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
Shaun Kalis, founder of Ruse Brewing, has a temporary home at Culmination Brewing. He met Culmination owner Tomas Sluiter at Old Market Pub & Brewery. A trust developed and Kalis found himself in a unique situation: he’s part of the Culmination team and uses that system for Ruse between production times. Photo by Kris McDowell
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
By definition a "ruse" is a trick or an act that is used to fool someone, according to Merriam-Webster. In some cases, there is malicious intent behind it. In other cases, like with M.C. Escher's impossible constructions, it is a way to play with the mind. In the case of Ruse Brewing, one of the newest to debut on the Portland brewing scene, it speaks to the mystery of the word and is a drinkable expression.
Shaun Kalis is the founder of Ruse, a transplant from Michigan whose resume includes six years at Old Market Pub & Brewery as well as stints at Cascade Brewing Barrel House and Two Kilts Brewing Co. which bookended an education at the American Brewers Guild. Like many, he remembers the beer that opened his eyes to what beer could be beyond the yellow, fizzy swill he had previously known -- a stout from Michigan-based Bell's Brewery, Inc. Known for the vast number of stouts they produce, it's no wonder that the beer had such an impact on the young Shaun and was part of what drove him to begin down the brewing path. What started as homebrewing, and self-described as "minimalist" at that, evolved into something much greater after his relocation to Portland.
The location of that move was somewhat of a random decision based on his desire to get into brewing. And while multiple cities would have sufficed, he could not have landed in a better location than Portland. Not only does the area have an incredible brewing culture, but it has the added bonus of a vibrant live music scene. Although he’s played since he was a kid, Shaun got more serious about music as an adult — taking the time for lessons and then using his skills as a guitar player in a Portland bluegrass band.
When developing the concept for Ruse Brewing, Shaun knew he would incorporate music as he feels it parallels brewing in that a song is written to speak to a particular feeling and experience in the same way that brewing a beer, for him, is speaking to something. Ultimately, Shaun would like to have a brewery/music venue where he can work with artists and musicians to create beers. In the meantime, he has found a fortunate situation and temporary home at Culmination Brewing. Shaun met and worked under Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter at Old Market and their relationship has deepened as Shaun's brewing has evolved. Rooted in their time together at Old Market is a trust that has allowed Shaun to step into a very unique situation: he is both part of the Culmination brewing team as well as an independent brewer utilizing the Culmination system between production times. As collegial as the relationship is, there are designated spaces within the Culmination facility for ingredient, empty keg and cooler storage of beers as well as a 10-barrel fermenter Shaun owns. For anyone that has experienced living with a roommate, allowing someone to have intimate access into one's personal space requires trust and communication. That is taken to a higher level when that sharing of space is in the place that houses one's livelihood and is something that speaks to Shaun's integrity as a person and competency as a brewer.
So what about the beer that Shaun is making? To begin, his year-round offerings will be Translator IPA, a citrus-forward beer with a soft mouthfeel from an English yeast, and Architect Saison, an approachable, session beer (4.8% ABV) that is dry and light in body. He wants to focus on fewer styles out of the gate so that he can be more creative with them. In addition, Shaun is adamant about quality control and committed to dumping out anything that doesn't meet his standards. As part of his role with Culmination, he is also taking over the brewery’s quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC).
Year-round beers may be a solid foundation for any brewery, but it's often the one-off and seasonal beers where brewers really get to have fun. For Shaun that fun is creating barrel-aged beers, saying "something about the oak is so romantic." At first blush, delving into barrel-aging so early on might sound limiting, but as Shaun explains it, "it gives me a buffer — time to focus on the IPA and the saison."
He anticipates the barrel-aged beers will sit for at least nine months, only being released when they're ready and if they meet his standards. The barrels he's sourced, to date, are pinot noir and Burgundy barrels from Walter Scott Wines in the Willamette Valley and spirit barrels from McMenamins and Bull Run Distilling Company. Shaun's first two barrel-aged beers will be MultiBeast and Red Saison. MultiBeast uses Ruse's own Brettanomyces strain (banked at Imperial Organic Yeast) and is dry hopped with Mosaic. Nearly ready, Shaun may debut it at Saraveza's Farmhouse and Wild Beer Festival in March, in addition to bottling it. The Red Saison won't be ready for months as it just went into barrels in December 2015, but a young sample of it shows great promise, displaying a pleasing licorice aroma with hints of leather and oak in the smooth, saison flavor.
