The much anticipated Portland location of Ohio-based Fat Head’s Brewery opens next week, but I got an early look, a few bites, and a sip from the upcoming menu courtesy of executive Brewmaster Matt Cole. Though it’s more than a week before opening, the brewpub is already bustling inside.
As I walked up to the big glass doors of Fat Head’s on NW 13th, a stream of people are coming and going through its doors, others taking cigarette breaks or calling their significant others. 30 or so people are busily working inside the pub and a manager is setting up menus and paperwork at the front desk. You could very much mistake Fat Head’s as already being open to the public. In the kitchen a full staff of cooks are busy doing their thing and briskly putting finished dishes to the service window, as if there were already a line outside. The brewery staff that includes veterans of Sun King Brewing, Head Brewer Mike Hunsaker, and executive Brewmaster Matt Cole, are checking gravities, cleaning tanks, and managing 5+ yeast strains while filling up all of the 20bbl fermenters in a rush to have as many of the brewery’s own beers on tap when the pub officially opens. With a substantial management staff flown in from Ohio and an experienced local staff of brewpub veterans, the Fat Head’s team is going to make the soft opening anything but soft when it open the doors next Monday, November 3rd.
The Portland Fat Head’s Brewery is substantial in size and has the air of being larger than it already is, with extremely high ceilings, rafters and glass building front. It’s not just for show; it holds 278 seats and features a food menu featuring over 100 items, along with a brewery that needs to keep up with demand. Early on Fat Head’s caught flack for stating the new Pearl District brewery is in the hippest neighborhood in Portland, and though that may not be true. it’s easy to see why the brewery chose this space.
Outside of the public seating area and bar, a brand new 10bbl brewhouse with 20bbl fermenters and brite tanks sits behind big glass windows visible from the restaurant. In this brewery, Portland Head Brewer Mike Hunsacker is working on a variety of beer styles, both ales–Chocolate Stout, Belgian-style Dark Strong, India Session Ale, and the award winning Head Hunter IPA–and lagers–Pilsner, Dortmunder, and 2014 GABF Gold Medal-winning Alpenglow Weizenbock. There is also a freshly brewed fruit beer, Bumble Berry Honey Blueberry Ale, on the way. With 5 or so of the housemade beers on draft by the time the pub opens, the plan is to keep around 16 house beers on tap regularly, with another 26 guest taps of mostly Oregon beer.
Across a hallway is another glass windowed room full of brite tanks for conditioning and serving, as well as kegging. Up a couple of flights of stairs above the brewery is grain storage and the milling room. as well as a barrel-room that peers out above and behind the downstairs bar. There are plans to fill it with all sorts of oak barrels for aging and hosting private tastings.
I have never been to a Fat Head’s Brewing pub in Ohio, and I had only tried a couple of the beers before at the GABF, but I was impressed by the beers I tasted last week from the brite tanks. Since I have precious little experience with the brand before, I did not know what to expect from the ambiance or the food and I found a colorful, fun, slightly midwestern style. I don’t want to say the Fat Head’s is out of place in the Pearl District, because places like Blitz Tavern are doing quite well, but this will certainly be a less lounge-y, less pretentious, less expensive, and more down to earth setting than most of the restaurants and bars in the neighborhood. The food menu is decadent pub grub amped up with as many housemade and locally-sourced ingredients as possible.
The selection of food at Fat Head’s is American comfort food, and there is no quarter given for healthier options. While there are salads on the menu, byou’re more likely to find MEAT–broiled, fried, smoked, or smothered in gravy or cheese. The sandwiches are proudly proclaimed “roughly the size of your head” and the “The South Side Slopes” featuring a pile of kielbasa, pierogies, cheese, and grilled onions was voted the #5 sandwich in the country by Maxim Magazine. Of course, Fat Head’s is not oblivious to its new locale; there is some room allotted on the menu for vegetarian and even gluten-free dining, and the brewers have even gone out of their way to make the beer 100% vegan for the first time.
A sample plate of the “Pulled Pork Chili Fries” was conveniently out of the test kitchen right as I was finishing up my tour, and good god, these these things might be the death of me. A huge pile of thick cut and crunchy fries filled the plate, with another heaping of chili and big pieces of meat on top, shredded jack and cheddar cheese melted perfectly; adding some color, zest, and spiciness were a generous sprucing of scallions, fresh cilantro, and fresh jalapenos. Finally, the part that left me drooling was a perfectly cooked sunny side egg on top and a good drizzling of chipotle mayonaise dressing. Another huge bonus that will set Fat Head’s Brewery Portland apart from its Pearl District neighbors is pricing aimed at the $8-$10 range for sandwiches and many main menu items, putting it more in competition with nearby new addition Tilt, rather than Deschutes or Rogue.
Beer Geeks will enjoy the beers from Fat Head’s, I can say pretty much without a doubt. There is a nice variety and the brewers are using the oh-so-hot hop varieties like Citra, making tasty but slightly hoppy pilsners, India Session Ales, and Double IPAs. It remains to be seen if the brewpub will be a big beer geek destination, but I can see a huge following of locals packing this place on any given day. Like a Hopworks Urban Brewery location, it’s colorful, family friendly (kids menu but no play area), has a wide selection of beers using cutting edge ingredients and techniques, and offers a diverse American food menu. Even though it’s in the high rent district, it somehow comes in less expensive than its nearby competition. Check out Fat Head’s for yourself:
Open seven days a week, Fat Head’s Brewery is located in the heart of the Pearl District at 131 NW 13th Ave (at Davis St), Portland, OR 97209. The restaurant opens daily at 11 am. Children’s menu upon request. Gluten Free and Vegetarian friendly options. Takeout is also available. Major credit cards are accepted. Call (503) 820-7721 or visit fatheads.com. Like Fat Head’s Portland on Facebook @fatheadsportland and Twitter @FatHeadsPDX.