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 Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
When 16 Tons Taphouse and Bottle Shop made its first sale on April 22, 2010, the Eugene craft beer scene was quite different from what it would be five years later. Home to only a handful of breweries and brewpubs, most of the area’s craft beer was coming from Portland, Bend or farther afield.
How things have changed.
“We definitely started our business at a good time,” says founder and owner Mike Coplin, “and have been very fortunate to be a hub for the growth of the beer industry in Eugene.”
Coplin recognized that craft beer would only grow. Eugene/Springfield area breweries such as Ninkasi, Oakshire and Hop Valley were making leaps in distribution and offerings, and momentum was gaining locally for more breweries to fire up the brew pot. But what Eugene needed was a neighborhood hub where people could experience the best that craft beer had to offer, whether from a brewery across town or around the world.
When 16 Tons first opened its taphouse doors at East 13th Avenue and High Street in downtown Eugene, its 900-square-foot space was packed with beer, wine, sake and more. Beers from Oregon, California, New England, Germany, Belgium and beyond gleamed on shelves or waited in stacked cases on the floor.
By October the taphouse was selling draft beer, but Coplin knew more was needed. “Customers had told us that additional food options and outdoor seating were high priorities.”
In July 2011, Coplin added a second location, rebranding the former Supreme Bean Coffee Company in south Eugene’s Woodfield Station shopping area as 16 Tons Cafe. That move allowed Coplin to provide extensive outdoor seasonal seating plus a coffee and food menu. Today 16 Tons offers 31 rotating taps and approximately 700 bottles of beer, wine and cider. Each year both locations tap more than 500 different beers and stock 1,500 bottles, with a special focus on limited and seasonal releases.
“We frequently stock beers, ciders and wines that are scarcely available anywhere else,” says Coplin. “We always have barrel-aged sour ales and stouts on tap. Our cider selection is one of the largest in Oregon. We've been very fortunate over the last five years to be embraced by Eugene's beer community, and that has allowed us to build great relationships.”
Coplin also focused on the serving experience. “As far as I know, we were the first non-brewery in Eugene to make growlers popular,” Coplin says. 16 Tons also began serving all its drinks in measured glassware, “ensuring a proper pour.”
Additionally, 16 Tons has been strongly involved in the greater community. In-store events such as Cheese Wars (a beer/wine pair-off), the annual Week of Wild, and the Eugene Winter & Strong Ale Fest help the public approach esoteric beers and discover new ways to appreciate beer. Coplin also established Eugene Beer Week, a now annual celebration that brings together pubs, breweries and other craft beer destinations throughout the local area.
16 Tons continues to be involved in Eugene Beer Week, 2nd Saturday South Willamette Art Walk and other community fundraisers and events. In 2014, 16 Tons also expanded its brewery collaborations. “Each year we make a wild ale for our anniversary,” Coplin says. “In 2014, we also produced two versions of 16 Tons IPA with Vertigo Brewing and Upright Brewing.” Logsdon Farmhouse Ales is brewing this year’s anniversary beer, Sech 'n Brett, a saison fermented with Brettanomyces yeast and lightly infused with peppercorns.
The overall craft beer scene has changed too and 16 Tons is evolving with it, curating its selection as new breweries and beers become available. “We frequently buy beer, wine and cider from very small producers who do not have a distributor,” he explains. “Several new distributors in Oregon — including Bigfoot Beverage, Running Man and Alebriated — have increased the beers available. Many beers that we work hard to stock are extremely limited, so we are only able to source a few cases each year.”
As 16 Tons enters its next five years, Coplin expects craft beer to continue growing and gaining market share and for the Eugene/Springfield area to potentially double its number of breweries. But he will keep focused on what’s guided 16 Tons so far. “We love our customers and try our best to deliver what they want,” says Coplin. “We’ll continue to work toward having the most intriguing selection of beer anywhere.”
Taphouse & Bottle Shop
[a] 265 E. 13th Ave., Eugene
[a] 2864 Willamette St. #500 (in Woodfield Station), Eugene
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