Upright Brewing in Portland, OR: Playful, Provocative, Farmhouse Inspired Beers
The Portland metro area is the largest craft brewing market in the nation; the brewpub culture reigns. More remarkable though is that the pints clinking around town exemplify the spirit of innovation and sustainability that define 'Portlandia.'
Alex Ganum, an emerging artisan brewer with a cult-like following, crafts farmhouse inspired beers rooted in France and Belgium but made with a local ingredients and a Pacific Northwest twist. The owner and head brewer for the two-year old Upright Brewing spends his days surrounded by open fermenters and old wine barrels, brewing, bottling and blueprinting his next old-world meets new-world thirst quenching blend.
Wine barrels greet you in the hallway and circle the walls of the tiny brewery, barrel-aging sour beers, fruit beers, smoked beers, and other distinct brews. As a small production brewery with limited tanks, Ganum moves some beers to barrel to add flavor and to make space for new brews. "The barrels are an opportunity to make lots of different batches which is a lot of fun," he says.
Gleaming silver tanks fill the main space where brewery meets tasting room in the basement of the Leftbank Project, an intentional community of entrepreneurs devoted to craft, creativity, bikes, brewing, coffee, slow food and art. Open top fermenters have their own room, viewable from a peek-through window hold the latest brewing project.
"Very few brewers use open top fermenters anymore," says Ganum. The same process is happening as when the beer is fermenting as it would in a unitank—but in the open top tanks you have a different geometry, explains Ganum. The fermenter is shallow and wide instead of tall and narrow. "Believe it or not, that will really affect the flavors produced during the fermentation. There's also different ways of harvesting yeast from these, which I like."
The name for Upright is a reference to the legendary musician Charles Mingus and his primary instrument—on many days avant-garde jazz fills the industrial space. The compositions of the American musician Mingus defy categorization—a tenet Upright Brewing adheres to by using special saison yeast and open fermenters to produce beers that are a "true hybrid style, sharing Mingus' spirit of exercising creativity and craft."
The four year-round beers Upright makes use classic ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water. "But we like to get a little crazy for some of the seasonal beers and one-off beers—and we've used all sorts of different herbs and spices, fruits, you name it." One beer that speaks to this spirit is the Oyster stout. "There aren't too many oyster stouts out there and it's a pretty cool style," says Ganum. Upright's version uses both oyster liquor and whole live oysters, giving the full-bodied, creamy beer a lightly salty flavor with a distinct mineral finish.
The Oyster stout started as a collaboration with Jason McAdam of Roots Brewing Co. The current release is the second for the brewers, and features Hama Hama oysters from Washington state, bivalves noted for an especially briny essence. The oyster liquor is poured directly into the kettle from buckets, followed by six dozen large oysters. "We get a bunch of oysters to eat while we brew and invite a bunch of friends over," says Ganum. "It's a fun brew day—with a whole lot of oyster shucking going on."
Ganum held the annual Oyster stout release party this year at a new restaurant where he is also a co-owner—Grain & Gristle. Acolytes joined to sample a pint of the coveted beer and down an oyster shooter. The bonus brew that night was a firkin filled with Oregon black truffle-infused stout. The firkin was sampled dry in mere hours.
As much as the brewer thrives on creativity and the avant-garde he also nods to old-world tradition when crafting his beer. His Gose is based on a centuries-old obscure German style that incorporates salt into a distinctly tart wheat beer with a dry champagne-like finish. The beer was a 2010 World Beer Cup Bronze Medal winner.
A personal favorite of the brewer is Billy the Mountain, inspired by the great Prize Old Ale once brewed by Gales in England. "I really feel this beer is a great tie-in to history," says Ganum. One of the original breweries that had produced the nostalgic style for so long was recently bought out and stopped production of the ale a few years ago, says Ganum. "I feel lucky to have enjoyed that beer before they stopped making it and now that they don't make it anymore I feel really good about keeping that flavor profile alive."
Ganum endeavors to craft an Old Ale with authentic old-world taste, not a modern version. "We are trying to recreate what beers tasted like more than 100 years ago," he says. It should be kind of oxidized, with a little bit of tartness. "Most brewers opt for the modern interpretation, but I think it's more fun to do it the historic way."
Upright recently celebrated its two year anniversary with their provocatively labeled beer called Four Play, one of their most anticipated annual releases. This sour cherry version of their wheat beer "Four" spends close to one year maturing in former pinot noir barrels with a fresh Oregon cherry puree. The bottled beer can cellar for five years or more.
"We definitely focus on using local ingredients, because we have great local ingredients available," says Ganum. "Our hop farmer delivers the hops himself from a half-hour away. That doesn't happen anywhere else really." The brewery barters for barrels from Oregon winemakers they know in the nearby Willamette Valley. "We also trade beer for wine," adds Ganum. Everyone is connected in the Portland beer community, says Ganum. In addition to the hop farmer, Ganum personally knows the suppliers, the welders, the tank builders. "The people who are enjoying the beer—we all know each other and it's a really friendly, wonderful thing."
"Portland is a brewer's dream. If you go to any other city in the whole world, it's just not like this."