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 Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Alex Kurnellas remembers the first time he and Shawn Stackpoole said “I do.”
“I think, she was hesitant. I was really gung-ho … then I got really, really scared — like ‘Oh my God, what if this doesn’t work?’”
At the same time, Shawn was thinking this was the last chance to back out.
“Yeah, I couldn’t see what was in his mind. The idea he had. The passion. Not that I doubted him, but I doubted if it was going to work or not. You know, there’s so much beer already.”
On a January afternoon, there is a light snow dusting Southeast Division Street in Portland. Despite steel-gray skies, the glass-walled Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom is bright and comfortable. And Shawn and Alex are telling their love and beer story.
Their “I do’s” involved signing a lease for their shop space.
“There was really only one moment when we looked at each other — right before we signed the lease and thought, we could back out now. That’s the only time we ever talked about it.” But they decided, “We’re so close, let’s do it. You live once. If it doesn’t work, we’ll learn from it. If it does work, we’ll learn more from it.”
Shawn and Alex were a reluctant couple to begin with. They met through friends while living and going to school in Santa Barbara, Calif. Their friendship was built on similar interests and liking the same music. But romance took longer. After several years, despite the prodding by friends, Shawn thought, “Why ruin a good friendship?” Eventually, she relented. “We enjoy each other. He makes me laugh and that was six years ago…”
The change in relationship status included the move to Portland; the couple was a little bored by Santa Barbara. The beer lovers also thought the Rose City beer scene was more diverse. That, along with Alex’s childhood, should have been a clue about what would come next. Raised in New Jersey, he had seen both his father and grandfather open and run diners.
“I grew up in a restaurant for the most part,” Alex says. His intuition for operating the taproom impressed Shawn and most likely led her to follow him willingly into an arrangement that can be treacherous for a personal relationship. People often advise against mixing business and love. But think of this way: the business is like marriage, the store is like a child.
Shawn admits, “It’s been a challenge, as is anything in life but…”
Alex, as what often happens with couples, picks up the thought. “Because not only are you working with that person, but all of sudden you got in an argument at work and you take that home because you are with that person. So it’s your whole life. At first it was hard for us. I was working 100-hour weeks, Shawn was working 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks, so all the time we spent together was at work. Our relationship really suffered. We had a work relationship, but not much of a loving relationship. But after a year, a year-and-a-half, we started to find time for us. I started learning to not talk about work when we went out to dinner.”
“But we’d get about 30 minutes into dinner and something would come up. We’d have to reel it back in,” Shawn adds.
Both credit their long, pre-romance relationship with laying the foundation for how well they work together. Alex says, “I could not imagine doing it without Shawn.”
Shawn sighs and says, “You’re going to make me cry.”
Success with the 4-year-old store has added something else to their lives.
“We are lucky,” Shawn says. “We’ve been accepted by the neighborhood. I enjoy hanging out with people I’ve met at the bar.”
Alex continues, “It’s been a really enriching experience for both of us. A lot of the people that are our friends, that we see on a daily basis, are people who we met here as customers — are people we would never have met because they are different ages, have different interests. But we got to meet them through the business.”
So, you’re probably asking — what about saying “I do” at the altar? Well, Alex says he’s ready. But Shawn? “I can’t commit to what I want for a wedding. Do I want to just run off? Do I want to have a big party? I can’t decide.”
*** When you go to Imperial, ask about the “Star Wars” mural inside the front door.
Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom
3090 SE Division St., Portland
By Don Scheidt
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“The difference between America and England is that Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.” - Earle Hitchner
Go back 40 years from the current day. What does 40 years ago mean in American terms? Jimmy Carter would win a presidential election over Gerald Ford in post-Watergate America. The year marked America’s Bicentennial — 200 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In a small way, 1976 also began to usher in some changes to American-made food and drink, industries that were dominated by large corporations at the time. Choice was the exception, not the rule; it was a big deal to have more than four or five beers on tap — an even bigger deal if there were imported beers among them.
