Jack Lamb, CEO of Aslan Brewing, takes a break from the busy work day.

Brewing Community Aslan Owner Jack Lamb on the Business of Organic Beer

Jack Lamb’s ambitions run deeper than producing innovative beers.

As CEO and an owner of Aslan Brewing Company, Jack leads a team focused on brewing beer with a conscience. The Bellingham brewery is a Certified B Corporation, sources an increasing amount of its ingredients from northwest Washington and brews all organic beer. Read on for a conversation between Jack and Craft MTN:

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Question: Easy one to start—what was the last beer you drank?

Jack: It was our Yakima Select, our all-Washington pilsner we released a couple weeks ago. You know that sign in Yakima that says, “The Palm Springs of Washington?” We made a can design based off that sign and used all Yakima ingredients and all Skagit malt.

Question: As an organic brewery, where do your ingredients come from? Any notable locations or farms worth mentioning?

Jack: The cool thing about beer is the best of the best [ingredients] is grown right here in the Pacific Northwest. Skagit Valley Malting is an awesome outfit right in Skagit Valley in Burlington. I mean, it’s as close as you can get to Bellingham and it’s a world-class custom malting facility that does all-organic malt. It’s even grown in Skagit Valley— we have a whole plot with Hedlin Farms called the Aslan Plot. We used to buy some of our malts from overseas [German malts] but now it comes from either Skagit or just east of the mountains. Last year 81 percent of our hops came from Yakima Valley, about 8 percent came from Oregon and the rest were overseas. We’re getting close to having everything—especially the malts—be 100 percent local and our yeast, of course, is made in house.

One of the many tanks on Aslan's brew deck, hard at work with something special inside.

Question: Besides more expensive ingredients, what other challenges arise from brewing organically?

Jack: In addition to being anywhere from two, to three, to four times the price of conventional [ingredients], the other thing for us is selection. We’re pretty proud of our selection these days with our hops. When we started in 2014, I had six different hops to choose from that were organic. It was impossible to make a wide range of beers. If you look at the selection of a conventional brewery, they have dozens of types of hops to choose from of all different makeups and aromas and flavors. It’s been difficult as a brewery that makes over 60 beers a year—we have to get creative in how we make our beers unique and shine and tell a story at the same time. The other thing is naturally, with organic, you get a generally less consistent product because organic farming is way more vulnerable to changes in temperatures and dry seasons and smoke seasons. It changes when the elements change. We think that’s kind of fun. These things may be obstacles or barriers to some but, for us, it’s just what is necessary to be taking the right steps to save the world one beer at a time, if you will.

Question: We’re in the middle of a drought now in the Northwest and wildfire smoke is closing in. Are conversations around our climate shifting toward being drier and hotter in the Northwest happening at the brewery?

Jack: I think you’re seeing that with breweries everywhere but the Pacific Northwest. Hops can get hotter, but the main thing is we still do have the water supply and the whole infrastructure from the great Cascades and we’re setup for some major swings in both precipitation and heat. That being said, if you take away supply in other parts of the world, they’re going to lean more and more on what is already being leaned on way heavily. I mean 75 percent of the country’s hops are grown in Yakima Valley, so when you see any other climate start to get affected—whether we’re OK or not it’s definitely going to put more pressure on [Washington farmers]. I’ve talked to a few farmers and it comes down to proper irrigation systems—places like parts of California it’s become just impossible to expect to sustain what was a strong agriculture industry. The map is shrinking for places that are actually habitable and we’re extremely lucky but these fires sure are a concern. I would be lying to you if I said that wasn’t a major concern for us.

Question: Could you walk us through the growth of the brewery since you first opened in 2014?

Jack: I remember our first payroll was 13 employees or something like that. We’ve had as many as 110 employees. COVID really made us shift gears. We had to take an inward look to what was essential about our business. We were huge in events— community events, catering, you know this whole part of our business that quite frankly we don’t know will ever come back to the same degree. When we opened, we had one location and now we have three. Our first year we brewed something like 2,000 barrels of beer and now we brew about 7,000 barrels of beer a year. We didn’t even can when we opened, we just had beer on draft. Now in our cooler we have over a dozen different types of canned beer available to the public at any given time and distributed throughout Washington, Oregon, California, BC and Hawaii. It’s been a constant steady growth. We took this inward look and we asked, “How big is Aslan going to get?” And we had to have that conversation with ourselves because, you know, any business gets to a point where it’s like “OK, are we going to take over the world or are we going to stop growing?” I think we decided that Aslan needs to stay regional. Aslan needs to reflect the area in which it is sold. There would be a disconnect if we started breaking out of the West Coast.

One of Aslan's Beertenders pours a pint in their flagship, Bellingham taproom.

Question: Aslan obviously brews great beer, but your food is also awesome. What has it been like to grow that side of the business?

Jack: The reason why I wanted food was this idea of this truly being a community hub and being able to control all the inputs and outputs of the experience. So making sure that you have quality stuff for vegetarians, vegans, for children—it may be fried but it’s got broccoli in it! And though it’s hard and takes a lot of time [operating a restaurant], I think it has come back to us in great thanks and support and love from people who really are getting the full experience. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to create something that’s just a bar that gets you drunk. I really respect food with beverage—we have a social responsibility with liquor.

Question: Looking forward, what gets you excited about the future of Aslan?

Jack: I think the thing I’m always most excited about— and what I’ve been most proud of—is watching my employees grow. Last year Frank and Boe [fellow owners, Frank and Boe Trosset] stepped away from daily operations and the people under them rose to the occasion and are now steering the ship and flourishing. I’m not going to be in my position for the rest of my life, I’m very grateful for it right now and I’m pumped to be here but I’m also excited to see who is going to take this over some day. And I really hope that it’s someone who is not usually represented in this industry. I think I’m a pretty good guy, but I’m also a bearded white guy like most of the rest of this industry. The average brewery owner looks like me, probably thinks like me and has a lot of the same experiences as me and I think that needs to change.

Question: Anything else you’d like to add?

Jack: We have a very healthy work force here and that comes down to this connection to the outdoors. It’s this whole full-circle thing—we all want to be able to ski Baker, we all want to have forests that actually exist and aren’t burning down so we can mountain bike, and it’s really cool to get all these likeminded people under one roof working together. It may not be with conservation directly, but they know that with everything we do here a lot of the dollars generated are going into those causes and into the wellness of our community and our environment.