Culmination brings in consultant to help save once-promising NE Portland brewery

Culmination Brewing, once one of Portland’s most promising young breweries, is bringing in a Portland-area small-business consultant in an effort to keep the struggling business from closing down.

Steven Shomler, founder of the brand and business consultancy Spark to Bonfire, has been hired by the owners of the Northeast Portland brewpub that has seen its fortunes reverse since the start of the pandemic.

A week ago, the teetering state of the brewery came to light, as co-founder Tomas Sluiter said the company was in deep financial straits and was “circling the drain.” Culmination board secretary George Spady told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the company was on the block and would stay open until sold.

Mark Hush — who is Culmination’s CEO, a third primary shareholder and a board member — confirmed Shomler’s new role in a phone call with The Oregonian/OregonLive.

“It’s a fact we brought Steven on board,” Hush said. “It’s been a tumultuous ride, and we know that Culmination is a cherished brand in Portland and worth saving. We’re grateful to have him.”

Hush said he and Spady earlier this week asked Shomler to be “the face of the company, to handle social media and help us reach out and build the community back.”

In an interview, Shomler was asked if he can save Culmination.

“I believe we can, but it’s not just me,” he said. “We have an incredible front of house staff. The brew team is amazing, and Culmination has a legion of fans. It’s an iconic Portland brewery.

“I think it’s a brewery worth saving, and we’re not going down without a fight.”

Shomler’s connection to Culmination dates to before it even opened in 2014. Also a travel and culinary author, he heard about what Culmination co-founder and master brewer Tomas Sluiter was building in the Kerns neighborhood. Shomler was so intrigued and impressed he made the startup a focus of one chapter in his book, “Portland Beer Stories: Behind the Scenes with the City’s Craft Brewers.”

Shomler, whose background also includes a decade in the nonprofit world and a decade in corporate banking before he struck out on his own, helped the Culmination team get started with its branding, marketing, events and social media.

He said he got reinvolved with Culmination because “I read an Oregonian article that things were pretty bad at Culmination, and it surprised me.” So he reached out to Hush, who in turn asked him for his help.

“Now that I’ve seen behind the veil, that article was hitting the right notes,” Shomler said. “I don’t like to have Pyrrhic victories. I don’t like to fight something that’s not going to make it. Will it? I don’t know, but I very much think it can.”

Shomler said he couldn’t disclose Culmination’s financial situation or specifics about his plan for the brewery. But he said significant changes have been made since Tuesday, when he began working with Hush on day-to-day decisions at the brewery.

“I’m going to keep making more changes,” he said. “We have three hurdles to get through: August and September, and if we’re open Oct. 1, we’re going to have a party for the public. Then we have to get through Dec. 31. If we’re open Jan. 1, we’ll have a party in January. Then we have issues we have to get through in March, and if we’re open April 1, then we’re probably golden, and we’ll have a party in April.”

He said the hurdles are similar to those that have sunk other breweries recently, including rising costs and slumping sales after the pandemic. Without going into detail, he said challenges unrelated to finance also “were greatly hindering Culmination. Those are the things I’m tackling first.”

He said the changes he sees as necessary “come down to business basics. You need some good marketing, you need some good branding, you need what I call ‘celebrating the good things,’” he said. “There’s some backend business decisions that need to be made. There’s some things that I’ve already done.”

Sluiter, who had always been the face of the brand, said disagreements within the board prompted him to resign his board position within the past year, and his involvement with the brewery has waned since. And morale among the staff has suffered as the brewery slid into difficulty, Shomler confirmed.

Sluiter, interviewed last week as rumors of Culminations’ struggles began to percolate, said the brewery was hit hard by the pandemic and never fully recovered. He said that was complicated by strife with its previous distributor, Columbia Distributing, which he said cut back on its commitment to craft breweries.

That, he said, caused a precipitous drop in can sales — essentially Culmination’s lifeline during COVID-19.

Jesse Ferber, Columbia’s chief strategy officer, disagreed with Sluiter’s assessment.

“We got the brand in 2018, and we grew their can business over 20% over the three years we had them,” Ferber said in a phone interview. “Then the pandemic hit. A lot of brewers pivoted and started focusing on off-premise, groceries and convenience stores.

“Tomas was focused on the on-premise and making eclectic beers,” he said. “They were really good, but we had to shift our business to keep breweries alive. The ability to pivot was what saved a lot of these breweries during the pandemic, and a lot of the portfolios grew.”

The craft brewing industry is struggling overall, Ferber said, with sales down for half of the top 30 breweries in Oregon this year. And Portland hasn’t been spared, with seven breweries announcing closure or sale this summer.

“It’s convenient to blame the distributor, but other brewery partners for Columbia have grown their business and are doing well,” he said. “It’s frustrating this one didn’t work out.”

Sluiter said that in hindsight he questions Culmination’s decision to sign on with its current distributor, Running Man Distributing, which is smaller and “doesn’t have the scale to get us back to where we were.”

Phil Birnbaum, Running Man’s owner, said he was surprised by Culmination’s struggles, as it’s “always been a strong brand.”

“We are an admittedly small distributor, but in the year and a half since we’ve been selling them, they’ve always been a really strong, fast-moving brewery for us.”

Asked about Culmination’s distribution struggles, Shomler said, “That was before my time, I wasn’t around then.”

But he said he will do whatever he can to partner with Running Man and “help make their life easier.”

While Spady last week said the company was for sale, Shomler said he was unaware of any official listing.

“Since I read that article, I have not seen Culmination listed for sale anywhere,” he said. “There’s been no social media posting that it’s for sale. There’s nothing put on the website saying it’s for sale. I’m not aware of a business broker who’s listing it for sale.

“I’m sure if someone stepped forward and said, ‘Hey, I have a boatload of money, I’ll give it to you,’ I’m sure that some people would take it,” he said. “But I am here to help the brewery survive. Me banging the drum to find a seller has not been on my to-do list.”

Asked what Culmination’s biggest challenge is, Shomler replied, “There’s a lot of plates spinning that are about to fall off and crack. … There are some financial challenges, morale was an issue. If I was an employee, I would definitely feel the weight of some of the things — financial and other issues — they were being buffeted with.”

But, he said, “increasing sales fixes things, and there’s things we can do.”

His plan has reinspired Hush to keep fighting for Culmination Brewing.

“We’ve spent months cutting things to the bone and finding efficiencies, and the last step is to hope that the community rallies behind us,” Hush said. “We think Steven’s the right person to make that happen. We’re excited and confident that he’s going to be able to save this company. We haven’t been this excited in months and months.”

— Andre Meunier; reach me at ameunier@oregonian.com or 503-221-8488; and sign up for my weekly newsletter Oregon Brews and News, and follow me on Instagram, where I’m @oregonianbeerguy.




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