By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Michael Kora has been planning on opening his own brewery for years. So when it came time to get real and meet with an architect, he knew exactly what he wanted. “I wanted to design a place where people would want to hang out,” he said.
That was the beginning of the comfortable, neighborhood-gathering place — Montavilla Brew Works.
A lifetime ago and halfway across the country, Kora was a professional musician -- a drummer -- and a homebrewer in his hometown of Detroit. He moved to Portland in 2006 with the dream of one day having his own place.
“It just made more sense to come here where the craft beer saturation was high,” he said. He planned to work for a brewery.
Instead, he started at Ponzi Winery. The job was anything but glamorous. Kora worked on the harvest crew from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. for three months. “They wanted a hearty, Midwest guy with plenty of upper-body strength,” he said.
“I had fun punching down grapes,” said Kora. “And the crew was great. They loved beer, so I would bring in my homebrews for them to try after hours.”
Once the harvest was over, Dick Ponzi asked Kora about his plans. Kora told him about his brewery idea and Dick sent him over to talk with Karl Ockert at BridgePort Brewing Company.
He started working at BridgePort, soaking up anything and everything he could about brewing. Although he was working in the warehouse and other areas, he routinely took in his homebrews. “Those guys would analyze them for me, run them through their tests,” said Kora. “I asked questions constantly.”
He also started scaling up his recipes and brewing at the Green Dragon Bistro & Pub. Several of those experimental recipes proved popular and ended up on Montavilla’s taps, including the Simarillo IPA.
“I experimented with different barleywine recipes for five or six years. It helped me get my hands on bigger gravity beers. It was fun and challenging at the same time,” said Kora.
When he and his wife Melissa moved to Portland, they landed in the Montavilla neighborhood where they have been ever since. The neighborhood has blossomed in recent years and Kora wanted to start his brewery there.
A deserted concrete building at the corner of Southeast Stark Street and 78th Avenue was the spot he picked. “This place had nothing but an incredible location,” said Kora. The only original part of the old auto garage is the shell.
After two years and a new roof, new windows, new floor and new cold and dry storage fixtures, only then could construction of the taproom and installation of brewing equipment begin. That started in October of 2014 and was finished in June 2015. Opening day was July 17, last summer. “I didn’t want to open on a holiday and I wanted to avoid the Oregon Brewers Festival,” said Kora.
The interior of Montavilla Brew Works feels warm and cozy on a wet, dark Portland afternoon. There are exposed wooden beams and assorted seating arrangements, including a couple of larger picnic tables and high tops, with the bar running the length of the back wall. However, the brewing system is the scene stealer — exposed, yet separated from the customers in the front corner of the room. The building’s rollup garage doors are perfect for opening up the place on a warm day, and the outside area can seat as many people as the inside space.
“This is a neighborhood place, a part of the community. I wanted the name to be about the neighborhood,” said Kora.
Some of his beers reflect certain aspects of the neighborhood, like the Bipartisan Porter, named after the nearby Bipartisan Cafe, and the Stark Street Amber Ale. Since opening, Kora has brewed his Stick and Frame Blonde Ale three times. “It’s one of my favorites with a nice hop aroma to it,” Kora said. Even though several of his buddies advised him against it, suggesting he might want to start with a beer that he could fudge a little, he made up his mind to have it be No. 1. “It was a home run out of the gate. People know it all around town.” The Red Krush Red Ale is another of his popular hoppy brews.
Kora originally planned on using a 7-barrel brewing system, figuring he could turn over the beer faster and he could gauge the neighborhood response more quickly. Everyone advised him to get as big a system as he could manage. He decided on an all-new, 10-barrel system that’s working out well. Right now, he brews about once a week. In addition to the brewery’s regular lineup, he’s made a couple of one-offs, several pale ales, five or six IPAs, some lagers, a Dortmunder and a bock, and he’s working on a Helles that he’s pretty excited about. For summer, he will brew a pilsner.
“We don’t spend a lot on advertising or promotions. We’re mostly a word-of-mouth place, a neighborhood brewery where people come in and enjoy being together.”
Upcoming plans include special beer releases, monthly events and participation in Zwickelmania. Once summer rolls around, he’ll start brewery tours and open the patio. Also plan on a first-year-of-business celebration.
Montavilla Brew Works does not serve food, but there are several nearby restaurants and pizza places and guests are welcome to bring food. However, children are not allowed in the brewery.
Montavilla Brew Works
[a] 7805 SE Stark. St., Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.