By Gregory Daurer | Aug 07, 2016
Wright says his brewery's "Gather Around Beer" slogan "emphasizes the social aspect of beer: just hanging out with friends and colleagues," while enjoying a draft or a bottle of The Commons' low-ABV, "approachable, easy-drinking beers. Everything [we make] pairs well with food."
Samples of his brewery's beers are gathered in front of Wright.
One is Urban Farmhouse Ale, a yellowy, effervescent, satisfyingly-quenching saison, which Wright first began brewing in his garage. It's gone on to win at the Great American Beer Festival (in the "French & Belgian-Style Saison" category) and was named "Beer of the Year" in 2013 by Portland's alt-weekly Willamette Week -- an honor which, no doubt, took quite a few in this hop-centric city off-guard. "That was pretty amazing -- and I must say a little bit surprising," says Wright when asked about the latter accolade.
Myrtle, a two-time GABF winner (as an "American-Style Sour Ale"), is kettle-soured. But Wright clarifies how he perceives the acidity level of the orange-hued beer: "We think it's more tart than sour. . . . We use our farmhouse yeast on that and then finish it with and dry hop it with Meridian, which are really citrusy hops. . . . There are flavors of candied orange, candied orange peel. I kind of liken it to a Mimosa, almost."
In a wooden foudre that day and not yet ready for consumption is Flemish Kiss, another GABF medal winner ("American-Style Brett Ale"). Wright describes the beer: "It's fair to say it's amber -- which has a terrible connotation -- but that's a fact. It's very fruity on the nose. Flavors of cherry, little bit of funk. . . . There's a subtle Brettanomyces character to the beer. It's very fruit-forward, even though there isn't actually any fruit in it. Maybe a touch of a peppery characteristic."
For Wright, yeast speaks. "I think we are a yeast-forward brewery," he says. "The easy contrast, there, are the IPAs (or, generally, the American ales) that all of our brothers and sisters, our colleagues, are making so well around here and across the country: where you use super clean yeast that provides little to no character, and allows the malt and the hops to really shine through. In many respects, we're doing almost the opposite of that: We have very reserved malt and hop profiles . . . and then we use very expressive yeasts. It allows the yeast to speak loudly and to provide a lot more [of its] flavor."
Wright, 46, began brewing while working as an IT Project Manager for Multnomah County (which includes Portland). Of his previous job, Wright says, "I was well versed in spreadsheets, and I haven't stopped using them."
Wright had the impetus and the passion to start his own business, explaining, "I just really wanted to give it a go. There were some life circumstances, too, that really summed up to the 'life is short' thing, and I didn't want to regret not trying. And I fully came to terms with the fact that I might fail."
His first entrepeneurial step was successfully getting the nano 1.5-BBL system in his garage licensed in 2010 by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the TTB as a commercial brewery (then known as the Beetje Brewery).
Wright opened The Commons in 2011: "I ran a lot of spreadsheets before I bought that seven-barrel system and leased the commercial space -- and most of those things said, 'Don't do this!' So I just threw them away, decided to do it anyway. It's been a journey, it's been a struggle. We didn't start out as an exceptionally well-funded brewery."
Headquartered in an industrial section of Inner Southeast Portland, The Commons gained a cult reputation, early on. During tasting hours, visitors could wander in, touch the equipment, and order pours of beers developed by Wright and Head Brewer Sean Burke. Seating was extremely limited, standing often mandatory. "We used to have to shut down production to serve beer," adds Wright.
In 2015, the brewery opened its new 15-BBL, three-vessel brewhouse, about a half-mile north of its previous location. Wright says the old brewhouse was "super manual," and calls the new one more efficient, allowing for more complex mashing, for example.
