By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
When Alesong Brewing & Blending opened its 2,500-square-foot facility in an industrial area of west Eugene in 2016, it was just the beginning.
“The dream since we all came together to start Alesong has been to have a brewery in the country, somewhere we can brew beer that reflects this little piece of the Willamette Valley,” says Doug Coombs, who founded the brewery along with his brother Brian and former Oakshire brewmaster Matt Van Wyk. In its first year, Alesong has acquired accolades, including a 2016 Great American Beer Festival gold medal, and now distributes throughout Oregon and the San Francisco Bay Area.
In July, the founders’ dream became real. Alesong opened its newly constructed 3,500-square-foot hilltop tasting room and wild fermentation and aging facility, located on 5 acres next to King Estate Winery on Territorial Highway southwest of downtown Eugene. With eight taps, beer to go, and views of the surrounding valley — not to mention air filled with microbes influenced by the agricultural and winemaking areas surrounding Alesong — the new space serves both as the public face of Alesong, but also represents the brewery’s wild side.
At the core of Alesong’s brewing philosophy is a dedication to unique, limited-release beers — no flagships or regular offerings here. Focused on oak aging and Belgian-inspired techniques, Alesong brews both wild and non-wild beers, using locally grown fruits, herbs, special yeasts and other microbes. Since the brewery adopted techniques similar to those used by artisan winemakers and lambic blenders, the owners believe their products will appeal to wine lovers too.
“Our desire is to capture the terroir of our little piece of the world through a combination of local ingredients and microbes,” says Coombs. “We also believe in the parallels between what we're doing with barrel aging and blending and what our neighbors in the wine industry are doing. There's a good opportunity for crossover between customers, both those that love beer and those that may not yet love beer because they haven't been exposed to some of the more unique styles that we make that could be more approachable for someone who's more into wine than typical craft beer.”
Surrounding the tasting room are extensive grounds where Alesong plans to have lawn games, child activity areas, “nooks and crannies” for hanging out, and crop and orchard space to grow produce that will end up in Alesong beers. A patio with 10 picnic tables wraps around the front and one side of the building, with space at the back for a small stage for live music. Food carts and in-house small plates are available, but picnics are welcome too. Inside, a large, bright common area houses comfy chairs and a couch. Alesong also is planning on holding onsite educational sessions for the public, plus special events for people on the brewery’s mailing list.
Currently Alesong brews wort at Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis, then brings it to the Eugene location on Conger Street for fermentation and aging. Now the wort’s final destination will depend on whether it’s going clean or wild. Throughout the rest of 2017, Alesong is moving some of its fermentation tanks, barrels and other equipment to the new Territorial Highway location, which will serve as the wild fermentation counterpoint to the “clean” facility that Alesong retains at Conger Street. (Future plans may include an onsite brewhouse at the Conger Street site for access to municipal water and wastewater infrastructure.)
Beers bound for spirits barrels will be fermented, aged and blended at Conger Street. The goal, says Coombs, is to prevent exposure to “wild bugs” such as Brettanomyces. “The new facility will look a lot like the current in-town facility, with stainless fermenters and blending tanks, an open-top fermenter for some more wild experiments. The barrels and packaging equipment for our ‘wild’ beers will move out there as well,” explains Coombs. “Having the separate facilities helps us focus on and control our wild and sour program better, and the distance gives us peace of mind that our ‘clean’ beers won’t get contaminated.”
While Alesong says they haven’t had any cross-contamination issues so far, Coombs notes, “There's always a little more stress than we'd like that comes along with doing testing on all of our clean blends.”
After a fast-paced year that involved a lot of founder-aided construction, painting and other work related to getting the tasting room up and running, the team’s collaborative roles are solidifying. Each founder is blending his own expertise with the brewery’s operations. “Matt and Brian work pretty closely together to manage production, with Matt leading the charge on the hot side and Brian claiming responsibility for the cellar,” explains Coombs. “I’m the point on most of the sales, marketing and admin, but those are all team efforts as well.”
Two new employees manage the tasting room. However, Coombs says that he, Brian and Matt will be there regularly, “bartending, bussing and just hanging out and chatting with people. We love being out there and love sharing our process and story. It's a big part of why we're all doing this to begin with.”
With construction finished, Alesong is refocusing on what matters most: the beer. “We're looking forward to more experimentation with spontaneous fermentations,” says Coombs. “The native microbes out in the country are a lot more exciting than what we might've been able to pick up on West 11th [Avenue].”
