An Uncommon Brewery
|Sean Burke & Mike Wright – All photos by “SNOB” Ritch Marvin unless otherwise noted|
The story behind Portland’s The Commons Brewery could easily be spun into a classic–underdog homebrewer goes pro and wins acclaim and the respect of his peers. Well, it is that story, but owner Mike Wright is not your typical hero. You might think after winning medals at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival after having been open for less than a year, these guys were confident craft beer veterans with ambitions to become the next big thing. It turns out that The Commons team’s success may have preceded ambition and confidence for a more old school approach of making the best with what you have, no matter how little that is.
Beetje (‘bee-cha’) Brewing
Originally founded under the name Beetje Brewery in owner Mike Wright’s garage, it was an unlikely story from the beginning. A questionable brewing space, a strange name, an and inexperienced brewer brewing an obscure style of “Farmhouse Ale.” Mike Wright might just be the least ambitious brewery owner I have ever met, so lacking in confidence about his startup nano brewery even getting off the ground that he didn’t think much about the name. “When I was starting to fill out the paper work to get licensed in my garage, I was not hopeful that I would succeed in getting licensed so I didn’t put forth the appropriate effort in the naming side of things,” said Mike on how Beetje came to be. The meaning behind the term Beetje roughly translates to “little bit,” which is how much he would be brewing on his 1-barrel Frankenstein brewhouse.
During the earlier days of Beetje Brewing, Mike’s twitter stream read like a cautionary tale of trying to make your hobby a career. “I had no practical/professional experience to guide me. That made even the simplest tasks difficult”. His nano brewhouse was cobbled together from random parts and a couple of Blichmann kettles. Many boil overs, stuck mashes, and broken pumps later it was time to re-evaluate the business. When I describe Beetje as a business, it is in the loosest of terms; even Mike Wright said to me in May of 2011 as he broke the news he was to open The Commons “My original goals were quite modest for Beetje, but in short it was an exploration of the brewing industry and commercial brewing. I was content to have 2-3 accounts”.
|Sean Burke and Josh Grgas – Photo by Mike Wright|
An Uncommon Team
Around the same time Mike Wright was trying to figure out how to run a nano brewery while raising kids with his wife and trying to balance that with a day job, aspiring professional brewer Sean Burke was attending the Siebel Institute and Josh Grgas was putting in time as a beertender at The Beermongers. Sean Burke was dedicated to becoming a brewer after a few years of homebrewing. He attended the Siebel Institute in Chicago before going off the Doemens Acadamy in Munich. As Sean was finishing up his time in Munich and considering his move back to Portland with hopes of getting a professional brewing job, his friend, local brewer Sean White, told him about Mike and Beetje Brewing. After corresponding for some time, Mike and Sean met for the first time just a day after his return trip from Europe. “It was evident early on that we were a good fit, and I knew that I needed help from someone with more knowledge than I had. Sean started in July of 2011 just as I was starting to build out the brewery”.
“I had no knowledge of, and where to procure equipment, how to build out the brewery, and how to run the business.”
Much of the build-out and installation of the new brewery was up to Mike to figure out on his own, though as usual experts throughout the local community offered their insights and help. Having to source and then assemble all of the equipment was to be an extroardinary journey. If starting a 1-barrel nano brewhouse was a lot of trouble, a 7-barrel brewhouse is at least 7 times the trouble.
“I vividly recall the day the kettle arrived. This beautiful, piece of shiny stainless equipment-a center piece to the operation. Once the fabricator was out the door, a rush of anxiety washed over me and I remember thinking, “How the f*&$ do I use this thing?””
