By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Right now, Greg Swift’s shop might not look like much. The converted detached garage behind his house in Portland’s Arbor Lodge Neighborhood — about a block away from stop-and-go traffic on North Lombard Street — is a patchwork of organized spaces, like the pegboard where wrenches, hammers and tape are hung with care, and pieces of disorder as evidenced by the planter supporting the weight of an old microwave and some lime green Top-Siders resting on the appliance. It is clear, however, that this is the home base of a carpenter, as varying lengths and widths of lumber lay against the roll-up door. Plain old planks like these — scrap wood, really — provided Swift with the inspiration to create his first tap handle. And it didn’t take long before the budding hobby grew into a full-time business, allowing Swift to move into and develop the backyard shop.
You probably won’t find any of Swift’s tap handles at breweries around town just yet, but there’s a good chance that buddy of yours who homebrews has picked up a few for a home kegerator. Swift’s creations are hot sellers at beer-making supply shops like F.H. Steinbart Co., Homebrew Exchange and Mainbrew. Two years ago, Swift actually started his business (currently called glsDESIGN, but he expects to change the name this summer) by selling the handles on Etsy, the website dedicated to handmade goods. Since he had some extra wood left over from other projects, the newcomer to homebrewing wondered whether he could put the supply to good use and turn it into tap handles. The resulting smooth rectangles with a mini chalkboard in the center looked pretty good — good enough to try to sell.
“And I had, like, 20 or so and I was like, ‘I’ll sell them on Etsy and make a couple of bucks.’ And then immediately they all sold out within a week,” Swift recounted. He made another batch, which was also snatched up. “And then it was just like, OK — I guess there’s a niche for this.”
The handle design has changed slightly from the original — it’s now a bit thinner and lighter. There are also two sizes: a 6-inch tap that costs $20 online and in stores and a taller version that retails for $5 more. Both come in cherry, maple, oak and walnut, with walnut being the most popular wood. Swift guesses it’s due to the darker, rich color, but cherry is also a solid performer. While sales are strong, the carpenter was initially met with some doubt when he approached local homebrew supply stores about stocking his product, including his first account Mainbrew. Swift said they were hesitant because the handles they had weren’t exactly flying out the door.
“And I was like, ‘I’ll show you them.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yes -- these handles we’ll take.’ So it was something about the chalkboard. Steinbart jumped right on it too. I know Homebrew Exchange, they were like, ‘Yes, we need these.’ Something about it seems to be working,” Swift said.
That something is the ability to personalize the product with the chalkboard feature. Consumers can write and draw on the handles, but easily change up those images when they put on a new batch of beer. And that can happen quite often with an ambitious homebrewer or even at a busy bar.
“Homebrewers often have a lot of turnover. Or bars have a lot of turnover. And most of the time, like, a brewery will send their tap handle [to a bar], but a lot of times they don’t. I know Side Street bar off of Belmont — that was the reason they got some,” Swift explained.
Beyond homebrewers, taprooms are becoming a lucrative source of business. Swift recently shipped 36 tap handles to one in Chicago, and his creations have been ordered by customers as far away as Germany and Australia. To fill orders, he’s primarily worked out of ADX, a shared workspace with tools available via membership in Southeast Portland. The facility has some key equipment that his shop lacks, including a laser cutter, that would allow Swift to add engravings. However, he hopes to purchase a table saw, joiner and planer — moving most, if not all, production to his home address.
From start to finish, Swift spends approximately 15 minutes on each handle by working on bundles at a time. Getting the raw shape is the quickest part of the process, while adding finishing touches takes the longest. Swift hand sands every block, tapes off each handle to spray paint the recessed middle three times to create the chalkboard and then oils the wood at the end. It’s a job that might sound repetitive and one that surely keeps Swift on his feet, but it’s the kind of job he prefers.
“I like working in a woodshop much more than just sitting at a desk all day,” Swift said. “I find it hard sitting at a desk.”
