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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