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I AM 21 OR OLDER
One night when I was out with my beer-drinking buddies, we tossed around the names of all the big personalities in the beer world. Garrett Oliver. Sam Calagione. Greg Koch. I then looked around the group of my beer-drinking friends (all male) and I realized, “Where are the women in beer? Why aren’t we talking about them? Why don’t we know who they are?” When I posed this question to the group, no one could come up with one female name. I decided that I was going to find out who the women are in this industry. This series are the results I’ve found.
As the CEO and Co-Founder of Full Sail Brewing Company, Irene Firmat has never been a woman afraid of risk. Firmat was a native New Yorker with a solid career in the fashion world. Then on a trip to visit a friend in Portland, she instantly fell in love with the city and decided to make the big move cross-country.
While Firmat enjoyed the work she did as a buyer in fashion retail, she also desired to work in a job “where people mattered.” She wanted to take yet another risk by starting her own company. Firmat reflects, “I was lucky enough to be in Portland in the mid-eighties when the whole craft beer renaissance started.” She then decided that she would combine her love of beer with the dream of running her own business.
In terms of what sets Full Sail a part from the other breweries, Firmat claims that it’s the relationship she has with Full Sail brewmaster, James Emmerson. When searching for someone to fill the position, Firmat was immediately drawn to Emmerson’s resume, which said that, “his single objective is to master the art and science of brewing.” Not only she did hire Emmerson, but Firmat and Emmerson also ended up falling in love and getting married. Firmat admits, “The fabric of Full Sail is that we’re so intertwined toward the quality of the product because you have a financial person that has absolute, implicit trust toward the brewmaster.”
In terms of the quality of the beer, Firmat comments that the company “really believes that if you ask a customer to pay a premium price for the product, it needs to [warrant] a premium price.” The goal of Full Sail is to create “balanced, complex and drinkable beers” that encourages “camaraderie between drinkers.”
The brewery made a big first impression in 1989 when they brewed their first batch of the Full Sail Amber, which was not only the first amber ale in the area, but also the first successfully bottled craft beer. Full Sail’s line up has grown since then, with a Pale Ale and IPA in their core brews, as well as an impressive LTD series, Brewmaster Reserves, and their popular Session beers.
At Full Sail Brewing, Firmat sees to it that the people do indeed matter. In the late 1990s, some of Full Sail’s original partners voted to put the company for sale even though Firmat and Emmerson fought against the measure. Firmat notes, “The brewery got built on sweat equity, and unfortunately the people doing the sweating weren’t getting the equity. For Jamie and I, this is something we felt strongly about.” To save the brewery, a dedicated and fearless Firmat and Emmerson organized an employee buy out and ended up winning the bid.
As an employee owned business, Firmat claims, “We treat our fellow employees like business partners. We have open management, and we explain our decisions and why we do stuff and we really encourage input.” When people visit or tour the brewery, Firmat is pleased when they remark on how happy the staff seems. “It’s really cool feedback as a CEO,” she says.
Not only is Firmat one of the few female CEOs heading up a craft beer company, she also was the first woman ever appointed to the board of the Brewer’s Association of America. When asked what’s it like to be a female leader in a male dominated industry, she simply responds, “It’s fun.”
As for few women working in the beer industry, Firmat is reminded of her time at beer conferences when there are long lines for the men’s bathroom while the women just saunter right into theirs. She laughs, “It’s so empowering. This is what men must feel like all the time.”
The company, which just celebrated its 23rd birthday, recently expanded to the Northeastern states. In terms of Full Sail’s success, Firmat claims, “We’re not into the rock star or diva thing at all because brewing is a process that involves so much attention to detail and so many people to care that passionately about [it]. If everyone involved doesn’t care as passionately, you’ll taste that.”