By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
There will be another "new" brewery in Portland early next year. Fat Head’s Brewery, launched in 2014, is slated to close in January. Look for it to be replaced sometime in the first quarter of 2018 by Von Ebert Brewing, which will be operated by current Fat Head’s franchisee, Tom Cook.
News of Fat Head’s closure initially caused a stir in beer circles and on social media. A lot of fans wondered why the apparently successful brewpub would close. In fact, the closure has nothing at all to do with the wellbeing of the business here.
What's actually at work is that corporate Fat Head’s, based in Ohio, has a lot going on in its home market. Rather than continue to focus on the remote Portland outpost, the company and Cook mutually decided to end the franchise arrangement.
“We were unable to agree on a vision for the future,” said Fat Head’s founder Glenn Benigni, “As a result, we’ve mutually decided to close the Fat Head’s location in Portland, pouring our last beer in early 2018. We’d like to say thanks to the beautiful city of Portland and all of the customers who joined us there over the years. It has been a pleasure serving you.”
Cook offered similar thoughts.
“I know it sounds like spin," he said via email. "But this is exactly what happened. They wanted to focus their energies on the Midwest, where they have a lot going on with a new production brewery and the new Canton brewpub. I wanted to focus on Portland. We decided it's probably best for them to pursue their plans in the Midwest and for me to do my own thing out there."
He admits it wasn't an easy decision. The franchise has been highly successful here. Indeed, the success of Fat Head’s surprised more than a few in the beer geek crowd. Many thought an out-of-state chain would quickly collapse in beer-wacky Beervana. It didn't happen.
"I think we succeeded here because we built a talented team and gave it the right tools," wrote Cook, who added current employees will have the opportunity to continue on. "There's no way I would be doing what I'm doing with Von Ebert if my team here wasn’t staying and fully behind me. This wasn’t an easy decision, but I think it's the right decision for everyone."
Von Ebert, when it opens, will specialize in hoppy brews from head brewer, Eric Van Tassel. Sean Burke, formerly of The Commons, is also part of the Von Ebert Brewing team. Burke's talent for making uniquely interesting beers is well known. Cook expects the team to release 100 or so unique beers a year, including American, German, Belgian and barrel-aged varieties.
"Von Ebert Brewing is a new concept, where Northwest family traditions meet innovative ideas in craft brewing,” said Cook in a press release. "We’re excited to unveil a completely new experience for customers, blending our brewing expertise with the adventurous flavors Portland has come to love."
The pub will feature what he refers to as "elevated American pub food." That includes items like traditional German pretzels with beer cheese, stone oven-baked pizzas, cheeseburgers stacked high with locally sourced meats, decadent sandwiches and smoked wings.
"True to our character, our menu will combine classic pub fares with the kind of top-tier quality local ingredients you can only find in Portland," Cook said.
Many in and around the craft beer industry are aware that Cook had quietly planned to open a brewpub in the vacated RingSide Grill space adjacent to Glendoveer Golf Course in Northeast Portland. Evidently, those plans will be more or less on hold until he clears some regulatory hurdles.
"There's more to come on this," he wrote. "I don’t want to comment or give a timeline until I finish with the City of Portland. I would hate to promise something and then learn we can’t do it."
Many wonder about the Von Ebert name and logo. It’s obviously a strong departure from Fat Heads and has no apparent connection to Portland. What’s it all about?
"My great grandmother came to the United States from Germany and her last name was Ebert," Cook wrote. "She gave up quite a bit in Germany to bring my family here, so I wanted to pay some respect to my immigrant family. ‘Eber’ in German means boar, thus the boar in the logo."
Von Ebert Brewing will open sometime in early 2018. Watch for updates on social media or check the company website at vonebertbrewing.com.
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Funhouse Brews. The name sounds like a wacky carnival attraction — one of those colorful places where the mirrors and walls are distorted and everyone looks like a twisted version of themselves. That’s just the image brewer Jason Rizos wants for his North Portland home-based nanobrewery.
The veteran homebrewer has more than 20 years of experience cooking up award-winning beers, and he likes to be different. “I’m trying to stand out as one who will make wild, experimental, unusual out-there beers, like Triple Berry Snowcone,” said Rizos. His tap handles — towers of red, blue, yellow and white Lego blocks — advertise the fun funkiness of the brewery.
Rizos started making beer when he was a typical starving college student with limited funds, and homebrewing was cheaper than buying.
“Really,” I wondered, “even with all the ingredients and equipment required?”
“Yes,” he said. To prove it, he created an online tool called the Homebrew Break-Even Calculator to compare the price of making a batch of beer to buying a six-pack. The site links to Rizos’ book, “The Frugal Home Brewers Companion.”
A Portland transplant who arrived from St. Louis in 2008, Rizos teaches literature and writing at Portland Community College. “I haven’t met many brewers who aren’t engineers or software specialists,” he said.
As a member of Oregon Brew Crew, Oregon’s oldest homebrew club, he served as president in 2011 and has participated in numerous competitions — both as a brewer and as a judge, having completed the Beer Judge Certification Program in 2006. He has won several awards for his beers, receiving medals at the Best Florida Beer Homebrew Competition, the Oregon Fall Classic and the Oregon State Fair.
