By Holly Amlin and Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Already deep in the Oregon beer weeds with Bailey’s Taproom, The Upper Lip and Brewed Oregon, Geoff Phillips wasn’t quite satisfied. He had recurring visions of a taproom where he could take his young family to enjoy good beer in a pleasant atmosphere.
The result of his thinking is Level Beer, which opened over the summer in the space formerly occupied by produce outlet The Barn in Northeast Portland. Level is situated on roughly 2 acres and features a brewery, taproom, beer garden, food carts, hop yard, gaming and more.
“My original vision was a family-oriented taproom outside the downtown core,” Phillips said. “As I searched for a spot, I was looking at expensive retail space. That led me to the brewery idea because industry property is a lot less expensive. Then I stumbled on this place.”
Owners of The Barn have been looking for a buyer for several years. The property, fairly atypical for a brewery in this area because of its size, appealed to Phillips due to its potential to host a variety of events and activities.
“When I found this place, I was sold on its utility,” Phillips said. “I figured, OK, I can do a brewery. I know something about beer, but I don’t brew and I don’t have any interest in brewing. So I put out feelers that I was looking for a brewer or brewers.”
Soon enough, Jason Barbee entered the picture. Barbee worked at Deschutes’ Portland brewery for five years before moving to Ex Novo Brewing Co. in 2014. There he developed a line of respected beers during the next two years.
“Leaving Ex Novo was tough in some ways,” Barbee says. “I had built something I was proud of and had good momentum. But my ultimate goal had always been to have my own place. Getting to know Geoff, this seemed like an ideal opportunity.”
Barbee and Phillips found a third partner in Shane Watterson, who Barbee had worked with early on at Deschutes. After leaving Deschutes, Watterson spent six years at Laurelwood Brewery, eventually reaching the role of head brewer there.
“Jason and I stayed in touch after Deschutes,” Watterson said. “We had the same ultimate goal and were working on a plan. It’s fair to say the three of us are on the same page in terms of what we think a brewery should be. Level Beer seemed like a good fit for me.”
The family-friendly aspect of Level Beer means they’ll focus on brewing lower-ABV beers. They’d like visitors to feel comfortable enjoying a few pints and food with their kids in a laidback setting.
“Honestly, the lighter stuff is what we like to drink,” Watterson said. “We all have young kids and we appreciate less alcohol. That doesn’t mean we won’t make barleywines and double IPAs. But most of our beers will be on the lighter side in terms of ABV.”
One of their standards is Let’s Play!, a dry-hopped pilsner. They’re still tinkering with the hops, but the beer already has a following. Another standard will be Ready Player One, a dry-hopped saison. Both beers clock in at about 5% ABV.
“Of course, we’ll always have an IPA on, probably two,” Barbee added. “We’ll take a traditional approach, but also do some hazy stuff to please those who search for that. We’ll definitely have some heavier beers and barrel stuff, particularly during the cooler months.”
One of Level’s cool factors is its beer garden, formerly a greenhouse. Seating inside the brewery building is dark and sparse, so the expansive beer garden is a necessary and highly desirable feature.
“The beer garden is unique and we intend to use it year-round,” Phillips said. “We’re in the process of getting overhead gas heaters installed, looking ahead to winter. We’ll close off the sides and make it a comfy space. It was one of the big selling points.”
Possessing a 20-barrel brewery and some fairly large fermenters, Level will have the ability to crank out some volume once the system is fully up to speed. They also have a 2.5-barrel pilot system for experimental and small-batch brews.
“The great thing about the pilot system is we can make small-batch stuff that doesn’t have mass appeal,” Barbee said. “You’re always going to have some beers that don’t move very fast, like a mild. We can make small batches of beers like that and know they won’t be around forever.”
While most startup breweries self-distribute early on to get the best return on what they sell outside their taproom or pub, Level decided to go another route. They chose to partner with Running Man, a boutique Portland-based distributor that represents a handful of craft brands. They have their reasons.
“We didn’t want to self-distribute,” Phillips said. “Shane and Jason want to brew. I want to run these businesses. We don’t want to hit the streets. We would have had to buy trucks, hire salespeople, develop logistics. We didn’t want to go there. Running Man will be our salesperson.”
