In this episode, I’m in Portland, Oregon. Just east of the Willamette River near downtown at The Commons Brewery, where I spoke with Michael Wright.
Podcast Created and Hosted by: Aaron Johnson
Recorded on location at The Commons Brewery - Portland, OR
Editing & Mixing by: Aaron Johnson
Theme music by: A:M (Aaron Johnson & Danny Moffat)
Michael Wright: My name is Michael Wright, and I'm the founder of the Commons Brewery.
Aaron: And how long has the Commons been open?
MW: Under the Commons moniker it's about five years. There was a short stint in my garage as a licensed brewery as Beetje Brewery. Beetje is a Flemish word for 'little bit'. So I was doing one-barrel batches in the garage for about a year.
A: And then you outgrew the garage.
MW: Outgrew the garage. Yeah, yeah.
A: [chuckle] So have you always been at the site then, since the induction of Commons?
MW: No. The site that you're at now, we've been here for about two years. So we started operating both the brewery and the tasting room in this location in March of 2015.
A: Cool. And how did beer find you?
MW: Yeah. I actually started home-brewing via my stepbrother, Sean Carlton, he and his wife actually have a winery out on the Oregon Coast, and was literally just hooked immediately. I think a week later, I was at home with just enough equipment on the stove-top to do my first home-brew batch, which was pretty terrible, frankly. It was a memorable day, evening. But anyway, I just kept moving forward from there and home-brewed for seven or eight years before I got licensed in the garage.
A: And what was the beer that kicked off that home-brew obsession?
MW: Gosh. It was a little beer that we call Mikanbach, so it was a Rodenbach-inspired beer. My daughter's name is Mika, hence that name. But yeah, it was a Rodenbach-inspired beer that we made that day. I actually just had a bottle of it, like maybe a year ago. So not just... It had passed its prime.
A: Yeah. [chuckle]
MW: Not surprisingly.
A: So what does the Commons focus on, then?
MW: Commons focuses on, at least historically, for the past five years, we have focused on Belgian, French, and German-inspired beers. Mostly farm-house, but we do a handful of German beers, I have an English mild on right now, a stout. Really, the one thing that we've avoided so far is IPA.
A: Right. Plenty of those around.
MW: There are plenty in the Portland Metro area, West Coast nationally, and lots of our friends, brothers and sisters were doing a phenomenal job. It's not that we don't like IPA, we actually love it, most of us consume it, but just so far we haven't done that.
A: It's your unique approach, right?
A: We will not have an IPA here. [chuckle]
MW: Yeah, it's not quite that firm, but yeah.
A: So where does the name come from, then?
MW: The name was meant to reinforce this notion of gathering around beer, which is a tagline that we use, and it's nothing new conceptually. It's just about beer being this really social beverage. And the Commons is a physical place known by many people around the country and around the world as a place to gather. And so it was really just meant to reinforce that notion of a social aspect of beer.
A: And by gathering, this is a very beautiful space. It's an entire open plan warehouse, right?
MW: Yes, that's right. Yep, just a big old, kind of cool-looking building that we just barely cleaned up. [chuckle]
A: What's the size of the a brew-house over there?
MW: We have a 15 barrel JV Northwest three vessel brew-house.
A: And there's a beautiful big barrel here, too.
MW: Yeah we've got one foudre to our name, which is our Flemish Kiss production, brett aged pale ale.
A: So when you opened here, how long did it take the local community to start coming in and get that acceptance into the local community?
MW: Yeah, it's interesting when we moved here, we already had a bit of a following locally, but...
A: Like from your garage days?
MW: No, sorry, from... So there was the garage for about a year, and then 2011, we opened up at a location maybe just a half mile from where you and I are sitting right now and spent about three-and-a-half, four years there. I know this math isn't totally adding up right now, but...
A: It is early in the morning.
MW: It is early morning, yeah.
A: The coffee hasn't kicked in.
MW: Right. So we spent a few years over there. It was off the beaten path, no signage, so we had limited tasting room hours over there and got a little bit of a following. But it was really a destination, like you had to make a conscious decision to go there, you didn't stumble on it. So we did bring a few patrons from that location here, but it's been really surprising to us how many new people have discovered us since this location. What you can't see on the radio is that we are on a corner, a pretty well-traveled corner, so it's a much more high-profile location.
