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Heater Allen and Its Lagers Are Built to Last

Was Heater Allen brewing lager before it was cool? Trick question. Lager has always been cool—it just took the rest of you a while to catch on. Here, the daughter-father team Lisa and Rick Allen lay out their approach to running a lasting niche business.

Joe Stange Jul 22, 2021 - 24 min read

Heater Allen and Its Lagers Are Built to Last Primary Image

Rick and Lisa Allen of Heater Allen Photos: Leslie Montgomery

Some breweries aim to grow quickly. Others aim to make a living by maintaining an enduring connection with enough drinkers who love their beer.

Heater Allen isn’t one of those rapid-growth stories. But it’s a success story nonetheless, because the Allens have thrived in a niche they love—lager—for 14 years. They’ve done it in McMinnville, a town of fewer than 35,000 people almost an hour’s drive from brewery-saturated Portland, Oregon.

The respect that Heater Allen gets from fellow brewers dwarfs the actual size of the company, which expects to brew fewer than 1,400 barrels of beer this year. “It’s mainly me,” says Lisa Allen, head brewer. “And I have a cellar guy, Matt, who is almost fully trained on the brewhouse. Other than that, it’s our sales guy and my dad. We’re a small team.”

It’s not much bigger than when Rick Allen founded the brewery in 2007, giving the brewery a true family name—Heater is the maiden name of his wife, Jan (which makes Lisa, as Rick says, “a true Heater Allen”).

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At that time, the beer scene—particularly in the Pacific Northwest—was awash in pale ale and IPA. The idea to start up a lager-only brewery was weirder than Portland. “I was mainly trying to brew what I liked,” Rick says. “And I liked the lagers, and particularly the ones that I had had either from Germany or when I was in Europe. There was nothing like that in the [United States].”

Rick’s previous career was investment banking. What he wanted to drink coincided with a gap in the market. “Just from a business-school standpoint, I also thought, I don’t want to go out there and beat my chest and try to say that I’ve got the best IPA—because everyone’s got an IPA. … But I thought that if I chose a niche and just stuck with that niche, that I could be more successful, make more of a name for myself.

“And obviously, the bonus is I actually got to enjoy drinking what I was making.”

Still, he wasn’t sure it would sell. Until he found out, he brewed the earliest Heater Allen batches on a 20-gallon system. “I mean, it was so foreign at that point,” Rick says. “Just the whole idea that people would actually buy a craft lager was something that—I wanted to find out if that was true or not.”

It turned out to be true enough. Along the way, the brewery has never veered far from that specific niche.

“What I’d say about Heater Allen is that it’s incredibly devoted to its initial vision,” says Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible and longtime observer of Oregon beer. “In the 14 years since it was founded, they’ve never wavered from that vision, and in fact it really reminds me of old European breweries who have been doing things for 214 years, not just 14. With those old family breweries, you have the sense they both wouldn’t consider doing things differently nor could they conceive of it. Heater Allen is that devoted to their path. …

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“There may be a lesson in all of it, because the brewery has managed to carve out such a distinctive place,” Alworth says. “Even people who don’t drink a lot of lager speak admiringly of it, just because it knows itself so well. Any brewery in the United States that absolutely would never consider brewing an IPA is a brewery anyone can admire—even those who find such a position charmingly quixotic.”

Taking on the Family Business

The founders of defiant, spunky little breweries, it is sad to say, age just like the rest of us. Eventually they must decide what to do with the businesses they worked so hard to build. The breweries rarely stay in the family; many don’t have kids, or else they don’t have kids who are interested.

Rick, 68, says he’s mostly retired already. “I used to be really involved in the brewing, and now I don’t get involved in the brewing very much at all,” he says. “What I mainly do is business strategy, but then I do all the writing, literary filings, and do the accounting and bookkeeping, and pay the bills, and do that kind of stuff. I think that that’s the kind of stuff that I can do for probably another five or six, seven years.

“But I tend to shuffle into the brewery and hang around for a little while, [then] go for a bike ride. Then maybe I come back, and maybe I don’t. I mean, Lisa gets a little PO’ed at me sometimes because I don’t show up.”

“It’s an unpredictable schedule,” Lisa says. “I would say he’s maybe 80 percent retired, or maybe 75 percent retired.”

So… What’s that like? Stepping back and watching your daughter take over?

