By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Right now, Greg Swift’s shop might not look like much. The converted detached garage behind his house in Portland’s Arbor Lodge Neighborhood — about a block away from stop-and-go traffic on North Lombard Street — is a patchwork of organized spaces, like the pegboard where wrenches, hammers and tape are hung with care, and pieces of disorder as evidenced by the planter supporting the weight of an old microwave and some lime green Top-Siders resting on the appliance. It is clear, however, that this is the home base of a carpenter, as varying lengths and widths of lumber lay against the roll-up door. Plain old planks like these — scrap wood, really — provided Swift with the inspiration to create his first tap handle. And it didn’t take long before the budding hobby grew into a full-time business, allowing Swift to move into and develop the backyard shop.
You probably won’t find any of Swift’s tap handles at breweries around town just yet, but there’s a good chance that buddy of yours who homebrews has picked up a few for a home kegerator. Swift’s creations are hot sellers at beer-making supply shops like F.H. Steinbart Co., Homebrew Exchange and Mainbrew. Two years ago, Swift actually started his business (currently called glsDESIGN, but he expects to change the name this summer) by selling the handles on Etsy, the website dedicated to handmade goods. Since he had some extra wood left over from other projects, the newcomer to homebrewing wondered whether he could put the supply to good use and turn it into tap handles. The resulting smooth rectangles with a mini chalkboard in the center looked pretty good — good enough to try to sell.
“And I had, like, 20 or so and I was like, ‘I’ll sell them on Etsy and make a couple of bucks.’ And then immediately they all sold out within a week,” Swift recounted. He made another batch, which was also snatched up. “And then it was just like, OK — I guess there’s a niche for this.”
The handle design has changed slightly from the original — it’s now a bit thinner and lighter. There are also two sizes: a 6-inch tap that costs $20 online and in stores and a taller version that retails for $5 more. Both come in cherry, maple, oak and walnut, with walnut being the most popular wood. Swift guesses it’s due to the darker, rich color, but cherry is also a solid performer. While sales are strong, the carpenter was initially met with some doubt when he approached local homebrew supply stores about stocking his product, including his first account Mainbrew. Swift said they were hesitant because the handles they had weren’t exactly flying out the door.
“And I was like, ‘I’ll show you them.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yes -- these handles we’ll take.’ So it was something about the chalkboard. Steinbart jumped right on it too. I know Homebrew Exchange, they were like, ‘Yes, we need these.’ Something about it seems to be working,” Swift said.
That something is the ability to personalize the product with the chalkboard feature. Consumers can write and draw on the handles, but easily change up those images when they put on a new batch of beer. And that can happen quite often with an ambitious homebrewer or even at a busy bar.
“Homebrewers often have a lot of turnover. Or bars have a lot of turnover. And most of the time, like, a brewery will send their tap handle [to a bar], but a lot of times they don’t. I know Side Street bar off of Belmont — that was the reason they got some,” Swift explained.
Beyond homebrewers, taprooms are becoming a lucrative source of business. Swift recently shipped 36 tap handles to one in Chicago, and his creations have been ordered by customers as far away as Germany and Australia. To fill orders, he’s primarily worked out of ADX, a shared workspace with tools available via membership in Southeast Portland. The facility has some key equipment that his shop lacks, including a laser cutter, that would allow Swift to add engravings. However, he hopes to purchase a table saw, joiner and planer — moving most, if not all, production to his home address.
From start to finish, Swift spends approximately 15 minutes on each handle by working on bundles at a time. Getting the raw shape is the quickest part of the process, while adding finishing touches takes the longest. Swift hand sands every block, tapes off each handle to spray paint the recessed middle three times to create the chalkboard and then oils the wood at the end. It’s a job that might sound repetitive and one that surely keeps Swift on his feet, but it’s the kind of job he prefers.
“I like working in a woodshop much more than just sitting at a desk all day,” Swift said. “I find it hard sitting at a desk.”
His previous work as an architectural designer was more sedentary than his current endeavor. And while he’s been formally trained in the field at the University of Oregon, Swift has sawdust in his blood. His grandfather was a carpenter. He grew up with a dad who had him by his side completing house projects — and this wasn’t just fixing a creaky step or hanging a shelf — Swift’s childhood chores included finishing the attic. But growing up in a shop class on steroids prepared him for UO’s architecture department, which has its own woodshop where Swift spent much of his time. After college, he took positions at local architecture firms, but the rise of the tap handle business put him on the path to self-employment.
Being his own boss and setting his own hours have obvious benefits, but by crafting these particular handles he’s also helping homebrewers tell their own stories about the unique personalities of their beers. Taps have become a critical medium for craft producers to introduce drinkers to their brands. A simple piece of wood or metal needs to convey a lifestyle, message or feeling that’s easily identifiable. But homebrewers largely lack the ability to provide a succinct narrative in their own bars at home, where friends are just as likely to gather as they are at the neighborhood bar.
“I think the people they like more design than just black tap handles, like a little black piece of plastic,” which is the common handle available at homebrew shops. “Yeah, I think it’s just more, I guess, why do we buy nice furniture or other nice accessories? So I think it’s just this nice added touch that has, like, it’s just more impressive to look at than the black plastic.”
Beyond bringing flair to the functional, Swift gets most of his satisfaction by creating something out of nothing. He wants to expand his focus by also building carriers for six-packs and 22-ounce bottles as well as taster trays. So if you happen by a home in Arbor Lodge and catch a glimpse of an open garage with the sound of a table saw buzzing as a man’s hands make quick work of a piece of walnut — that just might be Swift in his completed shop.
“When you get a piece of wood from the store, it’s really rough around the edges and then it comes out as this nice polished piece of craft,” Swift described. “Yeah, it’s rewarding to see that.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.