A: Yeah, and I took the 15 bus from downtown right to here, so.
MW: Exactly. Yep. That's right. And what you also can't see on the radio is that there are a number, literally hundreds of apartments being built around us right now.
A: Yes. 'Cause I was down at Cascade Brewing, which is your neighbor...
A: Last night and there's two big apartment buildings going.
MW: Yeah. Yeah. Within three blocks, we've got about 500 or 600 apartments. So that's fantastic for us. That's people who are literally going to be baked into the neighborhood and can just cross the street and come visit us. We love that.
A: And I mentioned Cascade. There's several other breweries in the area.
MW: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
A: How do you find that? Is that a lot of competition or is it just, it kind of creates a new environment in this area?
MW: Both of those things. So the neighborhood, to some extent, becomes a destination, not only for beer, but coffee, booze, there's a lot of distilleries in the neighborhood as well, and there's also some urban wineries and food. So the neighborhood, even in the short two years that we've been in the neighborhood, is really becoming a destination neighborhood. I guess with that said, there's still on any given day, evening, afternoon, there's only a certain number of people that are visiting the neighborhood and so they're going to disperse across those multiple options. Ideally, actually, they visit us, they visit Cascade, they visit Burnside. There are multiple options, Hair of the Dog. So all of those breweries that I just mentioned are within walking distance.
MW: I actually don't know this. I wanna study this. But I think that this neighborhood must be one of the most brewery, densely populated neighborhoods of the United States. I think there's probably a neighborhood in Denver that's competitive in that respect, but there are many breweries within a very short distance of here.
A: And so then, what does that do for you guys in terms of your brewing process? You always have to be on top of your game now, right?
MW: Well, for sure. I think nationally, you need to be on top of your game. And we have 5,000 breweries in America now and counting.
A: My database says 855 here in the Pacific Northwest.
MW: Yeah. We've got nearly 100 in the Portland Metro area, and 200-plus in Oregon, for a pretty small population, actually. Just getting back to that notion, I think you must make good beer. You might exist for a while making mediocre beer in an underserved neighborhood or something, but it won't be long before another brewery opens up right next door to you. And if they're killing it, then you better up your game. So yeah, we consider that just sort of a foundational element. You must make good beer.
A: Right. And you mentioned nationally. Do you only serve your beer here and on draft elsewhere, or do you actually bottle it and send it elsewhere?
MW: The tasting room that we're sitting in is by volume maybe 25% of our business, maybe 25% or 30%. The rest of it, the vast majority, is sold right here in the Portland Metro area, and it's not spread very far. And then small amounts make it up to north of us here, like Seattle, actually a little bit in British Columbia, and then a little bit down into California. And when I say a little bit, I'm talking quarterly, maybe two pallets for the entire state of California. So it's like a couple of little sprinkles.
A: So what was the biggest challenge in order to get this whole operation up and running?
MW: Yeah. So I started very small as we've already covered in the garage. So that was little to no risk. I already owned the garage. I had a job. I had a house. So I really didn't feel like I could just leave all of that behind, and cross my fingers, and hope that it all worked out. So I started very low risk by doing it in the garage. The next step, I purchased the absolute minimum necessary equipment. So it was extremely manual, with a very limited, rudimentary tool set. So I've just slowly grown this thing along the way. Still every penny that we make goes right back into the business to get another tool or what have you. But the place that you and I are sitting in now, that was a big transition for us, in that this required traditional financing. We bought the building. We bought a new brewhouse, built it out. So this was a big step this time. It had been all self-funded prior to that. And again, just by going very slowly in absolute minimum necessary equipment, and just pouring every penny back into it.
A: And do you think you'd be able to survive if you were outside of Portland, create the same kind of thing elsewhere in Oregon or in Washington?
