“Trying to make good wine is like trying to make good water. You can not. Both happen naturally.” This is a quote from Josko Gravner, a winemaking legend that Great Notion’s James Dugan sent to me when asked what inspired his unusual clay vessel “amphora” beers.
Josko Gravner is an inspirational character, influencing both non-traditional winemakers and now brewers like James, along with brewing hero Jean Van Roy of Cantillon and local luminaries at De Garde Brewing. Homebrewer and certified yeast geek James Dugan is experimenting with wild yeasts cultured from different regions of Oregon–from the coast to the Wallowa Mountains–and fermenting in beeswax lined terra-cotta vessels for the upcoming NE Portland brewery – Great Notion Brewing.
The Mash Tun Brewpub. Photo
Often overlooked, The Mash Tun brewpub on NE Alberta has flown under the radar for the last 10 years, but today Great Notion Brewing signs papers and takes ownership of the entire business. Longtime friends and neighbors James Dugan, Andy Miller and Paul Reiter have a vision for a new brewery of ambitious intent that uses such brewing buzz words as “mosaic,” “barrel-aged,” “spontaneously fermented,” “citra,” and “amphora.”
For neighbors and homebrewing buddies Paul, Andy and James today is the beginning of the 2nd chapter in their careers and the beginning of a very special brewing odyssey that is sure to bring them under the spotlight. For Christian Bravard, it’s the end of a life-altering 10 year adventure graduating from pizzamaker and homebrewer to business owner and professional brewmaster. From Louisiana, he made his way to Arkansas and California before ending up in Portland in 1997. In 2000 he learned to homebrew with friends he shared a house with on NE Alberta and by 2004 was working at Bella Faccia Pizzeria. Christian Bravard was 27 and thought he would make a go of his own business without being sure if it was even feasible. In early 2005 they began buildout of the space and by late that year had opened The Mash Tun brewpub, now an early staple of the popular strip of bars and shops. Ten years later, he is ready to move on, though it hasn’t been easy:
“The decision to sell was definitely a hard one and wasn’t something I was really thinking about until recently. Unfortunately, a family member was diagnosed with cancer not long ago and that, coupled with other things in my personal life lead me to the decision that maybe it was time to move on to other things and to spend more time with family. I’ve had a great time over the last ten years running my own business, it’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of stress but I’ve also had the opportunity to meet all kinds of great people and have so many amazing experiences. Honestly, I was so young when I opened this place that I don’t think I ever really saw myself doing this for the rest of my life. I’m so happy and grateful to have had the experience but I think part of me always assumed I’d eventually move on to something else. When Great Notion contacted me and made me a fair offer, it just seemed like good timing.”
Photo from Cantillon where Jean Van Roy readies his own amphora vessels
James Dugan, Paul Reiter, and Andy Miller live in a quiet neighborhood south of Killingsworth near N. Portland’s The Hop & Vine, where regulars are already well-versed in their homebrews. James Dugan lives right across the street from Andy Miller and often share homebrews and pizza with each other’s wives and children. They have stayed on the cutting edge of what’s going on in craft brewing, from the latest test hop varieties to wild yeast and amphora. James owns his own in-house print shop called Grateful Designs, while Andy Miller has a background in landscaping maintanence. Their 3rd parter, Paul Reiter, is also a father and top sales guy at Smarsh in downtown Portland. With a degree in business and finance and focus on startups, he will be the business side of the Great Notion Brewing operation, Andy Miller will oversee the restaurant and pub and James Dugan the brewing operations.
The trio will coast slowly into the transition that begins today, not closing The Mash Tun or rebranding it immediately. If you went into The Mash Tun tomorrow, you may not know anything has changed. Legally, today, July 15th, the brewery will become Great Notion, but with the transition of TTB (tax and trade bureau) still pending and due for completion in November, no big changes will take place. After November and the current batches of beer under Christian Bravard have dried up, the food items may change as well as the vibe and most certainly the beer.
cultured wild yeast samples from different regions of Oregon
James has been homebrewing forever, but in 2012 when he decided to try making wine at home, curiosity and the inspiration struck. He followed a standard route into winemaking, but by his 3rd batch, like many a homebrewer, became curious about experimentation and spontaneous fermentation in experimentation. “I questioned why I was adding yeast to grape must?” As anyone who has brewed with fresh or wild fruit can attest, they often have their own yeasts living on their skins and brewers take great steps to kill off any of these hard to harness wild yeasts and bacteria. James’s readings on the subject of spontaneous fermentation in wine lead him to an article about the experimental winemaker Josko Gravner. Though James admits he has never actually had a wine from Josko, he found his theories and philosophy fascinating. “He follows a natural process of wine making with spontaneous fermentation, and no additives. His world class wines are fermented in clay jugs buried in the earth. I was intrigued, so I purchased some terra-cotta vessels to ferment my American sour ales.”
Amphora clay vessels holding delightful sour secrets
We recently wrote about the Stone Tank Vessels that were shown off at the Brew Expo during the Craft Brewers Conference, and the “Amphora” aged beers that James Dugan is working on are similar. Amphora means a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck. These vessels are actually made of clay that are kilned at high temperatures, but, like stone, they are more porous and are said to be better for wild yeasts and sour beer. “Italian wine makers have reported a very distinct minerality and unique complexity from fermentation in clay. Jean Van Roy has echoed this sentiment with his own amphora project at Cantillon,” said James Dugan about what he expects his beers to taste like. He went on to explain that firing the clay at very high temperatures causes it to be less porous, so it does not leak, while historically these vases were fired over an open flame, and thus controlling temps was difficult. So they would coat the inside of the vases with a bees wax lining to seal and prevent leaking. On his own home experiments, James found that bees wax offered more than just a historical significance, but imparted it’s own unique character that blended well with the “rustic earthiness” of the clay pots. When I visited the home brewery, I saw a number of small amphora vessels in fermentation and one very large one that had just been obtained but unfortunately was not able to try any of these beers, so I asked James to describe the flavor of the bees wax: “It imparts a distinct honey like character, without any sweetness or the fermentability of traditional honey,” he said.
Great Notion Brewing already plans to make use of an off-site keg storage space for more traditional bourbon and wine barrels as well as Amphora, and plans to use local peaches, apricots, strawberries, and cherries fresh from the Oregon/Washington fruit loop. A homebrewed imperial stout recipe will be scaled up to bourbon barrels with special versions with additions of coffee, vanilla beans, chocolate, and chilies.
These kind of beers will pique most homebrewers’ interest, and the three owners have already obtained hop contracts for the trendy and super hard to find varieties Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic, Equinox, and more. One of the beers I had the pleasure to try was a phenomenal Double IPA called “Juice Box” that will be one of the pub staples. Juice Box is filled with fresh fruity hop notes and pungent bitterness from over 4 pounds of hops per barrel, but the body is kept nice and light for the flavor and the aroma of the hops to shine, just how I like it. I sampled a Berliner-Weisse as well as a Strawberry-Rhubarb Blonde and everything had promise. Now we just have to wait until the end of the year before we can begin trying Great Notion Brewing’s creations.
Great Notion Brewing owners (left to right): James Dugan, Paul Reiter, Andy Miller
As for The Mash Tun’s
founder Christian Bravada, it seems we may have seen the last of him in the world of beer. “After working in the same place for over a decade, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else…I don’t see myself getting back into the restaurant or brewery business anytime in the near future.” At least his brewery and restaurant will live on and pass to the next exciting generation.
Great Notion Brewing/The Mash Tun
2204 NE Alberta St Suite 101