And it provides a space for people to actually sit at a table and "Gather Around Beer" -- perhaps ordering, as well, a sandwich, salad, or cheese board from the Cheese Annex outlet incorporated within the building. (The rotating "$6 Cheese Pairing” might feature a buckwheat grisette with a Comté Raw Cow from France.) In its immediate past, the building, constructed in 1919, had housed a carpet, flooring and tile warehouse; years of industry have been sand-blasted away, bringing the wood on its ceiling and the brick walls back to a sheen. Wright says, "I think the 35-foot high ceilings add to that notion of expansiveness. It's funny because, behind the scenes, we feel crowded back there [in the brewhouse]."
The Commons' bottled beer has distribution mostly on the West Coast, up into Vancouver, B.C. Although the brewery would eventually like to put its ales into smaller containers, Wright says, "We bottle exclusively in 750s. The original reasoning behind that was bottle conditioning -- which is something we do almost exclusively. And we need a really sturdy bottle, something that can handle the higher pressure, the higher volumes of CO2, that we desire for our beers. The 750 champagne-style bottle is the natural fit for that."
The Commons' keg-conditioned beer can found on tap in its tasting room, as well as at select accounts across the city. (In addition to beer bars like Bailey's Taproom and Belmont Station, one spot frequently serving beer from The Commons in Portland is the Laurelhurst Theater, where patrons can enjoy second-run films, while consuming drafts of Oregon craft beer along with pizza or popcorn.) Wright says he really likes "the little extra nuance" that keg-conditioning provides.
It's been quite a journey from Mike Wright's garage to where he is today. "In 2015, we produced 1,600 [barrels]," he says. "This year we're on pace to do 2,500 to 2,800 barrels."
Wright says of the founding of the brewery, "I joke often -- and it's kind of true -- that I put all logic and common sense aside, and decided to do it anyway."
In other words, Wright happily traded away common sense for The Commons.
Favorite beers: Wright just returned from Europe, where he sampled some old and new favorites: "Both Orval and Cantillon are absolutely amazing. I was able to get it from the source -- which is pretty phenomenal. I was reminded how good they are. [Brasserie] de la Senne, which is a relatively new brewery doing Belgian saisons: They're from Belgium, but that country almost moved away from that. It's a relatively new brewery doing it in a style we really appreciate -- and it's amazing."
Wright also cites a few Portland colleagues: "And then, right here locally, kind of sticking in the same vein of beers [that we brew], Upright continues to make amazing beer. Switching gears a little bit to the stuff we don’t make, I really like Heater Allen. Fat Head's is doing a hell of a job: a [Pittsburgh] brewery that planted itself in the middle of Portland -- and just making some of the best IPAs around. And then our friends at Breakside continue to do a wide variety of continuously well-executed beers."
Challenges: "Our challenges are really no different than any other small business: You figure out how you can reasonably grow -- and grow in a healthy manner in a capital-intensive business, in a really competitive market. These are all corporate terms, but they sum it up pretty succinctly: How do you do all that, have fun, and try to build a sustainable business that's going to be here for a while? And those are challenges that I don't think are unique to us or brewing."
Opportunities: Increased sales on site (where there is still room to add seating for, at least, an additional 50): "I think an opportunity that is staring right at us, right now, is this neighborhood that we've just moved into. We're only one and a half, two years into it, and it's rapidly changing from a light industrial scene to very quickly becoming a dense, residential area. So, I think we have a whole lot of opportunity, right here, where we're sitting in our tasting room -- which is the best place that our beer can be consumed, certainly from a freshness perspective."
Needs: Wright says, "There's always another piece of equipment or specific tool or something we need, but those are things you work toward and you get them when it makes sense or when you have a really serious pain point and you need to resolve it."
The Commons also needs to make a big decision: How much larger does the company want to grow? "I think that's a question we're struggling with right now," says Wright -- who it's easy to imagine running spreadsheets in order to figure out how not to grow too much bigger. He says: "We need to be just the right size, so [we're] still a small family of really passionate people, but it's sustainable. And we're in a business that's sort of rooted in volume -- I mean, it's a volume game. And we're trying to bend and twist those rules as much as we can, so we can be relatively small and be sustainable at the same time."