WALLA WALLA -- It was perhaps among the most unorthodox tasting samplers that had ever been carted into the Pasco Red Lion.
Laht Neppur brewer Matt Black was on a new mission at the end of last year to build outside sales of the Waitsburg brewery's beers. "The more tap handles you have out there, the more people see your beer," he explained on a recent morning across a windowside table at the operation's downtown Walla Walla Ale House.
He made arrangements for a tasting at the hotel bar, then served the brews in the most readily available container in which he could transport them from Waitsburg: Mason jars.
"They looked at it a little funny at first," he said. Not long after though, the bar started pouring Laht Neppur's beers. Then the food and beverage manager for the hotel's high-end restaurant Bin 20 began collaborating with Black on the restaurant's own exclusive brew, known as the 20th Avenue Amber.
Notwithstanding the birth of a successful partnership, the experience made the recent bottling of three Laht Neppur ales that much sweeter.
Now when potential clients want to sample the beer, Black and Laht Neppur founder Court Ruppenthal can offer three of the brews in 22-ounce bottles. The cost to consumers is $4.60 a bottle. They're also available by a case of 12.
The step in their business strategy took place at the end of February. In roughly a week's time, they bottled 240 cases of beer for individual sale with the help of a mobile bottling unit. The breakdown includes 108 cases of Peach Hefeweizen, 43 cases of Strawberry Cream Ale and 89 cases of India Pale Ale for a total of about 515 gallons.
Incidentally, the Peach Hefeweizen was initially introduced as a seasonal ale. But response to it was so overwhelming that it was added permanently to the Ale House menu. "The Peach going around all year was really a surprise," Ruppenthal said. "People literally would walk in, ask if we had it and turn around and walk out if we didn't."
Now they can get it on tap, in a keg, a growler or a bottle.
More than just a convenience for Laht Neppur loyalists to pack in their own refrigerators at home, which is reason enough to take the bottling leap, the new containers are also a vehicle for the 5-year-old company to expand into other markets and, eventually, maybe even retail shelves.
"We've set it all up to go down that road," Black said.
Ruppenthal, the original brewmaster who continues at the helm of the business, said bottling was the next logical direction for the operation. Ruppenthal and his wife, Katie, -- whose last name, if you look closely, is reflected in the brewery -- launched their business in Waitsburg in 2006. At the end of 2010 they expanded to Walla Walla with their Ale House at the corner of Alder and Spokane streets.
They've developed 23 different brews, often cycling through with 10 at any given time on tap at the Ale House and 13 at the brewery. Theirs is the official microbrew of the Walla Walla Sweets and is now available through a dozen or so taps at other bars and taverns, including locally the Red Monkey Downtown Lounge and The Green Lantern.
Before the bottling, Ruppenthal counted as one of his crowning brewery achievements the conversion of a Keystone Light-drinking farmer. "Now he's a diehard IPA drinker," Ruppenthal said.
But with bottling -- dare he dream big -- the possibility exists to make converts out of a far greater number of beer drinkers.
"I've already done more than I thought I would do," he said, imagining the possibilities.
Ruppenthal said he'd ultimately like to be able to offer the beers in cans. Most ideally, a warehouse for canning would be the next step in the growth of the business that sprung from a home brewery.
"I wasn't really looking to build an empire of beers," he said matter-of-factly.
Ruppenthal had been a recent graduate of Walla Walla Community College's Enology & Viticulture program -- the place where he and Black first became acquainted as students -- and had studied under Walla Walla winemakers Myles Anderson, John Abbott and Ned Morris when he ventured out with his wife in 2006. Friends had long been familiar with his beers, which he shared with enology classmates during "study sessions." The idea was to open both a winery and a brewery. "The brewery started because it could raise capital faster than the winery," he explained.
But it soon became a star focus in a Valley that was already known for hand-crafted wine. As the brewery has grown there's been less time for the winemaking. Annual production of beer is about 500 barrels. Each barrel is the equivalent of two kegs, or 31 gallons. Meanwhile, after selling out most of the '08 wines, the 2009 has yet to be bottled.
Sensibilities from the ins and outs of winemaking have helped improve the brewing process, especially when it comes to sanitation standards and the focus on quality.
"Every beer we make -- is it the best it can be?" Ruppenthal said of his continuing drive for quality. "The product will not suffer. That's the most important thing to us" no matter where the beer is sold or how great demand becomes.
Ruppenthal and Black have been talking to distributors on a path to build more partnerships. The end result will help determine where the local beers are sold.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.
A Matter Of Taste
Walla Walla and Waitsburg are only miles apart, but when it comes to taste in beers might as well be a universe away.
Laht Neppur founder Court Ruppenthal marveled at the differences in consumer habits between the flagship Waitsburg brewery and Walla Walla Ale House.
A few distinctions: In Waitsburg, the preferred brews are the bigger, bolder beers, such as the IPA. In Walla Walla, Peach Hefeweizen is the runaway favorite. Lighter, easier drinking beers are more often requested.
Walla Walla also tends to attract a younger patronage, which can be somewhat explained by weekend nightlife. Ruppenthal said more pitchers of beer are sold in Walla Walla in a weekend than might be sold in months in Waitsburg.