By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“With a passion for hops, and the patience for sour.”
Great Notion Brewing's slogan couldn't be more simple and straightforward, but it's what lies behind that simplicity that sets James, Andy and Paul's operation apart. Their passion for hops is expressed in the juicy New England-style IPAs James took a shine to while the 5-year-old house culture used in their sours is a testament to their patience. But to get to where they are now, we have to look back at how this notion became a great one.
James Dugan, Andy Miller and Paul Reiter are all Portland transplants who fortuitously found each other through geographic proximity. They live within a block of each other and on a block that holds annual parties. Portland craft beer drinkers should count themselves lucky that these guys are not only the kind of friendly folk who would attend those gatherings, but also that two of the three were generous homebrewers who shared their beers.
Both James and Andy had been brewing for some time; Andy getting his start while he was going to college in Alabama and James, an all-in brewer from the beginning, skipped straight over extract, went all grain and reached for the stars by brewing a Pliny clone on his first time out. For more than 10 years they had each been progressively getting more serious and refining their beers. James even won a medal in 2012 for a sour beer that was made with his own sour culture. They started brewing together when Andy's house was being remodeled, and although James had always preferred to brew alone, he found he liked brewing with Andy. When Paul tried their beers, he asked the obvious question of why the two weren't in the process of opening a brewery. Before long, that's exactly what the three of them were on the path to do.
Paul utilized his business background, which includes an MBA and specialization in sales and marketing, to work on a business pitch that the three presented to people they knew that might be interested in investing. Their goal of putting together between $500,000 and $1 million became a reality with a combination of funds from investors and a small business loan. Once the finances were in place, it was a matter of finding a suitable location — something that proved to be a sticking point until, through a friend of a friend, they learned that the owner of The Mash Tun on Northeast Alberta Street was looking to get out of the business.
The Mash Tun had been going about its business making acceptable beer and providing standard pub grub for years. But in a time when new breweries have been popping up as quickly as dandelions in the spring, they were an oft-overlooked blip on the Portland brewery scene. With the change in ownership and name, Great Notion has quickly found its name on the lips of thirsty Portlanders. Their twice-weekly brewing on the existing 7-barrel system is barely keeping pace with demand. Batches of Juice Jr., an insanely flavorful session IPA brewed with 100 percent Mosaic hops, have been lasting less than two weeks. And this was before their Grand Beer Release Party, an open house/grand opening party that featured 14 of their beers.
A handful of the beers at the Great Release were sours or barrel aged, styles that more and more young breweries are jumping into early on. Kettle-soured beers, like their Berliner weisse Zest, are a great introduction to their sour program that will continue. In addition to patience, space is another requirement for barrels, something that is in limited supply at Great Notion. Working around that, they secured a second facility in St. Johns to hold barrels. There's room for up to 100 barrels, which currently come from a local winery. Wine barrels are "dirty" from the standpoint that they come with Brettanomyces cultures from the grapes. This aligns perfectly with Great Notion's brewing of sour beers and they're taking it a step further by utilizing fruit — peaches, apricots, raspberries and cherries -- in the barrels.
Beyond brewing up great beer, Great Notion intends to be an integral part of the Alberta neighborhood and a place families like theirs can enjoy. With each of the three founders having two kids, it was a no-brainer to welcome children during all open hours, have a play area and offer a minor's version of hump day happy hour $1 meals on Wednesdays. Speaking of food, heading up the kitchen is Chef Ryan O'Connor, formerly of Vita Cafe and Helser's. He's someone they knew previously and have so much faith in, that they are able to be relatively hands-off with that aspect of the brewpub. Since they initially didn't think they would offer food, and instead planned to have food trucks, this is an ideal arrangement. For now, the menu offers plenty of familiar items — sandwiches, salads, pot pie and mac and cheese — but as they go forward, look for Ryan to spread his wings further, throwing in beer pairing dinners and the like.
They've gotten down great beer and great food, but what about the name Great Notion? The credit for that goes to Andy's wife, Emily. It pays homage to Oregon's history and the state's most famous author, Ken Kesey, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and grew up in Springfield. His next novel was “Sometimes a Great Notion” and Kesey was also a fan of The Grateful Dead, as is James. Thus the name was a fit on multiple levels. The logo, a lumberjack toting a mug of beer, reinforces their connection to Oregon and its logging history. The trio may be transplants, but they've embraced the place they now call home and invite craft beer drinkers to share in their Great Notion.
Great Notion Brewing
[a] 2204 NE Alberta St. #101, Portland
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Breweries throughout Oregon are establishing or growing programs to age beer in wine and spirit barrels. They also face a common problem: barrels are getting harder — and more expensive — to source. Some breweries are dreading a looming barrel shortage, but the reality may be far different, depending on the way breweries want to begin, maintain, or expand their barrel programs going forward.
