The craft beer industry has a diversity problem, which should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen the overwhelming amount of burly bearded white dudes (full disclosure: I am one of those dudes) roaming tap rooms or spraying down tanks in the brewery.
When Carston Haney opened Ross Island Brewing in January of 2017, it was not without anticipation. Haney was a veteran brewer at Alameda Brewing during their heyday when beers he created like Yellow Wolf IPA were big and influential sellers. But, after years of delay Ross Island Brewing opened in an inconveniently located taproom space on lower SE Powell blvd in Portland. Unfortunately it was a wrong time and wrong place for Ross Island’s “old Portland” brand with a one-man operation who was underfunded and understaffed. After less than a year in full operation, Ross Island Brewing announced in October 2017 they were closing in lieu of a new investor or sale.
“I thought that I could open a brewery in the City of Roses on a budget. Due to permitting and contractor delays the original opening was set back by almost a year. With little to no operating capital I was struggling to pay the lease, investors, and brew. Also, after opening it became clear that the location for the taproom was not pulling in enough traction to stay open, even though the regulars wholeheartedly supported it. In all honesty the real reason it failed is, at heart I’m a brewer and not a businessman” says Haney.
Already on the market to start their own brewery, Kurt Huffman’s Chefstable Group heard about Ross Island Brewing’s plight and swooped in at the last minute to purchase the majority of the company. Chefstable is a restaurant/bar developer group behind successes like Lardo sandwiches and more recently gotten into the beer biz with Loyal Legion.
Chefstable rebranded and relaunched the brewery as Dirty Pretty Brewing with Haney still running brewing operations. Dirty Pretty officially debuted at the 2018 Portland Beer Week and primarily served Chefstable accounts like Loyal Legion, Lardo and a handful of other taprooms that were Haney devotees. More recently, Chefstable announced a partnership with Mikkeller Brewing on a new Portland pop-up pub that may or may not become a permanent brewery. Meanwhile, Chefstable has also been in construction on a Portland outpost of popular Icelandic-based KEX Hostel, an upscale hostel with full restaurant and bar. Recently, Chefstable announced they would replace the Dirty Pretty brewing brand in favor of KEX Brewing beers made locally with Haney behind the helm.
Dirty Pretty Brewing is a brand that never really gained an identity while KEX Brewing is a flashy ultra modern European brewery. Rather than having multiple breweries compete in the same group, Haney will now produce the KEX brewing brand in lieu of Dirty Pretty.
“I envision the KEX beers to be less rigid in style and have a wide range of flavors coming from different yeasts, adjuncts, and brewing techniques. All of this excites me as a brewer, things get boring when you brew the same IPA a thousand times” says Haney on what makes KEX Brewing’s brand and beers unique.
KEX beers will be served at an upscale hostel with full service restaurant and bar scheduled to open in Portland this fall.
“KEX has a few standard beers from Iceland that I will be producing for the Portland market. My favorite so far is a “Nordic” IPA called “Steroids to Heaven” which I brewed earlier this year and this week again. I have creative license for new recipes and am enjoying working with them. We are planning on opening the Portland KEX location with 8 beers in October.”
This is when new startup indie distributor High Road Distribution comes into the picture. Founded by festival organizer and former Hotlips Pizza operations manager Brandon Mikel, High Road has so far signed a number of tiny and startup nano operations like Brewery 26, Leikam Brewing and Stone Circle Cider. Mikel had just recently convinced Haney and Huffman to partner with High Road Distribution on distributing Dirty Pretty Brewing and using their cooler space to expand High Road’s inventory. From the outset, Mikel was asking Haney about Ross Island Brewing (which he still had the naming rights to.)
“I was aware of Ross Island Brewing having tried it on tap a few places. I thought the beer was great and the name Ross Island Brewing was about as Portland as you could get. In a time when outside brands are coming to Portland, it was refreshing to have an unmistakable Portland beer” says Mikel.
With the Dirty Pretty brand set to be shelved in favor of KEX Brewing, it’s a favorable time for Haney to return to Ross Island Brewing.
“After talking with Brandon Mikel and my partners it seemed logical to relaunch Ross Island. As confusing for the consumer as it may be, it seems like the right choice to make. I guarantee that any tap handle you see around Portland in the coming weeks is super fresh beer, except a barleywine I’ve been cellaring for almost 2 years,” says Haney.
Ross Island Brewing beers are about as classic of Portland pub ales as you are going to get, and while the industry may be turning towards trends, there is always room for classics. Besides, KEX Brewing beers will explore the more modern trends like kettle sours and hazy IPA leaving Ross Island to do things like cask ale.
“I’m looking at Ross Island as a creative outlet for beer that I want to make and have people enjoy,” remarks Haney.
Popular beers like the Dirty Pretty Czech Pils will continue on under the Ross Island brand along with Sawtooth IPA in the regular lineup. This week Ross Island is releasing a new collaboration with Brewer 26, an IPA that highlights the Strata hop called Powell Blvd. IPA.
For Haney, Ross Island Brewing’s logo encapsulates the whole brand and his brewing philosophy.
“It’s all about craftsmanship (or craftswomenship), humility, integrity, and good beer. I feel that the Ross Island logo speaks to this. It started as a block print that my amazing friend created and since we are in the digital age it was refined with a computer. Kinda like my beer. Very much handcrafted, but polished and consistent. Also, as I like to say beer I enjoy is complex, but not confusing.”
With Haney freed up from running the entire business including a taproom and being everything from the salesman to the janitor, this time the hope is Ross Island will succeed. Though some may be skeptical about a relatively obscure brand that doesn’t even make a hazy IPA, Mikel is visibly excited about it.
“Good beer sells itself. When new buyers taste Carston’s beer, they order it. When buyers who have had Carston’s beer in the past see he has a new beer out, they buy it without having to taste it. They trust it will be good. So in order to fit into the market, you simply need to sell good beer and keep a good reputation,” says Mikel
Ross Island Brewing is now back on the market after making it’s quiet return last weekend at the Portland Craft Beer Festival. Look for regular IPA and Pils, specialty cask beer at select accounts and more seasonal and one-offs available around Portland and all the way to the coast via High Road Distribution.
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.