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“It’s really cool,” Rick says. “It’s fantastic. And I think that’s one thing about a lot of industries—and brewing is certainly one of them—it’s easy to put together a business plan to get into it. But then you have to think about, ‘Okay, so how do I exit this?’ And I don’t know if there’s a lot of people who think that far ahead. I have to admit, when I had my 20-gallon system, I wasn’t so concerned about that as I was about just making good beer. But once Lisa showed an interest, then it’s like, ‘Yeah. Let’s go!’”

So, Rick never expected his daughter to take over one day—and neither did she.

“When I started, I thought it was just going to be a temporary gig,” she says. She was working at a local winery when her dad had to step away from the brewery to have surgery. She stepped in just to help out for a while. After working one more harvest at a winery, Lisa realized that she would rather work in beer.

“I’ve always been a fan of beer,” she says. “I don’t think that women naturally gravitate toward beer in most cases. But I grew up in Portland and around the craft-beer scene, and my dad was a homebrewer, and my uncle was a homebrewer. So I grew up around beer. My parents never had Bud Light or Coors Light or any of the American domestics in the fridge. It was Deschutes Mirror Pond or [BridgePort] Blue Heron, all of these other Oregon craft beers. … Beer was always in the background, especially when my dad decided to start Heater Allen. And I became more interested in the process.”

She likes how beer can be manipulated—controlled, fine-tuned. “I think I really like the predictability of beer,” she says.

Despite what some might assume about taking on the family business, she didn’t assume all that responsibility right away. “That’s the thing,” Lisa says. “I didn’t immediately start working for Heater Allen and become head brewer. I cleaned kegs. I delivered for the brewery. For—gosh, the first four or five years—we would take turns delivering.

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“So, you know, I’ve done a lot of the shit work, too.”

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Left: Rick is partly retired, while Lisa manages the brewhouse day-to-day with a very small team; Right: Rick, Jan, and Lisa Allen in the taproom, which—like many—has been closed and cluttered during the pandemic.

Go On. Underestimate Her.

Lisa Allen isn’t only the founder’s daughter; she’s a woman in an industry dominated by men. You don’t think people look right past her when they want to talk about brewing or the business?

She notices that tendency to overlook her most often in Portland, of all places. She’s noticed it more often recently because she’s been dating Kevin Davey of Wayfinder Beer—based in Portland, and another brewery known for excellent lagers. (They jokingly refer to themselves as the “lager power couple,” she says. “It has been actually really nice to nerd out with someone about lager and different techniques to use, and be like, ‘Oh, you do this? Oh, that’s cool. I want to try that.’ And vice versa. ‘Oh, did you use this hop? What did you think of it?’”)

Never mind that she is head brewer and co-runs one of the country’s longest-running and most respected lager breweries. “A lot of my colleagues in Portland will ask [Kevin] questions that they just don’t ask me,” Lisa says. “And he is very good at explaining things to people and a very good brewer. But I just feel that people, especially in the Portland industry, don’t take me seriously. Maybe that’s just an insecurity, impostor-syndrome kind of thing.”

Elsewhere in the country, she says, it’s less of an issue—maybe because she was already brewing by the time the brewery was getting more attention nationally.

It’s no secret that sexism is pervasive in the industry. “I like to think that it’s changing but … I mean, it has come a long way,” she says. “But I think part of it is confidence, too, and just being more confident. I think sometimes it’s intimidating, as a woman being in the brewing industry, when you are surrounded by a bunch of men. It’s sometimes hard to hold your ground. And you’re just like, ‘Ah, it isn’t worth it. I’m not going to deal with this.’”

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Instead, her focus goes toward brewing great lager and steadily growing the business.

Rick, meanwhile, with at least one foot into retirement, says he doesn’t have an especially long-term view for the business—just another two or three years. “Lisa’s long term is a little bit longer than mine,” he says. “I always wanted to see us get to about 2,000, or 2,200 barrels, something like that. Lisa would probably say 3,000 or 4,000 barrels.”

Those relatively modest goals come down to keeping careful control of the beer and the business. “I want to stay self-distributing, if we can,” Lisa says, “because I just think that it’s good for our brand, and I don’t really want to sign my brand away to a giant distributor. And it seems like the small distributors all end up being bought by giant distributors. I think we may be able to do that, if we’re still around 3,000 barrels. But who knows? I might change my mind with that.”

Later, Rick mentions that Lisa will be out of town for a couple weeks in August. “And they’re going to actually let me back in the brewhouse,” he says. “I get to make beer again. Woo-hoo!”

