Ridgefield native Nathan Hipple works full time as a captain at the Vancouver Fire Department, but on his “days off,” he still has the energy to run a brewery.
“Last week, I had almost 100 hours of work between this and the fire department,” Hipple said as he stood in the back room of his nearly 2-year-old microbrewery, Hookum Brewing Company in downtown Ridgefield.
The small, steamy room smelled like hot oatmeal as Hipple brewed a new batch of Hodgepodge, an India pale ale. Standing next to him was James Herzog, an equipment manager at Columbia Edgewater Country Club who occasionally helps out when he can.
Hipple started the daylong process at about 5 a.m., when he heated up water and hooked up the components of his brewing system. Once Herzog showed up, they lifted the grain and dumped it into a tank, and Herzog stirred the mix.
“I’m not a big brewery,” Hipple said. “Some of these brewers have motorized mills that pop up an arm and dump the grain down, so one person can run the business and it not be a problem.”
The two rinsed the grain, also known as mash, and added pellets of hops into a mix before boiling it.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said Herzog, who was a Hookum customer before Hipple hired him. “I used to make wine, and I still do, but beer is totally different.”
Hipple has a common beer brewing origin story. He started brewing small batches out of his garage. His first run was a clone of Blue Moon, a popular Belgian-style witbier by MillerCoors, to which he added orange peels.
“At the time, that was one of my go-to beers,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Six years or so later, Hipple is processing 142 pounds of grain and 3 pounds of hops to make the batch of Hodgepodge.
Beer lovers will find Hodgepodge on tap at Hookum’s brewery, a small, gray-painted building on North Third Avenue, next door to El Rancho Viejo restaurant. Hookum is open from 4 to 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 4 to 10 p.m. Fridays; noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 to 8 p.m. Sundays. It is closed on Tuesdays.
The microbrewery has three employees, including Hipple’s wife, a part-time labor and delivery nurse at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
“We have our good days and bad days, especially with the growth. People are trying different things. When the weather gets ugly, it’s one of the slowest times. And the location isn’t always conducive to customers. Thirty or 40 percent of customers (who come in) didn’t even know we were here. They’re unsure of what’s in Ridgefield,” Hipple said.
Indeed, Ridgefield’s downtown is still small compared to Portland and Vancouver. But it’s growing in population, and with more people comes more businesses, such as microbreweries.
Despite some brewery closures across the Columbia River last year, Hookum’s opening is part of a yearslong nationwide boom in the microbrewery scene. The number of breweries in the U.S. increased more than fivefold from 2010 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which also reported that breweries accounted for 30 percent of all beverage manufacturing establishments.
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For now, Hipple plans to ride that wave — and he has no plans to leave firefighting.
The brewery, like many startups, is not yet profitable, he said.
“We can pay all of our bills and we can pay our employees. And we can keep up on our equipment and everything else right now. We’re not in the black, but we’re not in the green,” Hipple said.
Hookum stays afloat by hosting live music and other events, including the upcoming Vancouver Firefighters Pipes & Drums St. Paddy’s Day Pub Tour on March 14.
“We’re just continuing to push along,” Hipple said. They say it’s three to five years before you’re successful, but it’s sustaining itself at least.”