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
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.