Alesong Brewing & Blending
80848 Territorial Hwy, Eugene
Dogs, minors and picnics welcome
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“With a passion for hops, and the patience for sour.”
Great Notion Brewing's slogan couldn't be more simple and straightforward, but it's what lies behind that simplicity that sets James, Andy and Paul's operation apart. Their passion for hops is expressed in the juicy New England-style IPAs James took a shine to while the 5-year-old house culture used in their sours is a testament to their patience. But to get to where they are now, we have to look back at how this notion became a great one.
James Dugan, Andy Miller and Paul Reiter are all Portland transplants who fortuitously found each other through geographic proximity. They live within a block of each other and on a block that holds annual parties. Portland craft beer drinkers should count themselves lucky that these guys are not only the kind of friendly folk who would attend those gatherings, but also that two of the three were generous homebrewers who shared their beers.
Both James and Andy had been brewing for some time; Andy getting his start while he was going to college in Alabama and James, an all-in brewer from the beginning, skipped straight over extract, went all grain and reached for the stars by brewing a Pliny clone on his first time out. For more than 10 years they had each been progressively getting more serious and refining their beers. James even won a medal in 2012 for a sour beer that was made with his own sour culture. They started brewing together when Andy's house was being remodeled, and although James had always preferred to brew alone, he found he liked brewing with Andy. When Paul tried their beers, he asked the obvious question of why the two weren't in the process of opening a brewery. Before long, that's exactly what the three of them were on the path to do.
Paul utilized his business background, which includes an MBA and specialization in sales and marketing, to work on a business pitch that the three presented to people they knew that might be interested in investing. Their goal of putting together between $500,000 and $1 million became a reality with a combination of funds from investors and a small business loan. Once the finances were in place, it was a matter of finding a suitable location — something that proved to be a sticking point until, through a friend of a friend, they learned that the owner of The Mash Tun on Northeast Alberta Street was looking to get out of the business.
The Mash Tun had been going about its business making acceptable beer and providing standard pub grub for years. But in a time when new breweries have been popping up as quickly as dandelions in the spring, they were an oft-overlooked blip on the Portland brewery scene. With the change in ownership and name, Great Notion has quickly found its name on the lips of thirsty Portlanders. Their twice-weekly brewing on the existing 7-barrel system is barely keeping pace with demand. Batches of Juice Jr., an insanely flavorful session IPA brewed with 100 percent Mosaic hops, have been lasting less than two weeks. And this was before their Grand Beer Release Party, an open house/grand opening party that featured 14 of their beers.
A handful of the beers at the Great Release were sours or barrel aged, styles that more and more young breweries are jumping into early on. Kettle-soured beers, like their Berliner weisse Zest, are a great introduction to their sour program that will continue. In addition to patience, space is another requirement for barrels, something that is in limited supply at Great Notion. Working around that, they secured a second facility in St. Johns to hold barrels. There's room for up to 100 barrels, which currently come from a local winery. Wine barrels are "dirty" from the standpoint that they come with Brettanomyces cultures from the grapes. This aligns perfectly with Great Notion's brewing of sour beers and they're taking it a step further by utilizing fruit — peaches, apricots, raspberries and cherries -- in the barrels.
Beyond brewing up great beer, Great Notion intends to be an integral part of the Alberta neighborhood and a place families like theirs can enjoy. With each of the three founders having two kids, it was a no-brainer to welcome children during all open hours, have a play area and offer a minor's version of hump day happy hour $1 meals on Wednesdays. Speaking of food, heading up the kitchen is Chef Ryan O'Connor, formerly of Vita Cafe and Helser's. He's someone they knew previously and have so much faith in, that they are able to be relatively hands-off with that aspect of the brewpub. Since they initially didn't think they would offer food, and instead planned to have food trucks, this is an ideal arrangement. For now, the menu offers plenty of familiar items — sandwiches, salads, pot pie and mac and cheese — but as they go forward, look for Ryan to spread his wings further, throwing in beer pairing dinners and the like.
They've gotten down great beer and great food, but what about the name Great Notion? The credit for that goes to Andy's wife, Emily. It pays homage to Oregon's history and the state's most famous author, Ken Kesey, who wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and grew up in Springfield. His next novel was “Sometimes a Great Notion” and Kesey was also a fan of The Grateful Dead, as is James. Thus the name was a fit on multiple levels. The logo, a lumberjack toting a mug of beer, reinforces their connection to Oregon and its logging history. The trio may be transplants, but they've embraced the place they now call home and invite craft beer drinkers to share in their Great Notion.
Great Notion Brewing
[a] 2204 NE Alberta St. #101, Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.