MW: You know, starting out as a farmhouse-focused brewery in a small town, probably not. And outside of Portland five years ago in 2010, 2011, could you have started a farmhouse-focused brewery outside of an urban area? I don't know. I know that a handful of people have done it, but it would be tough. If I had really wanted to do it in a smaller neighborhood or something back then, I probably would have done other beer styles, I guess, if you will. But we had a relatively mature market even in 2010 and '11 here, so the path had already been laid for us to be able to be a niche brewery like that.
A: Right. And who's inspiring you locally at the moment with their beer?
MW: Wow. A number of breweries... In our ballpark, Upright is amazing. Alex and his crew over there make really phenomenal beer. It's inspiring all the time. We're certainly inspired by our neighbors like Cascade, just down the street here. PFriem out of Hood River right now continues to just kill it on pretty much every front. It's that execution that I'm super impressed by. I'm not dismissing any of the flavors that they're making. They're all phenomenal, I think is what I'm trying to say. We continue to enjoy beers from our good friends, Breakside. They continue to kill it over there as they're growing really rapidly, and that's amazing to see that they're keeping that quality really high as they grow like that. There's some smaller ones, like Occidental and Heater Allen that are little treats for us as well. Gosh, the list is long. [chuckle]
A: Now I see you got a kitchen here, so you're not one of those typical breweries with the food truck parked outside and all that. What's your favorite thing out of your kitchen to pair with one of your beers here?
MW: Oh, gosh. So we have, I'm gonna call them rotating, to use a beer term, but rotating charcuterie and cheese plates. Sometimes they're together. Sometimes you can get them individually, like a charcuterie board or a cheese board. That's something that we absolutely love, so to sit down with a cheese board with maybe four or five different cheeses on it. And a taster tray here is a pretty awesome experience.
A: If anybody was wanting to go down this path themselves, what advice would you give them?
MW: Goodness. You better want it really bad. And that probably goes for any small business. But this is an interesting time in the craft brewing industry, I think, worldwide, but certainly nationally in America. There's a new brewery opening every day. There's lots of big money coming in. There's lots of really talented brewers who have been successful at other breweries, leaving, departing, and starting their own projects. So they're coming in with various levels of rockstar status, and skill, and money.
MW: So if you're coming in, like I did, as a home brewer essentially, you're gonna have to work really hard and that's okay. But just be prepared for that, I think. Certainly, one lesson again I think... And again, this applies to any business you're gonna start. But certainly in a capital-intensive business like a brewery, make sure you have some cash flow to ride out a while, 'cause not every month is gonna be gangbusters.
A: Right. For somebody coming to the Commons Brewery for the first time, what would you like their experience to be, and what they leave with at the end of their visit?
MW: Yeah. Good question. I think in some respects, I would hope that what they walked away with was a really amazing experience with their friend, family, neighbor, whoever it was, and that the beer was just a subtle enjoyment. I don't need the beer to be the main thing that they walk away with as their memory. I'm just hoping that they had a really enjoyable time, and that the beer was just one component of that. Now the flipside of that is if the beer is bad, they're going to remember that.
A: Yeah. [chuckle]
MW: And we don't want that.
MW: I'm not gonna be mad either if they walk away with a really awesome experience of the beer, and that's all they can think about, that's great. But the whole notion of gather around beer or the social aspect is that it's just one component in that experience. I guess the other thing is, as you noted, we have a very open layout here. So there's no walls between the tasting room and the brewery. And so you're literally right next to the making of the beer, and that's kinda neat. Hopefully, people enjoy that as well.
A: And a final, tough question for you. What's the story that you wanna portray with your beer?
MW: I think, number one, is that it's approachable regardless of the fact that it's a, I'm gonna air quote this, "Belgian beer or an English mild", or whatever. We want it to be approachable and flavorful. And I know that seems really vague, but we're really serious about balanced beers and flavor and subtlety, so that none of these things are gonna hit you over the head. Even the annual, rarely-made, 10% bourbon barrel-aged Belgian dark strong that we make drinks like it's a 6% beer. We just want really approachable and balanced beers, despite the fact that there's a little bit of mystique with this European-inspired, Belgian, French, German stuff. Just walk up to it, drink it, enjoy it, and carry on. [chuckle]
A: Well, thank you so much for your time.
MW: It's my pleasure, thank you.