The Most Interesting Brewery in Oregon

Look closely and you'll see three gold medals dangling from this chalkboard.

In one of the best books on the subject, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, historian Richard Unger ambles through ingredients people once used to made beer. A scholar writing in German in 1539, Unger wrote, suggested that "fresh eggs, salt, hops, a handful of ashes, and even a little wine at the right time could improve beer or save it from being undrinkable." In 1588, the botanist Jacobus Theodorus discussed beer extensively. "He accepted the use of laurel, ivy, or Dutch myrtle—presumably bog myrtle—to keep the beer resistant to souring," Unger writes. "Henbane, on the other hand, he warned could cause insanity while chimney soot could dry out the lungs and liver and make the race red and ugly." Indeed, if you look at the few descriptions we have of beer from this era, it seems like basically anything was fair game so long as it was fermentable or tasted good.

All of this sprang into my mind last week--on Halloween, actually--when I sat down with James Neumeister, the founder of Ground Breaker Brewing, one of the country's only fully gluten-free brewery. "Gluten-free" brewing is a funny little niche with in beer that our modern minds place into a special, denigrated category: beer with some essential part of the beer removed. But this really is a modern view. By sixteenth-century standards these ingredients would have been entirely normal. Even more compelling; once I started thinking about Ground Breaker as a brewery rather than a gluten-free brewery, I discovered that it was one of the most interesting I'd ever encountered.

 James Neumeister

James Neumeister

The man behind Ground Breaker was trained as a machinist. His step-father was a machinist, and as early as 12 he was starting his career in the field. He went to college to study it, and worked as a machinist for seven years afterward. Opportunities were shrinking up, and around 2008, the company he was working for saw its vendors shrink from 400 to just ten. Over the course of the next few years, he went to culinary school, started homebrewing, and, critically, watched an ill friend go through an ordeal before finding out she had Celiac disease. It was Portland, so naturally she liked beer, but none of the gluten-free stuff on the market was much good.

As a machinist, he'd found work fabricating defense-related equipment, but was growing increasingly uncomfortable with that. Opening a gluten-free brewery seemed like a turn in the right direction. "This looked like a job I could have that would make people happy," he said. And so he began researching Celiac disease and how to make beer that was free of the offending proteins that caused it.

This is where the story gets interesting. If you're planning on making beer from barley or wheat, there are hundreds of resources available. They'll tell you how much water to use in your mash, how warm it should be, how many rests to use and at what temperature and for how long. They'll tell you what happens when you alter anything. But what happens if you start with lentils? Or chestnuts? Or brown rice? "If it has starch and doesn't have oil, you can use it to make beer," he discovered. But as anyone who's tried some of the odder or poorer examples can attest, that doesn't mean you get a tasty beer.

Neumeister knew he was on the wrong track with his early batches because they sounded wrong. "Like 7-Up," he said. This pointed to the consistency challenge--so many gluten free beers, lacking proteins, have the consistency of soda. Sourish, metallic off-flavors are also common, and Neumeister thinks this is related to yeast health. "I think a lot of the flavors people taste in gluten-free beers come from the yeast." He had his wort tested to find out what nutrients it had and which it lacked, and he prepares a custom dose of yeast nutrient to make sure the fermentation produces clean, normal flavors.

Ground Breaker uses grists that include sorghum (the main fermentable), lentils, and chestnuts. Neumeister uses a standard 7-barrel brewhouse and standard mash. Of course, he had to figure out how to use it himself. The first time he made a batch, he did a two-hour mash and pulled a quart of wort every ten minutes. He did gravity readings on each one and came up with a mashing regime that works with these ingredients. (He was, not surprisingly, reluctant to divulge the process, but you can repeat it yourself if your really want to know.)

Over the six years he's been making beer, Neumeister has altered the ratios. He works with a grower in McMinnville who provides chestnuts, but they're eight times the cost of barley. Sorghum is necessary for its fermentability, but is the ingredient Ground Breaker has to work around. Lentils round out the profile. Getting the grist composition right has been an evolving process, particularly because he originally saw sorghum as a barrier, not an asset. He eventually discovered how the other ingredients made a more characteristic profile, and came back around to his central ingredient. "Maybe I need to make friends with this and tame it," he concluded. "If you want to make a bottle of gluten-free beer for less than $24, you have to make peace with sorghum."

I should note here that Ground Breaker's beers don't taste gluten-free. They taste like normal beers, look like normal beers, have thick, creamy heads--actually better than many normal beers--and have the texture of normal beers. They're so good that Ground Breaker has taken the gold medal in gluten-free beer three of the last four years at the GABF. Their dark ale is the multi-medal winner, but the IPA is the one that really impresses me. It has a rich, toffee base and spicy hops that tail off into tropical fruit. In a blind tasting, I doubt any judge would identify it as a gluten-free beer. Moreover, in a town full of great IPAs, Ground Breaker's IPA No. 5 stands out on its own merit. It's just a great IPA, full stop.

That's the IPA in the foreground and the dark ale with the meringue head. (The IPA isn't as dark as this picture suggests, but it is a deep amber.)

Making peace with sorghum and achieving these "normal" flavors meant judicious use of lentils and chestnuts. One of the most interesting things about this project is how Ground Breaker gets lentils and chestnuts to function like specialty grain. (There is no such thing as "caramel" or "Munich" lentils, for example.) The brewery owns a large drum roaster from Jordan designed for nuts that brewers use to kiln and roast the grain. Chestnuts go through an unusual flavor spectrum, and the lentils kick off a terrible aroma at a particular point in the roasting process. "You definitely have to get on the other side of that," he told me, laughing. Again, through trial and error they figured out how to toast and roast the ingredients to get the character they wanted.

Once the mash is complete, the rest of the process looks like any other. Brewers boil the wort, add hops, and ferment as usual (with the help of the yeast nutrient). The little brewhouse is cramped and Ground Breaker has been maxed out at about 1700 barrels for a while. The near-term plan is to move the adjacent gastropub to a new site and move into the restaurant space. That will buy them a bit of time, but orders are far outstripping capacity now. Five years ago, many breweries targeted the gluten-free market, but making a version that tastes like beer is apparently extremely hard. Few do it well, and so long as that continues to be the case, Ground Breaker is going to be in demand.

When I asked James if he felt like he'd been sent to the kiddie table, cut off from people who might like his beers on their own terms, I was surprised by his answer. Not at all, he told me; he loves offering gluten-sensitive people a selection of beer-tasting gluten-free beers. I feel a bit bad about this state of affairs, though. (Until Ground Breaker won their third gold medal this year, I hadn't had one of their ales for probably two years.)

Calling Ground Breaker a gluten-free brewery will inevitably, in most drinkers' minds, suggest a compromise. Maybe they make good beer for a gluten-free brewery, but there's always going to be that mental asterisk. I now have two objections to this. First, the beer good, period--no qualifiers needed. But more importantly, it's just beer. Sure, it's unusual to have beer made of oddball ingredients in 2017, but not by historical standards. And, by tuning it out, we miss how unusual and interesting it is. Ground Breaker makes beer from sorghum, and hand-roasted lentils and chestnuts. Forget the gluten-free part--how cool is that?