By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Not every homebrewer has a mass spectrometer to play around with. Or a gas chromatograph, which together can detect and identify chemicals in beer. Of course, not every homebrewer has access to the pros, advising them about quality control and assurance. That makes Adam Fleck the envy of every stove-top and back-deck-burner beer maker in Oregon because he has all three.
While a sensory panel for many a homebrewer consists of a “panel” of buddies heaping on praise while looking to score free beer, Fleck has the equipment and training to conduct sophisticated analysis of his own creations. He’s taken that methodical approach on the road to assist small and midsize breweries with the science aspect of the business. And while there are plenty of companies that provide data on everything from IBUs to DMS, what sets Willamette Valley Mobile Testing apart is Fleck’s ability to bring the lab to a brewer’s doorstep. There may be a growing number of portable canning and bottling services in the craft industry, but the notion of the traveling chemist is still new. A natural reaction to Fleck’s innovative approach might be, “That’s cool!” To which Fleck would respond: “Well, it’s either that or it’s really stupid because no one else wanted to do it because they weren’t crazy enough.”
While it certainly took some bravery to launch a business for which there was no model, the risk appears to be paying off. Fleck has a growing number of breweries from Eugene to Seattle he’s contracted with, including Ancestry Brewing, Black Raven Brewing Company, Culmination/Ruse Brewing and Diamond Knot Craft Brewery, to name a few. He offers multiple services, such as sterility and cleanliness checks, yeast viability assessment and cell count along with tests for everything from water chemistry to pH and hop aromas to off flavors. Shaun Kalis, founder of Ruse and brewer at Culmination, which share the same space, said Fleck conducted dissolved oxygen analysis for that facility to help ensure there wouldn’t be any oxygen pickup in the lines. Following that experience, he believes Fleck’s expertise can benefit brewers who don’t have a Breakside or Widmer budget to invest in expensive equipment.
“Having people like Adam who can do testing and can provide the benchmarks to your company’s standard operating procedures, I think, is a great thing for the brewing community — to make us better and consistent,” Kalis said.
Fleck’s arsenal of instruments is tucked away in what resembles a shiny, black toy hauler. Industrial straps and bungee cords secure his tools as he drives from site to site. One of the most important pieces of equipment looks like a cross between a giant copy machine from the ‘80s and a microwave. That is the gas chromatograph — what Fleck calls his “ace in the hole.” He got experience with it after taking a job in the oil fields of eastern Utah analyzing natural gas and petrochemicals.
“A gas chromatograph to a chemist is like a power drill for a carpenter. It’s kind of a multi-tool, depending on your columns, your injectors, software. [Those] are the bits on that power drill. You can do a lot of things with them. You can do buffing, grinding, sanding, cutting, drilling, screwing, whatever,” Fleck explained. “You’ve just got to change out the end. It’s kind of like a gas chromatograph.”
The technology has been around since the 1950s and is used to separate compounds. Oregon State University’s Environmental Health Sciences Center provides a vivid analogy: Imagine a race at a track meet where the runners begin at the same point — the starting line. However, they’ll finish at different times due to speed. In a gas chromatograph, chemicals are separated by volatility, with more volatile (often smaller) chemicals moving faster than those that are less volatile. The mass spectrometer will then identify the chemicals based on structure.
So, how did Fleck go from using a gas chromatograph in the oil fields to applying the instrument to beer? It all comes back to homebrewing. Turns out, his former boss made beer with a friend and they’d run it through a gas chromatograph to test the alcohol. Fleck decided to explore other uses and discovered the list is huge.
“There’s 2,800 different compounds in beer; 478 affect flavor. And I can get about half of them using my mass spec, so that’s pretty cool.”
When the price of oil plummeted in 2014, Fleck turned his layoff into an opportunity. He relied on the State of Oregon’s Unemployment-Self Employment Assistance, commending the program for providing him with a way to build Willamette Valley Mobile Testing without having to also search for jobs that likely wouldn’t match the wages he made in the oil industry. Another advantage was the unemployment payments that allowed him to pump all initial money made back into the business.
