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.”
Alex McGaw, head brewer and owner of Two Kilts in Sherwood, stands in front of his shiny 15-barrel Practical Fusion system that replaced the homemade 7-barrel original system he pieced together before opening in 2011. McGaw is focusing on increasing production, exposure and distribution in the new year. Photo by Patty Mamula
By Patty Mamula
For Oregon Beer Growler
With new craft breweries opening on what seems like a daily basis around the state, a brewery that’s been around for five years is considered an established commodity. That’s the case for Two Kilts, a brewery in a semi-industrial area of Sherwood that Alex McGaw opened in 2011.
McGaw, the head brewer and owner, gave a strong nod to his Scottish heritage in choosing the name. He also developed a solid reputation for making excellent Scottish beer, winning the gold medal for Scottish Ale in 2014 at the World Beer Cup in Denver.
Still, McGaw is quick to point out, “We make all different kinds of beers.”
His winter seasonal beers include an oatmeal chocolate stout and a wheat.
McGaw arrived in Eugene in 2004 from the small, rural town of Dassel in south central Minnesota and immediately fell in love with craft beer. From landscaping he transitioned to delivery work for McMenamins in 2006 when he moved to Portland.
Naturally, he was interested in brewing. “I was in and out of different breweries and locations. I knew all the managers and all the brewers. By the time I started shadowing some brewers, I was also doing some homebrewing.”
One year later, he was a McMenamins brewer. After a three-week training stint at John Barleycorns in Tigard, he moved to the Fulton Pub in Johns Landing. During his four years there, he discovered he had a real knack for brewing beer.
“I like cooking and baking,” said McGaw. “I became pretty good at brewing. I was what you might call a technical, mechanical brewer.”
Eventually, he moved on to a larger McMenamins facility — the Crystal Ballroom with its numerous bars and spaces for live music. There he worked with several different brewers and gained more firsthand brewing knowledge and experience. “I learned the business of brewing. A lot of people were enjoying my beer,” he said.
On his own time, he started assembling a brewing system. Everything came together for him to start his own brewery when he found the Sherwood location in 2011. For two hectic years, he worked two jobs, sometimes around the clock. During the day he brewed for McMenamins at the Crystal Ballroom and at night he brewed at Two Kilts and ran the taproom.
“I thought I was going to get a break with the Crystal Ballroom gig, working four days on and three off, but it didn’t really turn out that way. Still, it was fun. I loved having my own place, working for myself and brewing beer,” said McGaw.
In 2013 he was able to leave McMenaminns and devote himself full time to Two Kilts. “I was finally able to pay myself a livable wage,” said McGaw.
Last summer, he took some Fermentation Science courses at Oregon State and gained a thorough overview of the process. In addition to online work, he spent a week at the Corvallis campus. “I learned the science behind beer and found out how to set up a lab. That’s very important, especially when you start to package your beer,” he said.
Until McGaw gets his own lab up and running, he has turned to fellow brewers for their assistance. “One of our best supporters is Jeff Edgerton at Bridgeport. He takes our samples to his lab to check.
“I love this business because it’s such a supportive community, competitive, yes, but supportive in learning the skill. We’re all trying to make us look good,” he said.
In the past year, McGaw has increased production and marketing. His beers are available around the state, but in small doses. “We’re trying to cover more territory,” he said.
Bottles and cans are available at New Seasons and Plaid Pantry stores, about 100 in all. Right now Two Kilts IPA, Crystal Sunshine and Scottish Ale are available in 12-ounce cans, and the Pale Ale, IPA, Scottish Ale and Cocoa Porter are available in 22-ounce bottles. “We’re trying to expand locally and working on increased distribution to growler shops and other outlets,” he said.
His full-time sales manager, Michael Fiaschetti, has really pumped up sales. “Everyone knows him. He’s made a nice mark for us,” said McGaw.
