Matthew Killikelly is a partner in Santiam Brewing Company and primarily handles sales and marketing.(Photo: Victor Panichkul / Statesman Journal)Buy Photo
Matthew Killikelly traces his passion for beer to a story that’s not exactly politically correct.
“I was a beer enthusiast before I should have been a beer enthusiast,” Killikelly said. “In the 1970s, it was a very different time. My dad used to give me a beer for mowing the lawn. I was probably 12 years old.”
The family had a vacation home in upstate New York that they would retreat to every couple of weeks.
“My dad would take one look at the two acres, and he would say, ‘OK guys, break out the lawn mowers.’ And my brother and I would mow the lawn,” Killikelly said. “But you need a little motivation, so my dad said at the time, ‘I’ll give you a beer if you mow the lawn.’ So we would mow the lawn for two days to get that beer.
“And every now and then, my father would give us this Guinness foreign export beer. At that time, nobody heard of craft beer. There was no craft beer.”
Much later on after graduating with an English literature degree, Killikelly would end up working in the mortgage industry. The plan at the time was that he would make a lot of money and retire young and be able to do something he really enjoyed. He and his wife, Jennifer, enjoyed paintball and home brewing, and they dreamed of cashing in on the business and opening a paintball field and making beer.
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But then the economy went south and the mortgage industry went down the toilet.
“Essentially how I ended up here is the whole mortgage industry crashed in 2008 and my own company went out of business. I had six offices and a bunch of people working for me, and the thing just fell apart … we lost everything.”
Looking back at those times, Killikelly now sees the silver lining, thanks in big part to his wife.
“I said let’s do something different, let’s make a major move here, let’s try something else. I said, ‘How would you like to move to the West Coast and start a brewery?’ I think I was pretty sure she was going to divorce me at that point. And she said, ‘You know what? Let’s give it a go.’ ”
His wife worked in the IT industry and had skills that were in high demand, and there were opportunities in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Michigan. “And I said, ‘No, no, no. I said West Coast’ (because it was a center for the nascent craft brewing scene).” There were projects in Oregon and Washington, and she ended up getting an offer for a contract job in Salem.
So the family packed up their bags and two kids, Aiden and Audrey, who were 4 and 2 at the time, and headed west.
“I was kinda bummed out because it was Salem. Portland would have been better for me because I always thought if you wanted a brewery, go where the brewing culture is strong and it’s a little easier to get a start in. But it was going to be Salem, and so we moved here.”
There may have been a few craft-beer geeks at the time when Killikelly and his family arrived in 2008, but calling Salem a beer ‘waste land’ would probably be pretty accurate.
“That’s when I discovered that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. ”
“That’s when I discovered that being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a small fish in a big pond. When I moved here, I did not want to get back into white-collar America, I had been doing it for more than 15 years. I didn’t want to do it anymore. It was really high stress; it was extremely sedentary work. I was good at it, but I didn’t want to do it. I had been home brewing since 1991. But I didn’t know how I was going to start a brewery. I didn’t have the funds to do it. I didn’t have official training.”
As his wife became the breadwinner, Killikelly immersed himself in beer, and he helped take care of the kids.
“I did every little thing I could possibly do to become a brewery owner so I would buy a couple of different brews every day from Capitol Market, and I would write a review for them online. I would volunteer to do home-brew judging. I would study the styles. I joined a home brew club, which hooked me up with some very good brewers. And I started brewing and putting my brews into competitions, and I won a bunch of metals.”
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He also took the Siebel Institute online brewing classes and the Chemeketa Community College brewing class, where he met Jerome Goodrow, who would eventually become Santiam Brewing Company’s brewer.
Rubbing elbows with a bunch of the right people ended up making a lot of difference. He ended up becoming friends with Ian Croxall, a British expatriate, who hosted something every Thursday called “choir practice.”
“There was no signing,” Killikelly said. “It was a chance for us to all get together and drink beer and talk about beer.”
Many of the nine co-owners of Santiam Brewing Company, including Croxall and Killikelly, were in that “choir.”
“Everybody had a different path to this. Some of them were quite frankly not ever interested in starting a brewery, but when you’re in the right place and the right time, something can happen. For me, it was part of the plan. I was hanging out with beer people trying to make it happen,” Killikelly said.
