A Dream of Steel and Sparks: Metalcraft Fabrication Expands and Relocates
There are many stories in Beervana; this is the tale of Metalcraft Fabrication and the under-appreciated artisan industry that fabricates the tanks and kettles so the brewers can make the beer. Most beer fans might imagine these parts are coming out of some factory or huge company in Detroit, or even more likely do not think about it at all. Here in Oregon, a micro industry has grown to service our small but outsized demand for tanks and kettles that are better welded for brewing than re-used dairy equipment. One of the most successful crafters to rise in the last few years is Metalcraft Fabrication of North Portland, founded by husband and wife team Charlie Frye and Jen Baque. In a short seven years they have risen to national notoriety and late this year will be relocating to a much larger facility and serving the industry in new ways.
If Oregon is the craft beer capital, it’s as much because of our local resources as the consumers and community. While much is made about our great water and our local hop farms, the craftsmen who create the equipment are overlooked. An art form in and of itself, fabrication takes a special passion and dedication that has directly improved the quality of the beer and puts America toe-to-toe with the industrial giants of Germany. If a brewer is like a chef who gathers the disparate ingredients and uses them to prepare something special, that makes the fabricator the creator who carved the scythe, sickle and hearth. Such is th importance of these craftsmen to beer’s legacy.
Today, Metalcraft is a national leader in a niche market, raising expectations in the craft brewing industry with custom equipment that focuses on high design and exceptional performance. Oregon has quite a few of these manufacturers, including some of the most respected in the industry in JVNW and the relatively new Metalcraft Fabrication, the latter of which is quickly becoming the go-to company for up and coming brewers across the country.
Metalcraft Fabrication co-founder Charlie Frye exudes passion for his work beyond what is profit driven and approaches his business as a serious artform. Originally from Chicago, when he arrived in Portland in 2001 it was his intention to make a living as a creative in artful metalworking but, as he says, “I wanted to be an artist, but didn’t want to starve.” He soon fell into sanitary stainless steel fabrication, where he spent time learning the trade at Oregon’s renowned JVNW, another manufacturer of tanks and vessels. ” The very first tank I built for a brewery was a 75 gallon caustic tank for Upright. I built that one in my 125 sq ft garage.” It was all history from there. He met his wife, Jen Baque, who was working PR for a national veterinary group, and after finding out they had a kid on the way coincided with Charlie getting laid off, she provided the integral help in starting their own business. While working her job full-time, Jen allowed Charlie to begin working on his own custom projects from their garage, where he handmade tanks for Lompoc and Lucky Lab Brewing. Soon the couple realized they had to grow beyond a household business and needed a real warehouse and production space. With Jen’s experience in business, marketing, and branding, they crafted a full legitimate operation with employees that was off and running in 2007. The first full brewhouse Metalcraft built was for Burnside Brewing in 2010; they also delivered tanks for Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters, Oregon and quickly became an in-demand company.
The biggest challenge in this industry has been finding skilled and qualified fabricators in a dangerous profession. Another step up has been building brewhouses larger than the common 10 or 15bbl but the 30bbl system. As a brewhouse gets larger, the challenge is moving the larger amount of “mash” or malts around. Simply scaling everything up from a 10 to a 30 Mash Lauter Tun won’t cut it, so sometimes more drastic and expensive measures are necessary. Metalcraft has now dialed in that popular system and, as Charlie notes, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about learning, fixing, and working through those problems.
The new brewery boom in the last 5 years has led to a scarcity of used equipment. With Portland being the center of all things craft beer, tons of tank manufacturers have popped up, chief among them Metalcraft Fabrication. Many beer fans are familiar with the current Metalcraft facilities as the host location for the Oregon Brewers Guild’s annual Cheers To Belgian Beers Festival over the last three years. This warehouse headquarters in the North Portland industrial district now features ten 5 ton bridge cranes and several 1 to 3 tons hoists, as well as an outdoor area and location just off of the MAX line that makes it a perfect festival location.
In just a few years Metalcraft has already outgrown this facility, and will soon be moving to the former home of Bridge City Steel in the northwest industrial district at 2401 NW 22nd near Montgomery Park. The new space’s square footage jumps from about 19,000 to 30,000, and there are 20 cranes that will allow the company to take on more jobs, finish the work quicker, and allow it to spend more time on advanced tank building for concept fermentation vessels. Even though Metalcraft is moving next month, the company has already contributed some early concept designs for new tanks that are being used at Burnside Brewing, and they crew hopes they can be improved upon to make cheaper and sturdier fermentation vessels. With demand at an all-time high and breweries from Denver’s Crooked Stave to Florida’s Cigar City clamoring for Metalcraft tanks, the lead time on fabricating them is currently about 8 months out. The new building will hopefully cut that time greatly, while also allowing the company to build much bigger vessels that its facility could not do before–up to 600bbl tanks. The new location will also have a tasting room with a handful of beers on tap and a showcase for brand new advanced test tank systems. One of their challenges–in addition to staying ahead of the many other tank manufacturers–is finding qualified personnel, and Metalcraft will be jumping from about 40 employees currently to 50 or 60.
Now if you’re selfishly thinking about how the 2015 Cheers To Belgian Beers Festival will replace such a cool venue, it’s you lucky day. Metalcraft won’t be selling the old space, but turning it into an overflow facility that will be even more appropriate and open for festivals like Cheers after being emptied of all of its equipment. Jen Baque is spearheading the building at 723 N Tillamook St to host parties and festivals during next year’s Craft Brewers Conference and more, with a special focus on industry events and supporting the community that has supported them.
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com