Around the Block (Part 2)

By Frank James

Here’s the conclusion of the interview with Nick Arzner, the owner/brewer from Block 15 Restaurant and Brewpub in Corvallis. He talks about breaking into the competitive Portland craft beer market, barrel aging beers and of course, he talks about the delicious beers that flow from his tanks. He also extends an invitation to Brewpublic readers to tour his ever-expanding brewpub and sample some of Block 15’s unique and tasty beers, if they ever find themselves in Corvallis. As someone who’s done just that, this writer can attest to the fact that the trip is very much worthwhile.

NA: We’re extremely critical of our beers. So it’s great that in a such short time we’ve gotten a lot…a lot of people have noticed our beers. Maybe our style of brewing, or our styles of brewing, out commitment to quality. So it is a little surprising, at how busy we’ve been in our pub, we never thought we would, everyone says, did you know you’d be this busy. I say, yea, I thought we would be successful and make it…things just kind of aligned up in the right way. We’re very pleased with how people feel about our beers. But we’re not satisfied with where we’re at, we’re gonna keep on rolling. Hopefully when we’re 5 years old, I’ll feel pretty satisfied with that. It’s been fantastic.

Do you have any specific goals as either a brewer or a business owner over the next 5 years or so?

NA: We have a term: we’re growing quality, not quantity. We have some goals so far as where we want to get our beers and maybe kind of find some patterns with some of the really unique beers that we do and expanding what we’re doing to create what we feel is the ultimate brewpub. We don’t have any goals as far as building another Block 15 or building a production brewery or anything like that – short term. We keep all options open long term. But for now its just loving what we’re doing, re-tooling what we’re doing and making…really just brewing world class beers, day in, day out.

How did you break into the Portland market? Was it just a matter of knowing people, people contacting you or did you actually go out and actually solicit the business?

NA: I think the very first person was, the very first establishment was Bailey’s Taproom. I think (owner) Geoff (Phillips) emailed me…that’s his commitment to bringing in different and unique beers. I think he emailed me, I sent him some beers up there and they got some really positive feedback. We’ve never been able to distribute much at all, because our demand is so high here, and we won’t push out beer before it’s ready. It kind of snowballed from there. I’ll get emails from different bar owners in Portland, taprooms that would want our beer on tap. Unfortunately, I’m not able to take it up there too often. But this year I might be able to, every other month, take some kegs up to Portland, type of thing, but never really a big distribution. But that’s kind of how that worked in Portland, it was really Bailey’s reaching out first, then some other taprooms reaching out, then maybe a couple of beer festivals we’ve done up there. Special events like that. We started off, we started brewing we had 6 tanks, and we have 17 now, it gives us hopefully at some point the flexibility to have more, to do double batches and to be able to take a few kegs up to Portland. And we do, we actually take some kegs every once in a while down to the Bier Stein in Eugene. They’re very big supporters of us, also.

That’s a pretty quick expansion: from a 6 to 17 tanks. Did you anticipate that?

NA: Well we reinvested pretty much all of our profits back into our business. That’s what we feel we should do, and that’s what is going to make us a better brewery in the short run. So we just keep reinvesting. In fact, I have more tanks coming within the next month, so we should get up to about 20, and having an open fermenter, a custom open fermenter, Koelschip-type vessel made, so we can start doing more open fermentation for our wild ales. And start playing with some spontaneous fermentation-like stuff. We’re fortunate that people really enjoy what we’re doing and they come here and support us so we feel that we should in turn keep evolving and create more unique and interesting and higher quality beer.

You presented a beer at the Cheers for Belgian Beers fest up at Hopworks this past spring. What beer did you present there?

NA: Ferme de la Demons. It was a…cause we had the farmhouse yeast we had to use, and within the dark (color guideline), we were assigned a high alcohol, about a 6% dark beer. So again, it was just one of those ideas, what would be a flavor combination, in our minds that worked and what are some barrels we have around, so we did a black farmhouse ale, essentially aged in bourbon, pinot noir and Oregon oak barrels. And then we blended it with some cherry.

And it was chosen as the People’s Choice, the best beer that day?

NA: Yea, it was pretty cool

I recall drinking it and it was definitely a very unique beer.

NA: I wasn’t able to make the festival, unfortunately. But what we ended up doing was, we re-barreled, we re-barreled the beer we’ll release it in October because well, we brewed another batch of it, mainly because I didn’t want to release a 9 percent black farmhouse ale in May going into the summer. So, we re-barreled it and the pinot noir barrels we had, had tested for some Brettanomyces from the wine barrel we had in front of it, the flavor hadn’t really developed so we inoculated with a [garbled] pristinamycin, we’ll bring it out in October and it’ll have another layer of flavor to it.

