The Labrewatory’s manager Chris Sears is pictured here with some of the equipment at the North Portland brewery. The 3.5-barrel craft beer lab can serve as a bridge for brewers who are leaving one brewery and starting out on their own. Additionally, those firmly rooted in bigger brewhouses can experiment and collaborate at the new site. Photo by Jim McLaren
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The intersection of North Interstate Avenue and Northeast Russell Street is a good place to catch a snapshot of Portland beer culture: past, present and, perhaps, even the future.
On the corner there’s Widmer Brothers Brewing, a craft beer founder and icon. A block or so east, there’s the White Eagle Saloon & Hotel, part of the ubiquitous McMenamins chain.
Now, go a couple of more blocks to the east. At 670 N. Russell St., you’ll find a white, one-story building fronted by a couple of glass-paneled garage doors. Over one door it says:
Portland’s Craft Beer Lab
Sitting at the concrete-topped bar, manager Chris Sears explains the owners “thought there was a need for a place where people can come in and have a laundry list of experimentals and collaborations.”
The concept is simple — sort of. If it works, true Beer Geeks will have nirvana in their own backyard.
The idea for a “craft beer lab” begins with Thad Fisco, owner of Portland Kettle Works. The company is a full-service brewery fabricator that has been making steel for breweries from Norway to Japan, from Canada to Costa Rica. Just as importantly, Fisco has a long-running partnership with Jon Kellogg, a commercial real estate developer. The duo worked on rehabbing two blocks of North Williams Avenue in what Portland Monthly called the “reinvention of old streetscapes that harnesses PDX’s entrepreneurial spirit and love of the past.”
As it turns out, Fisco owned a rundown taxi cab garage that needed some reinventing. He also had an idea for making beer. But, in a unique way, without making beer. Huh?
Explanation — the folks making your favorite beer at most breweries may not have the space to make test batches of their beer daydreams. Even if they do have the room and time, they might not want to risk having you turn up your nose at their experiments.
That’s where The Labrewatory’s 3.5-barrel system comes in. Manager Sears says a brewer can whip up a batch of their latest concoction or work on a collaboration with another brewer and do it in a very quiet, pragmatic way.
The facility will be producing enough beer so that any brewer can make an inexpensive batch and split tap sales with The Labrewatory. The brewer then has a built-in test audience. Sears says they “will have public comment forms so people can give their opinions of new beers or you can go online to comment on beers by number. You won’t know who made the beer.”
It’s a win-win-win for the brewer, The Labrewatory and you.
The “craft beer lab” can also be a bridge for brewers leaving one brewery and starting out on their own. “We have the former head brewer from pFriem. He’s ventured out on his own.” Sears explains, “They’re a little delayed in their project, but he wants to get his brand going so he can get beer out and build his brand.”
The Labrewatory will, someday, have a head brewer. “We’re in the process of finding a head brewer — somebody with, obviously, experience in brewing and also a good personality because they will be working with other brewers a lot and, kind of a requirement too, the head brewer needs to pour beer at least once a week.” That brewer will be an educator, tutoring customers about the mystery beers and helping the beer makers digest customer input. Sears provided an example of that type of feedback, saying a brew “seemed to be received very well minus a couple of things. Let’s make a couple of tweaks and run it through again or let’s make the tweaks and make a decent-sized batch, put our name on it and sell it.”
Since all beer makers start small, this brewers’ playground will make room for the guy fresh out of his garage. The Labrewatory will offer advice and a chance to put a hobby to a public test. Amateurs will learn how to scale up recipes to commercial size and find out from people, other than family and friends, whether their best is good enough. But, unless they have a license, they won’t be able to take their beer home. It will have to be sold at the The Labrewatory.
The Thad Fisco project, overseen by Chris Sears, has a look as fresh as its business plan. The interior has a gleaming industrial look with metal light and bar fixtures custom-made at Kettle Works. The side of the room across from the bar features burl wood tables against a wall made of wood reclaimed from the old garage. The bar’s centerpiece is a thick tap tower with 16 handles.
The day I was there, you had numerous tasty choices, such as pFriem Blonde IPA, Upright Seven and Epic Brainless Raspberries, each for $4 per glass. As you sit at the smooth, wide bar, you can look toward the back of the building and catch a glimpse of the brewhouse. You can also raise your snifter-shaped glass and appreciate the beer against the backdrop of a well-lighted, subway-tiled, white wall.
“We kind of wanted to give it more of … old-school laboratory vibe,” Sears says. “Of course, in a lab you want it to be bright so you can see what you’re doing and analyze. That plays into the type of consumer we want to bring here. It’s hard to check out the color of your beer if it’s dim lit.”
It’s also hard to imagine that The Labrewatory won’t soon become a “must” for locals and beer tourists.
The Labrewatory hours: 3-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday
Tamale Boy is serving Mexican fare from a food cart to customers at The Labrewatory, but the business is in the process of building out the space next door.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.