“I know,” Lisa says. “We’ll have to train you up before that happens.”

From Pils to Playthings

Rick sums up the Heater Allen brewing philosophy like this: “Don’t take any shortcuts,” he says. “Don’t try to hurry the process. Don’t try to push things through faster. Then, also, use the best ingredients you possibly can get.”

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The Allens say McMinnville has great water, so they don’t have to alter it much. They use European malt almost exclusively, primarily from Weyermann. And they are choosy about their hops, whether grown in Europe or the Pacific Northwest.

The other key ingredient? “Time,” Rick says. “Our focus is more on let’s do things better, rather than doing things faster.”

Complementing that philosophy and those ingredients is their focus on brewing excellent representations of traditional styles, Lisa says. “I guess now you’re seeing them more. But when we first started, [these were] styles that you didn’t really see—and some, you still don’t really see.”

They include a Baltic porter, doppelbock, maibock, smoked lagers, and a hop-forward export lager called Lager Is Super Awesome (L.I.S.A.). While that beer name is no doubt accurate, there aren’t many fancy beer names at Heater Allen. The core beers are Pils, Dunkel, and Schwarz. Lager lovers know what they’re getting here, and the beers speak for themselves.

The Pils is the flagship; before the pandemic, it accounted for about 75 percent of production. As draft beer has gradually returned, it’s crept back up to about 60 to 70 percent, Lisa says.

A new line of single-hopped lagers is Lisa’s ongoing pet project, brewed throughout the pandemic. She had dabbled in them before, but only as one-off, draft-only beers. The base is essentially a German-style pilsner, but the kettle hops change. One version included Willamette for a collaboration with the local tourist office. Other versions used Hüll Melon, Comet, Cashmere, Hallertauer Blanc, Amarillo, or the Pink Boots Blend (chosen by the Pink Boots Society of women brewers every year, in cooperation with Yakima Chief Hops; proceeds from PBS Pils support the Pink Boots Society).

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All those single-hopped lagers, for what it’s worth, are hovering around an Untappd rating of 4/5 bottle caps—impressive for any lager on an app whose users favor haze, juice, desserts, and hype. “It’s been funny because those just blow out of here,” Rick says of the single-hopped lagers. “We’ll do a batch of that, and within a week, it’s gone.”

One silver lining of canning during the pandemic, Lisa says, is that more people were able to try some of those unusual styles. Before, they were more rare and only available on draft. In particular, Lisa has enjoyed seeing more people drinking the smoked beers.

“I think there’s definitely more of an interest than there was a few years ago because it is kind of a nerdy thing,” she says. “People are like, ‘Where can I get this? It was delicious.’ And it’s like, ‘We’re sold out.’”

That’s one of the advantages, Rick says, of being a niche brewer. “You don’t have to worry about creating something for the masses. We don’t need to have millions and millions of people who like our beer. We just need to have a few thousand. If you get a few thousand people who really like Rauch Hell or Rauch Bock, we can make a batch and sell it.

“So, it makes it a little bit easier when you’re not focused on being huge.”

Lager, the Heater Allen Way

Heater Allen’s workhorse is a 15-barrel brewhouse from JV Northwest in Canby, Oregon. (“R-I-P,” Lisa says; St. Louis-based ICC acquired JV in 2018.) It’s a three-vessel system that includes a mash mixer, lauter tun, and boil kettle. A steam jacket heats the mash mixer, but the boil kettle gets direct fire.

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“Yeah, that’s a little unusual,” Rick says. “We have a direct-fire kettle because Pilsner Urquell has a direct-fire kettle. And by God, we’re going to try to be like Pilsner Urquell if we can.”

Pilsner Urquell aspirations notwithstanding, this is not a house of decoction. Heater Allen conducts a multistep mash for most of its beers. For the Pils, it’s mash in at 123°F (51°C); raise to 153°F (67°C) and hold there 50 minutes; then raise to 161°F (72°C). “Just kind of a very standard mash schedule,” Lisa says. “I’ve been messing with the mash schedule with some of our other beers. But I don’t mess with Pils because I don’t want to screw with it.”

(“Don’t mess with my Pils!” Rick interjects. “I know,” Lisa says.)

“With a Bohemian- or Czech-style pilsner,” she continues, “you want a little bit of that back sweetness. That mash schedule lets us get it dry but not too dry. So, I’ve been messing with schedules to get beer drier—but not the Pils.”

