By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The well-loved and highly acclaimed Portland brewery The Commons will close at the end of the year to become an outpost for San Diego-based Modern Times Beer. The Commons’ owner Mike Wright approached Modern Times founder Jacob McKean about taking over the building’s lease following financial problems that will keep the brewery on Southeast Belmont Street from continuing in its current form. Beer fans both locally and abroad were saddened to hear the news, as The Commons taproom had become a popular destination to visit as well as a business that produced award-winning beer.
Wright made the announcement: “After two years of lagging sales and battling cash flow, I have had to make some very uncomfortable decisions. At the end of this year we will shut down operations on Southeast Belmont and vacate the building.”
For many, news of the closure was met with shock given that The Commons had won numerous awards at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. It’s hard to imagine how a seemingly successful 7-year-old brewery could shutter so suddenly. And the arrival of Modern Times, a well-respected brewery that will be new to the Portland market, may be met with mixed emotions.
The Commons began in a different space — Wright’s garage — under a different name — Beetje — with a nano system in 2010. Earning early fans and buzz, the brewery expanded to 7 barrels and found space with a tasting room, which is when it was rebranded. At that time, Wright brought on experienced industry personality Josh Grgas and new head brewer Sean Burke. The new team and fan base carried The Commons to its third and current location, a repurposed large brick-and-wood warehouse.
Both brewery owners are adamant in pointing out that The Commons has not been sold or forced out and Modern Times taking over the lease was, in some ways, a favor to the owners. But what went wrong for The Commons?
“Unfortunately, this is a classic small business cash flow story,” Wright said. “Sure, there is plenty of industry nuance and hindsight that can be evaluated, but this boiled down to simple debits and credits.”
Modern Times had previously collaborated with The Commons on beer releases and McKean shared his fondness for the Rose City: “I’ve loved the city of Portland for a long, long time. I’ve been visiting regularly for well over a decade, and I gave serious consideration to starting Modern Times in PDX.” So when it came time to expand, McKean had his eyes on Portland before Wright approached him about taking over the lease.
Modern Times is a 30-barrel production brewery and tasting room located in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood. Founded by former Stone Brewing Co. brewer Jacob McKean and a team of consultants in 2013, the business has become known for its aroma-forward tropical IPAs, fruit sours and coffee beer. And the San Diego culture that comes with Modern Times should actually fit in quite easily in Portland. It’s an all-vegan company that has also sourced and roasted its own coffee ingredients since day one. “We make beer and coffee for people who are deeply passionate and very nerdy about those things,” said McKean.
The transition from The Commons to Modern Times will happen after the beginning of the New Year. Expect a taproom with full restaurant and eventually a coffee roaster and cafe. Unfortunately, the Cheese Annex will vacate as well to make room for Modern Times’ kitchen. The new project will be called “The Belmont Fermentorium” with the capacity to produce up to 20,000 barrels a year. Modern Times has also leased the neighboring 10,000-square-foot building and plans to use it as a packaging hall and tank farm.
Don’t count out The Commons just yet though. After all, they have already had three different iterations, so an even more successful fourth life is not out of the question. Wright still owns the building on Southeast Belmont Street, so paying the mortgage should be easy now as he keeps the 7-barrel brewhouse as well as several 15-barrel tanks and leaves the newer 20-barrel vessels for Modern Times.
The Commons will continue to operate and release new beer until closing on Saturday, Nov. 11 with a final party. After the business of vacating and transitioning to Modern Times, Wright hopes to focus more on the next step for The Commons.
“I am motivated to find a pathway forward for The Commons, but that’s not yet clear and I don’t want to make any claims that I cannot follow through on,” said Wright. “I hope to offer another chapter sometime in the future.”
By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Portland Beer Week returns for 2017, its seventh year, with a calendar packed full of events, as well as some new twists. It runs Thursday, June 8 through Sunday, June 18.
This year’s official beer is Hop Berry IPA, brewed with marionberries by Culmination Brewing. It will be available on draft and in limited-edition bottles at Whole Foods Markets and other beer-centric retailers in the Portland area.
Although beer is the main focus, Portland Beer Week extends that theme. It features a variety of activities that happen alongside opportunities to enjoy great beer. The event is effectively a celebration of Portland’s beer, food and arts culture rolled into one.
“Our goal is to showcase the world of beer in the greatest beer city on earth,” said Ezra Johnson-Greenough, Portland Beer Week founder. "We do that through brewer’s dinners, tastings, educational seminars, festivals, games and more.”
One of the big additions this year is an indoor Marketplace at the Kickoff Party, Thursday, June 8. Beer-related merchandise will be available for purchase along with free food and drink samples. The party will be split across two separate levels: the Exchange Ballroom and the Cascade Rooftop, which features spectacular views of the city.
“I’m really excited that folks like the Oregon Cheese Guild are joining us and our collaborative beer and food project vendors like Salt & Straw ice cream and Blue Star Donuts,”
Johnson-Greenough said. “Kickoff attendees can sample spirits, chocolate, jerky, hop candy. We’ll have beer schwag, too.”
Another addition this year is the Dinner Series, which features a handful of collaborations between top local breweries and chefs. Organizers have built the schedule to avoid piling up dinners on the same date.
“I’m looking forward to Firestone Walker at Hair of the Dog, Culmination Brewing at The Woodsman, Block 15 and Ruse at an Imperial Session pop-up dinner and Modern Times at Pizza Jerk,” Johnson-Greenough said.
Returning this year is the Seminar Series, presented by Oregon State University and the HR Group. Several forums will explore subjects like beer industry branding, starting and building a brewery from nano to production, sustainability in brewing, barrel-aging beers and the making of sour and wild ales.
The beer event schedule jumps into action shortly after the Kickoff Party with the Fruit Beer Festival at Burnside Brewing, Friday, June 9 through Sunday, June 11. Billed as the premier showcase for brews spiked with fruit, the all-age event also features local vendors, food, DJs and non-alcoholic drinks.
“We’ve moved back to Burnside after last year’s experiment in the Park Blocks,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re spreading the beer stations out and the venue will have more shade and seating than in previous years at Burnside. We’ll also have more help at check in to speed entry.”
Next up is Masters of IPA, an invitational event highlighting 14 of America's best brewers of the hopped-up style. It moves to a larger venue, Ecliptic Brewing, and includes collectable glassware and meet-the-brewers sessions on Friday, June 16.
The Rye Beer Fest, in its sixth year, returns with a new date and venue: the Happy Valley Station indoor/outdoor food cart pod and taproom on Saturday, June 17. The all-age event will feature more than 20 beers and 18 food carts.
Portland Beer Week’s official finale, Snackdown, is back for a second year on Sunday, June 18. Presented by Gigantic Brewing and taking place in The Evergreen event space above Loyal Legion, it offers more brewer and chef pairings.
“It’s going to be another great year for Portland Beer Week,” Johnson-Greenough said. “We’re reaching out to tourists and casual beer fans in our marketing efforts and it seems like we’re getting more of those folks. Attendance has been increasing every year and I’m confident it will again.”
Follow Portland Beer Week’s social media channels for updated news and information. Advance tickets for most events are available online.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.