By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The well-loved and highly acclaimed Portland brewery The Commons will close at the end of the year to become an outpost for San Diego-based Modern Times Beer. The Commons’ owner Mike Wright approached Modern Times founder Jacob McKean about taking over the building’s lease following financial problems that will keep the brewery on Southeast Belmont Street from continuing in its current form. Beer fans both locally and abroad were saddened to hear the news, as The Commons taproom had become a popular destination to visit as well as a business that produced award-winning beer.
Wright made the announcement: “After two years of lagging sales and battling cash flow, I have had to make some very uncomfortable decisions. At the end of this year we will shut down operations on Southeast Belmont and vacate the building.”
For many, news of the closure was met with shock given that The Commons had won numerous awards at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. It’s hard to imagine how a seemingly successful 7-year-old brewery could shutter so suddenly. And the arrival of Modern Times, a well-respected brewery that will be new to the Portland market, may be met with mixed emotions.
The Commons began in a different space — Wright’s garage — under a different name — Beetje — with a nano system in 2010. Earning early fans and buzz, the brewery expanded to 7 barrels and found space with a tasting room, which is when it was rebranded. At that time, Wright brought on experienced industry personality Josh Grgas and new head brewer Sean Burke. The new team and fan base carried The Commons to its third and current location, a repurposed large brick-and-wood warehouse.
Both brewery owners are adamant in pointing out that The Commons has not been sold or forced out and Modern Times taking over the lease was, in some ways, a favor to the owners. But what went wrong for The Commons?
“Unfortunately, this is a classic small business cash flow story,” Wright said. “Sure, there is plenty of industry nuance and hindsight that can be evaluated, but this boiled down to simple debits and credits.”
Modern Times had previously collaborated with The Commons on beer releases and McKean shared his fondness for the Rose City: “I’ve loved the city of Portland for a long, long time. I’ve been visiting regularly for well over a decade, and I gave serious consideration to starting Modern Times in PDX.” So when it came time to expand, McKean had his eyes on Portland before Wright approached him about taking over the lease.
Modern Times is a 30-barrel production brewery and tasting room located in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood. Founded by former Stone Brewing Co. brewer Jacob McKean and a team of consultants in 2013, the business has become known for its aroma-forward tropical IPAs, fruit sours and coffee beer. And the San Diego culture that comes with Modern Times should actually fit in quite easily in Portland. It’s an all-vegan company that has also sourced and roasted its own coffee ingredients since day one. “We make beer and coffee for people who are deeply passionate and very nerdy about those things,” said McKean.
The transition from The Commons to Modern Times will happen after the beginning of the New Year. Expect a taproom with full restaurant and eventually a coffee roaster and cafe. Unfortunately, the Cheese Annex will vacate as well to make room for Modern Times’ kitchen. The new project will be called “The Belmont Fermentorium” with the capacity to produce up to 20,000 barrels a year. Modern Times has also leased the neighboring 10,000-square-foot building and plans to use it as a packaging hall and tank farm.
Don’t count out The Commons just yet though. After all, they have already had three different iterations, so an even more successful fourth life is not out of the question. Wright still owns the building on Southeast Belmont Street, so paying the mortgage should be easy now as he keeps the 7-barrel brewhouse as well as several 15-barrel tanks and leaves the newer 20-barrel vessels for Modern Times.
The Commons will continue to operate and release new beer until closing on Saturday, Nov. 11 with a final party. After the business of vacating and transitioning to Modern Times, Wright hopes to focus more on the next step for The Commons.
“I am motivated to find a pathway forward for The Commons, but that’s not yet clear and I don’t want to make any claims that I cannot follow through on,” said Wright. “I hope to offer another chapter sometime in the future.”
By John Foyston
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The Commons recently celebrated its fourth year as a brewery, not especially young by Portland standards, but still one of my favorite success stories thanks to its beginnings as Beetje – a one-man nanobrewery in owner Mike Wright's Southeast Portland garage.
Nowadays, The Commons is one of Portland's favorite Good Beer Hangouts. It occupies a 10,000-square-foot space, a windows-on-the world corner of Southeast Belmont Street. The building comprises a handsome, woody taproom, the original Commons brew system up front for display, the Cheese Annex serving artisan cheese and charcuterie, a 15-barrel JV Northwest production brewery in back and a crew of a dozen or more brewers and pubsters. It's three times larger than the previous location – and about 50 times larger than the garage in which Wright started Beetje Brewing in 2009.
