Brewery 26’s outsized ambitions call for a greater scale than their current nano operation and they won’t let the pandemic slow them down
Andy Shaw started Brewery 26 out of his garage in 2017, a single barrel nano operation mostly only available at neighborhood taprooms like Chill N Fill and Room 122. Shaw knew that most nano operations don’t succeed, many ultimately fizzling out as homebrewers get burnt out on the rigors of working a day job while trying to brew and sell craft beer without the margins of larger brewers. Shaw was aware of this when he started Brewery 26 in 2017 after 3 years working toward the goal of becoming licensed to begin with.
“Most do fizzle out and never get anywhere. When we started out in 2017…we knew there was a chance it wouldn’t last,” says Shaw.
It wasn’t long before Brewery 26 faced it’s first hurdles. Shaw’s original partner owner only lasted 8 months before the reality of the nano business became too much for him.
“I think most nanos don’t last because for many people they’re set up to be side hobbies. The reality is that it takes a ton of hours every week to even brew a 1bbl batch and successfully sell it. Plus the cleaning, retrieving kegs, filling samples, and everything else involved it really has to be a labor of love.”
Partly moving ahead out of pure stubbornness, Shaw moved forward with a determination to show that nano home operations can make solid beer and be successful. In the summer of 2018 Shaw quit his day job driving a Heiberg Garbage truck and turned his focus full-time to building up Brewery 26. Through a series of upgrades, production increased from 1 barrel at a time into 3.
“From the get go I always had aspirations to get past the garage. The thought of being my own boss, full creative control, and just getting to work in the beer industry made the goal worth fighting for,” says Shaw.
In 2019, Shaw announced plans to move out of the garage and into a full production space in southeast Portland. Along with a wholesale agreement with the local High Road Distribution company, Brewery 26 would open a 7bbl brewhouse with on-site taproom at 818 SE Ankeny and was also working on securing a second standalone tap house location.
During the spring of 2019, Shaw’s brother-in-law Keith Hattori was laid off from his job, and over that summer they began discussing a potential partnership in the brewery which was made official last December. Now a two man team, Brewery 26 began turning heads for their beers like Oregon Sun Hazy IPA (a hit at the Nano Beer Fest and local beer bars) and increasing their visibility as they steamed forward to a much needed expansion.
The timing was unfortunate, Brewery 26’s Powell Tap House soft opened to the public on March 6th. Local beer fans and the neighborhood community scarcely had a chance to check it out before Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered restaurants and bars to close just 10 days later. The SE Ankeny production facility and taproom had been moving steadily forward and had even welcomed guests during Zwickelmania, but was now put on an indefinite delay awaiting city permits as the pandemic gripped the nation.
As a small and primarily draft beer operation, Brewery 26 saw sales dry up to nearly nothing almost immediately. The tiny Powell Tap House only had a few packed in tables in front of a few bar stools and was primarily a way to move draft beer to locals. Shaw and Hattori quickly moved to packaging as many beers as possible, each can filled by hand one at a time with a single head beer gun and an Oktober hand seamer. Like many other breweries, they pivoted into home delivery, a difficult proposition for any brewery let alone one without sales and delivery drivers and little brand recognition.
“We print basic labels and add them to each can, which is hand labeled and hand filled. Canning takes up a much bigger portion of our week than we planned. But it keeps us in business and turned us into a go-to spot in the neighborhood for to-go sales. That’s been a lifeline for us since the shutdown started,” says Shaw.
Even with the shutdown of their taproom and facing long delays on their production space, Shaw and Hattori were as determined as ever to make things work. This would be the point that many small business owners would throw in the towel or atleast scrap expansion plans and think regretfully about signing those new leases. But not Shaw.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever come close to walking away,” says Shaw. “Even when I was working full time and brewing on every day off it was still fun.”
Now that Multnomah County was able to enter a Phase 1 reopening on June 19th, Brewery 26 Powell Tap House was able to reopen with an assist from the buildings owner. Behind the taproom and around the corner from their neighbors Steakadelphia, Brewery 26 was able to build out a small beer garden that could seat 20+ people during non-COVID times, or around 10 people socially distanced. It’s not many, but matches the indoor area in scale and a potential for more seating overall.
Throughout the pandemic and the constantly shifting reality, and even with extra precautions, hand packaging, delivery and growler fills, Shaw has continued to brew the beers that make him happy. It turns out that many beer drinkers turn to familiarity, the comfort food of a fruited blonde ale, a German-style Kolsch or an American Porter may be just what Brewery 26’s customers were looking for.
“My palate must be in the 90% of the beer drinking population because so far we sell through our beers at a predictable rate,” says Shaw, amused.
Brewery 26’s hazy ‘Oregon Sun’ and clear ‘Crispy Clean IPA’ are big hits for the brewery but the rotating old school Blonde Ale with fruit purees have seen a surprising surge. Even though Shaw continues to see success with many of his favorite styles, there are quite a few that he has not tackled because of the limitations of a 3bbl garage brewhouse. The 7bbl Ankeny brewhouse expansion can not come soon enough, and Shaw has not given up on a late 2020 opening and plans to start brewing lagers and kettle sours as soon as possible.
“I’m the first to point out that not everything I have released has been stellar, however in the last 18 months I feel I’m really starting to hit my stride,” says Shaw, who is looking ahead to better temperature controls and oxygen management to take his beers to the next level.
“Making good beer is relatively easy. The jump to making great to amazing beer is much higher. I’m still working on the second stage of that, but I think I’m close.”
Brewery 26 Powell Tap House is open now Monday – Thursday 4-10pm, and Friday – Sunday from 12-10pm. 5829 SE Powell Blvd, Portland, OR 97206
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.