By Anthony Roberts
North Portland’s Ex Novo is the first nonprofit brewery in the United States – perhaps the world – but you might not realize it when you walk in for a beer. And that’s how owner Joel Gregory wants it.
“We’re not really heavy-handed on that,” Gregory says, “We want people to love it here, love our beer, love our food, and then they find out we’re a nonprofit. It’s just kind of gravy. It’s another reason to love our place, not the only reason.”
He’s doing a good job so far. Ex Novo set up shop in a former lighting design warehouse at 2326 N. Flint Ave., just across from Lillis Albina City Park and two blocks off North Williams. Most seats in the pub offer a great view of the brewery, in particular the stools along the eye-catching live-edge wood bar. There’s also mezzanine seating for a bird’s-eye view of the beer-making process.
While Gregory is an avid homebrewer, he’s smart enough to know he isn’t a brewmaster; so he hired Ian Greene, who brewed at Stone and Boneyard before helping open a brewery in Norway. He also earned a degree in brewing and distilling in Scotland.
“He’s worked for three or four very different-sized breweries under different styles of brewers,” Gregory says. “In a short amount of time, he’s put together a great knowledge base.”
For food, Gregory brought in Portland chef Berkeley Braden, who also runs his own catering business, to develop the menu. Braden eschews the typical pub menu (no burger!) for items like beer braised brisket, yam fry bread sandwiches, creamy Israeli couscous, and one of our favorites – a round of bacon for the table.
“I had no business starting a restaurant,” Gregory says, “so I just got the right people involved who knew what they were doing and who were good team players and let them do their thing.”
Ex Novo, which means “from scratch,” didn’t cook up the nonprofit idea on a lark. Gregory and the members of his board carefully selected four charities to work with, and have established an initial goal of raising $25,000 for each. Gregory said that when he spoke to friends in nonprofit leadership positions, their No. 1 concern centered on raising money, something that often eats up a hefty share of an executive director’s time.
“It just kind of clicked. What if there was a business or businesses – I think this idea will grow – that were fundraising mechanisms, full-time things that are sustainable in their own, that can generate not all of someone’s budget, but can help out in some way,” Gregory says. “That just made sense to me to try it out.”
After Ex Novo pays the bills, its net profits go to four charities: Mercy Corps, the International Justice Mission, Impact Northwest and Friends of the Children. While the brewery is breaking new ground, it certainly won’t be the last of its kind. Gregory estimates he’s been in touch with a dozen or more operations across the country that are somewhere in the planning stage.
“They Google nonprofit brewery and they come up with us and they email us and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about the same thing,’” Gregory says.
If Ex Novo’s early success is any indication, they’ve come to the right place to seek advice.
Ex Novo Brewery
[a] 2326 N. Flint Ave., Portland
Owner: Joel Gregory/Board of Directors
Brewer: Ian Greene
Chef: Berkeley Braden
By Anthony Roberts
Many grand ideas have been hatched over backyard beers. The difference with Ryan Saari’s is that it actually worked.
Saari is one of the founders of the Oregon Public House in Northeast Portland. Better known as "the world's first non-profit pub," the pub gives all of its net profits to charity – emphasis on ALL. This summer, the pub celebrated its first anniversary, and is thriving at its location at Northeast 7th Avenue and Dekum Street, just around the corner from Breakside Brewing. Not bad for a pub run by bunch of volunteers with no restaurant experience.
“This has really been a community effort. This wouldn’t have happened without hundreds of people being involved and making it happen,” Saari says over beers at the pub, housed in a former Odd Fellows Hall built in 1909. “It’s a neat idea and it’s a unique idea and hopefully it’s a little bit of an inspirational idea, but that’s really where it ended for me. I don’t have many skills. I have the skills to do this, sit here and talk.”
With no money or business experience, Saari and friends relied upon the generosity and skills of the Woodlawn neighborhood. Saari recalled a carpenter walking into the pub, setting down his tool bag and asking what he could do, completely unsolicited.
The Oregon Public House board’s willingness to engage the neighborhood helped. The previous two tenants were a restaurant named Rumpspankers (it was as bad as it sounds, according to neighbors) and Cannabis Cafe, neither of which was willing to work with the neighborhood association. Saari, who lives in the area, held hundreds of meetings with neighbors in the three years it took to clean, renovate and open the pub.
How it Works
The idea of a nonprofit pub might seem radical, but if it’s going to work anywhere, it’s going to work in Portland. The city is home to more breweries than any other city in the world, and also hosts more non-profit organizations per capita than any other city in America.
The Oregon Public House has a rolling list of partner charities it works with. New charities are selected each spring; last year, 180 applied to be chosen. Right now, the net profits from your bar bill go to one of six charities: the Community Cycling Center, De La Salle North Catholic High School, Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, United Cerebral Palsy, Red Sweater Project or Braking Cycles. Place an order, and your server will ask which charity your bill will support.
The pub has just one salaried employee, chef and manager Jon Field. And while they do have a paid staff, there is, as Saari says, “no ceiling to how much someone can volunteer.”
The Oregon Public House’s best legacy may be that it’s breaking ground for others. Nonprofit beer businesses are about to become a thing. Portland’s first nonprofit brewery, Ex Novo Brewing Company, just opened its doors on North Flint Avenue. Other projects are popping up in the U.S. and abroad, and The New York Times recently wrote a piece weighing in on the proliferation of nonprofit pubs and breweries.
Charity and beer seem like a marriage that’s built to last.
“We wanted to create a model that can be replicated or stolen; other people can run with this,” Saari says. “ I think we can create a new way of giving back just by using capitalism.”
Of course, in order to give away money, Oregon Public House has to make some, and they haven’t been open for more than a year just because they’re a nonprofit. They have 14 rotating microbrew taps that are heavy on Northwest breweries, great pub grub, and a big, open building with century-old charm. Keeping with the neighborhood vibe, the pub is family friendly. A 200-capacity ballroom upstairs serves as a community gathering place. They also started brewing on contract with downtown Portland’s Pints, releasing an OPH IPA and saison.
Want to get involved? There are plenty of ways, from volunteering, to becoming a “founder” donor (free beer for life), to buying a round for the house (and for a good cause).
Oregon Public House
[a] 700 N.E. Dekum St., Portland
Director: Ryan Saari and board members
Chef: Jon Field