Alex Ganum Reflects on 8 Years of Upright Brewing

Alex Ganum contemplates a beer at Upright Brewing. Image © The New School

As Oregon’s first farmhouse-style brewery, Upright Brewing gears up for its 8th anniversary this Saturday, April 1st, we asked founder Alex Ganum to reflect on the brewery’s history and comment on the future. When Upright opened, most beer geeks may have heard of a saison but could not tell you what a farmhouse ale was. From the beginning, Alex Ganum says he was more inspired by the “balanced, ingredient-driven beers of France and Belgium, like those from Thiriez, Bavasienne, De la Senne, and even De Ranke, than the ester forward beers of Dupont and some other famous saisons.”

It was 2003, and Alex was working at Belmont Station’s bottleshop when it was still a tiny inconspicuous office space next to Horse Brass Pub when he began really getting into homebrewing and experimenting with Belgian yeasts. Coming from a culinary background, it was these beers that made him decide he wanted to become a professional brewer. He landed an internship at Ommegang Brewery, America’s first farmhouse brewers, that cemented his choice, noting, “I just couldn’t imagine any other pursuit that would be more satisfying.”

If people had heard of “saisons” or at least “Saison du Pont” back in 2009, they still were not familiar with what a “farmhouse” beer or brewery was. Adding to the difficulty of launching a brewery based on a largely unknown category of beer, Upright was going into an abandoned mixed-use office building without a storefront or any signage. (Upright may still be the only local commercial brewery and taproom located in a basement.) Finding the taproom is hard enough, and finding parking might be even more difficult. It might help being one of the highest rated breweries on Yelp in Portland; it’s probably the hidden secret speakeasy vibe that so many of the reviews mention. Upright and its tasting room have a special feel that makes it feels like everyone’s secret private hangout.

It took a year or so for Upright to get onto the radar of beer folks, but when it did, Upright seemed to achieve cult status. There have been constant questions of how and when the brewery would expand. Anyone who knows Alex knows he is not in it to get big. In hindsight, though, he says, “it would’ve been nice to find a location that afforded us more flexibility production-wise, for barrel-aging and that sort of thing, but we’re happy to brew at a modest capacity that lets us connect with the process and work hands-on, so I’m glad we’ve kept it small.” Upright started small and has remained small; other than Alex there are only three other regular employees: Brewer Gerritt Ill, brewer Bobby Birk, and tasting room staffer and bottle labeler Brent Small.

From day one it was difficult, from trying to squeeze precisely measured tanks down a ramp and into the basement space, scratching the sides of the wall without an inch of wiggle room, to the very first brew. Laughing while remembering the day, Alex recounts that, “(Gerritt and I) brewed an old ale, Billy the Mountain, and looking back at the log it was a mess. Typical stuff, I suppose, mostly revolving around dialing in equipment and learning what works and doesn’t. It was a long day. One funny memory is that the night before I realized we had nothing to stir the mash with, so I ran to a sporting goods joint in the morning and picked up an oar. Of course, sorting out the details of production happen quickly, and we both laugh when that first brew day comes up now.”

Alex Ganum cleaning out a kettle. Photo © Jeffrey Freeman.

While Alex is not the type of brewer/owner who thinks much about marketing and branding, he has always had a particular vision, style, and rustic ambiance he has tried to capture. This goes all the way down to the original core four beers and their confusing but incredibly simple names: Four, Five, Six and Seven. The simplicity of the names is reminiscent of the way Belgian monks of monastic brewing tradition would call their beers simply single, double, or tripel. Upright’s number naming corresponded vaguely with the original gravity of the beers, i.e. Four was 1.040. Each were open top fermented in Upright’s still unique custom fermenters in a windowed. sealed. and positively pressured room. Four was a wheat table saison, Five a hoppy saison, Six a dark rye saison, and Seven a strong golden saison. Each was fermented with the same yeast, 3711 French Saison from Hood River’s Wyeast laboratory. With the unique flavor profile of open top fermentation, the other major benefit of this technique is “top cropping” from the krausen of fermenting beers to repitch into the next beer the most healthy and prime yeast. Unfortunately, the 3711 French Saison yeast proved to be resistant to floating to the top and clumping together, which made it nearly impossible to scoop enough to repitch while also leading to beers taking forever to ferment out completely. Two years later, this led to the brewery eventually having to switch its primary yeast to a more consistent 3522 Ardennes strain that works wonderfully but changed the flavor profile of the beers from super dry and lemony to more fruity, spicy, and full.

Spill over from an open fermenting beer at Upright. Photo by Bobby Birk.

Early audiences were confused by the beers; often they were compared to the popular Belgian-styles like Chimay Red, Duvel, or Rochefort, fine ales but nothing like the dry, rustic, spicy and less malty farmhouse ales. What knowledge there was of farmhouse ales and saisons was more influenced by the still very fruity ester focus of Dupont. Alex recalls, “we’d put our beers out and people had a hard time understanding them, presumably because of the lack of a yeast character that’s easy to identify. I think now the audience is slowly becoming more sophisticated in that they recognize it’s unwise to go into a Farmhouse ale with too many expectations, meaning that they’re not assuming the brewers intent and instead enjoying the beers on their own, with an open mind.”

