Opening a brewery in Oregon seems like a proverbial bringing-sand-to-the-desert gambit. However, Oregonians' thirst for quality beer seems to know no bounds, and thriving new breweries spring up every year. Here are three born less than two years ago they're buzzing about in Portlandia and beyond.
The Commons Brewery (Portland)
A lot of breweries' origin stories include some variation on the "homebrewer in the garage" theme. Mike Wright, owner of The Commons, took it one step further by licensing his garage, a 1-barrel nano brewhouse that was known as Beetje Brewery. Beetje is Flemish for "little," which 31.5 gallon batches certainly are.
Having a commercial brewery attached to your house sounds groovy in theory, but after a year Wright found that his part-time venture had outgrown the garage. It was time for a bigger location and a new business plan for what was essentially a whole different operation. In December 2011, Wright moved to 7-barrel brew system in a 1500 square foot warehouse and named his new brewery The Commons. Recipes needed tweaking, but Wright must have adjusted things well because The Commons quickly started winning awards in both drinkers' choice popularity contests and official blind judgings.
The Commons' beers, with a few exceptions like the 9% Belgian dark ale Little Brother, aren't hop-forward, high-ABV, or extreme in any way. This makes them a tough sell for some adrenaline-seeking beer geeks but a welcome addition to the fridge for others. One of their two year-round beers is Urban Farmhouse Ale, a mellow, floral saison at 5.3%.
The other is a bit more unusual: Flemish Kiss, a barrel-aged pale ale with the wild yeast brettanomyces bruxellensis. Brett beers are sometimes shorthanded as "sour," but brett alone produces more of a dry, leathery, vaguely funky flavor than outright tartness. Is it tricky having a barrel-aged wild ale in the year-round line-up? "Urban Farmhouse is about a 4 week turn around with bottle conditioning and Flemish Kiss is more like 14 to 16 weeks before it's market ready," said Wright. "That's relatively short for a barrel aged beer, but that's the whole idea with Flemish Kiss—just a kiss of the brett." The result is a dry, balanced, ever so slightly hoppy brew that dedicated funk fans could safely share with more cautious drinking buddies.
The Commons will be adding capacity, doing more barrel-aging, and spreading its wares to California and Washington in 2013. For now, look for it in the Portland metro area, Boise, and British Columbia. You might need to look hard: The Commons is still little compared to the demand for it.
Gigantic Brewing Company (Portland)
Gigantic Brewing, founded in 2012, is run by well-known local brewers and has some of the coolest beer labels ever. In Portland, however, you'd better bring good beer to the party, because personality and pedigree will only get you so far. Perhaps equally importantly for Portland's novelty seekers, Gigantic brought a lot of different good beer to the party.
Gigantic's one year-round beer is an IPA. "It's practically a law that you have to brew an IPA in Oregon," said co-owner Ben Love. When Love and co-owner Van Havig were designing the recipe, they each wrote down hops they wanted to use in it and the big reveal showed they agreed on all but one (for the record: Centennial, Simcoe, Cascade, and Crystal). The resulting brew is a flavorful citrus bomb with a touch of floral.
All Gigantic's non-IPA beers, six so far, are seasonal one-offs that may or may not ever return. The roasty Time Traveler porter disappears from the glass quickly and, in another universe, could be a six-pack beer giving Anchor Porter a run for its money. The End of Reason is more experimental, blending sweet caramel flavors with belgian yeast to produce a satisfying 8.3% beer dessert.
Gigantic's nifty labels are helped along by its artistic director, Havig's childhood friend Rob Reger, who created Emily The Strange. He designed the label for Gigantic IPA and helps recruit other artists to do a different label for every release, including choosing a pithy quote. The IPA cites George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." If there's another way to drink a porter with a label designed by the guy who did the Dead Kennedys logo, I don't know it.
If you visit, Gigantic's 24-seat taproom has a large patio for spillover on dry days and features art from the designers of Gigantic's current beer labels. And while the Gigantic name is sarcastic, springing from the owners discussing how they were "never going to be some gigantic f*cking brewery," increased distribution is coming. In May, look for 22-ounce bottles of Gigantic in California and greater Chicago. It's already in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, and Vermont. The owners' goal is to stay small enough to work in the brewhouse and also have time for travel, said Love. "It's about having a successful brewery, but also having a successful personal life."
Solera Brewery (Parkdale)
Solera Brewery sits in a little mountain town 17 miles south of Hood River, in a cozily renovated 1930s movie theater. It opened in 2012, taking over a space that had been empty since the previous occupant closed its doors and put the brewpub on Craigslist in 2010. The brewery is remote, but if you build it they will drink.
"Our customers are a mix of local orchardists, Portland beer geeks, families, and outdoor enthusiasts," said co-owner and brewer Jason Kahler, who formerly brewed for several outfits in comparatively bustling Hood River. "Some of our patrons ride their horses to the pub while others bring their goats."
Solera's incredible view of Mount Hood would probably be enough of a draw for many people no matter how the beer tasted, but Kahler is not one to coast. For one, he's putting a coolship (for open fermentation) in the pear orchard behind the pub this fall. Even the name of the brewery is ambitious, referencing a barrel-aging and blending process more commonly used for liquor. Kahler hopes to have the brewery's namesake solera barrels in use this spring.
Solera has a year-round IPA and, like The Commons, it has boldly made one of its flagships a sour, the 3.2% Valley Weisse berlinerweisse. The other six taps are always rotating with offerings from smoked imperial porter to grisette. A recent one-off was Soul Apricot, fermented with house yeasts and Lactobacillus strains. It was dry, with a well-balanced tartness, and the 9% ABV was dangerously well-masked. The fresh apricot flavor was noticeable but delicate. In a way it's too bad Solera never repeats a rotating beer, because everyone should get a chance to try this one.
Solera self-distributes mostly in the Oregon's Columbia River Gorge area, with occasional sales to beer bars in Portland. Its 7-barrel brewery is maxed out, so don't expect that distribution range to dramatically increase anytime soon. You might as well visit the brewpub someday and enjoy that epic alpine view along with your funky beer.
Knowing Oregon, three more amazing new breweries have opened in the time it took you to read this piece. Who are your favorite young Cascadians? Let us know in the comments.
About the author: Jen Muehlbauer wrote about beer in Boston and LA before settling down in the promised land of the Bay Area in 2009. She also tends bar, teaches beer classes, is a BJCP-certified beer judge, and occasionally makes a passable batch of homebrew. Follow her on Twitter at @EastBayBeerJen.
Beer samples provided for review consideration.