Building a Brewery: Stemma makes strides towards opening

By |2019-03-27T13:53:21+00:00March 27th, 2019|

For the last six months, we’ve been checking in on Jason and Kim Harper, owners of what has become Bellingham’s newest brewery, Stemma Brewing Co. Since our first story, the amount of progress made, obstacles overcome and work that the Harper family have put into this project are hard to ignore. With an early summer opening date in sight, Bellingham is becoming increasingly abuzz about Stemma.

Jason and his dad, Mark Harper, have been putting in late nights at their 2039 Moore Street location. Between taproom construction and putting together the actual brewery side of things, the Harpers have a plateful. To the naked eye, this place looks like it has months more work ahead of it. Since we last checked in, however, more progress has been made than one could even think possible.

In mid January, the Stemma location was essentially an empty warehouse. Parts of the brewhouse had been sitting on the brewery side of their building, and more was on the way. The day we checked in with the Harper’s in fact, was the day their shipment of fresh kegs with the Stemma logo was supposed to arrive. Otherwise, the space was empty, and you could see wheels turning in the minds of each member of the Harper family.

Now, the Harpers are past their first couple merchandise launches, have build a brand just waiting to fill itself out with beer, and the space is coming to life. Walking into Stemma today, it looks like a future brewery.

For those of us who aren’t building a brewery, the nuances and every day baby steps are likely to be overlooked. For instance, putting in the two large walk-in coolers is a project of it’s own that demands constant maintenance. Stemma now has one large walk-in behind where the bar will be located, and an even larger one for keg storage in the brewery. The glycol chiller is up and running, and the new grain mill is finally in the house.

It’s safe to say that Stemma is over the hump, and to the point in their journey where things are seeming to move quicker and quicker.

With that being said, the Harper family have without a doubt experienced systematic setbacks in making their brewing dreams come true.

On Christmas Eve, Jason and Kim submitted their licensing application to the federal government for review. On Christmas Day, the federal government shut down, leaving Stemma in limbo for a number of weeks without an end to the shut down in sight. Now that things are back up and running, they’ve been in touch with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a notoriously difficult and lengthy part of the process of opening a brewery.

This development was made in the last week. Once the application is reviewed by all three levels of the TTB, the state can review the application and make approvals, giving Stemma the liquor license they need in order to open.

Not only are Jason and Kim relying on getting approval to open their doors, but they need the state to approve even having a Stemma table at this year’s April Brews Day beer festival, a fundraiser for Max Higbee Center, taking place on one of the last Saturdays in April every year.

That date is approaching quickly, so you may be wondering how Stemma will have beer to pour at their April Brews Day table, should they have one?

Since licensing became an issue and construction is still being done on getting the brewhouse together, Stemma has been doing collaborations, two of which will be available at April Brews Day this year.

The first collaboration was done recently with Boundary Bay and will be called Training Wheels Blonde IPA in order to commemorate the Harper’s getting their feet wet on the brew deck for the first time in a while. It seems fitting, especially considering Boundary Bay has partially the same set up as Jason’s system, (similar immersion coil style brew kettle for you homebrewers reading), which he bought from Cloudburst Brewing in Seattle.

Stemma will also be collaborating with their close friends at Brothers Cascadia Brewing in Vancouver, WA, making a Pink Guava Hazy IPA. Both of these collaborations will be available in some way or another at April Brews Day 2019.

In the midst of all the collaborations, there is still work to be done of course. This Friday, Stemma receives their tank order, which includes fermenters and bright tanks. Configuring the brewhouse set up and dialing in things the way Jason wants them, while making sure everything is in code, has been part of the challenge. One of the largest obstacles in that sense has been working with electricians, according to Jason. Currently, there’s a shortage of electricians taking jobs due to an overwhelming number of apprentices in the industry, and the requirement of a specific journeyman to apprentice ratio.

Besides details and nuances of the construction process, Stemma is looking to plant the seed about building a staff. In the next month or so, the Harpers will begin looking into hiring six beertenders to staff their taproom. Jason encourages those who are interested to keep an eye on the Stemma Facebook and Instagram pages for when they may be starting the hiring process.

One of the questions followed throughout this journey thus far has been that of who will staff the brewhouse side? While the Stemma team is looking for a brewer, Jason and Mark will be taking control of production for the first few months while Stemma’s role in the Bellingham beer community unfolds.

Looking forward, Stemma will be doing another round of merchandise before opening. If you want to rock your Stemma gear at April Brews Day for their debut, keep your eyes on social media and stemmabrewing.com for when the merchandise launches.

Things are happening quickly at Stemma, and we are so excited to be able to witness the successes and trials of building a truly grassroots brewery. Hopefully, see you at the Stemma taproom in May!

About the Author:

Layne Carter
Tap Trail's Assistant Editor, Layne Carter, grew up in Spokane, Washington but has spent the last five years in Bellingham studying journalism at WWU. When she’s not beertending around town, you can find her biking, drinking beer or biking to a number of local breweries for a beer.