By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The pilgrimage was long and winding, but the pastor of pilsner has found his church. It’s in a former hummus factory on the backside of an old neighborhood, down a hill butted up against the railroad tracks in Northeast Portland.
Inside the brewery, Mike Weksler wants to get to the work of cleaning barrels, but takes time to sermonize about what he is making at Royale Brewing Co. “There are not a lot of people who make a year-round pilsner here. Upright makes one, Heater Allen makes an amazing Pilsner and pFriem makes one.” He continues, “It is my favorite style. I like a crisp, clean beer.”
That is all well and good, but — and this may seem sacrilege — Royale does not make an IPA (gasp). “I think by not doing an IPA you set yourself apart,” Weksler says. “We’ve done two IPAs, but we’ve done them as one and done. Don’t look for us to do it again.” In fact, he says he’ll fire his salesman if the heathen breaks that commandment.
But, tempting fate, I push back — No IPA???
“Think about this,” Weksler says patiently, “you throw a handful of tacks over there and they’re all IPAs. Can you find my tack real fast? But throw a handful of tacks with all the pilsner makers here and there’s only five or six of us. So I’m easier to find.” He elaborates, “I think you need to find the style you like best, and I really like Belgian ales and I really like pilsners, I like European beers. The Northwest style is amazing — I mean we’re fortunate to live up here, but the best way to differentiate yourself is to not do what everyone else in your neighborhood does.”
It’s not likely Weksler’s done much the way others have. Start with his college job. He was 19 and working as a busboy in a Louisiana bar. The owner required all employees to be ordained ministers. So, Weksler became a mail-order minister and has done three weddings. (There’s more on the weddings later.)
Before finishing college, Weksler left the Bayou State for Oregon and did not immediately fall in love. He thought the place was too gray and too damp. But he was too stubborn to tell his family he wanted to come home.
Eventually, Weksler turned to the bottle; not to drink from it, but to put beer in it. He is part owner of Green Bottling of Portland. The company has mobile bottling lines that can be trucked to small breweries that can’t afford their own.
The job gave Weksler a look inside a lot of breweries. “I’ve seen some really good breweries. I knew I could take the best of everything I’ve seen and make a very awesome brewery.” The pastor of pilsner began his crusade to be the best by contracting with Portland’s Alameda Brewing Co. The deal lasted a couple of years. All the while, Weksler had, as he still does, an eye on growing. “I would like to see myself be a regional brewery” he says without hubris, before adding, “I think the world is hungry for what comes from here. There’s a couple of epicenters in the universe for beer; fortunately we live in one of them.”
Royale Brewing is in an ancient brick building under a yoga studio. The old freight car parked on the tracks outside, with blue-and-white graffiti spelling out “Boosy” looks newer and in better shape than the dusty Royale delivery van tattooed with the brewery’s pig logo. Inside, the Royale (pronounced Roy-al) office is cluttered with barrels, posters and mismatched desks, chairs and tables.
The brewery has a 15-barrel system and six tanks with room for six more. There are three cold rooms, a new barrel washer and wooden barrels. Some of those are used bourbon barrels. One is a tequila barrel that has to be primed before it will hold an experimental batch of beer.
The man leading the experiments will be Paul Rey. The Siebel Institute-educated brewer moved to Portland just this year after spending time at Telegraph Brewery and Libertine Brewing Company in California. He immediately fell under Weksler’s pilsner spell. “It’s a glorious beer. Operations-wise, it is a nightmare because it takes so long because lager yeast ferments at a lower temperature and very slowly and typically creates a lot of sulfur compounds that take a long time to clean up. It’s just much slower in secondary fermentation, but the end product is a much more delicate, clean-tasting beer.”
There is integrity in the traditionalist approach Rey takes toward pilsners. He points out that American IPAs have moved a long way from what the British originally did. But, he insists with pilsners “you can’t stray from what the Germans and Czechs came up with. People do, but it ceases to be a pilsner once it’s a super bitter pilsner or a sweet pilsner. Once you start adding things to it, it’s not really a pilsner anymore.”
The Royale Pilsner — they also make ales, a porter and a wonderful coffee saison — is a clear golden color and has a floral aroma followed by a crisp, clean taste that makes you wonder what you ever saw in hoppy IPAs.
I’m converted to the church of pils. Amen.
One of the weddings Pastor Weksler officiated was that of Carston Haney, owner of Ross Island Brewing and former brewmaster at Alameda Brewing who was featured in the April issue of Oregon Beer Growler.
Royale Brewing recently opened a taproom, “The Garrison” at 8773 N. Lombard in Portland.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.