Mike had no idea how to control the new brewhouse’s burner, let alone plumb the kettle itself. Luckily he had industry contacts and a few skills learned in his day job. “As a PM you don’t have any direct management responsibility, but you are responsible for the project. That forces you to figure how how to get things done in a creative way. I think my biggest take away from all those years is, keep-it-simple and you’ll get shit done right more often than not.” It’s that keep-it-simple approach and hands-on learning that informs much of what The Commons is all about, even if it does not seem so from the outside.…
One Year In
Farmhouse Ales are a notoriously tricky style of beer to explain; they are hard to define and even more difficult to brew right. They are a quickly growing craft beer style segment, though, thanks to the success of The Commons and breweries like Upright, Jolly Pumpkin, and Ommegang. When asked to describe a farmhouse ale, I always reach for the simplest description I know–it’s all about the yeast. While other styles of beer may rely on the hops, the malt, or even the water, yeast is always a factor, but none so much as farmhouse ale. Traditionally farmhouse beers were open top fermented using locally grown ingredients harvested off of the farms they were usually fermented on. These beers had nothing to hide the natural spicy, fruity, earthy, or tart flavors they develop. Brewer Sean Burke has an equally elegant way of describing the style that goes hand in hand with the breweries back to basics European approach.
“I think the best way to sum it up is simply, use what you have on hand.”
Sean Burke goes on, “The style is about creating a simple rustic beer made to be enjoyed. While we don’t brew in a barn we can still keep that idea alive in the beers we create.” You could say that sums up what The Commons and Beetje have always done, relied on what they had on hand, no matter how little or much that actually was. From the outside it almost looks like The Commons had instant success, with Urban Farmhouse Ale winning bronze at the World Beer Cup and Flemish Kiss winning Silver at the Great American Beer Festival in just the first year. However, I am sure if you speak to any of the core Commons 3, they will tell you its been a struggle over numerous years. But it just goes to show you that every high tech startup with an all-star team lined up from day one guarantees no more success than an unheralded team of key players. The Commons is like the Brewery equivalent of a well played game of Moneyball.
I was happy to learn while writing this article that Mike Wright finally quit his day job. “It was a very difficult decision. The brewery deserved my full attention, but leaving the financial security and benefits was a big deal. Still, it’s been amazing experience to be able to put all my energy into the brewery.” With success, confidence, and growing experience, The Commons is cautiously stepping out with expanded distribution, bottling and a larger space by moving into a recently vacated neighbor’s space in the Roofers Supply building. It’s a slow and incremental move for The Commons. “We are about to be doubling our current production space. Then as we need to grow we will do it in a methodical way…Truthfully I am excited to have more space and to be able to stretch out a bit. The who know maybe we will get seating” muses Sean Burke, who is excited about it. “Our barrel aging program is steadily growing. We started filling barrels right away knowing the time it takes for some specific characters to develop. We spend a fair amount of energy working with some of our barrels as Flemish Kiss, one of the two regularly bottled beers spends some time with a Brettanomyces strain which we inoculate the barrels with. Typical for Mike Wright, though, when asked about where he sees The Commons in 1 and 5 years, he modestly suggests “I’d just like us to be around another year from now, and then the year after that.
With The Commons Brewery’s 1 Year Anniversary coming up this weekend, there is much to celebrate. On Friday at 7pm The Commons marks its first anniversary with a cheers, and to it I suggest a simple toast: To Mike, Sean, and Josh for keeping it simple, for remembering its about people above all, and for knowing that the simplest path to a finish is a straight line.
|Josh, Mike and Sean after their World Beer Cup win in San Diego|
Thursday, December 6th from 5-9PM marks the release of Bourbon Little Brother, our Heaven Hill Bourbon barrel aged Belgian Dark Strong. We’ll have 750ml bottles for sale for $11 and $125 per case. To celebrate we are hosting a potluck & bottle share in our brewery. Just show up with a bottle of beer and/or food to share with friends.
On Friday, December 7th from 5-9PM we will tap a few special kegs including the last bit of Plum Bretta and provide appetizers from local friends Lardo, Pacific Pie, 2nd Story, and Cheese Bar. At 7pm we will mark the anniversary with a toast.
The Commons Brewery
1810 SE 10th Ave., Unit E (entrance on SE Stephens between 10th & 11th).
Tasting room Open: Thursday & Friday 5-9pm, Saturday 2-9pm.