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 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 Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Even at 218 or so breweries, Oregon has yet to reach peak status. True, industry growth is slowing and real estate in popular places like Portland and Bend are harder to come by. But there is still room for the local brewpub. Some large towns — like La Grande — don’t even have a brewery yet, but 2017 looks to change that. Here are our top 10 major breweries scheduled to open this year.
Bodega Beer - Portland
This 15-barrel brewery and taproom will open on the corner of Southeast 14th Avenue and Stark Street right across the street from Meat Cheese Bread and their taproom/bottleshop called Beer. Ex-Laurelwood brewer Steven Balzer will be on board to focus on hop-forward beers with a lager and some international styles represented. They won’t have food, but will have a food cart on site.
Breakside Brewery Slabtown - Portland
Breakside Brewery’s third location was scheduled to open in the Slabtown neighborhood of Northwest Portland last summer, but it’s now on track for a spring 2017 launch. The space will feature a full restaurant, event room mezzanine and outdoor seating on both a patio and rooftop. Best of all — the 10-barrel brewhouse is going to pump out completely new, experimental hop-centric beers.
Crooked River Brewing – Prineville
The 4-barrel startup is taking over a 7,000-square-foot industrial space that used to house an antique shop. Prineville’s second brewery will favor IPAs and pizzas in a setting that will include outdoor seating, a conference room and pool tables. Brewing is still a good six months out or more due to city and federal permitting. (Read more on page 14).
Ferment - Portland and Hood River
Daniel Peterson moved to Hood River to work at Full Sail and then pFriem after experience with microbiology at New York’s Brooklyn Brewery. In 2015 he set out to open his own project with a brewery in Hood River and a taproom/restaurant in Portland, originally slated for the Yard development on the east side of the Burnside Bridge. Peterson said he’ll now look for a nearby ground-floor location that will be more accessible to foot traffic.
The Horn Public House & Brewery - Depoe Bay
Chris Jennings, one of the Hillsboro Brew Brothers before leaving to join the team at Alameda, now takes on the role of head brewer at this upcoming coastal establishment. From the owners of Gracie’s Sea Hag comes this 10-barrel, two-floor brewpub that is already open and should have its own beer on tap sometime after January. Jennings plans to make a variety of styles, with 10 house beers — plus guest offerings — on tap. (Read more on page 18).
Level Beer - Portland
A trio of all-stars came together to launch Level Beer: Bailey’s Taproom owner Geoff Phillips along with brewer/partners Jason Barbee (formerly of Ex Novo) and Shane Watterson (formerly of Laurelwood). Making its home on garden/farmland in outer Northeast Portland off I-84, there will be a tasting room (but don’t expect farmhouse beers).
Little Beast Brewing - Beaverton
When Charles Porter left Logsdon in 2015, he sought a warehouse space to open his own sour blendery, with a brewery off-site. But in late 2016, he found the defunct Brannon’s Pub & Brewery in Beaverton where he’ll start his business before eventually relocating to a space in Portland with more room for barrels. For now, he shares the building with The Westgate Bourbon Bar & Taphouse, which opened in December.
Reach Break Brewing – Astoria
This new 7-barrel brewery and taproom will focus on barrel-aged sour and wild beers, but will also pour clean East Coast-style IPAs and farmhouse brews. Customers can enjoy a covered outdoor beer garden with food carts and to-go menus from local establishments. If there aren’t any holdups, Reach Break could be open by the time you read this with non-wild yeast/bacteria beers and barrel-aged styles debuting as they are ready.
Ross Island Brewing - Portland
Ex-Alameda brewer Carston Haney’s inner Southeast Portland project has been hit with numerous delays by the City of Portland. After waiting more than a year, he hopes to open the taproom in January while work continues on the brewery. Expect big and sessionable English, German and American styles of beer in a cozy neighborhood pub with an outdoorsman's touch.
Side A Brewing - La Grande
When Eastern Oregon University professor Scott McConnell realized that La Grande was the only city in Oregon with a population of more than 7,000 that didn’t have a brewery, he knew he had to do something. Along with two partners, one with brewery experience and the other food and beverage, they are slated to open Side A Brewing in the historic Eastern Oregon Fire Museum this spring.
