Fort George Brewery Expansion:Interview with Co-founder Chris Nemlowill

Fort George Brewery founders Chris Nemlowill (left) and Jack Harris

Fort George Brewery and Public House in Astoria, Oregon has been dazzling the palates of Oregon craft beer enthusiasts since its inception in March 2007. Founded by brewers Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill, the two combined their brewing expertise from previous North Coast gigs at Bill’s Tavern and Astoria Brewing Company to bring some of the best craft offerings not only to Astoria, but to the greater Oregon market. Beginning with a humble 8.5 barrel (10 hectoliter) brewhouse obtained from a Virginia pub, Fort George has recently made great strides to expand their operation with the purchase of adjoining property, a larger 30 barrel brewhouse acquired from Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, Texas, and the implementation of a state of the art canning operation purchased from Cask Brewing Systems in Calgary, Canada. This new endeavor will greatly expound upon their largely meaningful, efficacious, and well-received commitment to the regions craft beer community. And not only will the ground breaking unveiling of the new incarnation of Fort George carry great social and economic implications to the area, it also leads forth significant historical connotations.

A plaque in Astoria’s Fort Astoria Park, proclaims that the fort was home to the first white woman west of the Rockies, in 1814. She is described on the plaque only as “Jane Barnes English Barmaid,” so it’s fitting that the former home of a barmaid should house a brewery nearly 200 years later. -from Fort George Brewery and Public House’s blogsite.

Just in time for the celebration of Astoria’s bicentennial, Fort George will unveil the latest aggregate of the company’s devout labors that includes a new 30,000 square foot brewhouse that is soon to package Oregon’s first 16-ounce craft beer in cans. One of the first two flavors hit the marketplace will be their 1811 Pre-Prohibition Lager to commemorate the first 200 years of Western organized settlement in Astoria.

Brewpublic has the distinct opportunity to speak with co-founder Nemlowill to learn more about this monumental undertaking. 

Upgrading from an 8.5bbl system to a 30 bbl system is a big leap. When did you decide to increase capacity?

Chris Nemlowill: It was the October before last (October 2009) we had an opportunity to purchase to purchase the building. We were initially thinking of just going upstairs (at original brewpub) and put some more fermenters and continue to use our 8.5 barrel system. But, with the rate of growth we were experiencing, we just knew we were going to need a bigger system. This last summer we were not able to keep up with demand. So with a new system we wanted something that was big enough that we’d be able to grow enough before we ran out of capacity again. We thought a 30 barrel system would be about the perfect size for us.

Were you having trouble keeping up with demand or is the 30 bbl system due to your forthcoming canning and distribution?

CN: It was first and foremost that we were having a hard time keeping up with demand. So if we were just going to continue with just the draught route, we could have maybe just added a few more fermenters just to keep up for a little while. But we saw that our distributor, Mountain Peoples, all last summer, were every week ordering about twice as much beer as we could give them. So just with draught we were over capacity; we were brewing as fast and as efficient as we possibly could. We did over 1200 barrels last year which is about the maximum for our 8.5 barrel system. And a lot of that production was Vortex (IPA). So it will be nice to make Vortex on our big system now.

Fort George Brewery's new brewhouse and canning line

Have you needed to add more staff with the expansion effort?

CN: Yes. We brought in a lot of people just to build the expansion. And a lot of those people we hired on for the build-out we’ve retained and our now brew staff. Through the build-out and expansion we’ve been training them how to brew and what’s great is these people who were doing this build-out, a couple, really know the ins and outs of the new brewery space. It’s working out really nice. Starting in March we’re probably going to start hiring more people like sales staff and potentially another new brewer within the next year.

How many brewers do you have right now?

CN: Currently we have got five. We have a woman who is training right now to be a brewer. She started off in the kitchen, then she started cleaning kegs, and now she is transferring beers. She’s a total rock star. Her name is Piper and she’s going to probably brewing here soon, too.

Fort George Cellar Master Vinnie Steele

How did you find your system at Saint Arnold’s in Houston, Texas?

CN: They grew out of this 30 barrel system which they brewed 30,000 barrels on last year. So we know that it’s efficient. It’s a great system that is perfect for our needs. Saint Arnold went to a 120 barrel system and they sold us everything from the 30 barrel. They moved to a new location with a new system so we pretty much purchased their entire brewery that came with three 60 barrel fermenters, a 60 barrel brite tank, two walk-in coolers, kegging and keg cleaning equipment, filtration, and even a reverse osmosis system that we are not going to have to use here. We got a lot of stuff, a big package. It was about five 56-foot trailers worth of equipment. We got a lot of great stuff including a grain silo. It’s pretty incredible because we purchased the property during the October before last (2009) and I had been looking at this new system. I knew we needed a new system and figured a 30 barrel would be about right. While I was interested in that system, I had been told for a couple of months that it had been sold. I ended up getting ahold of Brock Wagner (Saint Arnold Brewery founder) and he said that actually the people who were going to purchase it fell though and “if you can come up with 20% down non-refundable, you can purchase it.” So we thought “oh my gosh we gotta come up with some cash” and we figured it out and it worked out absolutely perfect. A month after we purchased the property, we had ourselves a 30 barrel system. It’s great.

Fort George truck loaded with new brew system from Saint Arnold's Brewery in Houston, Texas

Where in Astoria is  the new property that you are expanding into?

CN: We’re on the exact same block just across the parking lot from our pub. There’s a 30,000 square foot old Chevy dealership. We purchased the entire city block except for a small city park that’s on our block fortunately. We went from 2900 square feet to over 43,000 square feet. We were busting at our seams at 2900 square feet and didn’t have room to move at all so it’s nice. Because it is a big jump, we have really just focused on a small portion of the new 30,000 square foot building. We’re taking up about 8,000 square feet in through the build-out and later on down the road we’ll be able to have a lot of expansion room as well.

