I first met Cloudburst Brewing owner/brewmaster Steve Luke in 2016 when we were judging the Great American Beer Festival together. I’d like to think we took a quick shining to each other and have been friends since then. Yet until recently we had never collaborated on a beer.
Steve came to Portland to brew at our (Breakside’s) Slabtown pub last month. Star Sprinkles, our collaboration beer is a hazy IPA made with some of Steve’s favorite lots of Washington hops from the 2019 harvest. The trial batch will be on tap at Breakside’s Slabtown and Milwaukie pubs starting Nov 30, and the beer will be scaled up for wider release in January.
Over dinner at Apizza Scholls that night, we recorded a portion of the conversation with Steve. In addition to Steve, the table included The New School founder Ezra Johnson-Greenough, me, Natalie Rose Baldwin, Greg Soto, and Dylan Norby, all from the Breakside team.
BE: First question for you Steve: 2019 Portland and Seattle. How are the scenes different and how are they similar?
SL: That’s a great question. 10 years ago Portland beer was a lot better than Seattle beer if you were just taking an average. The top breweries from each city could go head-to-head, but breweries 3 through 10, Portland just destroyed Seattle in terms of quality and innovation. Over the last 4-5 years, I think that now the top 10 breweries in Seattle and Portland can go head-to-head. The median might be a little higher than in Portland but the top breweries are comparable.
BE: What changed?
SL: New breweries. More breweries. Oregon has always had more large breweries than Washington, and it spawned more good breweries. You have small brewpubs that are making quality beer and they grow, but there’s a point where you can’t run your brewery like the brewpub that you once started as. You have to make that transition, being like “we’re a production facility and going to think about our beer differently,” and that happened earlier in Portland than in Seattle, and that made for better quality beer..
BE: What about similarities?
SL: We both have markets that appreciate locally owned small business that encourage and support these breweries that are in their backyard, and that’s huge for both of our markets. That wasn’t always the case. When I was in New England, brewing in Connecticut, and I would tell people that I was a brewer, and they’d say “but what’s your job?.” There were something like 8 craft breweries in CT in 2009 when I was there, and no one knew anything about it. Boston didn’t have a local support scene. It seems like Portland and Seattle have always been interested in what small businesses are doing. I think that translates well to both of our beer cities, which is great when you’re trying to operate a small business.
BE: You’ve brewed in lots of different sized-breweries: taprooms, brewpubs, production only. Is there something that speaks to you as a brewer: what do you enjoy the most?
SL: I think every brewer should do some production. I remember my second stint at Allagash: Allagash was my first and my fourth brewing job, and there were basically two brewers at Allagash who trained me, and one of them said one time something like “there are two types of brewers: production brewers and brewpub brewers,” and I’m thinking “well, I’m like a brewpub brewer,” and he says “you’re not, you’re in the cellar, and you should learn to do these production things.” Maybe in my core I’m a brewpub brewer, but learning how to run and how to handle all of the simple tasks of production, how to clean a tank properly, with all of the oversight and with all of the direction. If you’re at the right spot, it makes anyone a better brewer, period.
BE: I agree 100%. I think there are very few great brewpub brewers who aren’t also great production brewers. You have to be able to do each.
SL: You learn a bunch at every brewery you work at , and sometimes you learn what not to do. And of all of the places I’ve worked, there are only maybe 3 where I’ve learned more what to do than not, and Allagash was one of those. I learned way more what to do than what not to do.
BE: Here’s the question Ezra really wants me to ask. You’ve worked for two of the most influential, legendary brewers in the craft beer industry: Jason Perkins at Allagash and Dick Cantwell at Elysian. Who wins in a fight?
NRB: You mean a physical fight?
BE: I mean it can be any fight. It can be a math contest.
SL: Oh my god. That’s such a hard question to answer. I’m going to get in trouble either way.
BE: Let’s assume a street fight.
SL: I mean Jason has age on his side– he’s younger than Dick. But Dick has old man strength. Dick is more intimidating and has more prowess.
BE: I’ve heard Dick has pretty strong karate skills
SL: Dick swims miles every morning, like multiple miles. But I’ve met Jason’s brother in Colorado, and he and Jason will just beat each other up at the GABF pavilion for fun, so Jason is tough too. I mean I don’t know. Jason played sports in college; Dick wrote in college, so it’s kind of a wash. How about this? I’m more scared of disappointing Dick than disappointing Jason.
BE: Top four beers that you’ve been a part of that aren’t Cloudburst beers.