In addition to a whole new system — a 15-barrel Practical Fusion system with 30-barrel brite tanks, McGaw is adding new beers to the lineup and packaging more for retails sales.
The Crystal Sunshine, popular this summer, he describes as especially crisp and drinkable. “Our Scottish Ale is standard. I’m revamping the IPA to make it bolder. We had a fresh-hop version in the Oaks Park festival this fall,” said McGaw.
He’s thinking of adding an IPA series and a seasonal kettle sour.
With the goal of increased exposure, McGaw has entered Two Kilts in many of the state’s beer and food festivals, including the Bend Brewfest, Feast Portland and the recent Holiday Ale Festival. This was a first for the December fest, which requires brewers to make something that’s not on tap anywhere else.
The Two Kilts contribution was called the Earls of Orkney, a wheat wine with the following description: “A very big mouthfeel is present due to the insane amount of wheat malt that goes into this beer.”
McGaw is brewing three to four times a week. Last year the production topped out at 1,000-plus bottles and he’s planning to double that in 2016.
“We’re trying to support our local community of Sherwood and participate in community events,” said McGaw. He’s looking for another location in Sherwood to expand and add a food menu.
“What’s grown this place is word-of-mouth,” he said. “We’re looking to get into a more visible spot and provide our customers with a great experience.”
By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Chetco Brewing, a tiny brewery founded in Michael Frederick’s garage near Brookings, is making some big beers these days. In 2014, less than a year into production, Chetco won a silver medal for its Block and Tackle Stout in the World Beer Cup competition. That year, he produced 111 barrels.
His award-winning, American-style imperial stout is on tap at places in Brookings, Grants Pass, Portland and a few other towns. And as of May, the stout and other brews are on tap at Chetco Brewing’s new taproom.
Earlier this year, with a goal to opening a taproom in Brookings, Chetco raised over $15,700 to renovate a former Radio Shack space. The taproom is now open Friday through Monday, 3:30-9 p.m. at 927 Chetco Ave. in Brookings. The adults-only space has room for 49 and is outfitted with 10 taps. The brewery is also organizing the first Oktoberfest celebration in Brookings.
Frederick is expanding a 1 1/4-barrel system (“if you’re being generous”) to a new 7-barrel system and a new brite tank. He said he needs to increase production more to make a living. “My hourly wages don’t really pan out yet,” he laughed. “It’s inefficient at a small scale.”
The new taproom promises a production upscale.
Michael’s wife and partner Alex Carr-Frederick maintains her work in real estate sales while Michael continues to work as a masseuse and a yoga instructor. But the new taproom heralds more work at Chetco Brewing in the future.
Michael’s interest in brewing hails back to the 1980s. His brother-in-law was a homebrewer, and later, his wife bought him a brewing kit. “It blew my mind that you could make your own beer,” he said. He immediately began brewing all grain.
When the couple moved to Oregon, they planted a small garden and began using some of their own hops and berries in the brews.
When a friend left them a small inheritance, Michael began making plans for a commercial brewery, registering it in 2011. Family hardships and then the prolonged illness and death of their dear dog and “chief snuggler,” Hazel, bit into their windfall. “Life is what happens while you are planning something else, right?” said Michael. Two years ago, they finally licensed the brewery and are forging ahead with their dreams.
And speaking of dreams. Michael and Alex live and brew in one of the most scenic breweries I’ve ever seen -- perched on a cliff above one of Chetco River’s most popular fishing holes. If you’re lucky enough to be counted as “staff,” you might get to sit in the deck hot tub and watch the salmon and steelhead twitch at the end of a lucky angler’s line. With a stout in hand, the sun setting in the Pacific a few miles west, what could be better? Watching the fishermen cast into the river below me while Michael filled a growler, it dawned on me where the inspiration came from for Block and Tackle Stout’s name.
Visit Chetco Brewing’s website at www.chetcobrew.com. The website’s “On Tap” button tells you where you may find the beers in Oregon.