“We were home brewing and tasting and thinking, ‘This is as good as anything on the shelf.’ Eventually we stopped daring each other to do it and just did it. It took 18 months from the day we said ‘Yea, let’s start a brewery,’ to the day we poured our first beer.”
Now, Santiam Brewing has been in business for three years.
During that time, an opportunity emerged with Venti’s in 2010. Killikelly’s wife was into roller derby as was Dino Venti’s wife. Killikelly had established himself as an uber-beer geek of sorts, sharing his beer knowledge, bringing his home brew and other beers to derby parties and sharing them with fellow beer enthusiasts.
“I used to go to the Venti’s downtown when it was the only one, and I would talk to their guy, and I said, “Hey Nick, I know you’re gonna start another Venti’s, and I wanna be involved, and he would just kinda laugh and say, ‘Ha ha ha, that’s my job.’
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“Eventually what ended up happening was he was not going to be in that job any more, and I got a phone call one day to get my beer resume together.
“I sat down with Dino and Conrad Venti … and I talked to those guys about my vision for what their beer program could be. And they hired me on the spot … and he kind of let me run with the ball on the beer.”
Killikelly ended up being known around town as the beer czar at Venti’s. He developed the “Beer Geek” program out of the program he came up with to train the Venti’s staff on beer.
While he was working at Venti’s from 2010 to 2013, he and his fellow partners at Santiam were nursing their dream along. He was wearing a hat at Venti’s and another hat at the brewery until the brewery could afford to hire him full time.
And then life got crazy.
Matthew Killikelly and his wife, Jennifer Killikelly, and their children Aiden and Audrey, pose for a family photograph in Talkeetna, Alaska, with Mount McKinley in the background. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Millikelly)
Killikelly said his wife’s company got a project in Alaska and asked her to go.
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Every week, Killikelly’s wife boards a plane for Alaska and then returns home on Fridays for the weekends.
In addition to helping run a brewery, Killikelly has been a full-time mom and dad during the week for the past year. “Mr. Dad I call it. It’s breathless.”
He gets the kids up at 7 a.m. and fixes them breakfast, gets them off to school and then heads into the brewery.
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“I get in here, and I look at what I’ve got for orders and figure out how to get the beer from here to there and be back in time to pick up the kids.”
Killikelly’s responsibilities have been pared down a lot from when he first started, and some of them have been taken on by the other partners. What he’s responsible for now is selling the beer and maintaining the relationships and finding new clients.
“Every once once in a while I have a little panic attack when I find out I have nothing on my calendar for the next couple of hours, and I go, ‘Well what am I supposed to do now’ because my time is too tightly budgeted that it’s a little shocking to me.”
When his wife’s away, Killikelly picks up the kids at the school’s Latchkey program at 6 p.m. every day, gets them home, cooks dinner, helps them with homework and then gets them ready for bed. Part of the ritual is a daily phone call with his wife.
“Either the kids will read to her or she’ll read to the kids,” he said “and when it’s time for bed, I rescue the phone from the kids and I get to talk to my wife.”
On Fridays, when his wife returns home from Alaska, it’s like a party: “Everyone goes ‘Mommy!’ Even the dog goes crazy.”
Life is far from uncomplicated for the Killikellys.
At one point, he felt like he really needed to do something for his wife to pay her back for all of her support and patience. “I said anything you want, whatever you want, let’s make it happen for you, and she said, ‘I want to play with horses,’ so we’ve moved out south on Skyline Road, and we’ve got a house out there on acreage with a barn, and we foster horses.”
“My wife takes care of the horses on the weekend, and our friend Kendra, who lives downstairs from us, takes care of them on the weekdays. I don’t take care of horses. I just feed them apples and carrots and pet them. Every once in a while, they have me scooping poop and cleaning the horses’ hooves and brushing the horses down, but I really don’t take care of the horses. I really don’t have the time. I’m busy all of the time, but I don’t think I’d want it any other the way.”
Victor Panichkul is Wine, food and beer columnist. Contact him at (503) 399-6704, Vpanichkul@StatesmanJournal.com, follow at Facebook.com/WillametteValleyFoodWine and on Twitter @TasteofOregon.
Partner in Santiam Brewing Company
Wife: Jennifer Killikelly
Children: Aiden and Audrey
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English literature from SUNY Stony Brook, New York, 1992
Address: 2544 19th St. SE
Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, noon to 10 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 to 10 p.m. Sundays
Phone: (503) 689-1260
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