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 Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It wasn’t that long ago when the dirge for the American family business began to crescendo. Big box stores and transnational corporations had pushed and prodded small mom-and-pop operations ever closer to the grave. But there’s at least one industry where the family-run model has thrived — craft beer.
The business of brewing has long involved kin. For instance, Anheuser and Busch were joined by a hyphen only after the families joined in marriage. Closer to home, the most well-known relatives to start a brewery — Kurt and Rob Widmer — also helped launch the craft revolution in the 1980s. But they’re not the only brothers who’ve decided to make beer under the same roof. That duo is joined by the Hughes behind ColdFire Brewing; the Coombs, founders of Alesong Brewing & Blending; and Three Mugs Brewing Company had the Jennings (before the older brother departed); just to name a few.
While siblings seem abundant in the beer industry, one type of family pairing is rarer to find: the father-daughter team. Much of that is likely due to the fact that men still outnumber women employed in brewing. But that doesn’t seem to bother Lisa Allen, who joined her father Rick Allen at McMinnville-based Heater Allen in 2009. In fact, working closely with each other on a near daily basis in physically demanding roles has only strengthened their relationship over time. And while there certainly have been challenges along the way, right now both are more focused on Heater Allen’s big accomplishment — 10 years in business.
Lisa Allen never pictured herself hovering over her dad’s brew kettle or cleaning tanks as a full-time job. In fact, she didn’t even have full confidence that his mission to make good, local pilsner on a commercial level would ever take off.
“I remember thinking when my dad first started kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see how long this lasts,” she recounted. “When he first was working on recipes and stuff like that, I would come and brew a couple of times and that sort of stuff. I was interested in the process and I’d been interested in craft beer for a while, but I never really thought that I would actually be brewing.”
Instead, she was focused on a different fermented beverage: wine. Lisa Allen spent several years living the life of a vineyard vagabond. It’s not unusual to jump from tasting room to tasting room and even follow the harvest from the West Coast to the Southern Hemisphere since regular positions can be hard to come by. Lisa Allen guesses she moved at least once a year after finishing college, including stints getting grapes off their vines in California and New Zealand. Even her dad thought she was bound for a career in that industry.
“I have to admit my first thought was that she was going to dominate in another male-oriented field, and that’s wine,” said Rick Allen. “Because she’s always had a terrific palate and always been someone who basically could detect flaws and, you know, really kind of understand the whole sensory analysis side of things.”
But after a while, Lisa Allen discovered that brewing was more fulfilling than winemaking. The seasonal downtime with wine didn’t keep her as busy as she liked to be, so the year-round nature of the beer business was one plus. Another is the more hands-on nature of brewing — providing assistance to those microorganisms that complete the crucial task of turning sugars into alcohol.
“The thing that I really like about brewing is that you’re not just relying essentially on nature. You actually get to create something,” described Lisa Allen. “I mean, the one thing I always found coolest about wine was the fermentation process. I wasn’t actually as interested in the growing process and stuff like that. I was much more interested in the actual fermentation.”
Lisa Allen’s experience with winemaking helped her easily transition to the brewhouse. However, there were still obstacles.
“When we first started out, there was a certain amount of yelling and screaming and people going away mad,” said Rick Allen. “In the past, there have been a few times where things were thrown. I don’t think anything’s been thrown for a while,” he added with a laugh.
Aside from hurtling objects, working with a family member has several hazards — there are hurt feelings, head butting and moments of miscommunication. Not everyone would work well with a relative, particularly a parent or offspring. But with time, the Allens figured out how to pull it off.
“When my dad and I first started working together, I would say it took about a year to kind of know how we work together,” explained Lisa Allen. “I think part of the problem is that we are pretty similar in our personalities. We both kind of like being in control and doing things a certain way. And I still sometimes have to tell myself I take things too personally.”
Rick Allen said they’ve both become more sensitive to the way they give and receive feedback. And their similarities began to work in their favor. Rick Allen noticed areas where his daughter could improve were some of the same issues he once struggled with.
“It’s always easier to encourage them to spread their wings and understand their weaknesses or the things they need to work on a bit better,” Rick Allen said.
And that begins to touch on the unique benefits of working alongside a family member — you witness improvement and mastery over time. Few parents have that opportunity once their child reaches adulthood.
“You’ve got your own flesh and blood that you’re working with and they’re taking over and they’re taking more responsibility, and you get to see the growth up front and personal that you don’t normally get to see with your children,” Rick Allen described. “I don’t get to experience that with my son who’s off doing something else. But I can see that with Lisa.”
Both father and daughter take pride in the fact that they work a little harder and care a whole lot more about a brand that doesn’t just stand for quality beer. It also represents their family.
“It’s a family product, so I do think I have more investment in it than someone who would just work at a random brewery,” said Lisa Allen. “You know, it’s my name on the label as well, so I want that product to show really well.”
Lisa Allen is marking eight years with the brewery, and she knows she’s fortunate to have bypassed some of the discrimination other female brewers face — particularly those outside of Oregon. That’s not to say it never happens, though. There’s always the salesperson who wants to talk to a man at the brewery, the vendor who will only address Heater Allen’s male buyer instead of the woman who will actually make the purchasing decisions about equipment. And even getting singled out as a “woman in beer” can be a bit exhausting.
“I mean, it would be nice to just be seen as a brewer and not a woman brewer,” Lisa Allen said. “But because it’s a male-dominated field, that is going to happen. You are going to be seen as a woman brewer because there’s not that many of us.”
One way she’s reached out to support that industry minority is by participating in a group meetup that includes other female brewers from the Portland-metro area. They invite new women to join in order to share, learn or just seek camaraderie. While Lisa Allen described Oregon’s overall beer community as encouraging and helpful, she said meeting solely with women provides a safe space that’s free of judgement.
“It’s good for women to have a support group in a male-dominated field,” she said.
Many of those women are likely to pay the Allens a visit on Saturday, May 27 for the business’s 10th anniversary party. There will be a special zwickel beer tapping, a release of their kolsch in 500-milliliter bottles, commemorative half-liter ceramic mugs and possibly even a cake. Neither Lisa Allen nor her dad are ones to go on bragging about their milestone. But it has sunk in that they’ve done something pretty special in an industry that’s grown increasingly competitive.
“To think that it’s been 10 years is pretty amazing,” said Rick Allen, “because I really had no idea where this was going or how far it would go. But it’s gone further than I ever thought it would.”
“And I will say that even the impact on the Oregon beer culture too — no one else in Oregon made a craft pilsner before we started our Pilsner. And now there’s a bunch,” Lisa Allen said. “It’s really cool to think that we’ve been around for 10 years, so hopefully 10 — maybe 20 more.”
Heater Allen Brewing
907 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville
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: