An Uncommon Brewery

By  |  5 Comments
Sean Burke & Mike Wright – All photos by “SNOB” Ritch Marvin unless otherwise noted

The story behind Portland’s The Commons Brewery could easily be spun into a classic–underdog homebrewer goes pro and wins acclaim and the respect of his peers. Well, it is that story, but owner Mike Wright is not your typical hero. You might think after winning medals at the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival after having been open for less than a year, these guys were confident craft beer veterans with ambitions to become the next big thing. It turns out that The Commons team’s success may have preceded ambition and confidence for a more old school approach of making the best with what you have, no matter how little that is.

Beetje (‘bee-cha’) Brewing

Originally founded under the name Beetje Brewery in owner Mike Wright’s garage, it was an unlikely story from the beginning. A questionable brewing space, a strange name, an and inexperienced brewer brewing an obscure style of “Farmhouse Ale.” Mike Wright might just be the least ambitious brewery owner I have ever met, so lacking in confidence about his startup nano brewery even getting off the ground that he didn’t think much about the name. “When I was starting to fill out the paper work to get licensed in my garage, I was not hopeful that I would succeed in getting licensed so I didn’t put forth the appropriate effort in the naming side of things,” said Mike on how Beetje came to be. The meaning behind the term Beetje roughly translates to “little bit,” which is how much he would be brewing on his 1-barrel Frankenstein brewhouse.

During the earlier days of Beetje Brewing, Mike’s twitter stream read like a cautionary tale of trying to make your hobby a career. “I had no practical/professional experience to guide me. That made even the simplest tasks difficult”. His nano brewhouse was cobbled together from random parts and a couple of Blichmann kettles. Many boil overs, stuck mashes, and broken pumps later it was time to re-evaluate the business. When I describe Beetje as a business, it is in the loosest of terms; even Mike Wright said to me in May of 2011 as he broke the news he was to open The Commons “My original goals were quite modest for Beetje, but in short it was an exploration of the brewing industry and commercial brewing. I was content to have 2-3 accounts”.


Sean Burke and Josh Grgas – Photo by Mike Wright


An Uncommon Team
Around the same time Mike Wright was trying to figure out how to run a nano brewery while raising kids with his wife and trying to balance that with a day job, aspiring professional brewer Sean Burke was attending the Siebel Institute and Josh Grgas was putting in time as a beertender at The Beermongers.  Sean Burke was dedicated to becoming a brewer after a few years of homebrewing. He attended the Siebel Institute in Chicago before going off the Doemens Acadamy in Munich. As Sean was finishing up his time in Munich and considering his move back to Portland with hopes of getting a professional brewing job, his friend, local brewer Sean White, told him about Mike and Beetje Brewing. After corresponding for some time, Mike and Sean met for the first time just a day after his return trip from Europe. “It was evident early on that we were a good fit, and I knew that I needed help from someone with more knowledge than I had. Sean started in July of 2011 just as I was starting to build out the brewery”.

Josh Grgas, memorable to many in the beer industry for his kind generosity as much as his 6 and a half foot stature, quit his job as a financial analyst in 2009 to pursue a job in the craft industry. After brief stints volunteering at beer festivals and breweries, he got a job at Stone Barn Brandyworks and, shortly thereafter, popular beer geek hangout The Beermongers. Homebrewing like mad in his free time and entering beer competitions, he first met Mike Wright as a fellow homebrewer, “I first met Mike at the 2010 Cheers to Belgian Beers where both of our beers won medals in the homebrewing competition (his a farmhouse ale you might be familiar with named Urban Farmhouse Ale).” Within no time Josh was handling buying and event coordination at the Mongers as their status as a craft beer destination was growing. It was during this time that the first Beetje Brewing beers were being released, and as an early fan, he picked up kegs whenever he could. As an up and coming brewer, there is nothing more useful than an influential beertender keeping your name on the lips of every beer geek within a 10 mile radius. Then “One evening, after he started work on The Commons, I visited Mike and met Sean for the first time. We quickly got into a deep conversation about the brewery and beer business and three or four hours later I left there with a great feeling. Mike and Sean seemed to feel the same way and it’s been a really wonderful collaboration since then.”
For The Commons, Josh Grgas has become an invaluable player in their success by doing other key tasks that make a brewery successful beyond just having a quality product. As Mike Wright relates “Once we really got rolling with production (I was still working full time), it was painfully obvious that I needed help with sales and distribution since I had decided to self distribute. Josh was game, and started working part time in early 2012. That quickly evolved into a full time job as sales grew. “


 

The Commons

With early support from the craft beer community and people like Josh Grgas behind him, Mike Wright decided it was time for the next step. Consumed by a burgeoning brewing business, he mustered the confidence to trade in his garage brewery for a shiny new 7-barrel brewhouse in the Oregon Roofers Supply Building in SE Portland. Still, with the hire of his first employee in Sean Burke, he was nervous enough about the new venture to tell me then that  “I do hesitate to say that I’ll be doing it the rest of my life. I just don’t plan that far ahead. As if to back up that claim, Mike did not quit his day job where he had worked the last 12 years as first a business analyst and more recently a project manager in enterprise custom software. The first order of business in starting a new brewery was finding a name, and while for some “Beetje” was well-loved, for Mike it was uncomfortable. In addition to being just incredibly hard to pronounce, it was also becoming not as apt a description. It was a tough move. “It was a hard decision to change the name. I was already underway with the business and starting to get a little traction…In the end, I was no longer comfortable with the name and wanted to move forward with a different name. I have no regrets whatsoever with the name change, and I’m very happy with our current (and final) name.” The new name, The Commons, was representative of everything Mike was all about and what he can credit much success on “the notion that the camaraderie and interaction with friends, and family is the most important thing. The beer cannot be a distraction, and we hope it enhances the time spent with friends but the beer should not be the focus. Enjoy the experience.”



Before the experience of The Commons could be shared, the brewery had to be built. With modest success under his belt with Beetje, Mike still haf no idea how to build a commercial brewery, and that was compounded by his decision to not simply purchase a turn-key brewhouse. 

“I had no knowledge of, and where to procure equipment, how to build out the brewery, and how to run the business.”

 Much of the build-out and installation of the new brewery was up to Mike to figure out on his own, though as usual experts throughout the local community offered their insights and help. Having to source and then assemble all of the equipment was to be an extroardinary journey. If starting a 1-barrel nano brewhouse was a lot of trouble, a 7-barrel brewhouse is at least 7 times the trouble.

“I vividly recall the day the kettle arrived. This beautiful, piece of shiny stainless equipment-a center piece to the operation. Once the fabricator was out the door, a rush of anxiety washed over me and I remember thinking, “How the f*&$ do I use this thing?””


Mike had no idea how to control the new brewhouse’s burner, let alone plumb the kettle itself. Luckily he had industry contacts and a few skills learned in his day job. “As a PM you don’t have any direct management responsibility, but you are responsible for the project. That forces you to figure how how to get things done in a creative way. I think my biggest take away from all those years is, keep-it-simple and you’ll get shit done right more often than not.” It’s that keep-it-simple approach and hands-on learning that informs much of what The Commons is all about, even if it does not seem so from the outside.


One Year In

Farmhouse Ales are a notoriously tricky style of beer to explain; they are hard to define and even more difficult to brew right. They are a quickly growing craft beer style segment, though, thanks to the success of The Commons and breweries like Upright, Jolly Pumpkin, and Ommegang. When asked to describe a farmhouse ale, I always reach for the simplest description I know–it’s all about the yeast. While other styles of beer may rely on the hops, the malt, or even the water, yeast is always a factor, but none so much as farmhouse ale. Traditionally farmhouse beers were open top fermented using locally grown ingredients harvested off of the farms they were usually fermented on. These beers had nothing to hide the natural spicy, fruity, earthy, or tart flavors they develop. Brewer Sean Burke has an equally elegant way of describing the style that goes hand in hand with the breweries back to basics European approach.

“I think the best way to sum it up is simply, use what you have on hand.”

Sean Burke goes on, “The style is about creating a simple rustic beer made to be enjoyed. While we don’t brew in a barn we can still keep that idea alive in the beers we create.” You could say that sums up what The Commons  and Beetje have always done, relied on what they had on hand, no matter how little or much that actually was. From the outside it almost looks like The Commons had instant success, with Urban Farmhouse Ale winning bronze at the World Beer Cup and Flemish Kiss winning Silver at the Great American Beer Festival in just the first year. However, I am sure if you speak to any of the core Commons 3, they will tell you its been a struggle over numerous years. But it just goes to show you that every high tech startup with an all-star team lined up from day one guarantees no more success than an unheralded team of key players. The Commons is like the Brewery equivalent of a well played game of Moneyball.

I was happy to learn while writing this article that Mike Wright finally quit his day job. “It was a very difficult decision. The brewery deserved my full attention, but leaving the financial security and benefits was a big deal. Still, it’s been amazing experience to be able to put all my energy into the brewery.” With success, confidence, and growing experience, The Commons is cautiously stepping out with expanded distribution, bottling and a larger space by moving into a recently vacated neighbor’s space in the Roofers Supply building. It’s a slow and incremental move for The Commons. “We are about to be doubling our current production space. Then as we need to grow we will do it in a methodical way…Truthfully I am excited to have more space and to be able to stretch out a bit. The who know maybe we will get seating” muses Sean Burke, who is excited about it. “Our barrel aging program is steadily growing. We started filling barrels right away knowing the time it takes for some specific characters to develop. We spend a fair amount of energy working with some of our barrels as Flemish Kiss, one of the two regularly bottled beers spends some time with a Brettanomyces strain which we inoculate the barrels with. Typical for Mike Wright, though, when asked about where he sees The Commons in 1 and 5 years, he modestly suggests “I’d just like us to be around another year from now, and then the year after that.

With The Commons Brewery’s 1 Year Anniversary coming up this weekend, there is much to celebrate. On Friday at 7pm The Commons marks its first anniversary with a cheers, and to it I suggest a simple toast: To Mike, Sean, and Josh for keeping it simple, for remembering its about people above all, and for knowing that the simplest path to a finish is a straight line.



Josh, Mike and Sean after their World Beer Cup win in San Diego


The Commons Brewery One Year Anniversary


Thursday, December 6th from 5-9PM marks the release of Bourbon Little Brother, our Heaven Hill Bourbon barrel aged Belgian Dark Strong. We’ll have 750ml bottles for sale for $11 and $125 per case. To celebrate we are hosting a potluck & bottle share in our brewery. Just show up with a bottle of beer and/or food to share with friends.

On Friday, December 7th from 5-9PM we will tap a few special kegs including the last bit of Plum Bretta and provide appetizers from local friends Lardo, Pacific Pie, 2nd Story, and Cheese Bar. At 7pm we will mark the anniversary with a toast.


The Commons Brewery
1810 SE 10th Ave., Unit E (entrance on SE Stephens between 10th & 11th).
Tasting room Open: Thursday & Friday 5-9pm, Saturday 2-9pm.

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

5 Comments

  1. Justin

    December 5, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Great write up on what I think is the best beer (and nicest cast of characters) in Portland!

  2. Anonymous

    December 5, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Doesn’t the bearded guy know hoe to smile? ;-)

  3. Cobi

    December 6, 2012 at 12:08 am

    Great story. I enjoy reading articles like this and getting a behind the scenes look at the genesis of breweries.
    Keep it up.

  4. Jeff from The Big

    December 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Happy Anniversary Mike, Sean and Josh, keep up the good work for many years to come!!!

  5. Jeff in Bend

    December 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Great story! It’s good to see “the little guy” making a go of it. I have a dream of one day starting a brewery and reading articles like this gives me hope, even here in Bend, where you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a brewery (note to animal lovers: it’s just an expression. Chill out).
    Also, something I REALLY appreciate is the $11 price tag for a 750ml bottle when so many nowadays are $20 and up. It’s getting ridiculous, seriously.
    Keep on keepin’ on, guys!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


eight + 7 =