One of Portland’s favorite breweries is closing tonight and it’s our duty to make sure that the fine beer still in the cooler doesn’t go to waste. As has been reported elsewhere, the space that’s been home to The Commons Brewery since March 2015 will soon become an outpost for Modern Times, and tonight — November 11 — is a chance to toast a well-loved brewery that started in owner Mike Wright’s garage a decade ago.
Here’s what I wrote back in 2009 when I first met Mike and saw his tiny — but good! — brewery. (and I’ll see you at The Commons tonight…)
By day, Mike Wright is an IT project manager for the county. On evenings and weekends, he presides over Beetje (be-cha) Brewery, perhaps the smallest federally licensed brewery in Portland and one of a growing flock of nano breweries such as Natian Brewing, Mt. Tabor, Captured by Porches, Vertigo, Heater-Allen and others.
OK, microbreweries you’ve heard of, especially living in Beervana, but what is a nano brewery? Not well defined, as it turns out. A micro brewery is generally recognized as any brewery that makes 15,000 barrels of beer (465,000 gallons) annually. Were the conventions of scientific notation to be strictly applied to the brewing industry (we’ll get right on that…) Then a nano brewery would brew no more than 15 barrels (465 gallons) a year, because by definition nano is 1,000 times smaller than micro.
But 15 barrels of beer a year isn’t much for an ambitious homebrewer, let alone a brewery with commercial pretensions, so we’re likely stuck with a looser definition of nano, one that means, essentially, small. Beetje Brewery certainly lives up to that. Even the name is Flemish for “little bit” — a tribute to Wright’s wife Kaatje, who was born in the Flemish town of Roeselare, where Rodenbach beer is brewed.
“When people hear that you’re brewing on a one- barrel system, they might say ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,’” Wright says, “and perhaps they’re right. I know I won’t be supporting my family with the amount of beer I can make on this system, but I am having fun and making some beers that I want to make.”
“At the risk of being too romantic,” he says, “imagine a small, rustic farmhouse brewery (in the inner city). The beers are generally going to be everyday drinking beers, not super-complex-monster-bombs. There are plenty of breweries covering that area. I enjoy spending time with friends, eating good food, and drinking a sessionable beverage is the driving force behind the type of beers I make.”
Belgian styles have predominated among the beers he’s brewed in the few months since Beetje became legal — to Wright’s surprise, by the way: he submitted applications to the OLCC in the summer of 2009, fully expecting them to be tossed on the “laughable” pile. Instead, he got some traction with the state, and submitted papers for federal approval from the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, which approved his plans last summer. Then Angelo DeIeso invited him to submit a beer to Brewpublic’s Microhopic II festival, thus giving us our first taste of Beetje beers.
He’s got an American style pale ale in the works, dosed with brettanomyces bruxellensis to add a touch of Belgium, but Beetje has rolled out no IPAs yet, nor does it plan to in the immediate future. Instead, his Urban Farmhouse Ale may be the closest thing to a flagship brew so far; it’s a light, golden ale, slightly tart and a perfect thirst quencher as well as a complement to many foods.
The B-Side Ale is a modification of the Urban Farmhouse recipe with some of the pilsner malt removed in favor of rye, and the munich and crystal malts gone altogether, plus a more conservative dose of bittering and flavor hops, but the beer is not that different from Urban farmhouse Ale, he says, which is testament to the Belgian farmhouse-style yeast which he says does all the talking in these beers.
Little Brother, named after his young son Evan, is a fairly straightforward dark strong Belgian ale of 8.5 percent alcohol. Topped with a creamy tan head, the beer is dominated by caramel and candy flavors and offers a hint of heat on the finish and is an especially satisfying beer to sip slowly and long.
Wright is a longtime homebrewer, unsurprisingly, and his neat little brewery in the garage of his Southeast Portland home looks like a homebrewer’s dream setup. The vessels are gleaming stainless steel, the walls are neatly sheathed in shiny corrugated metal for ease of cleaning and the hoses and connecting lines are coiled away shipshape and Bristol fashion. A couple of big molded plastic fermenters are live in a separate room that’s heated for these months and has an air conditioner poking through the wall for summer. About the only jarring note is the club-footed, wheeled contraption which brewer Teri Fahrendorf aptly named the Lunar Lander when she visted the brewery.
“That was a pretty good deal,” Wright says of the brew kettle he inherited from the old Yamhill Brewing, where things were built stoutly indeed. “It was given to me by the fellow who owns the Green Dragon building (where Yamhill Brewing once was) and it’s stainless steel, though I had to spend a lot of time cleaning it up. And when I boil in it, I have to be really careful because it’s easy to boil over, but if I watch it, I can boil 50 to 55 gallons at a time.”
That’s just shy of a barrel and a half, and bespeaks a sort of patience with quirks and crotchets that you imagine the shift brewers at Widmer Brothers don’t need in their skill sets. And it leads us to the central fact of nano brewing: it takes just as much time to mash, boil and ferment a barrel and a half gallons of beer as it does the hundred or more barrels that the Widmer or Deschutes brewers make in one batch.
John Foyston is Oregon's longest serving beer writer, and wrote a
weekly beer column for The Oregonian until just recently. His
work has appeared on CNN, and in Beer Connoisseur, Celebrator Beer
News, Oregon Beer Growler, Mix Magazine and other publications and
will occasionally appear on these pages, at least until Angelo and DJ
get tired of him too...He can be followed on Twitter at @beerherejohnny.