Running Man may be a good fit. Level Beer isn’t looking to get into big-box grocers. They’re selling draft and packaged product to beer bars and bottle shops and expect to get cans and bottles into New Seasons and other premium stores.
Level Beer branding elements were designed by Hood River-based Jeremy Backer. Backer has several years of experience in branding, packaging and user interface design working with Ex Novo, Final Draft Taphouse, Fortside Brewing Company and others.
An ‘80s video game theme is apparent in the stylistic elements, as well as the bright color scheme. Some design elements can be seen in the taproom, such as the large “LEVEL” display above the taps. But the branding will be most apparent on packaged product.
“We realize there’s a contradictory aspect to the branding,” Phillips said. “The ‘80s theme doesn’t really fit with The Barn. The logo is more for our packaged stuff, less for the pub. We’re super stoked with the branding. And we have a barn. We’ll make it work.”
Phillips didn’t do a formal market analysis. But the area around the brewery, a mix of industrial and residential, is desperately underserved and in dire need of good beer.
“There’s no brewery within 7 miles in any direction,” he says, “and very little here in terms of food and beverage. Besides people living nearby, we hope this will be a destination for people passing by on I-84 or flying in and out of PDX.”
Indeed, the steady flow of PDX traffic in the skies above Level Beer makes rooftop advertising a viable option.
“We’re considering it,” said Phillips. “That might be fun.”
5211 NE 148th Ave., Portland
By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Bend Brewing Company has always been the sleeping giant in the Central Oregon craft beer scene. Under new ownership, BBC is awaking from its slumber.
The second-oldest brewery in Bend is expanding its footprint. Bend Brewing Company’s pub in downtown has been surrounded on all sides by empty lots for much of its existence. But a deal to purchase one of the nearby parcels will mean the brewpub will be getting a huge upgrade.
BBC will be constructing a beer garden overlooking Mirror Pond, with plans to open sometime in 2017, according to Packy Deenihan, the new owner of BBC along with wife Leslie.
“I can’t tell you how many locals and longtime Bend-ites would come in and ask ‘What’s going on with the lot next door?’ It’s a natural fit for us,” Deenihan said. “Since we took over ownership, we always thought it would be really cool to figure out how we could own the lot.”
The Deenihans took over BBC this past winter, and the purchase of the nearby land came this summer. Changes were already visible at the pub under the new owners, with an indoor, open-air bar being installed near the front entrance.
City regulations prevent the planned BBC beer garden from going right up to the water’s edge. But visitors will be able to sit outside with a much better view of the section of the pond behind BBC.
“Being able to drink BBC pints on Mirror Pond is going to be pretty special and really unique for Bend, because there’s no other brewery that has that setting directly on the river,” Deenihan said.
That includes Deschutes Brewery, with a pub just a few blocks away and famously makes a pale ale that bears Mirror Pond’s name.
Deenihan said plans for the space are still in flux, but the outdoor space will likely include a pouring station, a fire pit and a pavilion for live music.
Despite being one of the first movers on the Bend craft beer scene, BBC has remained small while newer breweries — like 10 Barrel Brewing, GoodLife Brewing Company and Crux Fermentation Project — grew quickly.
But that appears to be changing under the Deenihans, who have plans to increase production capabilities. Deenihan said he thought the opening of the beer garden alone might outstrip BBC’s current ability to keep up with demand. The business could build a brewing facility on one of the lots it just purchased, Deenihan said, or go off-site.
That would mean BBC’s beer, commonly an award winner at festivals and competitions, could start appearing on a lot more taps around the state and the Northwest.
“For me, that’s my No. 1 priority — how we can get more beer made,” Deenihan said.
Bend Brewing Company
[a] 1019 NW Brooks St., Bend
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
GoodLife Brewing in Bend has been on a roll ever since it opened five years ago this June. “We’re five years ahead of our business plan and 800 percent ahead of production goals,” said sales and promotions coordinator Chris Nelson.
To celebrate and give back to the community, GoodLife started a Sustainable Session Series in February with a portion of sales going to a Northwest nonprofit. The first beer is the Brewshed Session Ale, available through the end of May, with proceeds going to The Oregon Brewshed® Alliance, created to protect Northwest watersheds.