As of June 2016, Oregon had 206 brewing companies and 246 brewing facilities, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild. Those numbers will grow given the amount of applications the Oregon Liquor Control Commission receives for new producers. Plenty of them could use Fleck’s help. Breweries lack quality programs for multiple reasons. Some can’t afford the lab. Others simply don’t have space. And plenty say they don’t need it. But Fleck pointed out that just because brewers believe they’re replicating their processes, doesn’t mean batches will be consistent.
“Their equipment doesn’t always act the same way every time. Their inputs aren’t the same every time,” he explained. “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Fleck contends that “quality and quality control are the next battlefields for craft beer.” They’re factors that increasingly finalize distribution deals, since a quality program provides a better-guaranteed product. The average beer drinker is also more aware of consistency. Fleck said customers are drawn to craft because of the overall experience — part ambience, part novelty and part flavor. Not everyone can identify diacetyl or acetaldehyde, but they won’t hold back if beer quality was “hit or miss” after multiple visits.
“The customer will know when their experience changes. And you’ll hear about it,” Fleck said.
If distributors care and beer drinkers care, the next hurdle is getting more brewers to commit to investing in quality control/quality assurance. Testing services aren’t a tangible purchase like a gleaming new tank or colorful packaging for distribution. But it is one of the most important parts of the brewing process. Fleck is so dedicated to quality, he refuses to test beer submitted to him “because I don’t know how the sample was collected, when it was collected and what has happened to it on transport.” He goes to the source and then tailors a program to fit each brewer’s needs.
Fleck hopes that his one rig will grow into a fleet in the future. There are also plans to expand into distillates, wine and cannabis, the latter of which desperately needs better testing for potency and pesticides, post-legalization. The Portland State University graduate wants to reach out to students at his alma mater by bringing on interns who are majoring in chemistry. However, would-be lab-techs-in-training with spotless GPAs need not apply.
“I was not an A+ student. I don’t want A+ students. I despised A+ students,” he laughed. “I want a student that’s good, but lazy enough to find a better way to do it.”
In the meantime, Fleck will continue to build his client base by meeting new brewers and starting a discussion about quality control.
“The idea of the craft industry is kind of centered around quality. So, yeah. It’s a good product. Why wouldn’t you do it with consistency? You can’t just make great beer once.” Fleck said. “You have to make great beer every time.”
Willamette Valley Mobile Testing
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Whether choosing the life of a brewer or the life of a musician, it’s a choice that means committing to a challenging career that often requires long hours. Those who succeed are the ones who combine skill and commitment to crafting a product that they not only can be proud of, but their fans can consume.
John Harris, an icon in Oregon craft brewing, has managed to balance his primary career as a brewer with a love of music by sitting in as a guest for bands with both a local and national reach. As a kid, John said he was "always banging on stuff," which led to banging on things in a more musical manner — playing the drums in junior high band. Between band and private lessons, he learned to read music and keep rhythm, skills that he would draw upon years later. Attending a concert in 1985 he saw Billy Hults, a washboard player who, according to his posthumous induction into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, "played with about everyone in Portland in the ‘70s and ‘80s." John thought what he was doing with the washboard looked fun and he proceeded to pick one up for himself at a thrift store.
When asked how he learned to play it, John replied "You just kind of do it." No doubt his background in playing the drums helped him figure it out, and for a couple of years he was officially part of a band called the Hardly Boys. Being a musician generally isn't a high-paying gig and since washboard players don't hold the cache that a lead guitarist or vocalist does, there’s a greater likelihood that they won't be paid often, so when he was kicked out of the band it wasn’t the blow it could have been. At the time, John was beginning a career in brewing, something that would be at least a bit more lucrative than playing the washboard.
In 1986, John had a roommate that saw a brewer position advertised in Willamette Week by McMenamins Hillsdale Brewery & Public House and encouraged him to apply for what he felt should be "his job." John had done some homebrewing and read up as much as he was able to on it, which didn’t amount to much formal literature at the time. Feeling light on qualifications, he was somewhat surprised when McMenamins offered him the position. His boss proclaimed his chances of success directly from the get-go: he would either get the flow of brewing or not. As it turned out, John got it.