Chetco Brewing Company
[a] 927 Chetco Ave., Brookings
By Branden Andersen
For Oregon Beer Growler
Wendi Day is perched at the bar wiping down laminated flight cards that carry her brewpub’s award-winning beers to curious customers when I find her for our interview. A wall behind her — and not a small one — is packed with awards from the World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival and North American Brewers Association among others.
She leads me out of the bar area with all the awards and to the River Room, where we sit in a wooden booth with years of obvious use: nicks taken out of the corners, random indentation and discoloration. But it’s not unsightly — it’s home.
“The ride has been amazing,” she said as she sat down. “It’s always been about quality, not quantity. We’ve stayed true to that for 20 years now.”
Bend Brewing Company, the beer-centric city’s second-oldest brewery, has hit that point where they are looking back and trying to figure out where the time went. The business marked its 20th anniversary with a party in February. But a huge amount of medals, including five in the past year and more than 50 since the opening in 1995, have been the only other indication that time has been passing.
“If anything, the medals are evident that we haven’t sacrificed who we are,” Day said, adding that she purchased the company from her father in 2000. “We are still keeping it small and family owned with the best brewers.”
From 1995 to 2002, Bend Brewing Co. had great brewpub beer that didn’t make it out of the brewpub walls. It wasn’t until the company hired a young brewer from Indiana named Tonya Cornett in March 2002 that Bend Brewing Co. started entering competitions. Coincidently, they started making a name for themselves, starting with a gold in the highly-contested American-style India Pale Ale at the Great American Beer Festival in 2006 and followed that by winning the Champion Brewery and Brewer awards in the “Small Brewpub” category at the World Beer Cup in 2008. From there, it was off to the races.
Cornett left her brewing role at Bend Brewing Co. in 2011 when she handed the reigns to Ian Larkin after amassing a couple handfuls of awards and creating a nationwide name for Bend Brewing Co. in the brewing community with recipes like Ching Ching American Sour, Hop Head Imperial IPA and Lovely Cherry Baltic Porter.
“She’s still a part of BBC to me,” Day said.
Larkin took over the brewing role without missing a beat. More awards started flowing in for recipes old and new, including their most award-winning beer to date: Outback X. All of this happened while they maintained their brewpub feel.
“Just because you’ve got medals on the wall doesn’t mean you can coast,” said Josh Harned, assistant brewer and sales representative for Bend Brewing Co. “It’s a feeling here that you can’t fake.”
Working off of the same 7-barrel system that the brewery opened with, nearly 1,000 barrels come through the tanks each year. Being that their fermenters are packed into the upstairs brewery, with little to no space left to grow, Harned said they are about maxed out with no plans for expansion.
“It’s quality over quantity,” Harned said. “Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the space, so we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The only change coming down the pike is a new barrel-aging program, said Harned. Bend Brewing Co. has used an off-site bottling and storage facility for a while, but they are putting plans in motion to get some local barrels.
Beer aside, Day said it comes down to the values she inherited from her family, and hopes to pass them along. Day is now watching as her daughter joins the Bend Brewing Co. team.
“She was 6 months old when I decided to buy it from my dad,” Day said. “It’s the best decision I made — I’m very thankful for my family through the years.”
And, without saying it, Day makes it clear that her definition of family goes far beyond blood — it’s also about the 35 other employees that have made BBC one of the longest-running and most-respected breweries in town.
Bend Brewing Co.
[a] 1019 NW Brooks St., Bend
By Brian Yaeger
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In the winter, Oregon gets fewer than nine hours of sunup. That’s a lot of darkness. Beer-wise, darkness is something our brewers do very well. Some of those stouts and porters get a big spotlight while others, pardon the expression, are generally left in the dark. There’s no arguing that Deschutes’ The Abyss is a world-class imperial stout or that Barley Brown’s Turmoil deserves to be the award-winning Cascadian Dark Ale that it is. But there are more than 200 breweries across Oregon. Some simply get less lip service; some stellar beers may be overlooked. So in honor of wintry dark ales, especially as imperial stouts get their major love-fest this Valentine’s Day at Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts, take a moment to try and seek out these other opaque and obscure onyx beauties.
