Is $1 craft beer and cider too good to be true? Well it’s a reality at Portland’s latest new brewpub–Splash Bar Brewing in northwest Portland. Remember when we reported that Portland dance club Splash Bar was going to become a New Zealand-themed brewpub called Squealers Brewing? That transition is now a reality, only the owners have ditched the “Squealers” name and instead have stuck with Splash Bar. Now there are four 10bbl fermenters and the brewers are making three housemade beers and one cider off of an automated SmartBrew system from DME. Splash Bar Brewing ambitiously plans to make beer for all the other clubs in Old Town and open a collaboration 10 bbl brewery on the eastside with a local spirits producer.
Owner Chris Lenahan and Brewmaster/Consultant Brian Watson are operating a strange automated system that DME has developed and owns called SmartBrew that makes one reassess whether a brewery of this size really has to make it “The Hard Way.” For instance, there is no mash tun, hot liquor tank or boil kettle, nor are there bright tanks, a hop back, keg cleaning, or yeast harvesting. The SmartBrew uses wort that is produced and bittered in New Zealand, then cooled and packaged and plugged into the computerized SmartBrew system to work with one of hundreds of pre-programmed recipes. The SmartBrew system still needs a trained operator/brewer, but the work is greatly cut down from the normal brewing process. An operator still has to pump the malts, pitch the yeast, and add additional hops for flavor and aroma or other special spices and ingredients. From there the computer system does practically all the work, with the operator coming back to pressurize/carbonate the beer and keg. The brewer doesn’t even save the yeast, which is blown out after every batch (a craft brewery will re-pitch the same yeast 40 or 50 times). So it’s safe to say I was skeptical before I tried the main lineup of a not-so-session IPA, lager, hefeweizen, and cider.
The SmartBrew brewery is so compact that it hasn’t greatly affected the Splash Bar at all in terms of decor and space, which is dedicated to a Hawaiian spring break-style party theme with lots of live music and DJs. The brewery is on display at the entrance and visible through glass windows from the outside and inside of the bar, taking up just a narrow hallway-sized space on the southside of the building. Not having an actual brewhouse saves a lot of space, it turns out. Do you know what it also saves? A lot of money, so much so that owner Chris Lenahan says it’s so cheap he can sell pints of his beer for only $1 each. That’s not a happy hour special or promo, that’s $1 all the time.
The beers are solid, too, if not accomplished or particularly stand-out in any way, but they all showcase the character you would expect and without any off flavors. The IPA is full of tropical fruit and citrus with an in-check moderate level of bitterness; the Hefeweizen is unfiltered with light banana and citrus like an American-style hefe should; the lager is clean with a little bit of hoppiness and perhaps a heavier body than most; the cider is a standard semi-sweet variety. There is somewhat of a New Zealand theme, with Pacific Jade a NZ variety used in the beers and NZ malt. The cider even uses all New Zealand apples.
Perhaps the biggest news is that Chris Lenahan plans to team-up with the Indio Spirits makers and Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distilling to open a 10bbl brewery and tasting room somewhere on Portland’s eastside. That location will have a full brewhouse with a mash tun and all the other usual parts to make any type of beer they want, including whiskey washes, and will fill quite a few barrels. Chris Lenahan says the location is secured and will have a tasting room and big outdoor beer garden that food carts can drive up to. More details on that project should be revealed in the coming weeks, but for now you can enjoy $1 beers in Old Town just a block away from Powell’s Books.
Splash Bar & Brewing
904 NW Couch St
Portland, OR 97209