Women in Business: Spinnaker Bay Brewery

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When you think of a brewmaster, you probably envision a rotund Germanic fellow with a Walrus mustache. But not at Spinnaker Bay Brewery, a thriving new enterprise in Hillman City. The lively brew pub is 100 percent woman-owned and operated, arguably the only completely woman-owned brewery in the state.


Elissa Pryor and Janet Spindler

I sat down last week with the owners, the brewer Janet Spindler, and the accountant, Elissa Pryor. Elissa explained the division of labor: “Janet makes really good beer and I cook the books.” The partners both are sailors and they derive the names of their distinctive brews from nautical terms.  (The list might include Fraid Knot™, High Heel™, Don’t Panic Porter™ and Keel Over™).

Janet comes from a long line of women brewing beer. A family picture, circa 1907, hangs next to the pub’s gleaming mahogany bar. The photo shows Janet’s great-grandmother standing beside a keg she brewed. Beer was women’s work; men in the family were more adept at bathtub gin.

Janet, who worked in engineering and commercial real estate, has long brewed beer at home. As Elissa says, “She was very popular at neighborhood parties.” When Janet was laid off a couple of years ago, she and Elissa decided it was time to do what they’d often dreamed of doing: open a micro-brewery.

Spinnaker5Finding start-up funds was the first hurdle, complicated by the recession and a tight market. Elissa says, “No one would touch us. The bank would give us a loan, but only if we deposited enough so that they were essentially lending us back our own money.” Eventually the two were able to self-finance between their savings, retirement funds and help from family and friends.

Helped along by realtor Jean VelDyke, they located in the 100-year old building at 5718 Rainier Ave. that had started life as a repair shop for horse-drawn carriages. It was in sad shape, desperately in need of restoration. They signed papers in September, 2012, and set to work, filling train-car-sized dumpsters with moldy lathe and plaster. Underneath they discovered a handsome wooden ceiling.

Meanwhile, they found their antique bar with its shady 1920s history and a pushbutton designed to warn patrons of Prohibition-era raids. After months of hard labor, they had transformed the once derelict site into an airy, inviting venue, opening the doors in April, 2013.  The pub has a small adjacent parking lot where food carts rotate; patrons can bring the food inside.

The production side of the brewing operation occupies the rear of the building. There one sees gleaming tanks, all named for women friends: Alice, Betty, Claudia, Delilah and the like. Other tanks have been dubbed Thelma and Louisa, and the cooler is known as Phyllis Chiller.Spinnaker1

With help from her team (two women employees), Janet blends various grains – hops, barley, malt and/or rye to achieve brews with a clean, smooth finish. Production varies according to the season and the brewer’s whim. For Mother’s Day, Janet added strawberries to produce a bright, fruity ale. At times she might stir in juniper berries and hints of citrus and chocolate.

Elissa, whose day job involves the accounting for a chain of restaurants, does all of Spinnaker Bay’s bookkeeping, payroll, tax work and handles sales. Spinnaker Bay beer is much in demand with such clients as Tutta Bella, Hopvine Pub and Columbia City Ale House. Other outlets also have been interested in carrying the beer, available so far only in kegs or on tap.

Elissa sighs happily: “So much demand and never enough beer.”