Seaside’s eponymous brewery, Seaside Brewing Company gives the arcade and taffy-laden town what it really needed: a brewpub. Their imperial stout, Black Dynamite, lives up to its name in that it’s pitch black and explosively tasty. The beer with bourbon-soaked vanilla beans and cacao nibs (also getting the bourbon treatment) is a show-stopper from first chilled sip to last warmed drop that has the sweetness to not just pair with dessert but replace it, yet the bitterness and roastiness to enjoy snifter after snifter.
At the southern end of the coast in Brookings is Chetco Brewing Company. Michael Frederick and his wife Alex Carr-Frederick launched Chetco as a nanobrewery using their friend James Smith’s 1.5-barrel homebrewing system as their commercial setup. It’s how they make their super-small batch but mighty Block & Tackle. This stout achieves a unique viscosity after aging for six months, and the resulting notes of Baker’s chocolate achieve the right balance between a sweet and dry stout -- just ask the World Beer Cup judges who awarded it a silver medal.
Speaking of award-winning south coast breweries, the aforementioned James Smith is the brewer at Arch Rock Brewing Company in Gold Beach. Although he medaled at last year’s Great American Beer Festival for his lager, State of Jefferson Porter pours a chocolaty brown hinting at the deep chocolate flavor buried under the mocha aroma. Yes, there is a robust maltiness that suggests molasses and brown sugar, but it’s not syrupy on the tongue. The brew is rich from the roasted malts and holds up from first sip to last, then back to first.
In mid-Willamette Valley, two tiny breweries are making some of the most unique stouts in the state. Santiam Brewing is the passion project of nine buddies, only some of them homebrewers, who collectively formed the brewery and cozy tasting room in Salem. Pirate Stout is a rum-barrel aged “tropical export stout” (7.9% ABV) with a fudgy base of chocolate malt and de-bittered black malt that sails through the Bahamas in a dark rum barrel picking up a crew of toasted coconut flakes. Fans of Malibu Rum and Mounds bars are the obvious targets, but the allure of this rich, sweet, voluptuous stout is very easily enjoyed as the meal, not just dessert.
While farther down I-5 in brewery-happy Eugene, Viking is technically a brewery but I like to call it a braggotery since every brew they make has a large honey content. They make a bourbon-aged stout with Meadowfoam honey, which naturally tastes like toasted marshmallow giving it an overall s’more character. But they also make Winter Squash Porter featuring 150 pounds of delicata squash that is hand-roasted and given a honey backbone courtesy of turnip honey. The result is reminiscent of Big Black Jack Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter from their neighbors at Oakshire Brewing but bottles are even rarer to find.
One last pick from a brewery truly off the beaten path is the Chocolate Stout from Dragon’s Gate Brewery in Milton-Freewater near the northeastern corner of the state. Le Morte D’Arthur is a milk stout with cocoa nibs that was once described as a “Fudgsicle, but beer” and has developed a local cult following. Therefore, if you’re heading to this farm-based brewery near Washington’s wine country, bring a growler to share this decadent treat with friends.
Finally, even in Portland there are rare jewels to be treasured. Ex Novo Brewing Company is the most altruistic brewery, donating 100% of its profits to local charities -- but their new Moonstriker is still pure hedonism. This stout is a collaboration with Moonstruck Chocolates and debuted at the Holiday Ale Festival. It features nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and, of course, Moonstruck cocoa along with a fiery kiss of habanero. The result is a creamy, dreamy Mexican hot chocolate stout.
Clearly, the force is strong on the dark side of Oregon’s less-heralded brews.
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