So that particular beer will be here on tap in October?

NA: In October. Originally we were going to bottle a part of it and I wanted to have another beer bottled, the Ferme de la Ville Provisions, which was a different farmhouse ale, part aged in oak barrels for about 12 months before we had blended it back in with a batch of [unintelligible] but labeling has taken a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would…the bureaucratic fun stuff.

Are you doing any bottling at this point?

NA: Well not yet, we’re moving towards that. We’ve done some test bottling. In fact, we’re test bottling some more stuff today. And then the plan, our plan has always been we’re going to start bottling…I almost can promise, mid-November we’ll have a beer called Figgin Pudding that we’re gonna bottle and it’s somewhere between an English olde ale/barley wine aged in brandy barrels with figs and spice. So we’re gonna do…I think in the first year we’re gonna bottle roughly 6 beers and we’re doing all bottle-conditioned beers in 750 milliliter Belgian bottles with cork and wiring finish. So we’re doing all really high end, mainly barrel-aged beers that we’ll pretty much just sell out of here. Maybe a couple of other places if we have enough beer.

Like Bailey’s Taproom or Belmont Station –

NA: Yea…sure…we’re talking about bottling only about 80 cases of each beer so we’re not talking about a whole lot of it. But we’re definitely bottling Pappy’s Dark this year, there’s a strong going in bourbon barrels –

You brought that to the Spring Beer and Wine Fest (in Portland)

NA: That’s right…

That was a definitely a very memorable beer. Very nice.

NA: That was one of the first beers I believe, we brought to Bailey’s that first year and it kind of put us on the map in Portland I think. People were like…wow, this beer is…different! We designed it as a beer really to showcase the bourbon barrels rather than most beers are designed to add a bourbon, maybe that barrel complexity to the beer, we thought let’s do one to showcase the bourbon barrels. We used a bunch of British and Belgian specialty malts and it kept it more like a bourbon color. It’s kind of one of those things you do the first time and you go, holy shit, we did that right the first time, alright! (laughs) That’ll make it into bottles this year. I think the first year we only did four bourbon barrels, last year we did a few batches, we did 12 and this year we’re going to get a couple dozen bourbon barrels. Then we’re gonna…we’ll have a lot more on draft. Its funny, we’ve been saying a lot more, we’re really talking pretty small production. We’ll bottle about 80 to 100 cases of that. That should be available, next February. We always release in February.

What are some of your favorite beers. I know it’s kind of like picking out your favorite child, but if you were to sit at the bar and pick out your favorites, what would they be?

Steve Van Rossem and Nick Arzner

NA: I think, for right now, what we have on tap, the Belgian Blonde. I love that. I love getting off work…I really enjoy that beer right now. Like I’ve said, we’re kind of re-tooling it. My wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Belgium May and there’s a Blonde in every cafe. It’s amazing actually how different a lot of them are. So we really kind of shot for in that range. We changed up our yeast this year and some of our grain sugars. Anyway, I think it’s really refreshing, but also relaxing…this reminds me of sitting in a cafe. So right now, I get off work and that’s what I have: the Blonde. I really enjoy that beer. And I drink our IPA a lot also. I probably drink IPA’s 50% of the time and everything else 50% of the time.

Is that the Alpha IPA?

NA: Yes.

Very tasty also.

NA: So, right now, that’s my favorite. I’m really excited for a couple of beers coming out. Like our Hemp Nut Brown…which just came out. It just came out. I just got back in town and I haven’t had a full pint of it yet. It’s a really nice brown ale. I like a lot of Belgian-style ales. We normally always have one on tap. When we can keep up with that.

This particular Belgian Blonde is a specialty, is that correct?

NA: Right. Every summer we do that.

Anything you’d like to say in parting? Anything about the brewpub or the brewery that you would like folks to know about?

NA: Well, for Brewpublic readers and people in Portland one cool thing is that if they are ever coming down here to make a special trip feel free to email me. If I’m around I love showing people what we’re doing here. Dual cellar…part of our cellar expansion which hopefully will be done in November…and I’ll show you when we do a little tour down here, we’ll have a bunch more barrels and an open fermenter and a little brewer’s lounge area, that’ll make it nice and comfortable, so when I do tours I’ll have some special beers on tap. You can just kind of sample and hang out. I really love, I love what we’re doing here, I think its a…I love showing people what we’re doing. It always blows them away when they see, wow, it’s a little brewpub in Corvallis that’s doing all that stuff. So mainly just that…if you’re coming down to the area, get hold of me, we’ll give you a tour

… Alright, thanks very much for your time, it’s been excellent. **