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 Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s been a wild year for Ben Dobler. After 20 years at Widmer, he took over as head brewer at Mt. Tabor Brewing in February. Soon after they opened their doors in late September, Dobler left — unhappy with the direction of the business. Shortly thereafter, he became head brewer at Laurelwood.
“We’re super excited to have Ben on board,” said Mike De Kalb, Laurelwood owner and founder. “He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. His role will be to maintain and enhance quality and consistency, and to bring increased innovation to our brewing program.”
Don’t expect the classic Laurelwood recipes to change much, if at all. Beers like Workhorse, Free Range Red and Red Elephant are well established and well loved. Dobler has no plans to disturb the continuity, though he does have a few ideas.
“I look forward to maintaining and building on what my predecessors accomplished here,” Dobler says. “Laurelwood has had some fantastic brewers and produced a variety of great beers in its 15-year history. I hope to delicately add my fingerprints to that tradition.”
Some of the beers will receive subtle tweaking to smooth out the edges, he expects. Another priority is to develop a line of lower-alcohol beers. Laurelwood is a family-focused business and the beer menu could be more accommodating to folks who don’t want to drink more than a pint of 7.5% Workhorse.
“We realize mom and dad aren’t going to throw back multiple pints of Workhorse,” Dobler says. “Well, they shouldn’t. I’ll put some effort into producing flavorful, low-ABV beers. That’s been a big part of my mantra because I like to drink beer, which means I like to have more than one.”
The innovation angle is important and it applies to the beers brewed at the Sandy headquarters and Hood River’s Full Sail, where Laurelwood has a production brewing arrangement. Dobler worked in new product development at the Craft Brew Alliance (CBA) for 10 years and seems nicely suited to freshening up Laurelwood’s beer palate.
“We’ve had pretty much the same pub lineup except for seasonal beers for the last 15 years,” De Kalb said. “We’re looking to Ben for innovation that will enhance the beers available to our pub customers. IPA may be king, but our patrons and fans are always seeking alternatives.”
Dobler has a similar view of the opportunities.
“I see a definite need to enhance the experience of pub patrons,” he said. “The beers served there should always be somewhat different than what is sold in stores. I’d like to use that theme as a catalyst that brings people into the pub and also generates excitement outside it in the retail channels.”
Dobler’s biggest challenge will almost certainly be managing the relationship out in Hood River, where Laurelwood brews the bulk of its packaged lineup. That includes Workhorse, Free Range Red and seasonal six-packs. Experience acquired on his watch at Widmer/CBA will be handy.
“My job is to make sure the beers made in Hood River match the ones made here,” he says. “During my time at the CBA, I learned a lot about scaling production from 10 to 250 barrels and how to execute that successfully. I think my exposure to larger-scale brewing operations is a big part of why I’m here.”
For now, Dobler is working to get a handle on what the Full Sail relationship looks like, short-term and long-term. It’s an evolving relationship involving changes in strategy and tactics on both ends. His goal is to maximize what Laurelwood is getting out of it.
“Packaged product is an important part of our business and the processes need ongoing attention” Dobler says. “A significant amount of my time will be spent managing how we do things in Hood River.”
Dobler succeeds Shane Watterson as Laurelwood head brewer. Watterson is joining Geoff Phillips of Bailey’s Taproom and Jason Barbee, formerly of Ex Novo, in Level Beer, a new brewery in planning. Rodney Stryker, formerly of Heathen Brewing in Vancouver, Wash., has taken over for Dobler at Mt. Tabor.
Laurelwood beers are currently sold in Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia, Idaho and Alaska. In addition, a small amount of their beer is exported.
[a] 5115 NE Sandy Blvd.
[a] 6716 SE Milwaukie Ave.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“With a passion for hops, and the patience for sour.”
Great Notion Brewing's slogan couldn't be more simple and straightforward, but it's what lies behind that simplicity that sets James, Andy and Paul's operation apart. Their passion for hops is expressed in the juicy New England-style IPAs James took a shine to while the 5-year-old house culture used in their sours is a testament to their patience. But to get to where they are now, we have to look back at how this notion became a great one.
