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
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