Those looking to try out Ruse Brewing for themselves need not look far, starting with the taproom at Culmination where at least one of his beers will be part of the lineup on an ongoing basis. Beyond his home base, the new management at Great Notion (formerly Mash Tun) in Northeast Portland took a shine to Ruse, buying the first available keg in December 2015. And as a 10-year veteran of McMenamins (in a non-brewing capacity), his connections there ensured that beer can be found at some of their locations, including the Market Street Pub near Portland State University. Going beyond beer-centric spots, he's started the process to get both his IPA and Saison into Bamboo Sushi locations. He plans to be in 10-12 businesses around Portland and will be bottling the IPA and saison in 22-ounce bottles in the near future. His barrel-aged beers will be available in a 500-milliliter format.
Ron Gansberg (right), brewmaster for Cascade Brewing Barrel House, says the biggest challenge when creating spiced beer is having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how to use each one. Kevin Martin, lead blender, agrees that time is a huge ingredient. Photo by Emma Browne
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The holidays wouldn't be the same without spices — they infuse the air with warm, welcoming aromas and contribute distinct flavors to food and drink — bringing to mind memories of gatherings filled with family, friends and cheer.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House, led by Ron Gansberg, is a brewery that fully embraces the use of spices in their beers. While they offer spice beers year-round, many people tend to associate fall with the flavorful variety as we begin to turn to seasonal food that works well with spices, like pumpkins and apples, which are also in abundance. One of many spiced beers Cascade turns out is called Pumpkin Smash, which is made with local, organic Cinderella pumpkins from Sauvie Island that are then roasted in-house. The Northwest-style sour ale is barrel aged for 11 months and still highly drinkable at 11.4 percent ABV due to a combination of spices that bring to mind pumpkin pie.
The use of spices is not new, having been a mainstay in beer making since the beginning, but in recent history their presence has been overshadowed by other ingredients — primarily hops. Ron’s work continues to buck that trend and it’s an ongoing project to master Cascade’s spiced beer game. When asked what the biggest challenge is when creating spiced beer, his answer was having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how and when to use each one. Some spices are more stable than others, retaining consistency throughout the life of the beer; others might be more prominent early on only to eventually fade, quickly or slowly, as the beer matures. That factor is particularly important at Cascade since so many of their beers spend time aging in barrels. Kevin Martin, lead blender at Cascade, explains that when making spiced beer, it must be understood that "time is a huge ingredient."
Just as hops can be added during the boil, during aging or even right before serving by using a Randall, spices may also be introduced at different points throughout the beer-making process. Cascade's spice regimen includes kettle spicing, barrel spicing and spicing at blending, all of which have been developed over time with the help of detailed notes that track how the spices are expressed in the beer. The careful note taking allows Cascade to refine its processes.
Kettle spicing happens during brewing and builds a good base layer of flavor. When added at this point, the flavors have the opportunity to not only be more integrated, but they may also be transformed at the molecular level during fermentation. Barrel spicing doesn't provide the level of integration that kettle spicing does, but just as an application of salt and pepper enhances a dish before it’s served, adding the element as the beer ages is an important step in creating the final product. Both methods are important, each providing their own flavor contribution to the beer. Then comes the "eleventh hour correction," or spicing at blending. This is the blender's last hurrah with the beer in an effort to make it the perfect concoction.
Vlad the Imp Aler, a sour ale that is a blend of blonde quads, tripels and blondes that have been aged more than 18 months in bourbon and wine barrels, was the first spiced beer that Ron made at Cascade. When asked why he first decided to make a spiced beer, Ron said it was because he felt that the spicing complemented where the beer was going and also helped define and frame the brew. As for the how — his process and way of doing things — that’s something he’s intentionally developed through trial and error without turning to other breweries’ methods as a model. While one might think it would be useful to learn from what others are doing, his view is that if he learned other breweries' processes, essentially he'd just be making their beers instead of making his own. That's a pretty enlightened view, even if it has meant that he's had to work harder to figure it out on his own rather than learning from others.
Ron’s independence isn’t the only element that makes Cascade’s beers so unique. The brewery’s extensive blending program also sets it apart. Vlad the Imp Aler is a prime example, drawing from multiple styles and likely multiple vintages each time it's created. And blending is not for the faint of heart. While with brewing you can experiment with test batches, blending cannot feasibly be done small-scale. As Ron explained it, blending is something he’s just had to go forward with despite any fear of the outcome. Were he to have proceeded with caution, giving into uncertainty and concern, Cascade would be light-years behind where they are today. Thankfully, Ron forged ahead.
One of his newest creations is Mulled Apple Sour. Just as Pumpkin Smash was made with spices you’d associate with pumpkin pie, this beer is reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie due to the spices, vanilla and honey. Presented for the first time this year, as the chill was just starting to creep into the air, it's a strong opening act to Glueh Kriek. Cradling the glass of warm liquid is as comforting as being handed a plate of fresh-from-the-oven pie that was almost cut too soon, allowing the warm goodness to ooze out.