Two years later, with some professional brewing experience under his belt, he once again saw an ad, this time with Deschutes Brewery in Bend. They were looking for someone with two years of experience, which was considered a lot at that time. John knew that this was his job to go after and he was in a position to be able to relocate to Bend, which is what he proceeded to do after accepting the job.
When he came on board at Deschutes, owner Gary Fish taught him to brew three year-round offerings: a golden ale, a bitter and a porter along with seasonal beers. John's first seasonal was a wheat, followed by what is now a Deschutes staple — Mirror Pond. Sales of it quickly outpaced the bitter 3-to-1. But even with numbers to prove its popularity, Gary resisted replacing the bitter with Mirror Pond. He finally gave in a bit by bringing it on as a nine-month seasonal.
While John and his beers were successful at Deschutes, he said living in Bend wasn't much fun for someone who was an outsider. After four years, an opportunity with Full Sail Brewing came along that would allow John (and his now-wife) to return to Portland. John had known the Full Sail guys before they started looking for someone to head up their Portland location and both parties were comfortable with the autonomy John would have to run Portland operations.
Compared to the amount of beer the Bend facility turned out, the Portland location’s annual maximum capacity of 5,000 barrels was small, but it allowed John to continue to develop new beers for the Full Sail Brewmasters Reserve series. It was there that he also got the chance to learn more about the business of having a brewery, which included traveling with distributors and selling what he was making. From the beginning, John had viewed Full Sail as a good place to work and it was a solid job for a guy with a wife and two young kids. John was loyal to his job and ended up spending 20 years at Full Sail.
Throughout his career as a brewer, John continued to nourish his love of music, attending concerts and getting to know bands. That interest garnered invitations to play a lot with local bands Crawdads of Pure Love (based in Eugene), Ed and The Boats, and The Buds of May. He has even played with national bands such as The Mother Truckers, Zero, and Kingfish, fitting in appearances around their touring schedules and his brewing schedule -- a brewing schedule that changed in 2012 when he left Full Sail.
Some might have considered a 26-year run as a brewer a good one, especially when taking into consideration that he created recipes for Mirror Pond, Black Butte, Jubelale and Obsidian, among other things. Perhaps this would be when John started to think about spending his time doing something else. In his own way, John was. He was brewing up a plan for opening his own place and applying what he’d learned on both the brewing and business sides at Full Sail. In 2013 he opened Ecliptic Brewing, a brewpub whose name and the names of the beer, along with its interior design, speak to another love of John's: astronomy. When you have your own place, you set the rules -- and at Ecliptic, John has also brought music into the mix with a regular schedule of live performances. One band in particular, Off the Cuff, plays often -- with John shifting from brewer/owner to washboard player when he can.
Beyond the regular schedule of live music at Ecliptic, John has put together an event that will take place there Thursday, June 16th. Brewers and Their Bands will feature five brewers and bands they play with: John and Off the Cuff, The Moonshine with Max Skewes of Burnside Brewing, Indiana Tex Mex with Matt Swihart of Double Mountain Brewery, and Left Coast Convicts with Shaun Kalis of Ruse Brewing. The music will start around 5:30 p.m. and it will surely be an evening filled with great music, great beer and great people whose talents go beyond the brew kettle.
Shaun Kalis, founder of Ruse Brewing, has a temporary home at Culmination Brewing. He met Culmination owner Tomas Sluiter at Old Market Pub & Brewery. A trust developed and Kalis found himself in a unique situation: he’s part of the Culmination team and uses that system for Ruse between production times. Photo by Kris McDowell
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
By definition a "ruse" is a trick or an act that is used to fool someone, according to Merriam-Webster. In some cases, there is malicious intent behind it. In other cases, like with M.C. Escher's impossible constructions, it is a way to play with the mind. In the case of Ruse Brewing, one of the newest to debut on the Portland brewing scene, it speaks to the mystery of the word and is a drinkable expression.
Shaun Kalis is the founder of Ruse, a transplant from Michigan whose resume includes six years at Old Market Pub & Brewery as well as stints at Cascade Brewing Barrel House and Two Kilts Brewing Co. which bookended an education at the American Brewers Guild. Like many, he remembers the beer that opened his eyes to what beer could be beyond the yellow, fizzy swill he had previously known -- a stout from Michigan-based Bell's Brewery, Inc. Known for the vast number of stouts they produce, it's no wonder that the beer had such an impact on the young Shaun and was part of what drove him to begin down the brewing path. What started as homebrewing, and self-described as "minimalist" at that, evolved into something much greater after his relocation to Portland.
