Surveying Portland's Nanobreweries

I'm used to talking to brewers about their brewhouses. Some of the subtleties are lost on a non-commercial brewer--I have only a general sense of how shape, type, and quality affect different systems--but the basic stuff, like size, is pretty obvious. Or has been, until I found myself listening Eric Surface describe Mt. Tabor's brewhouse. He was using odd figures to describe their growth: 30 (current), 60 (expanding to), 120 (aspirational). I nodded as my brain tried to catch up and when it did, I asked with dawning recognition, "Oh! You're talking gallons, right?" (He was.)

Three of the twenty largest craft breweries are based in Oregon. I had a chance to try five of the smallest last week at the Bailey's/Brewpublic Microhopic fest: Beetje, Breakside, Mt. Tabor, Natian, and Vertigo. You could say that many things distinguish these two categories of breweries, but based on my discussion with Ben Edmonds (Breakside) and Mt. Tabor's Surface and co-owner Brian Maher, you couldn't say it was seriousness. These guys have mini-systems, but their goals are as outsized as any other brewer in the country. I guess it makes sense--you want to compete in Portland, Oregon, you better think you can make good beer.

It is unwise to base any judgment on a single beer, but that's all the breweries were able to send to Microhopic, so I'll run down the list here. I'll include website links--if a beer catches your fancy, you can click through and see if you can figure out where it might be pouring.
  • Beetje: Small Saison. A sessionable 5% or so, this beer isn't that small. But it is a nice saison, with lots of yeast character and a NW-level dose of hops. I found the nose full of sulfur and soap (hard for that not to sound like a criticism, but it's not)--the former from the yeast, the latter perhaps from the hops. A lovely little beer--perhaps not ready to knock Dupont aside, but my favorite of the night. (Jeff's fave a saison!--big shocker there.) | Beetje website
  • Breakside: Texas Brown. The name here has a similar provenance to Cascadian Dark Ale. The style emerged which featured robust hopping backed by a nutty malt base. No doubt this type of beer has been brewed in many places at many times, but Texas is laying claim. Fair enough. More a dark amber than fully brown and topped with a persistent, creamy head. A cola nose with floral hopping. The palate is marked by a sharp astringency which I identified (incorrectly) as roast barley. It has that quality of roastiness that almost reaches around toward sour. Apparently it comes from the aggressive hopping, though, combined with the pretty standard malts (Maris Otter, chocolate, Victory and--I think--crystal). | Breakside website, Facebook page
  • Mt Tabor: Little Bull Stout. This was by far the toast of the evening--literally, it turned out. By the end of the night, Angelo had mounted the bar and stood cheering, "Mount Tay-bor!" I thought it was a bit fudge-like in density. In my own many forays into the stout style, I know that if I use too much dark malts, it will almost seem to ball up in my mouth, so that's the "helpful" comment I made to the brewers. It starts with a vanilla nose and ends with a nice roasty finish, which effectively dries it out. Lots of people were really raving about this beer. | Mt. Tabor website, Facebook Page
  • Natian: Big Block IPA. Natian gets credit for having the best tagline of any nanobrewery: "Brewing (nearly) one pint at a time." It must be so, because after a year of business, the only time I had a Natian was in a blind judging. Their debut at Microhopic was bold, though, and I won't soon forget Big Block. I might have called it "stealth bomber" IPA because of the sneaky hopping the beer conceals. Up front it is richly piny both in the nose and on the tongue. The play of sugar-cookie malts and those hops produce what seems like a very approachable beer. Swallow, though, and--pow!--what an amazing bitter whallop. It is akin to Astoria's Bitter Bitch, one of the bitterest beers around. | Natian website, Facebook page
  • Vertigo: Friar Mike's IPA. This was a strange beer. Even after it had warmed, I could locate no aroma. The flavors were similarly mild, and none articulated in a very clear way. The malts and hops were indistinct, and the most notable quality was a sharp alcohol note. After a few swallows, I found that the hops were creating a resinous slick on my tongue, but without offering a lot of flavor along the way. | Vertigo Website, Facebook page
By definition, nano-brewers don't put a lot of beer in the marketplace. But that doesn't mean they can't find tap handles in some nice pubs and restaurants. Wildwood has contracted with Mount Tabor for two kegs a month--definitely doable, even for the tiniest of breweries. I'm not convinced nanobreweries can survive long-term (the effort/profit ratio seems to narrow) , but that doesn't mean they can't compete. Given the seriousness with which these breweries are addressing their craft, my guess is they won't be nano too long, anyway.


Unrelated addendum. Since Microhopic was being held in Bailey's, it meant there was a raft of other good beer also on tap. I couldn't resist Oakshire's Belly of the Beast, thinking it was the same beer I tried and loved at the Oregon Brewers Fest this summer. Although I am no closer to answering that riddle, I can say that the beer is amazing. Actually, it's green. But it will be amazing when the hops lose their jagged edges and instead draw a clean line around the lovely sweet, rich malts. Even green, I was having a high old time with it.

Update. I forgot to post this photo. In case you're wondering, it's from when Angelo hopped up on the bar to make an announcement. I have another that is more representational, just out of focus (and therefore uninteresting). This was so surreal as to be beautiful. Can you find Angelo?