James Dugan, Andy Miller and Paul Reiter are all Portland transplants who fortuitously found each other through geographic proximity. They live within a block of each other and on a block that holds annual parties. Portland craft beer drinkers should count themselves lucky that these guys are not only the kind of friendly folk who would attend those gatherings, but also that two of the three were generous homebrewers who shared their beers.
Both James and Andy had been brewing for some time; Andy getting his start while he was going to college in Alabama and James, an all-in brewer from the beginning, skipped straight over extract, went all grain and reached for the stars by brewing a Pliny clone on his first time out. For more than 10 years they had each been progressively getting more serious and refining their beers. James even won a medal in 2012 for a sour beer that was made with his own sour culture. They started brewing together when Andy's house was being remodeled, and although James had always preferred to brew alone, he found he liked brewing with Andy. When Paul tried their beers, he asked the obvious question of why the two weren't in the process of opening a brewery. Before long, that's exactly what the three of them were on the path to do.
Paul utilized his business background, which includes an MBA and specialization in sales and marketing, to work on a business pitch that the three presented to people they knew that might be interested in investing. Their goal of putting together between $500,000 and $1 million became a reality with a combination of funds from investors and a small business loan. Once the finances were in place, it was a matter of finding a suitable location — something that proved to be a sticking point until, through a friend of a friend, they learned that the owner of The Mash Tun on Northeast Alberta Street was looking to get out of the business.
The Mash Tun had been going about its business making acceptable beer and providing standard pub grub for years. But in a time when new breweries have been popping up as quickly as dandelions in the spring, they were an oft-overlooked blip on the Portland brewery scene. With the change in ownership and name, Great Notion has quickly found its name on the lips of thirsty Portlanders. Their twice-weekly brewing on the existing 7-barrel system is barely keeping pace with demand. Batches of Juice Jr., an insanely flavorful session IPA brewed with 100 percent Mosaic hops, have been lasting less than two weeks. And this was before their Grand Beer Release Party, an open house/grand opening party that featured 14 of their beers.
A handful of the beers at the Great Release were sours or barrel aged, styles that more and more young breweries are jumping into early on. Kettle-soured beers, like their Berliner weisse Zest, are a great introduction to their sour program that will continue. In addition to patience, space is another requirement for barrels, something that is in limited supply at Great Notion. Working around that, they secured a second facility in St. Johns to hold barrels. There's room for up to 100 barrels, which currently come from a local winery. Wine barrels are "dirty" from the standpoint that they come with Brettanomyces cultures from the grapes. This aligns perfectly with Great Notion's brewing of sour beers and they're taking it a step further by utilizing fruit — peaches, apricots, raspberries and cherries -- in the barrels.
Beyond brewing up great beer, Great Notion intends to be an integral part of the Alberta neighborhood and a place families like theirs can enjoy. With each of the three founders having two kids, it was a no-brainer to welcome children during all open hours, have a play area and offer a minor's version of hump day happy hour $1 meals on Wednesdays. Speaking of food, heading up the kitchen is Chef Ryan O'Connor, formerly of Vita Cafe and Helser's. He's someone they knew previously and have so much faith in, that they are able to be relatively hands-off with that aspect of the brewpub. Since they initially didn't think they would offer food, and instead planned to have food trucks, this is an ideal arrangement. For now, the menu offers plenty of familiar items — sandwiches, salads, pot pie and mac and cheese — but as they go forward, look for Ryan to spread his wings further, throwing in beer pairing dinners and the like.
They've gotten down great beer and great food, but what about the name Great Notion? The credit for that goes to Andy's wife, Emily. It pays homage to Oregon's history and the state's most famous author, Ken Kesey, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and grew up in Springfield. His next novel was “Sometimes a Great Notion” and Kesey was also a fan of The Grateful Dead, as is James. Thus the name was a fit on multiple levels. The logo, a lumberjack toting a mug of beer, reinforces their connection to Oregon and its logging history. The trio may be transplants, but they've embraced the place they now call home and invite craft beer drinkers to share in their Great Notion.
Great Notion Brewing
[a] 2204 NE Alberta St. #101, Portland
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