Breakside Slabtown

It's hard to attract any kind of fanfare for a new brewery opening, but Breakside managed to do it four months ago when they invited media in to see their new digs in Slabtown, their third brewery and the first in a close-in site. I planned to give the space a chance to breathe and check in a few times before offering a review--hey, even Breakside should be given a little time to dial things in before we render a verdict, yes?

Breakside opened its doors in Woodlawn, a distant, underserved Northeast neighborhood, back in 2010. Owner Scott Lawrence hired a young guy with a Spanish degree from Yale (and another from Siebel) to brew on an awkward little three-barrel brewery in the basement underneath the pub. Ben Edmunds soon distinguished himself for his culinary bent--lots of unusual ingredients in unexpected beer styles--and Breakside became a wonderful neighborhood brewpub. After a few years, the brewery opened a production facility in Milwaukie, our suburb to the south, and Ben and his expanded crew came to be know for their authentic European styles (one of their flagships is a German pilsner) and then for their IPAs. In 2014, a slightly reformulated version of their other flagship, an IPA, won the gold at the GABF, and the brewery soon came to be known as the premier hophouse in town. (A box the brewers probably lament being placed in.)

The new location is in a once-industrial expanse north of the commercial and residential Northwest/Alphabet District. It was the kind of place you found block after block of unmarked warehouses and the occasional truck rumbling toward the freeway. Its proximity to the Northwest--the first inner neighborhood to gentrify in the 1980s--and Pearl District made it too alluring a target for developers, and now those warehouses are coming down seemingly by the minute, making way for sights like this one, just around the corner from Breakside:

It's been a staggering change, a pop-up neighborhood of urban apartment-dwellers and the insta-amenities that have followed. There's a New Seasons grocery around the block, new restaurants, and now, a new Breakside. Despite the new-building smell wafting around the neighborhood, it feels well-designed and organic (more so than the South Waterfront, which is still trying to put all the pieces together).

The new Breakside location is itself a novel curiosity. The first pub was built with limited funds on a modest scale; the building dictated the design. Their second facility, a production brewery, was secreted away in a business park at the back of a confusing parking lot. (And in Milwaukie. For non-Portlanders, that's across the Clackamas County line, a psychic barrier nearly as sturdy as the old Berlin Wall in separating the two towns.)  There really isn't a Breakside architectural style Modesty had so far been the only common thread. So what would the new place look like?

From the moment you see the giant mural of a man's face on the building, you know "modest" has been left in Milwaukie. The mural is part of the brewery's rebrand that you see on current labels of Wanderlust and IPA--and in their new oddly-meh logo. More in all of that in due course, but let's stick to the physical space. It's a boxy warehouse with a central dining room backed by an attractively-industrial bar on one end. There's a patio with outside seating just beyond the pub, and the warehouse doors can swing open to unite the spaces in an indoor/outdoor thing on sunny days. It seems like one giant space--the ceiling of the central pub is the building's, and it soars miles overheard, but the spaces is actually used more cleverly than that.

There are niches and pockets downstairs, and there's a mezzanine above with its own bar. If you gaze down one side, you see the dining room. If you look through the glass wall on the other, you see the 10-barrel brewery. The brewery is incredibly compact and upright, and it takes a moment for your mind to adjust so it can pick out the brewhouse and fermentation portions. There are plans to add a rooftop bar in coming months, which will further expand the range of possible experiences.

Will Jacquiss, Slabtown's head brewer.

The Beer
Breakside Slabtown is a brewpub; it will serve Slabtown-only beers, heavily focused on IPAs. The brewery was purpose-built to infuse the beer with hoppy goodness. (I have, sadly, lost the notes on the mechanics--though that gives me an excuse to return.) Will Jaquiss, the former R&D brewer at the Dekum brewery, has taken over as head brewer here. He's a quiet but precise guy who stood aside during the media circus and let Ben speak. During that first visit, there was a nice lineup of one-offs, perhaps the best of which was a tropical gose. On my last trip, I really liked Mo' Problems, a classic piney/citrusy pale ale. They did a collaboration with Level Brewing called Bonus Level that was also very brightly hoppy--a classic Breakside-style IPA. Plenty of New-England influences here, too, because 2017.

The high-concept notion behind the new place is a taxonomy of IPAs, all of which will purportedly be explored here. They are based on regional variations, and Ben Edmunds described them in March:

  • Southern California. Made with pilsner malt, dank and citrusy hops, and high bitterness.
  • East Coast. The lineage of "New England IPAs" goes back to old England, with softer malts and English yeasts. NE IPAs will definitely get a workout, at least until the fad wavers.
  • Third Coast. Big, malty beers that are "over the top" on all scores--modeled on the beers of Midwestern breweries like Surly, Fat Heads, and Three Floyds.
  • Mountain States. This one was the least distinct to me. Aggressive bitterness, dank, but different varietals than Southern Cal. Ben pointed to Melvin and Comrade.
  • Southern Hemisphere. Made with Australian and New Zealand hops.

