By John Foyston
“That’s not a Black Butte porter,” says John Harris, as he hands over a taster of Ecliptic’s Capella Porter.
He should know. Harris is likely Oregon’s longest serving craft brewer and the man who designed Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and a score of other beers we all know and love. He was the first McMenamins brewer to make Hammerhead as it’s brewed today using all grain instead of malt extracts; he ran Full Sail’s Brewers Reserve program, formulating the Sunspot series, Slipknot and Hop Pursuit among many others. He’s rarely met a hop he didn’t like.
He’s worked as a professional brewer for three decades, but until Ecliptic opened in mid-October, he’s always worked for someone else: the McMenamin brothers, Deschutes --- he was their first brewer --- and then 20 years at Full Sail’s Portland brewery, which he left in 2012 to start his new brewery, restaurant and taproom on the North edge of the Mississippi District.
“Scary? Yes it was scary,” he said. “I was leaving the womb, leaving a salary, benefits, insurance and all the rest, but I figured that I was going to be 50 soon, and if I ever wanted to do my own place, the time was now. Full Sail is a great place to work, a great employer, but I needed to move on. I could see all the beers I wanted to brew and I knew they weren’t going to get brewed there --- I wanted to get away from production brewing and back to the more creative side.”
Some brewers have a hard time letting go of recipes that have worked well for them, but Harris has his eyes on future, not past, glory. “All the beers at Ecliptic are new,” he says. “They may be inspired by what I’ve done before, but none is a rehash of an old recipe.”
The porter is a good example: it doesn’t have the big roasty notes of Black Butte, he says, but it’s got lots of coffee, toast and chocolate and a nice hit of centennial and cascade hops. The beer is not as black as Black Butte either --- more a dark brown with hints of garnet when held up to the light.
He’s already bottled his first seasonal beer, Filament Winter IPA, a bright orange American IPA --- the color of the sun, Harris says, to celebrate the Winter Solstice with a reminder that the sun will return to our Northern latitudes. Ecliptic is the astronomical term for the plane of the planets’ orbits about the sun, and Harris says the pub’s name is about the seasons --- our journey around the sun --- so seasonal ingredients and beers are the emphasis.
Besides the showpiece 15-barrel brewery, Ecliptic has a taproom and a 130-seat restaurant, because Harris says his beers will bring people to Ecliptic and the food will bring them back. “I want to elevate both,” he says. “I want to serve world-class beer and world-class food.. I sometimes call Ecliptic a foodie’s brewpub, but I think the term brewpub pigeonholes you, that people lower their expectations about the food.” Harris has already said that he wants Ecliptic to be on the list of Portland’s 100 best restaurants, and thanks to Chef Michael Molitor’s efforts, that seems an entirely attainable goal.
As part of the main menu, there’s a smaller seasonal menu that will change about every six weeks and currently has six items, including pale ale braised lamb shank; chicory salad with Oregon bleu cheese, quince and hazelnut vinaigrette; and porcini kibbeh with fall squash, bulgur wheat and yogurt. “I’ll be discussing my next seasonal beers with the chef,” Harris says, “so I can make beers that highlight the dishes and ingredients in the seasonal menu.” He expects that an export-style stout will be one of the next seasonals.
Yes, you can get a pub burger at Ecliptic, a half-pound Northwest beef burger with pancetta, red onion and aged gruyere; you can order fish & chips: beer-battered Pacific cod with celery salad and tarragon aioli; but you can also find a trout po’ boy --- cornmeal crusted Idaho trout with jalapeno mayo on a hoagie roll.
The restaurant is a calm space with dark gray stub walls pierced through with glowing constellations, part of Ecliptic’s astronomical theme that includes beer names --- Filament IPA takes its name from the streams of the sun’s corona, for instance --- and the dining room chandelier. It’s an elongated figure eight called an analemma,which can be seen on some globes: if you plotted the sun’s position at the same time of day every day for a year, its apparent motion through the sky would be the analemma’s figure eight.
Getting the place open was a thrash involving dozens of tradespeople, landscaping and a fair bit of heavy construction. But Ecliptic is already hitting its stride, and people like the place, the beers and the food. Harris hopes lunch business picks up, but that always takes a while to develop. Come the spring, he plans to take advantage of the big parking lot and devote part of it to outdoor seating --- Ecliptic has a wonderful view over the river and downtown Portland, and would be just the place to contemplate rush-hour traffic on the Fremont Bridge with a pint of cold Ecliptic beer in hand.
What’s on Tap
Arcturus IPA: This is his first Ecliptic IPA but by no means his last. Harris rcognizes that a Portland pub must have an IPA on tap, and 7.4-percent-Arcturus is a worthy one in all respects, but he also plans to brew many beers once or twice only: after all, Ecliptic is about brewerly creativity and not production brewing.
Spica Hefe Pils: “I just invented a new style,” Harris says. Pilsners are ordinarily lagered at cold temperatures for weeks or months to give them their crystal clarity: this one wasn’t, and as a result, it’s a cloudy gold like a hefeweizen, but the flavor is all pilsner...it’s a fine refreshing beer, and I hope it becomes a regular.
Rigel Sparkling Ale: Essentially a light cream ale (though made with all grain and none of the corn the style calls for) with the addition of five gallons of Reisling grape juice. “There’s definitely a grape-y aroma,” says Harris, “but on the tongue, the fruit notes are more in the background. It’s an easy drinker, and a great answer to the most common brewpub question, ‘What’s your lightest beer?’”
Filament Winter IPA: Sunny gold and hoppy, Filament is not a huge IPA at 6.8 percent alcohol and about 70 IBU. It’s a wonderfully drinkable beer and a concise reminder that John Harris flat knows how to brew a great IPA. It’s also Ecliptic’s first bottled beer and should be available in 22-ounce bottle this winter at your favorite bottle shop. And you know you should be glad..
( a ) 825 N. Cook St., Portland
( h ) Open daily at 11 a.m.; Happy Hour 3 to 6 p.m. daily
( w ) www.eclipticbrewing.com
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.