Nelson said, “All the session beers will be different styles. The new one coming in June is called Wildland Session Ale and we are donating 1 percent of the sales to the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project. The one for October will be Mountain Rescue, GoodLife’s first beer. The proceeds from that will go to Deschutes County Search and Rescue.”
Native son Curt Plants started the brewery along with Ty Barnett, who’s originally from Joseph. The two managed to secure the business’s enviable west side location through a combination of incredible timing and luck. They were one day away from signing a lease on a facility in northeast Bend and planned to focus on production.
But they happened to drive by an indoor tennis center for lease in the Century Center Events venue. Immediately they were hooked. The building had high ceilings, good light and plenty of space: 22,000 square feet inside and 9,000 square feet outside. They jumped at the chance to lease it and took the financial hit for the buildout. At the time, people wondered what in the world they would do with all that space.
It turns out, plenty. When you drive into the GoodLife parking lot, you’re right in front of their beer garden. The fenced area features a few tables, a firepit, a bocce ball court and a food cart. There’s room for kids and dogs to run or to spread out a picnic and hang out. In the summer, it’s constantly full and often the scene of charity events.
The brewery is directly to the left of the garden. With all the new tanks GoodLife keeps adding, the brewhouse is close to needing an expansion. But before they opened and installed a 30-barrel system, the empty space was cavernous and obviously so. There was so much room initially, the touring company Cycle Pub moved in. It was a beneficial partnership for a while, but GoodLife eventually needed to grow and the bike company found a new home. Curt’s older brother Mark has now taken over a section of the building for BackDrop Distilling. This is another win-win arrangement, as Mark uses the brewery’s wort and GoodLife gets his barrels. Plus, the copper still is an eye-catching addition.
Growing up, Curt was interested in learning about different beers. Curt and his father, a music teacher in the Bend school district, often vacationed at Odell Lake, which is about 65 miles southwest of Bend. That’s when father and son would sample beers to educate their palates. One day, Curt’s dad suggested he continue his studies at the Siebel Institute because he knew his son was passionate about beer and didn’t like traditional schooling. Curt went on to complete coursework there, got a job at Rogue, but eventually turned his focus to opening a brewery with co-founder Ty.
GoodLife got going with a 30-barrel, four-vessel system and produced 3,100 barrels during the first year. Growth continued from there, including the addition of two 240-barrel fermenters and a 130-barrel lagering tank. Last year, production hit 20,000 barrels. Nelson said, “The 30-barrel system will max out at 55,000 barrels a year.” Right now, they brew four batches a day, six days a week from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The expansion was driven by their purchase of a canning line. They had been using a mobile unit that filled 30 containers a minute. But the new line can handle 122 cans in that same amount of time. The line from Palmer Canning out of Chicago was, at the time, the largest the business had shipped west of the Mississippi. The equipment will allow GoodLife to keep up with demand in their distribution markets, including Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, Washington and Vermont.
For GoodLife and so many other local enterprises, sustainability is simply a part of life in Central Oregon. Spent grain recycling started with a phone call from Curt to longtime family friend Dave Holmberg, his former teacher and principal. Holmberg, who worked with Curt’s father at the same school, also owns Anchor Heart Ranch and raises cattle. Holmberg described that, “Curt asked if I still had cattle and said he was starting a brewery. Would I be interested in taking that stuff?”
Holmberg started with one small trailer to haul off GoodLife’s spent grain, but he now owns four large trailers and two 1-ton diesel trucks to handle all of the byproduct. He arrives in the morning, depending on the brew schedule, with an empty trailer to replace the full one, which contains 10,000-12,000 pounds of spent grain. Not only do Holmberg’s cattle benefit from the process; hogs at High Hope Acres in Culver also get some of the load. Holmberg additionally picks up the trub (yeast mixed with beer, the stuff left at the bottom of the fermenters) in 300 gallon containers — five or six a week.
“With the trucks and trailers I have now, and with GoodLife’s 30-barrel operating system, I can keep up with them for the foreseeable future,” said Holmberg. “Between me and my other driver, even with increased production, we will just be busier recycling spent grain.”
Future plans for GoodLife? “We have the option of building on the lot adjacent to our parking lot. If we were to do that, we would be going big — comparable to Deschutes with a 100-120 barrel system. Or we will stay put — maybe put in a 60-barrel system and continue as a regional brewery,” said Nelson.
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