife duo, Jason and Kim Harper. The brewery opened its doors to the public on June 22 and invited neighbors to attend their grand opening the following week.
Harper started home brewing once he turned 21, and was influenced and taught by his father who has been home brewing since the late ‘80s. He formed his initial business plan for Stemma while attending Western in 2011, when Boundary Bay Brewing Co. and Chuckanut Brewery were the only Bellingham options back then, Harper said.
Harper and co-owner Kim Harper, his wife, started planning two years ago then revamped the plan in order to survive within the world of Bellingham craft brewing.
“A lot has changed in the climate of the beer industry since then but really the overall business plan stayed the same,” Harper said.
Stemma is striving for a more alternative look compared to other breweries
“We have more of a chill coffee shop vibe with brighter colors than other breweries,” Harper said.
Stemma currently has six different styles of beer on tap, another five styles in barrels and have brewed 120 barrels so far, Harper said. The beers range from India pale ales, porters and stouts to Munich helles, a light German lager.
“We’re the closest brewery for anyone east of I-5 essentially, which doesn’t seem like much, Kulshan is another two minutes away, but it’s amazing to me how many people stop in and are like, ‘oh we love it, you’re our closest brewery,’” Harper said. “We are getting a lot of the community from Roosevelt, Sunnyland, up Alabama and people coming off the lake. Being off the freeway is huge as far as accessibility goes.”
The owners of Stemma want it to appeal to a wide array of people.
“We want to create something that people can expect time in and time out,” Harper said. Their selection of beers include a handful of IPAs, a farmhouse ale and a classic amber beer among others. Their house beer is called Stemma IPA, it holds some bigger hops like citra and mosaic and it is Harper’s own rendition of the IPA’s he looks up to, he said.
“I dig it, for a brewery just starting out it’s pretty good,” Alex Dapogny, a bartender at Goods Local Brews said. “People go back-and-forth between hesitant and excited about new breweries in Bellingham, but people are seeming excited.”
Stemma has their Training Wheels Blonde Ale on tap at Goods Local Brews along with eight other breweries beers.
“It’s been about the third most popular beer today and people have been reacting positively,” Dapogny said.
Stemma is focused on mainly distributing through its storefront and serving the community with localized small scale operations. Stemma is filling crowlers – 32 ounce cans – to go, but doesn’t want to make a jump into canning operations for beer on a large scale.
“We’re just doing crowlers here filled to go, we are not, at least right away, going to be selling them out of here, so everything in the cooler is just empty cans,” Harper said. “Cans are sort of the last place you want to go as far as a dollar standpoint, dollars go down and labor goes up when you get into that region and it’s more about volume at that point.”
Stemma does have beers available in locations such as Goods Local Brews and Lost Giants Cider Company.
“We’re doing light distribution right now. We are hoping to start with draft only in restaurants and expand from there, but distribution will grow in the next coming months,” Harper said.
After graduating, Harper found employment at Dickerson Distributors, a local beverage distributor. He worked there for eight years doing everything from sales, operations, inventory management. Towards the end of this career he worked for hiring and upper management, which provided business skills, Harper said.
“I’ve gone through Cicerone program, a beer certification program, that has made me pretty prepared,” Harper said.
When Harper established the business plan in 2011 there was just under 2,000 breweries in the U.S. and now it’s close to 8,000, Harper said.
Craft brewing has become quite the hobby in the Pacific Northwest. “There are 8,000 or some breweries in the United States and competition is only getting tighter,” Harper said.
“Had you asked me in February of 2011 what I was doing when I graduated from school, I was telling everyone I was starting a brewery,” Harper said. “The initial business plan hasn’t changed a ton, but definitely the market and the culture has changed a ton in the last six or seven years.”
When assigned to choose and construct a business plan, he created Fanbelt Brewing, which has transformed into Stemma, Harper said.
The name Stemma comes from the Latin root word for written family genealogy or family tree. “We were truly trying to come up with a name that embodied family and the legacy that we are hoping to build around it,” Harper said.
“A lot of people who live and work in the neighborhood, and a lot of families, have been coming in, it’s been a nice spread,” Zoe Hayes, a Stemma bartender said. “It’s a good niche, but obviously there is a lot of beer in Bellingham. People keep wondering when we will max out capacity, but if you brew good beer that’s not a problem.”
Starting their business in Bellingham was Harper’s first priority, he and his family are not big city people, he said. “The community really accepts it, you go to bigger cities on the west coast and you can kind of get eaten up,” Harper said. “The beer industry here is so neat, such a cool community of owners who love what they do and love sharing it.”
Stemma operates on a small scale to serve the local population rather than trying to focus on high output with large distribution, Harper said.
“It used to be that you’d start a brewery and be a regional brewery, that was the market. Now breweries can create little taprooms and service a community,” Harper said. “Breweries don’t need to be bigger than what we can service outside of these walls, so now we are seeing more localized smaller operations.”
Stemma currently has five employees not including Harper, Kim Harper or his father who is also an owner. Stemma is fully staffed right now, but will likely need more employees as operations grow, Harper said.
“It’s awesome, we were quickly welcomed here and I had no idea this place even just opened,” Stuart Dickson, a customer at Stemma having the Stemma IPA in the outside seating area, said.
“I’ve been in the industry long enough now that I know all the breweries in town and we have really good relationships, so hopefully we fit in as another cool community member building the industry as a whole. That’s what craft breweries are all about,” Harper said.
Community rather than competition is needed, Harper said. “This industry is so tight-knit and people talk a lot, the breweries that are trying to be more competitive won’t last long term,” he said. “Just focus on yourself and let other people do what they want. If you are making good beer, people will come.”
Harper has been working on the design, construction and setup for the space from September to early June, which was one of the hardest parts about getting the doors open, he said.
“Every brewery in town is doing a really good job. They have a different neighborhood they serve and different styles,” Harper said. “It’s pretty funny, I’ve been saying that since back in my business plan in 2011 [how Bellingham could be another beer hub similar to Bend, Oregon, with 22 breweries serving the town.] We still haven’t gotten close really. I still think there is a ton of opportunity and we’re developing rapidly. There is a couple more breweries already in planning.”
Stemma doesn’t serve food but has a food truck that will be permanently stationed in their lot and open seven days a week. Mr. Frank’s Kitchen “The Bus” owned by Lisa Campbell, had their soft opening on July 11. Campbell, originally the owner Mr. Frank’s Spice Co., created this truck to expand the use of her spices, she said. Campbell explained how what used to be a team bus for the Florida Gators was turned into the truck that will stand permanently outside the brewery.
“We became connected through the agent who was trying to find a location for both the Harpers and myself, it was a perfect fit,” Campbell said. They are serving a menu with options such as burgers and gourmet grilled cheeses, Harper said.
Looking toward the future, Harper said that they will be focusing on local distribution and expanding the outside area at the brewery.
To find out more about Stemma Brewing Co. visit their website: www.stemmabrewing.com.