By Alethea Smartt LaRowe
For the Oregon Beer Growler
One of the first questions that visitors to this Southeast Portland brewery often ask is, “What does Grixsen mean?” While the word is a mashup of the three partners’ surnames, it also symbolizes the communal focus of the 4-month-old brewery. Scott Petersen, who handles business operations and branding, says “We wanted to come up with a name that encompassed what we had as an ideal. The model of Grixsen is someone who works hard, does the right thing and celebrates together.”
That theme shaped the brewery’s evolution and was part of the founders’ ethos even before they knew they wanted to start a business together. DJ Moxley, Grixsen’s head brewer, met Petersen through a family member in 2012 when he was still in college. Their recommendation landed him a summer internship at Petersen’s strategy and design firm in Portland. Moxley had already been homebrewing for several years, and he quickly became Petersen’s collaborative partner for all things beer. They brewed their first batch together, a Scotch ale, at Portland U-Brew in Sellwood as part of a team-building exercise with Petersen’s employees.
When I ask Moxley why he started brewing, he replies, “Wine is romantic, but I think beer is just as romantic. I got into beer because of American history. I was a huge history fan throughout school and learned that our country was pretty much built on breweries and pubs. I wanted to be part of that somehow and create something that can have that big of an impact.”
As Moxley completed his studies and graduated from Gonzaga, he and Petersen continued making test batches of homebrew in Petersen’s garage. Eventually, their collaborations led to discussions about opening a brewery together. While it was tempting to seek out investors to expedite their new business venture, they ultimately decided to personally fund the entire operation, which allows them to retain full control over the company. Petersen explains, “We wanted to experience the bootstrapping that’s required to launch a new brewery.”
They immediately began looking for a building to house the business. “Our goal was to find a location that would be affordable plus would allow us to grow into it in terms of production,” Petersen states. Giving credit to serendipitous circumstances, they signed a lease on a 6,000-square-foot warehouse in December 2014.
The build-out process took longer than expected due to changes in building codes as well as the overall physical labor required to turn the space into a brewery and tasting room. Enter Kurt Gritman, the third business partner. The team refers to him as “a workhorse within the operation” and mentions that the majority of the work on the build-out was done by himself, Moxley and Gritman, with the exception of electrical and plumbing.
Moxley is now brewing on an American Beer Equipment system that was originally designed for another company, but fits the Grixsen space perfectly. It’s a 10-barrel, 3-vessel operation, which means they can do continuous brewing cycles. They have two 20-barrel fermenters and two 20-barrel brite tanks with two more 20-barrel fermenters already ordered.
When asked about the beers he is brewing, Moxley mentions Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colo. as the inspiration for his Hopped Saison, along with The Commons Brewery in Portland. Petersen elaborates, “We want to embrace the craft movement in terms of the craft over the experimentation side of it. For the most part, we’re brewing standard variants of traditional styles, but with a Northwest take on it.”
The tasting room, which welcomed the public during this year’s Zwickelmania while still under construction, officially opened in April. The design melds perfectly with the brewery’s focus on sophisticated craft and American heritage. The walls are made of reclaimed wood from a friend’s fence. If you look closely, you can see pellets and BBs that were embedded in the boards during their previous life. Petersen’s dad built the bar, which showcases 12 taps plus two nitros. They also sell wine.
The tasting room seats 30 and has a 52-inch flat screen TV, which is only on at low volume for live sporting events. Otherwise, you’ll be listening to the bartender’s choice of streaming music, which will soon be played on a new Sonos sound system. An adjacent private room seats around 10 people and features an 80-inch flat screen TV, making it the perfect spot for fantasy football or other friendly gatherings.
Kids and dogs are welcome in the brewery area, which already has a few tables and chairs as well as a pool table, but will soon have more games like cornhole. Currently they do not serve food but coordinate with a food truck to park near the brewery entrance. Outside food is welcome.
As for future plans, Petersen says they are hoping to sign with a distributor this month and plan to start packaging in 22-ounce bottles. They’ll be making more beer styles and have already started barrel aging; first up is a bourbon barrel imperial stout. While they have just hired a taproom manager, you’ll continue to find all three partners alternating shifts in the tasting room. After all, they are still busy building the Grixsen brand which embodies “giving an honest effort, following the righteous path and celebrating the uniqueness in everyone.”
Grixsen Brewing Company
[a] 1001 SE Division St., Suite 1, Portland
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