By Kris McDowell
You may have seen a few Ambacht Brewing beers on tap or in the cooler at your favorite bottle shop, but those offerings are just the tip of the iceberg. For the full picture, and an exploration of all they have to offer, it's worth paying a visit to their brewery and (soon to be expanded) taproom in Hillsboro where co-owners Tom Kramer and Brandy Grobart have set up shop.
Both Tom and Brandy hail from the Midwest, Minneapolis and Chicago, respectively. Brandy had been calling the Portland area home since the early 1980s after traveling the country with a friend and deciding Portland was an appealing place to live. Tom's move to Portland was career-based for his wife, who is Brandy's cousin; the company she worked for merged with another and they found themselves relocating.
Each had embarked on homebrewing as a hobby independently, utilizing extracts, but it wasn't until Tom upped the game and purchased an all-grain setup that talk about starting a commercial operation began. During that time Tom was also volunteering at the now defunct Tuck’s Brewery in Southwest Portland. He took the next step forward by purchasing their brewing equipment—equipment that would spend a year in storage while the pair refined their homebrewing recipes.
To start a brewery, one must have a name and deciding they wanted one starting with an "a," settled upon "Ambacht," the Flemish/Dutch word for "craft." With a name in place, the next major decision was to determine a location. During their scouting phase Brandy and Tom made the conscious choice to settle outside of Portland. Brandy explained that while Portland was attractive, "because it's become a neighborhood area," the downside is that there is tremendous competition. Hillsboro offered a setting more in alignment with their plans and they secured space just west of the Hillsboro Airport.
In Ambacht's first two years they worked on fine-tuning their recipes before hitting a significant speed bump in year three. That year the pair admits they were, "making really bad beer." They suspected the source was in their system, not that the recipes or process were off. Something likely settled in during the year the equipment spent in storage. To remedy the problem, they immediately discontinued all beer sales–followed by a thorough cleaning of the system–until they were satisfied the problem had been eradicated.
Not long after resuming brewing, another issue reared its head: they had outgrown the existing space. Unable to acquire more space in the building, they were fortunate to find a larger space just across Northeast 25th Avenue. The change of physical location meant brewing was put on hold for months, after which they worked diligently to increase their production. Since then they have been doubling their production every year. This year–their sixth–the brewery is on track to produce 70 barrels on the 5-barrel system.
Ambacht's beers are not your typical Northwest brews, which is another conscious decision Tom and Brandy made at the outset. Both prefer non-hoppy, "clean Belgian" beers, resisting the general trend in the Pacific Northwest to produce an IPA. Nearly all the beers use the same yeast and the same organic hops and clock in close to 6.5% ABV. Using wine bottling equipment, they bottle condition the beer with Pacific Northwest honey. Blackberry honey, sourced from Vancouver, Wash., is most commonly used, although their Honey Triple uses either honey from Tom's backyard beekeeping operation or from Tualatin Valley Beekeepers Association.
Perhaps Ambacht's most unique beer is one that Tom will tell you is, "the most famous beer you've never heard of." That beer is Matzobraü, the only beer made with real matza, the unleavened bread traditionally eaten during the week-long Jewish Passover holiday. Brandy and Tom are Jewish and brew this beer every year after Passover when the market for matza drops out, leaving plenty of "passed over matza" to supply their needs. Fifty pounds of matza go into the mash along with two-row, Munich and chocolate malts.
In addition to producing unique beers, they've also garnered some recognition; having their Golden Farmhouse Ale named by Portland Monthly as a 2013 Best Beer and their Golden Rose Farmhouse Ale, infused with rose hips during secondary fermentation, won the Monaco Cup. The latter's earthy astringency is what Tom and Brandy have found tends to appeal most to diehard IPA drinkers. And while the Pacific Northwest is full of hop heads, it's their Ginger Farmhouse Ale that is possibly their most successful, simply "flying off the shelves."
As they look forward, the biggest excitement is a build out that will provide a more spacious taproom as well as additional storage. The expansion was one that came sooner than planned, but when the adjacent space in their building was vacated, it was a situation that was too good to pass up. It's a street-facing entrance, something that should give them greater visibility than they currently have with the side entrance. If all goes according to plan it will be completed before the end of the year, ready to reward those who seek them out.
[a] 1060 N.E. 25th Ave., Hillsboro
[p] (503) 828-1400
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.