The location of that move was somewhat of a random decision based on his desire to get into brewing. And while multiple cities would have sufficed, he could not have landed in a better location than Portland. Not only does the area have an incredible brewing culture, but it has the added bonus of a vibrant live music scene. Although he’s played since he was a kid, Shaun got more serious about music as an adult — taking the time for lessons and then using his skills as a guitar player in a Portland bluegrass band.
When developing the concept for Ruse Brewing, Shaun knew he would incorporate music as he feels it parallels brewing in that a song is written to speak to a particular feeling and experience in the same way that brewing a beer, for him, is speaking to something. Ultimately, Shaun would like to have a brewery/music venue where he can work with artists and musicians to create beers. In the meantime, he has found a fortunate situation and temporary home at Culmination Brewing. Shaun met and worked under Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter at Old Market and their relationship has deepened as Shaun's brewing has evolved. Rooted in their time together at Old Market is a trust that has allowed Shaun to step into a very unique situation: he is both part of the Culmination brewing team as well as an independent brewer utilizing the Culmination system between production times. As collegial as the relationship is, there are designated spaces within the Culmination facility for ingredient, empty keg and cooler storage of beers as well as a 10-barrel fermenter Shaun owns. For anyone that has experienced living with a roommate, allowing someone to have intimate access into one's personal space requires trust and communication. That is taken to a higher level when that sharing of space is in the place that houses one's livelihood and is something that speaks to Shaun's integrity as a person and competency as a brewer.
So what about the beer that Shaun is making? To begin, his year-round offerings will be Translator IPA, a citrus-forward beer with a soft mouthfeel from an English yeast, and Architect Saison, an approachable, session beer (4.8% ABV) that is dry and light in body. He wants to focus on fewer styles out of the gate so that he can be more creative with them. In addition, Shaun is adamant about quality control and committed to dumping out anything that doesn't meet his standards. As part of his role with Culmination, he is also taking over the brewery’s quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC).
Year-round beers may be a solid foundation for any brewery, but it's often the one-off and seasonal beers where brewers really get to have fun. For Shaun that fun is creating barrel-aged beers, saying "something about the oak is so romantic." At first blush, delving into barrel-aging so early on might sound limiting, but as Shaun explains it, "it gives me a buffer — time to focus on the IPA and the saison."
He anticipates the barrel-aged beers will sit for at least nine months, only being released when they're ready and if they meet his standards. The barrels he's sourced, to date, are pinot noir and Burgundy barrels from Walter Scott Wines in the Willamette Valley and spirit barrels from McMenamins and Bull Run Distilling Company. Shaun's first two barrel-aged beers will be MultiBeast and Red Saison. MultiBeast uses Ruse's own Brettanomyces strain (banked at Imperial Organic Yeast) and is dry hopped with Mosaic. Nearly ready, Shaun may debut it at Saraveza's Farmhouse and Wild Beer Festival in March, in addition to bottling it. The Red Saison won't be ready for months as it just went into barrels in December 2015, but a young sample of it shows great promise, displaying a pleasing licorice aroma with hints of leather and oak in the smooth, saison flavor.
Those looking to try out Ruse Brewing for themselves need not look far, starting with the taproom at Culmination where at least one of his beers will be part of the lineup on an ongoing basis. Beyond his home base, the new management at Great Notion (formerly Mash Tun) in Northeast Portland took a shine to Ruse, buying the first available keg in December 2015. And as a 10-year veteran of McMenamins (in a non-brewing capacity), his connections there ensured that beer can be found at some of their locations, including the Market Street Pub near Portland State University. Going beyond beer-centric spots, he's started the process to get both his IPA and Saison into Bamboo Sushi locations. He plans to be in 10-12 businesses around Portland and will be bottling the IPA and saison in 22-ounce bottles in the near future. His barrel-aged beers will be available in a 500-milliliter format.
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