Glueh Kriek, a mulled beer some may have enjoyed last year, is both sweeter and more acidic than the Mulled Apple Sour, with an intense cherry flavor and undeniable presence of cinnamon and clove. Deep red in color, served with a clove-spiked orange slice, breathing in its aroma is like breathing in the best of the holidays. It’s a beer that fully embodies the depth and breadth of Cascade’s spicing and blending program.
So what's next for Cascade? There's no clear answer, but Ron is continually bringing in new spices and experimenting with them to determine which express themselves well and which do not. Those in the former group will get further attention to figure out how and when to apply each spice to bring them to their fullest potential. Then there are some that fall in between, such as cardamom, which are much more challenging to apply. Not one to shy away from the challenge, it's more a matter of when, not if, Ron will unlock the key to using it. Whatever the result, it's sure to be a unique creation — the result of the dedication to the craft of brewing, spicing and blending that Cascade is known for.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House
[a] 939 SE Belmont St., Portland
Pat Hayes heads up the OSU barley project, which focuses on exploring the creation of a strain that’s specifically designed to appeal to craft brewers. The theory is that by selectively breeding specific barley strains, researchers can produce one that will not only influence the flavor of beer, but also gain unique characteristics due to the terroir. Photos by Kris McDowell
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Brewing isn't particularly technical, right? If one can make soup, one can make beer; just acquire the needed ingredients, follow the instructions and in a matter of weeks, tada … beer! But if one takes a closer look at the process, from the viewpoint of a researcher focusing on a single ingredient, there's more than meets the eye. Pat Hayes, a barley researcher at Oregon State University (OSU), is one of the people who is diving well below the surface of currently available barley and influencing the future of barley, thanks in large part to technology that did not exist even a decade ago.
Pat heads up the OSU barley project, which focuses, in part, on exploring the creation of a strain that’s specifically designed to appeal to craft brewers. The theory is that by selectively breeding specific barley strains, researchers can produce one that will not only influence the flavor of beer, but also gain unique characteristics due to the terroir, or the environment in which it’s been grown. Terroir is a term more commonly used by winemakers and understandably so, since most barley grown to be malted comes from multiple states. Oregon "is an epicenter of craft brewing and distilling," according to Hayes, but even as these industries have grown, less and less Oregon-grown barley is being utilized. Pat hopes to change that by creating a variety that will not only grow well in Oregon, but will also perhaps contribute unique flavors to beer BECAUSE it’s grown here.
Considerable work in breeding and selecting has already been done by Pat and his team at OSU to the point where an experimental variety called Oregon Promise is being grown on test plots. The name was developed because the strain came from a cross of Full Pint, which is bred in Oregon, and Golden Promise, which grows in Scotland and is a favorite of craft brewers. These test plots provide far less than the minimum 30,000 pounds of grain for the smallest batch at Great Western Malting based in Vancouver, Wash. or even the relatively diminutive 1,000 pound batches malted at Mecca Grade Estate Malt in Madras. To solve that problem in the first phase of breeding, Pat and other barley breeders around the world use "micro malters," machines that can malt just a few hundred grams of barley. The machines aren’t cheap — they can run as high as $100,000. But these malters can steep, germinate and kiln around 50 samples of this size at one time, an essential first step in breeding to produce flavor in beer. New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, one of the partners in OSU’s program, have pioneered a technique to brew a single bottle of beer from less than 200 grams (a little more than 7 ounces) of malt and are using it to test samples of Oregon Promise. The next step up is a mini-malting machine, one of which OSU recently purchased, that’s housed in a room about the size of a two-car garage. It will be able to produce 200 pounds of malt per run and should be ready to begin operating in October.
Once the barley has been malted, it's ready to be used to brew beer. But outside of the technique New Glarus Brewery has developed, researchers still need to make very small batches. A consumer product that recently hit the market, PicoBrew Zymatic, is a potential gold mine to barley researchers. Not only does the product make just 2.5 gallons of beer per batch, it allows for people across the country to brew on the exact same equipment.
At this point one might be wondering why brewing with the exact same equipment in multiple locations should matter to researchers exploring an Oregon-grown variety of barley. The answer is that in order to determine if this particular variety of barley does indeed contribute unique flavor profiles to beer, it needs to be grown in different places.
If this process seems like an awful lot of work, it is, but it’s one that without those technological advances would make small-batch malting and brewing prohibitively expensive for most. In the long run, the potential economic impact of this work for Oregon-grown barley could be substantial. Just think — in the future, craft brewers may be clamoring for Oregon Promise malt, made from barley that is only grown in Oregon because of the unique flavor profile it adds to their beer.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Six years ago the craft beer world was considerably different than it is today. Six years ago technology was considerably different than it is today. Both were less sophisticated, still children with unexplored potential.