His previous work as an architectural designer was more sedentary than his current endeavor. And while he’s been formally trained in the field at the University of Oregon, Swift has sawdust in his blood. His grandfather was a carpenter. He grew up with a dad who had him by his side completing house projects — and this wasn’t just fixing a creaky step or hanging a shelf — Swift’s childhood chores included finishing the attic. But growing up in a shop class on steroids prepared him for UO’s architecture department, which has its own woodshop where Swift spent much of his time. After college, he took positions at local architecture firms, but the rise of the tap handle business put him on the path to self-employment.
Being his own boss and setting his own hours have obvious benefits, but by crafting these particular handles he’s also helping homebrewers tell their own stories about the unique personalities of their beers. Taps have become a critical medium for craft producers to introduce drinkers to their brands. A simple piece of wood or metal needs to convey a lifestyle, message or feeling that’s easily identifiable. But homebrewers largely lack the ability to provide a succinct narrative in their own bars at home, where friends are just as likely to gather as they are at the neighborhood bar.
“I think the people they like more design than just black tap handles, like a little black piece of plastic,” which is the common handle available at homebrew shops. “Yeah, I think it’s just more, I guess, why do we buy nice furniture or other nice accessories? So I think it’s just this nice added touch that has, like, it’s just more impressive to look at than the black plastic.”
Beyond bringing flair to the functional, Swift gets most of his satisfaction by creating something out of nothing. He wants to expand his focus by also building carriers for six-packs and 22-ounce bottles as well as taster trays. So if you happen by a home in Arbor Lodge and catch a glimpse of an open garage with the sound of a table saw buzzing as a man’s hands make quick work of a piece of walnut — that just might be Swift in his completed shop.
“When you get a piece of wood from the store, it’s really rough around the edges and then it comes out as this nice polished piece of craft,” Swift described. “Yeah, it’s rewarding to see that.”
Joseph Haggard (pictured) and his wife Michelle Haggard got into the beer business about a year ago when they bought a manual canning system that Joseph then modified using his knowledge from an electrical engineering degree and his time in the field. He hopes to upgrade in the next year. Photos courtesy of Crossroads Mobile Canning
By Erica Tiffany-Brown
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
If you choose to look up the meaning of “crossroads” in the dictionary, you’ll find both a literal definition and a metaphorical one. Or, to save time, you can listen to the narrative of Joseph and Michelle Haggard.
“There’s his story and my story,” Michelle explained when asked about how Crossroads Mobile Canning got its name.
“Which one do you want?” Joseph asked.
I opted for both.
Michelle started, “Over the last five of six years, we’ve wanted to get into the beer industry somehow. We’d looked at several properties off and on, and unfortunately we just didn’t have the capital to actually do it ourselves. There was a property off of Portland Road (in Salem) and I was like, ‘You know, that’d be a really nice place for a taphouse — right there, right on the corner — lots of traffic … and I think I would call it Crossroads.’ That never came to fruition, so when we had this idea for the canning, I still liked the name.”
Joseph added, “That’s her story. Mine was because I became disabled. I lost my job — they let me go. I was at a crossroads in my life. I didn’t want to lay down and die, so…”
A business was born.
Just about a year ago, the Haggards were sitting at Edgefield, watching wine move through a mobile bottling line. Their own wheels got turning, and they realized they knew a lot of breweries in the Salem area and wondered if mobile canning lines existed. After doing some research and discovering both Northwest Canning and Craft Canning + Bottling in Portland, they decided to go for it.
“That’s how it started that one day — the coolness of watching them bottle wine from a trailer,” Michelle said.
When it came time to choosing the right machine, the couple decided on a manual canning system from Cask Brewing Systems in Canada that can accommodate both 12-ounce and 16-ounce cans.
“I was a field service engineer before all this, and the electronics on it were like I had invented it. I’d researched all those other machines and this one’s put together the best. It’s like someone from the field designed it instead of an engineer behind a desk that’s never worked a day in his life in the field,” Joseph said.
“And it’s pretty, too.”
