It isn’t unusual for a brewer to be interested in microbiology . . . after all, beer is the result of microbial fermentation, and understanding and controlling that process is what gives beer its great variety. In the case of Stephen and Dan Hughes, the brothers who own ColdFire Brewing, both worked in health care — Dan managed a hospital’s sterile processing unit, putting together the kits for each surgical case, and Stephen cultivated bacteria and viruses in a microbiology lab. “I always enjoyed science and got into health care because I wanted to help people, and I assumed I would sail into the sunset with my health care career,” Stephen says. “But at some point we both became disenfranchised with the bureaucracy.”
And, Stephen says, they longed for community. The two brothers have always been best friends, but their stressful work lives had kept them apart too much. Both were also homebrewers. “We started talking over beers about what else we could do,” Stephen says. He isn’t sure which brother first suggested it, but out of all of the other “crazy” ideas they considered, starting a brewery is the only one that made sense. Some homebrewer friends from Stephen’s lab started sharing information with him, and the light bulb turned on. That’s also when he started to more fully delve into and appreciate the microbial side of brewing.
The brothers started homebrewing in college, and Stephen says he wasn’t very diligent or scientific about it. “It was just a little hobby so we could get cheap beer that was drinkable.” he says. “And it was fun.” A master’s thesis by Chad Yakobson on brewing beer with the Brettanomyces wild yeast species led him deeper into yeasts and the flavors they impart. “He found all these really interesting flavors and different presentations of beer using this yeast for fermentation, and identified different yeast species that have utility in the brewing process and shared it with everybody,” says Stephen. “As a medical laboratory scientist, I was like, this is what I was missing with brewing. And I started going crazy with my homebrew hobby.”
His two-car garage became the fermentation center, and he and Dan started buying equipment to make the best “homebrew” they possibly could. They traveled through Germany and Austria, tasting along the way. “German beer was so incredible,” says Stephen. “And we had this moment of solidarity that we are going to start a brewery and this is going to happen.” Happen it did — ColdFire opened eight years ago. In the beginning, Stephen says they were making beer to give away to convince people, soliciting friends as investors, and developing a business plan. The encouragement they got convinced them their dream could become reality. “And it really did seem like a dream,” Stephen says. “We put this together on a wing and a prayer.”
With Dan’s business savvy and Stephen’s laser focus on quality and methodology, the pair make a great team. Stephen, with his spreadsheets and scientific mind, leaves nothing untested or taken for granted in the final flavor profile. (He even tracks the mineral content in the water they use for brewing.) Along the way they’ve won multiple national and international beer awards, and they’re now moving most of their production to a larger facility in Junction City to double their current capacity of about 2,000 barrels each year. Barrel-aging and R&D will continue in the Eugene tasting room. Stephen quickly notes that they aren’t trying to make as much beer as they can, but instead to simply fulfill current demand. “We’re always running out of beer,” Stephen explains.
And yet, there are a lot of people in Eugene who love beer but don’t yet know about ColdFire. It could just be that the tasting room is off on a side street by Skinner Butte Park, not visible from Ferry Street Bridge. But ColdFire is family- and dog-friendly, with games and tables inside and out, along with some of the best food trucks in town: Yardy, Paper Plate BBQ, Stretched Noodles, and Pizzeria DOP. A heater blows warm air into a sturdy tent during the chilly months, making it a comfortable spot all year-round.
Stephen focuses a lot on “balancing the elements of bitterness and refreshment” in ColdFire’s signature IPAs. “A lot of hops collide with each other,” he says. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the oil fractions of hops and what terpenes will work well with each other.” But IPAs aren’t his personal favorite.
Instead, Stephen prefers barrel-aged beers and saisons, which he says are a format for endless flavor possibilities. “It’s not a wildly popular style,” he laments, “but I think it will have a renaissance.” It’s 10 in the morning and Stephen could be extra talkative thanks to his second cup of caffeine, but it could also be his passion for the perfect saison: “I like a saison to be light bodied, refreshing, dry. Not too high in ABV. I don’t care for a saison that’s over 6%. I always like to have a couple if I can, so I don’t want one too strong. I like lemon, pink peppercorn, just a touch of the herbal, a little bit of citrus, a little grapefruit peel, a little bit of fruitiness.” Mmmm. We’re ready for one right now.
About The Name
Before the launch of ColdFire Brewing, Stephen and Dan Hughes brainstormed names. Hughes Brothers Brewing, a name they strongly considered, was trademarked by a distillery on the East Coast. It had seemingly gone defunct, but the trademark was renewed right when the Eugene Hughes brothers were getting ready to launch. They didn’t want to start off in business with a potential trademark dispute, so Stephen says they tore through every possible name they could think of that felt like it related to them and their vision. “So many of them were taken, or they were bad,” he laughs. One founding member, a friend named Brian, had read a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Brian said that in the book he talks about fermentation as a ‘cold fire,’ as nature’s way of processing or cooking, making some things stable to eat,” Stephen recounts. “Fermentation is nature’s cold fire. And that just resonated with me in a cool science, geeky way of talking about what we do.”
The brand mark for ColdFire looks like a shield, but there’s more to that also. It is intended as both a stylized hop cone and a Celtic knot. “Our mother grew up with an Irish father, who was very proud of his heritage,” Stephen says. “So the brand mark is a mixture of elements from our Irish heritage, and it’s a hop, and it looks like a Celtic knot, and it looks a little like a Germanic flag or shield,” a nod to their German heritage, he added. “Sometimes I look at it and I can see all those things in it, and other times I look at it and it just looks like a cool hop, so however you look at it, it represents us.”
ColdFire Brewing, 263 Mill St.. 541/636-3889, coldfirebrewing.com