That's when Kerry Finsand had the idea to put technology to work to create a product that would help craft beer drinkers find specific beers on tap. As a craft beer consumer himself, he was tired of calling places or finding outdated information on websites and felt he could create something that would make his life and the lives of other craft beer consumers easier.
During that time he had been a regular attendee at Beer and Blog events at the Green Dragon. They were geared toward the technology crowd, and Kerry found three like-minded individuals who were interested in working on something he describes as "a fun side thing." With shared interests of craft beer and technology, Kerry, Ken Baer, Kevin Scaldeferri and Scott Wray created Taplister. Less than a year later their product, one that allowed consumers to both look up beers and submit beers into the searchable database, was ready to be launched. Kerry drew upon his experience working at Groupon and similar companies marketing their products to implement marketing for Taplister. A kickoff party was held at EastBurn, Taplister's first account, followed by a significant presence at that year's Oregon Brewers Festival. They secured a booth at the festival, hiring friends who were paid in beer tokens, to get the word out about what Taplister was and why it should appeal to the craft beer community. Following the festival, they brought on a group of Taplister ambassadors to visit establishments and ensure tap lists were up to date.
Fast forward two years and Taplister, now far more than the side project it had started as, was expanding to Seattle and beyond. This was also a time of restructuring for the group of four that had started the company.
Scott and Kevin were the first to leave Taplister and not long after that Kerry became sole owner when he bought out Ken. With the full weight of the company on his shoulders Kerry kicked Taplister into high gear, raising $100,000 to help fund the young company. That success was followed by acceptance into local business accelerator Upstart Labs, a now-closed entity that focused on early-stage development of technology companies. That opportunity provided Kerry with hands-on mentorship and business experience to draw upon. The initial money raised was then supplemented by Kerry's efforts that raised an additional $150,000, the majority of which went toward developing the technology to support his vision of Taplister. With things getting considerably more serious, Kerry left his full-time position to focus on Taplister.
Taplister founder Kerry Finsand kicked the business into high gear after becoming sole owner, but eventually found he needed a team with the knowledge to complement his. The search for help grew frustrating and Taplister actually shut down for a period of time. It’s now been revived with Finsand taking on the role of consultant. Photo courtesy of Taplister
Kerry eventually found that he needed a team of individuals who had skillsets to complement his. He worked with multiple people, but had difficulty finding those with the right mix of skills and passion. A bit frustrated and needing a break from devoting all of his time to the company, Kerry made the decision to shut down Taplister in the summer of 2014. The announcement brought forth multiple people who wanted to help out or even buy Taplister in order to keep it around. The unexpected positive response was heartening and prompted Kerry to reconsider the future of the company. It was important to him that Taplister remain a Portland-owned business, therefore he wanted to find someone who was more skilled in running the business side of the company he had created.
Enter Mark Meyer, a man who grew and ran a company for 22 years before selling it. His background was in computers, and after he sold his company he began working with the beer industry on the equipment and software side of things. He found the industry to be full of "nice, fun people," so when the Taplister shutdown was announced he was quick to contact Kerry. Not long after that, Mark purchased Taplister with Kerry remaining involved as a consultant. Then it was time for Mark to get down to business to figure out how to resurrect and improve Taplister.
The first step was to rebuild the entire platform, retaining the same functionality but improving its performance and adding new features. Beyond that, Mark focused on getting feedback from customers. Mark is proud to hear people say, "You give really, really good service," and it's something that is of the utmost importance for him to continue. He knows that listening to potential customer feedback is key improving and expanding Taplister.
The world in which Taplister exists faces increasing competition all the time, so finding the right niche, doing a superior job of filling that niche and working with customers to help them understand the power the platform provides when it's fully utilized is key to both customer and consumer satisfaction. Customers, like EastBurn, have four levels of engagement to choose from that range from the most basic, free listing of their establishment and tap list (The Six Pack) to a full package of capabilities (The Keg), which includes digital beer boards on-site, pushing information to social media accounts and even transferring digital beer listings into easily printed, hardcopy menus. Keeping tap lists up to date benefits Taplister's customers by allowing craft beer drinkers to find locations that have beers they are looking for, a win-win for both parties.
It has now been a year since Mark took the reins at Taplister. He's pleased with what has been accomplished to date, but not ready to rest on his laurels. For the last year, he's primarily focused on educating customers and being responsive to their needs. As he moves into the second year with Taplister, he'll take a closer look at the craft beer drinker side of the equation. There will continue to be challenges — figuring out how to better manage the listing of collaboration beers, keeping up with the new beers that craft brewers seem to be constantly be rolling out and finding ways to use the vast amount of analytical data they’ve amassed. But as a veteran businessman, Mark is excited by the challenges and looks forward to the future of Taplister.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.