SL: The first wet hop beer I ever made was at Isaaquah Brewhouse with Loftus Citra before I knew anything about the hop or the farm.. Bale Breaker wasn’t a brewery then, and I didn’t even know who that family was. I just lucked into some fresh Citra hops.
EJG: Did you say fresh or wet hop?
SL: It was wet. They’re interchangeable
BE: We are not going to let this interview be derailed by that topic!
SL: We get into this conversation every year, Ezra. Other Washington breweries call them ‘wet.’
BE: Alright, well, we’re derailed
SL: Charlie Papazian says wet.
BE: The farmers say ‘wet!’ I’m going to go with what the hop growers say
EJG: Did you see my article?!
SL: You were more receptive to the term ‘wet’ than in the past.
EJG: Well, from my research, I think that people referred to them as ‘wet hops’ but the beers were always ‘fresh hop beers.’ That’s the difference if you look back historically.
EJG: I don’t honestly care what people call it, but I don’t like that there are two different things that people call it.
BE: Yeah, Steve stop calling it two different things!
SL: Why do we have to worry about semantics anyways and can’t we just taste the wet/fresh beers?
GS: Yep, right, how does the beer taste?
BE: Well, okay so that’s one beer.
SL: I’m gonna say Allagash White, because that taught me to brew on a production level, incredibly consistently, 9 out of 10 days in a row. So that taught me nuance and perfection– attention to detail all the way through. That was my real first brewing experience, and it’s still a top 5 favorite beer for me. I will always love that beer, and the thing is you get so sick of that beer when you’re making it that much, and I sort of did, but I love it. Actually, that’s true for everyone other than Rob (Tod, founder of Allagash). Rob drinks at least 1 Allagash White every day. Side note, one thing that I learned about owning a brewery and running a business from Rob is that for the first 10 years, even when Allagash wasn’t profitable, all the while he was making local, personal connections and growing his roots so deep that that beer was unkillable. Part of doing that was on his way home from work every day he made a point of stopping at one account and having one Allagash White, and making a point of learning the name of who owns the bar, who’s the manager, who’s the bartender. Five days a week, every day he’d leave work, and he did that for 10 years.
BE: That’s 2,400 accounts!
SL: It’s incredible; it’s insane. We model Cloudburst similarly in that we have a very small geographic footprint and want to be as deep as possible in our city. And the way you do that is appreciate the people who buys our beer. I go to every account who buys our beer at least once a year and have beers, have dinner. It’s Rob Tod’s greatest secret, and for no ulterior motive.
BE: Isaaquah Wet Hop, Allagash White…
SL: Cambridge House Abijah Rowe IPA is the reason I never brew the same IPA twice at Cloudburst. I took over the head brewer job from a guy well known in New England. He’s not at the level of notoriety of Will Meyers or Tod Mott…
SL: I’m gonna add Paul Saylor to that legend group. Do you know Paul?
BE: I don’t know Paul. Where’s he from?
SL: He’s at Zero Gravity and was at Harpoon and Catamount. He’s been a Vermont brewer for 30 years, and he makes the best gruit I’ve ever tasted. His gruits are unfuckinreal. He has a black gruit: it’ll change you; you need to fly to Burlington and try his gruit.
GS: What’s in it?
SL: Bog myrtle. No one knows. No one appreciates gruits.
BE: So…Cambridge House IPA
SL: So I took over this job from Steve Schmidt. I think he’s at Smuttynose now. He’s been a consultant and brewer for 25-30 years. I was 25 taking over for a 40 year old brewing legend; it was a 7 barrel pub system. He made Abijah Rowe IPA, named after the settler of the town the brewpub is in. This is 2008. So I looked at his brew logs, and it was an Amarillo-driven IPA and all Maris Otter malt with some other hops feathered in.
NRB: Ooh! Big boy!
SL: Big boy! And I made the first batch and thought it tasted pretty good. And every regular at the bar was like “this isn’t what Schmidty would do.” And the next batch, I tried to make tweaks based on what they said, and the next batch comes out and they still say ‘it’s just not the same’ and that went on for 3 months, me trying to tweak a beer and make regulars happy, and them saying ‘this isn’t what we used to drink.” And it scarred me, so I just stopped making it for a month. I made another IPA and then a month or two later I made Abijah Rowe again, and the regulars were like ‘yeah, this is pretty good.’ And the only reason was that literally they had been tasting batch by batch variation every single week. That beer made me never want to make the same beer in a row, which is basically what our brewery doesn’t do.
SL: There are so many I could rip into about what not to do, but uh, maybe the last one would be Space Dust. The beer that made Elysian millions of dollars, and the beer that made me…zero dollars. BUT it did open the door while I was raising capital for Cloudburst in 2015, as I could use that beer as an example of what Cloudburst could do when talking to potential investors.
