To Space and Beyond with Beer: A Q&A with Ninkasi Brewing

Since opening almost a decade ago, The Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene, Oregon, has expanded four times. Today, the brewery employs 107 people and features a 90-barrel brewing system. Ninkasi produces a range of eclectic brews, including the imperial stout Ground Control, made with yeast launched into space. I recently spoke to co-founders Nikos Ridge and Jamie Floyd.

BD: How did Ninkasi get its start?

22oz-Bottle-NSP-Ground-ControlJF: In 2006, Nikos and I saw an opportunity to come out with IPAs at a time when they were not widely available. I started brewing when I was 17, and have been a professional brewer for 20 years. Nikos’s background is in finance. We started to develop a lot of hoppy beers, and stronger beers, thinking we could fill a niche. Obviously, it was great timing on our part.

BD: Your brewery is named after the Sumerian goddess for beer. Why?

JF: The Sumerians weren’t the first to make beer, but because they invented written language, they were the first to write about it. Beer has been an important part of civilization since its inception. Beer is love. And breweries have always had an important role in enriching culture.

We get to be a creative part of the creative culture. We’re really hands on here. We have a metal shop onsite to create branding materials. We have a music studio onsite. We have bands playing music in our tasting rooms.

And we have charitable events everywhere. Our employees are paid wages to help at these events. It’s a great way to for them to mingle at events and talk to people about beer, while also giving back to the community in a way that shows real results. We share in the cultural fabric of what is going on here.

BD: Tell me more about Ground Control.

NR: It was a pretty awesome project that took an incredible amount of work and research and development. The yeast from our initial launch in July 2014 was not viable, due to mishaps. We tried again in October of that year. We sent a 25-foot rocket 77 miles above the earth. It was sub-orbital, but was in microgravity for four minutes.

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Nikos Ridge.

JF: It’s pretty difficult to get stuff into space. We had to protect the yeast from g-forces, intense coldness, solar radiation, and the heat of re-entry. After we got it back, we did blind taste tests. Drinkers couldn’t tell the difference between the space and normal yeast.

BD: But it’s still the only yeast to have survived space travel?

JF: Yes. And it opened up a lot of opportunities for us to partner in events. We were asked to take part in the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s 45th reunion for the Apollo missions.

NR: A lot of people were super excited for the beer. And some felt it was gimmicky. But it really encapsulates the spirit of craft beer. Brewers do things for the sake of seeing what can be done. We push the boundaries of what is possible.

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Jamie Floyd.

BD: You recently launched an artist-in-residence program.

NR: That was born in part from the space program. We worked with gig poster artist Neal Williams on the bottle art for Ground Control. Neil lives here in Eugene, and we wanted to continue the relationship. So he became our initial artist in residence. They stay for one year, beginning in April. The artist does not specifically have to contribute to anything, but instead collaborates with our team. It’s been a positive program so far.

BD: What’s next for Ninkasi?

NR: We’ve just started looking into east coast markets. We’ve been going to the big beer events out there. After testing the waters, we got a great response. So we’ve decided to go full-time at it. This fall, we rolled out into New York and Philadelphia. In a short time frame, we’ll also be in Washington D.C. and Maryland.

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com, or (203) 855-8499, ext. 225.

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