It was against this backdrop that Don and Bill Younger became owners of the Horse Brass Pub in Southeast Portland. The takeover date of Nov. 1, 1976 comes with a nearly apocryphal story of a bill of sale, written on a cocktail napkin, found on Don's desk (or was it on top of his dresser?) after an evening of drinking. He broke the news to his brother after taking him into the business explaining he wanted to buy him a sign from the Scottish brewery with the same last name displayed on the wall, but wound up purchasing the whole establishment — a pub where you could choose from a half-dozen beers on tap.
Initially, selection was what was offered from the distributors: taste-alike American lagers, a few imports of dubious freshness, maybe some Anchor Steam from San Francisco. But when Cartwright Brewing Company opened in Portland in 1979, there was support from Horse Brass — an early sign that Don and company would be taking an interest in the burgeoning small-brewery scene, despite his fondness for Blitz.
While Cartwright folded, others came online, slowly but surely: Widmer Brothers Brewing and BridgePort Brewing Company in 1984, Portland Brewing Company in 1986, as well as Rogue Ales and Deschutes Brewery in 1988. During this time, Don was a champion of these businesses and Horse Brass become a primary sales point and supportive meeting place for new brewing entrepreneurs, whether they set up shop in Portland or were located out of town.
There was this microbrewery thing emerging — small-scale commercial producers with flavorful beers similar to imports on tap. For Horse Brass, the choice was obvious: support these guys and their beers. Add taps. Introduce people to local beverages. Give the owners of these specialty breweries business advice, even a little cash if needed. For instance, when Rogue first sent kegs out to the general trade, Horse Brass was first in line. A relationship between the pub and brewery formed quickly and naturally, one that was cemented in 1989 when Rogue made a special bitter for Horse Brass as its house beer.
A time of celebration coincided with tragedy, when Bill had an untimely death. Don asked that the beer from Rogue be named as a memorial to his departed brother. And so it became Younger's Special Bitter — “YSB” to many, cask-conditioned “Billy” to the regulars. By this time, Don was thoroughly in the microbrewery camp, and the tap selection was in a state of near-constant expansion.
As Horse Brass emerged as one of Portland’s premier beer bars, it gained repute far beyond the city’s boundaries. But the business had its troubled times too. There were economic downturns when people had less money to spend on extras like beer. Though Don and crew kept at it, having transformed the ordinary tavern into an English-style pub, complete with a beer engine for dispensing cask-conditioned ales and fish and chips that some consider the best in town.
The big test came at the end of 2008 when changes in local laws meant that Horse Brass — long a haven for tobacco smokers — would be smoky no more. Don, a front-of-house fixture often perched at the end of the bar with a beer and a cigarette, didn’t conceal his anger about the change. Many say his mood shifted after that as he was no longer allowed to smoke with others in a place he considered an extension of his home. But the pub prospered anyway, something even Don grudgingly admitted.
Later in 2010, the end approached. Failing health and injuries from an accident led to Don’s passing on Jan. 31, 2011. Longtime business manager Joellen Piluso has taken up the mantle of ownership, carrying on the pub’s traditions. The 40th anniversary celebration, held during the first week of November 2016, was a time of special beers — not just from local brewers, but from those across the country. There are numerous beers served at Horse Brass that weren’t even around during Don’s heyday, but that’s the spirit of the place. New brewers are always welcome if the beer is good.
In a young culture like Portland’s, 40 years may as well seem like 100 and plenty of people will happily come from 40 miles away to meet friends at Horse Brass. It’s the kind of place with a life of its own and is still instrumental in fostering the beer culture in the Pacific Northwest. There are people alive today who may yet help Horse Brass celebrate its 50th anniversary, or even its 100th, as should be the case with one of Portland's most enduring beer institutions.
Horse Brass Pub
4534 SE Belmont St., Portland
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