While Michelle isn’t quite as involved in the business— she has a full-time job as a medical laboratory technician —she does help with canning on the weekends and contributes a lot of great ideas, such as designing a few labels for brewers and printing them on the couple’s Primera LX900 color label printer. However, Joseph does about 90 percent of the footwork.
With his electronic engineering degree and background working with voltages of medical and laboratory equipment, Joseph knew that if anything were to go wrong with this machine, he could repair it, because it’s a 220-volt system.
Ever the handyman, Joseph even added wheels to the machine and had it shortened 16 inches. Firstly, to make it fit into their 6-by-12 cargo trailer, and secondly, to make it easier on his body.
“I can’t stand all day, so sitting at it was just the right thing to do.”
Joseph also bought a generator just in case, which makes Crossroads totally mobile now.
So, why did the Haggards choose to go with canning as opposed to bottling?
The duo looked into both, but felt that cans seemed to be the way to go at the time and were growing in popularity with the industry. Their lighter weight and the fact that the entire package is fully recyclable drew them in as well.
“There still seems to be a stigma — it’s just a matter of changing people’s minds about it and pushing the ecological stuff. Plus, if you take it backpacking, you don’t have to worry about bottles breaking or anything like that,” Joseph said.
“It’s a good thing we did, because I don’t think homebrewers would come to me to bottle their beer — they can do it at home.”
But that doesn’t mean they always want to.
Case in point: the hundreds of homebrewers the Haggards have canned for since opening up for business in December 2014.
Keizer-based PBH Brewing — Mike Bauer, Bill Herring and Aaron Pittis — were the first homebrewers to use Crossroads, canning their Red Sled IPA. PBH usually brews 25 gallons at a time, six to 10 times a year. They’ve canned with the Haggards three times so far — around 60 gallons of beer total.
“The cans are a lot easier to store. I don’t have to clean bottles — no cleanup at the end,” Pittis said.
When asked if he would recommend Crossroads to other homebrewers, Pittis’ response was an immediate “Yes, yes, yes. Joe is great to work with and we will continue to use him.”
Endorsement for Crossroads also comes from the two aforementioned fellow mobile canning businesses. Both Justin Brandt of Northwest Canning and Owen Lingley of Craft Canning + Bottling point quite a few homebrewers in the direction of the Haggards.
“Anything that’s too small for them, they send our way,” Joseph said.
Crossroads’ first official canning was actually with an already-established brewery — Vagabond Brewing in Salem.
“Vagabond was gracious enough to host us and we canned 6 barrels of their Into the Wild IPA,” Joseph said.
It was the first canned beer in Salem in 50-some years, so in a sense, Crossroads brought canning back to the state’s capital.
According to the Haggards, there’s “a ton of interest” from some of the smaller commercial breweries in Oregon, but most of them seem to be waiting until they get a little bigger and can produce more beer.
For now, the couple has been keeping busy by hosting monthly canning events for homebrewers at locations all over the state, such as F.H. Steinbart Co., Homebrew Exchange and Hi-Wheel Wine & Mead Co. in Portland, as well as Claim 52 in Eugene and Redmond Craft Brewing Supply.
“Of course, we’re always willing to just do it here (in Keizer) if none of those locations or times meet anybody’s needs,” Michelle adds.
Or, they’ll come to you — Joseph clocked in about 1,500 miles of traveling during the month of August.
Within the next year, the Haggards plan on upgrading from their current manual system to a semi-automated unit with four filler heads and two seamers that would put out triple what they’re doing now.
If all goes well, Michelle would like to be at another sort of crossroads in her life.
“Hopefully, we’d like to make this my full-time job. Get busy enough so that I can switch gears. I’ve been doing the laboratory work since 1978. It’s been a great career — really, no complaints — but I’m to the point where something different would be wonderful. To be able to work with him, side by side…”
“We have a lot of fun doing that,” Joseph concluded.
Crossroads Mobile Canning
[a] 671 Wayne Drive N., Keizer
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