BE:. I think it’s fascinating that you chose two beers that were very influential and two that really scarred you. On a totally different subject: from Market Fresh saisons to times we’ve talked about why we shouldn’t send Breakside double IPAs to the East Coast. The freshness concept, it seems to me, is a big part of what beer is to you. Is good beer always fresh and local? What are the bounds of that to you?
SL: Everything is conditional. I’ll always drink something that’s better quality over something that’s local and not of quality. Sometimes people choose local blindly over quality; I mean, I’ll choose local quality over not local, all other things being equal. Some beers do get better with time, but I think that as a brewer making appropriate beers to be consumed in the appropriate amount of time matters. Make the right amount of IPA so that it is consumed fresh. I think it’s knowing your demand and not getting past that to the point of oversaturation.
BE: People like buying vegetables in a farmer’s market. There’s a romance to it, and that is fundamentally different than buying that same vegetable at a major grocery store, so it’s a question of consumer psychology rather than quality. For better or for worse, sometimes it’s about freshness more than anything.
SL: I think a lot of people are becoming more attuned to that. The access to so much fresh beer is great, but fresh and local doesn’t always mean best.
BE: Yeah, I think it’s two different issues and questions
SL: So when you have someone in the neighborhood who is choosing to go to the closest brewery for the freshest beer, what do you do when it’s not the best beer? Is it a slow moving wheel where people eventually realize that that’s not good beer?
NRB: I think that the uneducated consumer has a much more sophisticated palate than people give them credit for. My dad doesn’t know anything about beer and I took him to this brewery, and he says ‘this beer kind of tastes sour,’ and I recognize that that’s a yeast-derived characteristic. He’s picking up on something that we would notice, that maybe most people would notice, and people can taste these things, but if they decide it’s a flaw or not, that’s a big factor. Also, proximity matters– it’s not just always about quality — it’s convenience. Sometimes people want to just support a local business, grab the nearest cup of coffee. There are just so many layers.
SL: That’s a good point.
NRB: Are people necessarily even thinking about the beer in that situation? We hope so, but…
GS: I think so, when you have something really weird they notice.
BE: Right, that’s the untrained palate question, and it ties in to consumer psychology: does quality make people move towards you? Not necessarily, but does lack of quality turn people off to you whether they know it or not? I think, yes.
NRB: But when you have beers where the only ask of the consumer is to identify a flavor, like you’re making a banana bread beer, and the consumer tastes bananas and cinnamon, and people can identify the flavors, I think people connect with that and like to understand that.
SL: But is that dumbing it down?
EJG: If you give someone a beer that’s phenomenal, but it’s outside of the generic flavor profile of say American and English ale, and this is someone who says they love beer, they often don’t know what to make of it; it’s totally out of their realm.
GS: I wonder if the whole farmer’s market analogy explains some of the line culture of East Coast craft beer.
BE: When I was at Tree House, that was definitely part of people’s MO.
GS: It’s the same people coming back for the next release to stock up for the next two or three weeks.
SL: That’s the European model!
BE: In Europe, the idea of breweries that can sell 75K barrels in a 60 KM radius is very normal.
NRB: Customers buying by the case.
SL: We were at Orval and an 80-year old couple came in and dropped off an empty case and took a full one. And I’m like that couple drinks a case of Orval every week. What a fucking life!
Steve Luke is the Founder & Head Brewer at Cloudburst Brewing, which is nestled in an inconspicuous 115 year old building just north of Pike Place Market in Seattle, WA. Cloudburst produces a wide array of award winning beer styles, with an emphasis on ever changing, hop-heavy IPAs and Pale Ales, coffee-laden Stouts and Porters, the occasional Lager, and the lesser occasional Barrel-Aged offering. Prior to starting Cloudburst, he was the Lead Brewer at Elysian Brewing. He has also worked/brewed at Rogue’s Issaquah Brewhouse, Cambridge House Brewpub (CT), Allagash Brewing, & Harpoon Brewery, among several others.
Star Sprinkles Hazy IPA is Cloudburst Brewing/Steve Luke’s collaboration with Ben Edmunds and Breakside Brewery. Bottles will be released on December 30th.
Ben is the brewmaster at Breakside Brewery in Portland, Oregon, where he oversees the company's production brewery and two pub breweries. As founding brewer of Breakside, he helped grow the company from a small brewpub into a successful regional brewery. Under Ben's leadership, Breakside has won many medals at international competitions. He is a former President and current board member of the Oregon Brewers Guild, a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, and a founder of the Oregon Beer Awards.