“Barrel sourcing is getting harder these days,” says Matt Van Wyk, brewmaster and head of the barrel program at Eugene’s Oakshire Brewing. “Not because barrels are becoming more scarce as a whole, it's just that the pie is being broken up in a lot more pieces. And it's not the small neighborhood breweries who are necessarily taking all the barrels, but the larger regional breweries who often get ‘first dibs.’”
Brewers from around the region have voiced similar perspectives and concerns, but the industry on the whole has been changing greatly, in ways that are not always apparent from a brewery’s day-to-day operations perspective.
Tom Griffin is a barrel broker who’s been linking breweries with barrels for 19 years. When he began in 1996, three U.S. breweries were using barrels. Since then, he’s brokered barrel sales in 14 countries.
Things have changed.
“My business over the last 15 years had doubled every year,” Griffin says. During his first year doing business, he brokered barrel sales to 25 breweries for a typical barrel price of around $35. In 2014, Griffin received inquiries from 2,000 breweries, meaderies, cideries and distilleries, ultimately supplying barrels to 900.
While many brewers wonder about the impact of multiple breweries buying barrels — or the effect of large breweries buying large quantities — Griffin puts things in perspective. According to Griffin, 1.5 million barrels were sold and shipped last year, with an estimated 50,000 being used in the brewing industry, which is about 3.33% of barrel production.
“The popularity of brown spirits — Scottish, Japanese, Canadian — is what’s driving this whole phenomenon,” Griffin explains. “Supply cannot keep up with the demand. Brewers aren’t driving barrel shortages. The huge demand for brown spirits is.”
Back at Oakshire, Van Wyk has seen the impact of a more limited supply. “Bourbon barrels used to be sourced for $90–120, plus shipping. Now we are reaching levels twice that amount.”
Griffin has seen similar changes. “Nineteen years ago, a barrel was $35,” he says. “Today I’m seeing $155, plus shipping, and it can be as high as $250.”
Supply also varies greatly month to month, year to year and tree to tree, Griffin explains. “Wood can vary because of what side of the hill it grew on,” he says. “The minerals in the ground are different place to place. It’s such a more variable product.”
Wine barrel quantities vary depending on the harvest, and can cost more than bourbon barrels. “Young bourbon barrels are the easiest to get. Old barrels have the best, most-aged whiskey. Following that, rye, then brandy barrels.”
As Van Wyk looks ahead to the short- and long-term, he’s not yet seeing a big change in Oakshire’s barrel program. “We may just have to work harder to source barrels,” says the brewmaster. “They are out there, we just have to find them and make some relationships … The cost of ingredients will always affect beer pricing, and barrels are simply an 'ingredient' because they can't be used indefinitely. We also might decide to sell more of our barrel-aged beer in-house as a way to keep pricing manageable. But we'll evaluate all of that after the beer is made and ready to sell.”
One change Van Wyk is considering is to source barrels closer to home from Oregon wineries. Van Wyk also notes that wine barrels can be reused more times than bourbon barrels, spreading the barrel cost across more beers and making the use of wine barrels a more profitable option. “We may increase our wine barrel inventory and fill in with spirits barrels where available,” he says.
However, over the next 12 to 24 months brewers can expect some easing on the supply side. “Three major groups will start or expand operations for cooperage in the U.S.,” says Griffin. “That will ease the pressure on the brown spirits industry. Plus there’s unprecedented growth for artisan everything, but especially beer and brown spirits. Everyone’s jumping on that bandwagon, so the commodity side of this is picking up.”
During the next 24 months, Griffin says breweries can expect to see more price variability. “There will be a price bump over the next year or so too, but smaller than we’ve seen over the last five years,” he says. “This year the price bumped $30-60. Medium bump to come, maybe two small price bumps, $10 and $10. I see $200 as the ceiling, then things will level off.” After three to five years, “we’ll see supply relax a lot.”
Combined with being aware of the changes coming for the barrel industry, for the brewery looking to begin a barrel program, Griffin offers some advice.
“I never would have said this two or three years ago, but I’ll say it now: Get one barrel and do it small. Practice. Just practice. Get to know the nuance of aging beer in barrels. Treat the barrel as an ingredient, but remember that it’s a whimsical one where you cannot expect consistency. Do barrel beers because you love them, not because you think you’ll make a lot of money with them. Practice and hone your craft. Make it special.”
Above all, Griffin says, “be patient. The market is bonkers right now, but in a few years a patient brewer running a small program could be ready to expand to bigger things.”
OBG Blog Archives
Welcome to our archive pages! Read stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler from June 2012 to January 2018. For newer stories, please visit our new website at: