By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In 2001 Tomas Sluiter was working on the production side of the evening news in Grand Rapids, Mich., and while not unhappy doing so, he and April, his girlfriend (and now wife) realized that if they didn't leave then, they might never leave. After visiting many places across the country they chose Portland for the reasons many do — beer, food, culture, small city feel with big city accommodations and ready access to the ocean, desert and rainforest. Back in those days, Seattle was the "obvious" choice, but since then Portland has become more attractive, in part because of people like Tomas and his brewery, Culmination Brewing. Originally, Tomas figured he would get another job in television but ended up taking an assistant brewer position at Old Market Pub & Brewery in Southwest Portland. At the time, the Old Market brewery was little more than a homebrew setup (something familiar to Tomas as a hobby he'd been practicing since high school) in part of the kitchen. Soon after he started, the owner approached Tomas to spearhead a transition to a more substantial brewery setup. He took on the project, finding a 15-barrel system in Kansas City and a local fabricator able to make needed modifications.
During the course of 12 years Tomas took the brewery from 250 barrels to 1,000 barrels annually, numbers which are made more impressive when one considers the number of styles that Old Market carries and the fact that the owner was adamant that they never run out of any beers. He greatly increased his brewing knowledge during that time, began to see ways to improve the layout of a brewery and, in time, realized opening his own brewery was what he wanted. As anyone who has opened a business knows, however, plans don't coalesce overnight.
While Tomas continued planning his brewery, including searching for an ideal location, he founded Brewery Consultant Group, a company that provides assistance regarding all aspects of opening and running a brewery, an endeavor that he continues to this day.
Eventually Tomas found the "perfect" site for his brewery in the Goose Hollow area of Portland, a building that was available for lease with the option to buy. As the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true it probably is and, unfortunately, it applied to this location. The new plumbing had been installed improperly and the expense Tomas would have had to incur was well beyond his budget.
Continuing his search, he found a place nestled in inner Northeast Portland, just south of I-84. While the site didn't have any hidden flaws, getting Culmination open there was not without its snags, this time with the city. For more than four months, the buildout of his fully funded brewery was put on hold as various factions within city government had disagreements about regulations. Once the waters cleared, it was full steam ahead to install and begin brewing on the 15-barrel, five-vessel system. Tomas specifically chose the system for its ability to produce smaller batches and, thus, more styles. It also makes it possible for Culmination to do a triple brew day just like big breweries do.
In early 2015, Culmination opened its doors to the public with a soft opening that was attended by nearly 100 people — double what they were expecting. Not only the culmination of years of planning, the name of the brewery came from the idea that Tomas and April wanted their brewery to be a place that was connected to the community, a place that embodied the coming together of great beer, food and music. That connection speaks to the relationship between his role as a brewer and his customers, which he described by saying, "When a customer comes in, they are entering a contract with the brewer. That person has worked X hours per day in order to buy the beer the brewer has made." It's an insightful view and one he takes very seriously.
Since opening, Tomas has put his certification as master brewer to work, increasing the ratio of house to guest beers and Carter Owen has gotten the kitchen up and running. Carter hails from Vermont and is the friend of an assistant brewer Tomas worked with at Old Market. Originally planning to open a food cart, Tomas convinced Carter, who he described as having a "perfect personality" and being a "phenomenal cook," to change his plans. He has given Carter complete autonomy about what comes out of the kitchen, dishes that start with local produce and meats to which Carter applies his culinary talents.
So what lies ahead for Culmination? Sake, for one. Tomas holds both a brewery license and a winery license, the latter of which covers sake production in Oregon. Tomas plans to start with hybrid beer/sake products, as traditional ones like those produced by SakeOne in Forest Grove, where he worked for two years. Those beverages require a specialized room where the koji mold spores work on the rice to digest the starch and convert it into fermentable sugar.
Culmination will also address a naming divide that exists in craft beer: Black IPA and CDA. From Tomas' perspective he sees the two names as different versions of the same style where there can be a lot of overlap, similar to the stout and porter crossovers that have existed for years. CDA is a Pacific Northwest specific name for the style that is bigger, sweeter, roasty and fuller bodied than the Black IPAs that are found in the Midwest and East. Tomas feels there is room for both and plans to have his version of each on tap at the same time.
Culmination also plans to have regular live music nights that will feature local bands playing original music. During the warmer months, they are utilizing a common space in the building but once winter comes they'll move into the brewery space that includes a back bar. Down the road, they look forward to pairing beer styles with music styles, creating custom labels and even phasing in a music studio. Tomas' plans are big, but no bigger than the time it has taken to formulate and begin to implement them -- a culmination of a dream he hadn't yet dreamt before his travels brought him to Oregon.
[a] 2117 NE Oregon St., Portland
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.