This high-concept thinking is emblematic of Breakside Slabtown, and I think it's mostly superfluous. The focus on hops elides the brewery's historically broad focus, a slightly regrettable move. With beers like Salted Caramel Stout, La Tormenta, Irish stout (no longer a regular), and their pilsner--not to mention a parade of goses and barrel-aged wild ales--they demonstrated a commitment to unusual as well as traditional beers. Breakside Slabtown plays squarely to the hoppy rep, so you're not going to find a lot of diversity beyond hops there (though they always have a few offerings to fill out the taplist).

I do think the taxonomical approach will probably fade; IPAs aren't really regional, or if they ever were, they're changing so much region no longer plays a role. The different Slabtown beers are not identified by these subtypes, and even hardcore hop fans will have a hard time intuiting which category they represent. Nevertheless, the beer has been uniformly good on my three post-launch visits. At worst I've found a few not-quite-dialed-in beers, which could use a bit more balance here or a few fewer hops there. That's not surprising given the concept, which is one of constant experimentation. Of course, at their best, Breakside makes world-class IPAs, and the experiments yield wondrous surprises. That tropical gose, a classic Breakside concoction, was a revelation.

The fishbowl-brewery, visible through the glass walls from the second-floor pub.

The Food
Chef Damien LaBeaux was hired to design the menu. A 30-year vet with experience at the Heathman, Ringside, and University Club, he has plenty of experience with haute cuisine. He has nevertheless been called on to make pub food here. It's good pub food, but still a familiar menu including staples like burgers, mac and cheese, and fish and chips. The appetizers have a tiny bit more flair--fire-roasted jalapeño poppers, Korean tofu tacos--but that's as far as it goes. You'll find a couple higher-end offerings--steak and albacore--but even these are squarely within the pubby vocabulary. If anything, it's a slightly stripped-down version of the original Dekum pub's menu.

I asked LaBeaux whether this would be challenging enough work for him, and he was optimistic that he could guide the menu in a more experimental direction. Based on the neighborhood and clientele, I was hopeful, too, but so far it seems to be headed the other way. I have no idea why Portlanders will not eat more adventuresome food at pubs, but they really won't. The dishes are well-prepared and tasty, but curly fries don't really take us anywhere new. The food is reasonably priced except for the high-end stuff (a cheeseburger's $12). The beer is a bit more expensive at $6--though that seems to be where pints are headed these days. My complaint is categorical; for pub food it is excellent.

The Rebrand
The new space is a physical manifestation of a rebrand that came through the Portland agency Sockeye. In the main, it totally works. Breakside has always been a pretty urban brewery. Led by a crew of young and very talented brewers, they have been on the leading edge of Portland's scene for years. That spirit animates the new building, which draws throngs of young pubgoers. Sound and light bounce off hard surfaces and ricochet around, creating a sense of vibrancy. The little nooks and pockets offer different types of seating for groups of varied sizes and purposes--there are even couches and coffee tables. Even in this enormous space, you can find places for more intimate groups.

The variety of seating options gives Slabtown an organic quality in the midst of the industrial setting--a pretty good description of Breakside itself. My favorite detail is a wall on the second floor checkerboarded with photos and memorabilia of Portland, with an emphasis on the Northwest neighborhood. It's like a visual quiz to test your Portlandness. But those moments clash with what seem like a bit of a misfire on the overall branding scheme. The exterior mural, the new logo, and some of the new label art all seem unrelated to the brewery we've come to know. Sockeye seems to have missed the boat on this score:

We refashioned their brand experience, even assisting with imagery and design at their new brewpub in Portland's Slabtown neighborhood. Through exhaustive, if not delicious research, we arrived at the brand ethos of the duality of "seeking" and "enjoying." With this positioning, Breakside is emotionally connecting with loyalists and new drinkers and is built to crack-open new markets where they aren’t the hometown hero.

(As an added indictment, I have to say the copy on their splash page does not inspire confidence. Regarding their expansion to the Netherlands, they write, "Now, we’ve migrated to Amsterdam for a fresh perspective and strong cultural connections....  And we came because the Heineken is way better here." Hmmm.)

Breakside has succeeded in becoming one of the US's best breweries by allowing its brewers to follow their whims. Breweries develop their identity naturally. Curious brewers tinker, and they hear their customers' reactions to their experiments. Eventually the communication leads to a brewery "voice." Breakside's evolution is evidence of that process, and it has a lived-in, natural feel. Their old logo, of a deck chair and footstool, communicated that a lot better (and with more emotion) than the new indecisive arrow that seems to be oscillating back and forth. Breakside is an ultimate frisbee term, and this is apparently a visual reference to that. A better new logo would have called out the hard-won identity the brewers have built over the past seven years.

But whatever. Breakside will continue to be a brewer-led brewery, and people will go to Slabtown for the vibe, the beer, and (god help us) the burgers--and they will be very happy on all scores. It's great to finally have a Breakside outpost that travelers can more easily visit, and I don't doubt they'll be wowed when they do.

Prefontaine, Tom McCall, Bill Walton--that's your Oregon three right there.