The malt bill is a 65/35 blend of Weyermann Bohemian and Floor-Malted Bohemian Pilsner, not including a dab of Carahell. “We actually tried a version that was 100 percent Floor-Malted, and it was almost too rich,” Lisa says. “This was the ratio we liked the best. It adds a certain amount of nice, crackery sweetness without being too much.”

The boil is 70 minutes. Kettle hops are predominantly Saaz in three additions, with a pinch of Magnum early on to kick up bitterness; the Pils checks in around 38 IBUs.

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The yeast is 34/70, sourced from BSI—“the standard,” Lisa calls it. She’s heard brewers complain that it produces too much sulfur, but that hasn’t been a problem at Heater Allen—maybe, Rick suggests, because they don’t push it. They ferment patiently at 50°F (10°C) for about two weeks, and they don’t raise that temperature for a diacetyl rest. That’s one reason Lisa likes 34/70, she says—it’s less susceptible to producing diacetyl than other lager strains. “Time is our diacetyl rest,” she says.

“That’s just a shortcut,” Rick says of diacetyl rests. “It’s one of those things. It’s making beer faster, not better.” They also spund the beer for natural carbonation, rather than force it with CO2. Then they lager the Pils and most other beers for at least six weeks—longer, when a pandemic comes along.

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The Proverbial Pivot

Like many small breweries, Heater Allen was largely dependent on draft sales before COVID-19 shut down hospitality in March 2020. Kegged beer was about 70 percent of their production. The Allens immediately began canning as much beer as they thought they could sell.

After years of modest bottling to supplement their draft sales, Heater Allen started canning in April 2019, working with Portland-based Craft Canning + Bottling and their mobile Wild Goose lines. “We probably should have gone to cans sooner,” Rick says. “This is my old prejudices, when I was younger. ... It just took us a while to finally wake up and go with the flow.”

Before the pandemic, production was growing carefully and steadily. Heater Allen brewed about 1,300 barrels in 2018, and not quite 1,500 barrels in 2019. Last year, it slipped to 1,200 barrels—remarkable, considering how draft-heavy the brewery had been.

“We were going along great in 2020,” Rick says. “And then the pandemic hit, and that just killed us. What really slowed us down was we had to reposition the brewery.” You can only brew as often as tanks are available; a lot of Pils that was meant for kegs got some extra “patient” lagering while they worked out how to sell more in cans. “It was really from March until about July, it took us to really reconfigure production and get it back to the point where we were really doing things the way we wanted to do them. And that period of time really, really hurt our production and our sales.”

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Next year, they’d love to hit 1,700 barrels.

“We’ve picked up significantly since even the beginning of the year,” Lisa says. “So we’re starting to brew a little bit faster, and it helps having some draft come back because that helps us empty tanks. So we’re not in this holding pattern of having to wait until we can to empty tanks. … It’s starting to get more consistent now, which is nice.”

“Come to McMinnville!”

One of Lisa’s short-term goals is to get their taproom reopened at the brewery—it’s been closed since the pandemic started—and to broadcast it as more of a destination. Before, it was a small, weekend-only affair. She wants to expand that presence and promote it.

The taproom isn’t something Heater Allen has really exploited before, Rick says. Part of that, he says, is his old prejudices—like being anti-cans, he was anti-taproom. He preferred to focus on running a production brewery. “I’m starting to get outvoted now,” he says. “But we don’t have the greatest location, unless we make ourselves a destination, and we haven’t done that yet.”

One way to do that is to have other breweries nearby that are also worth the detour. McMinnville took another step in that direction last year, when brewer Sean Burke opened ForeLand Beer after leaving Von Ebert in Portland. ForeLand, which also brews plenty of lager, is about a half-mile from Heater Allen. Others in town include Evasion Brewing, Bierly Brewing, and Grain Station Brew Works, besides several wineries.

“It’s really funny because we think of the drive to Portland as being not that big of a deal from here,” Rick says. “I mean, it takes you an hour or less to get there. And yet you talk to people in Portland, and it’s like, ‘Oh God, all the way out to McMinnville? That’s 35 miles away. That’s like in another galaxy.’”

So, Rick says, “Come to McMinnville! McMinnville is a cool little city; it really is. It’s got a cute little downtown area. It’s really built for tourism because of the wine industry.

“And you know, the beers people make down here are actually pretty damn good.”

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].

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