Yes, other breweries have traced similar or steeper trajectories – Ninkasi, of course, which became a national player in less than a decade; Breakside, which quickly outgrew its brewpub beginnings to add a big new production brewery; Fort George, which now inhabits an entire block of downtown Astoria; Cascade, which brought sour beer to national prominence; and others.
But The Commons is a story I know well, having followed it since the garage days, and Mike Wright's philosophy is one that describes why I – and a lot of you, I suspect – love craft beer: “The important thing is not the beer itself, but the interaction and socializing that happen around good beer,” he said when he made the considerable leap from garage to industrial space; from a cobbled-together, 1-barrel nanobrewery to a professional, 7-barrel brewhouse; and from a one-man show to being an employer with a cellarman and brewer Sean Burke.
It wasn't until September of 2012 that he quit his day job, perhaps thinking back to what he said at Beetje (Flemish for “little bit” and a tribute to his wife Kaatje, who was born in the Flemish town of Roeselare) – “I know I won’t be supporting my family with the amount of beer I can make in my garage,” he said in a 2010 interview, “but I'm having fun and making beers that I want to make.”
“At the risk of being too romantic,” he said back then, “imagine a small, rustic farmhouse brewery in the inner city. The beers are everyday-drinking beers, not super-complex, monster bombs. Plenty of breweries make those. I enjoy spending time with friends and good food, and drinking a sessionable beverage is the driving force behind the beers I make.”
That philosophy was at the heart of The Commons, with its motto of “Gather around beer,” and was the reason that its tasting room was one of Portland's favorites — an intimate, woody space tucked away in the corner of a handsomely revamped industrial space, which had high ceilings, brick walls, tall windows and barrel-aging racks. It was a one-of-kind space, where patrons could drink in the brewery. People loved it, but it wasn't ideal: “It was a little too integrated with the brewery,” Wright said in 2014. “We could either brew beer or have the tasting room open, but not both. I had brewers all the time who asked, 'How did you guys get away with having the tasting room in the brewery?' And the truth is, we got lucky – it’d never get approved again.”
The new tasting room has a nearly identical feel thanks to lots of honest, unadorned wood, high ceilings, concrete floors, the original 7-barrel brewhouse up front and sightlines into the production brewery, but barriers now separate the spaces. “We wanted to recreate the aesthetic of our first tasting room on a bigger scale,” said Wright. “We want to keep people connected with the brewery, because there's nothing better than having people here enjoying your beer.”
Mission accomplished: the new brewery taproom opened in late March 2015, just in time for the thousands of professional brewers who trekked to Portland for the Craft Brewers Conference last April, and it has since become a favorite spot for townies and tourists alike looking for a pint of that brilliant Urban Farmhouse Ale, or Myrtle, or their beautiful Pils.
And those 13 taps are pouring a LOT of Commons beer these days. “We actually have walk-in customers now,” Wright says, “the old location was a true destination type place – only people who knew about us would visit. While that has a certain cachet for some, it wasn't a sustainable business model. We love the opportunity to introduce our beer to new people and the high-profile location offers us many more opportunities to do that. The new, purpose-built cellar and added storage have made a world of difference on the production side of the equation.”
The production side is well served. There was a day last February when the JV Northwest crew rolled up with a brewery on a truck and brewer Burke knew he could soon trade the tool belt he'd worn during months of build-out for his brewer rubber boots.
“They showed up at 7 a.m. with trucks and 12 hours later they had it mostly installed,” said Burke, who was excited as only a brewer can be about the versatility of the system. “I asked for a list of things and I got every one of them. We can do straight mashes, step mashes, decoction mashes, turbid mashes — the system is amazingly flexible. JV Northwest really delivered on the engineering, plus I think they wanted a showcase system on their home turf.”
Great beer, a coherent vision and the unassuming, homey feel of the tasting room make The Commons a true Portland gem: “Portland has a rich pub culture where consumers desire variety and a broad range of flavors,” Wright said. “That allows a niche brewery like The Commons to exist and thrive because we provide an alternative to Portland's many hop-forward beers. Could I have guessed we'd be here today when you and I met in the garage? No! No way. I had no idea the business would be where it is today. It's really amazing and gratifying to where we are. I'm very lucky.”
So is Portland, Mr. Wright, so is Portland.
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