Impact Giving | Ghostfish Brewing and The Mountaineers: A Sustainable Partnership

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine Ghostfish Brewing founder Brian Thiel talks about his company, our partnership, and what makes Kick Step IPA so special.
Brian Thiel Brian Thiel
Ghostfish Brewing Founder
June 18, 2019

Leave it to a Mountaineer to find a mountain!

This was my thought as I finished reading an email from Web Chang, a staff member at Mountaineers Books. Web’s message arrived shortly after Ghostfish released our third packaged beer of 2015: Shrouded Summit Belgian White Ale. In this case, the mountain Web had found was on the side of our can, which vibrantly depicts two trekkers stopping for a moment to take in a majestic view of cloud covered Mt. Rainer (designed locally by Kevin LeDoux).

Web wanted us to know that he appreciated the can design of Shrouded Summit, and as one of three co-founders of Ghostfish Brewing Company, receiving this message was extremely gratifying. Looking back, this early brush with The Mountaineers was foreshadowing of an incredible partnership to come, focused on supporting your nonprofit mission in the most delicious way possible.

Gluten-free pioneers

Ghostfish Brewing didn’t start out as a dedicated gluten-free brewery. While many people now associate Ghostfish as “the gluten-free brewery”, we’ve always considered our focus to be making the highest quality beer that also happens to be gluten-free. We don’t make beer for people who are gluten-free – we make beer for beer drinkers!

I joke now that in the beginning (2013) we were setting ourselves up to be yet another one of the 7,000+ craft breweries across the United States. The plan was always to be innovative by providing an environment that encourages individual contribution, artful aesthetics, and challenges norms. Sometime into the planning phase, we decided to become a dedicated glutenfree brewery to support our vision and contribute to a more sustainable model of production. 

What we didn’t necessarily grasp at the time was that we were pioneers in a growing, yet small segment of the craft brewing movement. When you think about beer made from barley, wheat, and rye, you don’t necessarily think about how much tinkering and transformation has occurred over centuries in beer engineering to get to where we are today.

There was no history of gluten-free brewing, nor a playbook that existed, when we started Ghostfish.

Sustainable grains

We create our beer using traditional brewing methods, but grains we use are most certainly non-traditional by today’s standards. You’ll find plenty of millet, brown rice, and buckwheat (unrelated to wheat) in our grain room. These grains were used in the creation of beer around the globe for centuries, and in fact, millet predates barley in beer brewing history! All these grains are naturally glutenfree and don’t contain the proteins that cause harm in people with Celiac Disease.

While each of our primary grains have amazing sustainable qualities, millet is particularly drought and heat tolerant. It is a highly nutritious cereal grain that sustains more than a third of the world’s population. Buckwheat, which is a fast grower, thrives in poor soil conditions, and is a wonderful cover crop that maintains soil health, reduces soil erosion, and supports a healthy proliferation of honeybees. If you want to bring bees back to your garden, plant some buckwheat!

Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl on the summit of Kilimanjaro with Kick Step IPA, courtesy of Tom Vogl.

The Mountain-who’s?

I’ll admit that I knew very little about The Mountaineers prior to starting Ghostfish Brewing. Growing up in rural northwest Ohio didn’t lend itself to thinking much about mountains, not unless you count watching the von Trapp family escaping Austria into Switzerland. My first exposure to mountains came during a family vacation to Gatlinburg, TN, right in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. It wasn’t until I moved from Ohio to Colorado in my early 30s that I began to appreciate mountain pursuits.

Summiting “14’ers” was something that a low-lander like me could handle and appreciate. If reaching the top of Mt. Elbert (14,440 ft) was one of my proudest outdoor achievements while living in Colorado, summiting Long’s Peak (14,259 ft) gave me serious bragging rights amongst my friends and family. Okay, so I know what you are thinking: ”Yea, but you started at an elevation near 10,000 ft.” Well, you’d be right, and I’ll also admit that none of my 14’er adventures were considered technical feats, but they did give me a deep appreciation and respect for mountains and how unruly they can be.

When I moved to Seattle, my mind was blown once again by the outdoor recreation possibilities of our region. In researching new objectives, I stumbled onto The Mountaineers and was drawn to its mission.

Creating Kick Step IPA

I was intrigued by the idea of creating a beer with The Mountaineers from the first mention. In discussing the details with The Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl over a few Ghostfish beers in 2017, we both grew even more convinced. While I like to think that we were chosen because of our environmentally sustainable grains, our pioneering spirit, or the fact that we already boasted a few mountain-themed beers (Shrouded Summit Belgian White Ale and Peak Buster Double IPA), in the end I believe the decision had everything to do with shared values and alignment of our mission to develop community by fostering a sense of teamwork and a place of belonging.

We got right to work, starting with a name. It might seem easy, but choosing beer names has become extremely challenging in today’s overcrowded craft beer scene, and the last thing you want to do is step on another brewery’s toes by duplicating or replicating an existing beer. We brought a group together to brainstorm name options to convey climbing heritage while being modern, edgy, authentic, distinctive, aspirational, and cool. Fortunately, we landed on Kick Step, a technique true to the outdoor community that also lent itself well to a can design (and avoided the standard mountain-themed clichés).

While I can’t take credit for the "romance copy" printed on the side of each can of Kick Step IPA, I will say that it sums up in every way possible why it makes sense for Ghostfish Brewing and The Mountaineers to work together.

Ghostfish and The Mountaineers were both founded on the idea of transcending limits. We thrive on a spirit of wonder, a sense of adventure, and a commitment to the wild places of the Pacific Northwest. We’re powered by strong, passionate communities who support our missions. Whether it’s distinctive craft beer made from high-quality, low-impact grains, or unique, life-changing experiences in the outdoors, we believe life is meant to be lived and lived well – no matter who you are. This is Kick Step IPA: a liquid representation of our shared values.

Kick Step IPA, photo by John Beck.

A delicious way to make a difference

Any good brewer will tell you that there’s always room for improving a beer. To that point, we’ve been tinkering with the Kick Step IPA recipe over the past 5-6 months, making small adjustments to improve the overall taste, flavor, and aroma. The goal from the beginning was always to create a uniquely Pacific Northwest-based IPA to celebrate the place we call home. To accomplish this, we chose a trio of Washington grown hops to accentuate the blend of millet and brown rice malts that comprise the base of the beer. A healthy dose of Bravo, Cascade, and Simcoe hops creates a pleasant bitterness profile with distinct flavors of candied orange, sweet fruit, and pine. Kick Step IPA is crafted with a sessionable spirit in mind to keep you light on your feet after any adventure.

Today, Kick Step IPA distribution is growing across the U.S. and Canada, and people in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and many other areas not only get to enjoy Kick Step IPA, but get exposed to The Mountaineers mission.

I am extremely proud of the relationship we have with The Mountaineers, a nonprofit organization committed to connecting people with the natural world, and I am honored to support the incredible work you do. That’s why 10% of Kick Step IPA cases and kegs sold go to The Mountaineers. It gives me great pleasure knowing that our contributions, nearly $20,000 and growing, will benefit future generations of outdoor enthusiasts who desire to explore the wild places of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The next time you are out adventuring with purpose, reward yourself with an ice-cold Kick Step IPA!


Learn more about Ghostfish Brewing’s beers, brewery, and taproom, which also offers glutenfree food, at ghostfishbrewing.com. There you’ll also find information on where to get Kick Step IPA to support The Mountaineers in the most delicious way possible. Drink responsibly.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2019 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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