Upright Brewing eventually had a few wild, tart (sour) beers become a hot commodity for beer geeks and the black market sales and trading scene. Fantasia was one of the earlier barrel-fermented peach sours and easily remains one of the best of all-time. Fantasia and Upright’s increasing production of barrel-aged fruited farmhouse ales like Four Play and Blend Love started to draw lines for bottles at the release parties. A beer called “Special Herbs” is one of the first ever gin barrel-aged beers; in addition to being a delightfully unique flavor profile of tart, fruity, grassy and botanical flavors, an MF Doom label helped it also obtain national notoriety.

These days farmhouse and wild ales are one of the trendiest styles, with beer geeks and brewers also counting as fans. Farmhouse ales are nearly mainstream, and it’s hard to imagine a time when beer connoisseurs did not know what to expect. As Alex says, “it’s been wonderful to see so much happening across the country, especially with so many brewers finding their own character, which is really what the style is all about.”

But with the now ubiquitous nature of farmhouse and wild ales and newer established Oregon breweries like The Commons and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, competition is fierce. In just the last year, two hot buzzed about new Oregon farmhouse breweries, Wolves & People and Alesong, have opened up and made the industry more competitive than ever. Perhaps these are some of the reasons that led Alex and Upright Brewing to change the brewery’s lineup of beers and its branding, as well as personal reasons. On the change Alex says, “We decided to switch up the year round beer lineup for various reasons, the most significant being that we were eager to freshen up what we do from a creative, almost personal standpoint.”

The biggest change to the beers may be that a regular beer called “Supercool IPA,” once a one-off that broke Upright’s rule of no IPAs, is now year-round on draft and in bottles. It’s complemented by more farmhouse style “Saison Vert” brewed with Asian dried black limes. The draft-only Engleberg Pils continues to be a best-seller.

“While we tweaked the numbered beers constantly over the years, we felt like they’d hit the end of the line. Smaller considerations were related to the craft beer audience as well, which is drawn to bolder and more focused flavor and aroma profiles than the ingredient driven and balanced style we used on the numbered beers. They were always inspired more by French breweries and biere de garde than the more well known saisons like the heavily estery Dupont, for example, and I think that created some confusion about what we were trying to do. That being said, we still, and probably always will, favor an ingredient driven and balanced approach. With our two current year round beers and upcoming third (not counting the Engelberg), we’re able to be a bit more bold while maintaining that in a more concise lineup that has more diversification.”

Barrel maintanence at Upright. Photo by Bobby Birk.

Just as the original lineup was constantly tweaked over many years, Supercool IPA and Saison Vert are undergoing similar changes. The most recent batch of Saison Vert was bottle conditioned with brettanomyces, which should change it’s bottle evolution quite a bit. There is also a 3rd edition to the lineup in the works with a significant expectation from the brewery called “Pathways Saison.” “It will be blended from casks of varying ages with different yeasts and bacteria, and the overall profile will really speak to what we love in saisons,” says Alex.

As usual, though, Upright won’t be chasing any trends, and Alex does not believe in the hype that has caught up much of the beer industry. “I may sound like a curmudgeon… but I do miss the days when the brewery was young and the craft beer industry wasn’t as complicated,” says Alex while talking about his feelings on the current state of the craft beer industry. Continuing, he says, “We have a saying in here that comes up more often as time passes – “remember when brewers made beer?”…Now we see brands or trends that exist for a year or two at best, and it seems to go hand in hand with the pace of modern life.”

Upright’s new barrel room. Photo by Bobby Birk.

In the future, the aforementioned Pathways Saison is on the horizon, but the other news is that the brewery has secured a lease on a second modest barrel room in the Leftbank building. The brewers have already filled several casks with a lambic-inspired–but not lambic–beer. The return of the Bols Genever inspired Kopstootje bier, this time aged in vermouth barrels, a beer aged on gewurztraminer grapes, more fruit beers, and a new spiced de garde are all in the works.

Admitting that things now may be a bit more challenging than ever, Upright has the luxury of not shooting for huge growth or hype, and keeping it small allows flexibility. “I think we’ll always be operating at a small production level, around 1200 barrels a year. That’s just the way we like it.”

Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing founder). Image © The New School

Upright Brewing celebrates its 8th Anniversary this Saturday, April 1st from 1-8pm at the tasting room at 240 N. Broadway in the basement of the Leftbank Project building. In addition to the release of the anniversary saison in bottles, there will be special tappingss including 2015 Fantasia, 2015 Barleywine, Ives, Schade IPA, and more.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

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

Discussion

  • Dr Will
    Dr Will
    Sat Apr 1, 2017 1:55 AM

    Just left Portland after 9 years. This is my #1 favorite spot. Keep up the great work.

    • Stephen
      Stephen
      Sat Apr 1, 2017 5:11 PM

      Has been my favorite brewery in PDX since I moved here several years ago, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.