REGISTERGUARD.COM – Aaron Keeney about a decade ago fused his welding skills with a brewing hobby, creating a Eugene company known in the craft beer world.
Keeney’s Synergy Brewing Systems makes stainless steel beer-making equipment for home-based and commercial brewers. The equipment, which includes three kettles and propane burners mounted on a stand with wheels, can make from five gallons to 30 gallons or more of beer.
Yet Keeney, 33, who owns Synergy with Josh Mathews, is more than a small manufacturer. He’s a brewing system creator and repairman.
With his welding expertise, he has made or fixed equipment for Oakshire Brewing, Ninkasi Brewing Co., Hop Valley Brewing Co. and other local breweries, either at their facilities or in his shop.
And commercial breweries use Synergy’s small set-ups to test new beer recipes.
“He’s something of an icon in Eugene in terms of his stainless steel welding skills and who he is in the community,” Oakshire owner Jeff Althouse said.
“He’s joining the metal together in exactly the way that it needs to be joined. There’s no additional material required. There’s nothing ugly about it. It’s clean. It’s consistent. They’re tight. Everything is square. There is just a meticulousness to his work that keeps us coming back.”
Welding a future
Keeney discovered welding about age 13, when he used welding equipment from a friend’s family. In one of his first projects, he made a larger sprocket for a riding lawn mower so it would go faster.
He took welding classes while a student at Springfield’s Thurston High School. The classes inspired him to start his own business, after he discovered he could earn money by making bicycle parts in the school’s metal shop.
“Things kind of clicked and I spent more time in the metal shop than I did in some other classes,” Keeney said.
He later took business classes at Lane Community College, not earning a degree but learning what he needed to have his own company.
By 2002, he had acquired $20,000 worth of welding equipment by making creations, including a hot rod motorized wheelchair for the annual Burning Man gathering in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
The next year, Keeney started Synergy Metalworking and mainly produced parts for all-terrain vehicles.
In his early 20s, Keeney took up home brewing as a hobby. Eventually, he merged work and play by shifting Synergy’s focus from ATV parts to brewing equipment.
In 2008, Mathews, another welder and a good friend of Keeney’s, joined the firm as co-owner.
Synergy moved in 2009 to a rented 1,200-square-foot workshop on West First Avenue. The business now occupies 2,800-square feet of space. The co-owners are the firm’s only employees.
Synergy’s sales are split between home brewing and commercial customers.
Keeney declined to discuss sales figures. However, he said Synergy produces each month between three and 10 brewing systems, which each sell for $3,000 or more.
He also has a few repair jobs each week for breweries, restaurants and anyone else with a stainless steel-related problem.
“I like to be able to help companies I care about,” Keeney said.
Synergy lacks storage space so it makes home-brewing setups at about the rate it sells them, which ebbs and flows.
The firm uses subcontractors when times are busy and Keeney and Mathews make do when business is slow.
“It’s feast or famine in the small business world,” Keeney said.
Developing at own pace
Mending the large stainless steel systems of the metro area’s bigger brewers led to refinements of the home-brewing equipment, which he mainly sells through his firm’s website.
“They are modeled to be on par with how a commercial system operates, but they are on a size-level that homebrewers can use them, as well as the breweries for testing (and) recipe development,” Keeney said.
As Synergy Brewing Systems’ reputation grows among commercial and hobby brewers, Keeney said he has intentionally kept the company small.
He said he has rejected offers to sell Synergy to larger, national competitors, preferring to develop the business at his own pace.
His projects at Oakshire have made for a more efficient brewing system, said Althouse, the brewing company’s owner.
Keeney also took the time to teach Oakshire employees how to weld and sold the brewery welding equipment. Althouse called Keeney an artist in the way he welds.
“People get to drink even better beer because of folks like Aaron behind the scenes, helping us literally build the equipment we need to build to make things happen,” he said.
Some brewing system manufacturers cut costs by using inexpensive foreign-made parts, something that Keeney resists mainly because he enjoys welding.
Keeney regularly improves Synergy’s website to make it standout.
He speaks as comfortably about search engine optimization as he does about welding.
Looking to capitalize on Oregon’s fledgling recreational marijuana market, Keeney has a side company that makes a machine called “Kief Thief,” which extracts a THC-rich powder from marijuana that’s either smoked, made into hash or used in cooking. The chemical THC chemical produces the euphoric high for pot users.
But Keeney said he gets particular joy by making brewing systems because his customers use them to be creative themselves.
“The ultimate goal is to make tools for people,” Keeney said.
Dylan Darling, The Register-Guard