When do you anticipate Fort George cans will be available to the general public?

CN: The way I kind of see the roll-out going is that we’re really hoping to have our beer in cans before spring break. That’s my ultimate goal. Our goal last year was to have our beer in cans before April 2011 for the bicentennial of Astoria. Astoria was founded in 1811 on the exact location of our brewery and so we’re really looking forward to celebrating that. That is where the 1811 (Pre-Prohibition) Lager name came about. So the 1811 Lager and Vortex, we are hoping to have in cans in Clatsop County and up in Portland. Sometime after those two beers launch, we’re interested in putting Cavatica Stout in a 16-ounce can and maybe Quick Wit. There’s also a big call out there for Nut Red ale in the can and also Sunrise Oatmeal Pale. We’ll just have to see what people want. The best way to let us know is for people to come into the pub and tell us what they want or email us. We love feedback.

Are you looking at eventually expanding your reach into any other markets or states?

CN: Absolutely. We’re definitely interested in getting up to Washington. We’ve had a lot of people come down who are very interested in our beer up there. We’ve got multiple bars up in Seattle who are interested in our beer. Even across the river up in Chinook, Ilwaco, and Long Beach there’s some bars who want our beer so we’re going to try to get up there as soon as possible.

Why did you choose 16-ounce cans rather than 12-ounce cans like most other breweries that can craft beer?

CN: Twelve ounces of beer in a can just isn’t enough for me personally. I like to drink a pint of Vortex or 1811 Lager at a time. We might down the road put some bigger beers in a 12-ounce can. Those will probably also roll out in the big 22-ounce bottles.

We just learned that another brewery in Maine, Baxter Brewing, obtained their canning machine from Cask Brewing Systems in Calgary, Canada. Did you look at any others or are they the go-to resource for breweries looking to can? How did you hear about them?

CN: The thing that Cask is really hitting on is that it’s the perfect size machine for a small, small craft brewery. If you’re on a region scale for a brewery you’re probably better off with some different systems,  Cask really tailors to small breweries. It’s the only system that you can purchase at under $100,000. They’ve made a lot of changes. The system, I believe, was originally developed for Oskar Blues and a bunch of other people were interested in it. It does 25 cans a minute, which is about perfect for us. A lot of mass producers of beer in the United States use $1,000,000-plus canning lines that spit cans out really fast. But Cask is the only company that’s making a canning line that’s really affordable right now, fortunately for a small brewery like us.

Tell us more about your new tasting room. What will that look like in relation to your existing taproom?

CN: The new tasting room next door is just absolutely gorgeous. We used reclaimed beams from a building in downtown Astoria where Bank of America used to be that burned down two or three years ago. We got all of the charred timbers out of the building that we took out to the local mill to have two inches cut off each side. Absolutely gorgeous old growth Douglas-Fir timbers that are awesome because they still have all the old nail holes in them. The bar is actually a surrounding bar where the walls have the bar and there’s a big main bar. That taproom is going to be opening for February. Speaking of February, we’ll be open Fridays and Saturdays right off the bat and starting Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 8, 2011) which is the kickoff of Astoria Saturday Market, we’re opening it up. We’ll try it out. There will be some eclectic beers next door in the tasting room, those you can’t get in the pub. People will not only be able to go over there and taste our beer, but they can get a brewery tour, and we will be able to explain all the nuances to our beers and the subtleties, the brewing process, and everything that goes into our beers.

Chris Nemlowill (left) and Jack Harris in new Fort George taproom

The expansion process must have been quite a bit of work to say the least. What has been the most trying part of the whole ordeal?

CN: Financing is really hard right now. Finding someone who is willing to take a risk on you is difficult. Enterprise Cascade, who has helps out a lot of non-profits and small businesses, up in Ilwaco, Washington, went to bat for us and gave us a loan so we could buy the brewery from Saint Arnold’s. So that was kind of hard. Also, we made a big change in the power for our building that created a lot of infrastructure for the building. It was built in 1921. Fortunately we’ve got these killer 50-foot span fir pillars that are about twice as big as the ones in the pub. They’re absolutely amazing. So the power, we were at 2-phase and went up to 3-phase 40-volt power that made a lot of the motors run more efficiently, and we used it for a lot of the lighting. It was a lot of work getting all the numbers together. We had to get a lot of fresh power lines running to the building, too.  That was one of the most trying things with our expansion.

Fort George Brewery's expansion effort has included the arduous work of adding more power lines

Is there any concern that the growth in the craft beer industry might hit a ceiling or saturation point? And are you concerned that your expansion might be too much for the future marketplace?

CN: No. It’s definitely not a concern. When I was talking with Brian (Butenschoen) with the Oregon Brewers Guild early last year, and he said, I believe, something like 12% of the beer consumed in Oregon is made in Oregon. And that makes me feel like there is just a lot of potential for craft brewing here. Before Prohibition there were about 4000 breweries in the country, and now were somewhere around 2000. People still look at craft beer as another affordable luxury and I think there’s still room for tons of growth.

Fort George Brewery expansion

Now that your 8.5 bbl system is become a pilot system of sorts, can we expect to see more one-offs from Fort George?

CN: Absolutely. We already are having a lot of fun with the small brewery. That’s where the lager started. We’re going to be making all kinds of fun beers and one-offs in that system and if people like (a specialty brew) in the pub it might move up to the big system.

What future undertakings are you most excited about with your new setup?

CN: The most exciting thing for me right now is thinking about sitting down and drinking one of our beers out of a can – 1811 Lager or Vortex IPA – from a 16-ounce can. And I can take one home at the end of the day and drink one with my family. That will be fantastic.