A few years ago Rizos and his wife decided to establish the commercial nanobrewery and in December 2016 they were officially licensed and open for business. They built the 2-barrel system in what had been their totally unusable wreck of a garage. “We built this space expressly as a brewery with gas, electric and water, drains, sinks and specific spaces for our 60-gallon kettles and fermenters.” Rizos currently has two large refrigerators for cold storage, but is already starting to think about how to add more. Like most brewers, he is always in need of additional fermenters.
“We actually started in earnest in early 2017, but then the ice storm hit and we couldn’t brew because all the lines were frozen,” Rizos said. By February he had produced a significant volume to begin self-distributing.
Rizos describes his beers as “handcrafted, unorthodox, chimerical crossbreeds of classic styles, with a focus on processes and ingredients impossible or impractical on a scale larger than two barrels.” This summer he started making kettle sours “that were meticulously blended.” Then he had a breakthrough by deciding to add fruit: blackberries, raspberries and cherries (that he’s since replaced with strawberries), creating the Triple Berry Snowcone. Quality is his top priority. “I urge people to try my beers, even when they don’t think they like that style of beer. My sour is just barely a sour,” he said.
For the Nano Pub Crawl last month along North Mississippi Avenue, 30 nanobrewers collaborated with larger producers and other nanos to make beer for the event. Rizos partnered with Ecliptic Brewing’s John Harris, who came over to Funhouse and the two created an oatmeal stout. “I’m thinking about splitting that and making half of it into a salted caramel brownie beer,” Rizos said.
Fridays from 5-7 p.m., his in-home brewery is open for growler fills and sales of 32-ounce crowlers. Check funhousebrews.com for area businesses that serve his beers. Rizos usually brews every two weeks and tries to have four different varieties available. Currently, his beers are regularly on tap at Chill N Fill on North Lombard Street and QuarterWorld Arcade on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
7717 N. Emerald Ave., Portland
By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
One of Portland’s newest beer stops is Second Profession Brewing Company, now open on Northeast Sandy Boulevard in the space formerly occupied by BTU Brasserie. Owner Charlie Goman, a homebrewer with Wisconsin roots, hopes to build a following based on the German/Northwest gastropub model.
“I started homebrewing about 10 years ago,” Goman said. “About five years ago, I started to take it seriously. I love making beer and I hope Second Profession will provide a unique experience for visitors with good beers and comfort food.”
Beer fans will recall BTU, which operated for a couple of years as a brewpub with Chinese-style food. It was an interesting concept, but the owners were never quite able to successfully meld the business' two identities. BTU shuttered last spring. A sign on the door said, "Closed for Spring Cleaning," but the place shuttered permanently and went up for sale.
Goman saw instant potential in a location with a brewery already installed. He had become bored with his career in copier sales and IT-related work. At 28, he started looking at options. One day while brewing an IPA, it dawned on him that maybe beer making was his future.
“Stumbling on the mothballed BTU space was a stroke of luck. It's no small thing to find an arrangement like this,” he said. “It means I didn’t have to come in and spend a ton of money on brewing equipment and building prep. Having operated as a brewery, this place was ready to roll.”
The pub layout is pretty much as it was in the BTU era. It's a bit brighter now, with white walls and modern-themed German folk artwork. The sidewalk patio on the eastside of the building remains. The brewery, a 7-barrel system, has been cleaned up and tuned up with the assistance of Marc Martin from Northwest Brewery Advisors.
“Marc has been amazing,” Goman said. “He made a few slight fixes and changes to the brewing system and has been a great resource for recipe development and techniques. He helped me scale up my homebrew recipes up to commercial level.”
The beers will include a mix of standards and seasonals. Recent offerings include a rye IPA, a pale ale, a farmhouse ale and a hazy IPA. The brewery has horizontal lager tanks and Goman expects to make use of them soon.
“I plan to have five standards and three seasonal/specialty beers on most of the time,” said Goman. “Beyond that, cold room space would be an issue, though I do have a large walk-in where some beer could go. The beers are a work in progress.”
Goman has no plans to enter outside distribution anytime soon, beyond growlers and crowlers sold in the pub. He hopes to develop a good collection of beers that build a following. Eventually, he may send some of his more well-received styles out to notable beer bars and pubs to extend identity reach.
“Packaged beer isn’t part of the plan,” he said. “I know my primary profit center is in-house, not in distribution outside the pub, so that’s where the focus will be.”
Food will be a crucial factor. The clientele in this underserved area is more likely to be attracted by food than by beer, regardless of how good or bad the beer is. Goman intends to offer simplistic German comfort food, a concept connected to his experience living in Wisconsin.
“We’re not looking to imitate Gustav’s or Stammtisch or Prost,” Goman said. “Our menu will include a selection of sausages, warm potato salad, garlic fries and some greens. We want customers to get a hearty meal, but we’ll be big on simplicity.”
The name has been the subject of interest on social media and some blogs. “Second Profession” doesn’t pack a lot of excitement. But Goman's sees the brewery as his second career. It's personal and, on that level, it makes good sense.
Second Profession opened in early October and operated on a limited beer and food menu for the first couple of weeks. Both menus have been expanded. The pub is open 4-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 4-9 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour runs 4-6 p.m. each day.
Second Profession Brewing Company
5846 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland
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 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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