The Commons to Close
Today we heard the very sad news that The Commons will be closing up shop. On January 1, that wonderful space at the east end of the Morrison Bridge will be owned by San Diego's Modern Times.
I had heard rumors this was happening and braced for the announcement. (A proper journalist would have tracked down the story and broken it, but as ever, I am not even an improper journalist.) The Commons wasn't able to make the leap to the new building, which Mike Wright bought in 2015. Even at the time, the purchase was a reach. Wright wanted to have the place open in time for the Craft Brewers Conference that year, and was barely able to pull it off. As he told Brewbound, “This boiled down to simple debits and credits. That’s the sinister simplicity of a cash flow problem. Your debt is clearly defined, but revenue is a rollercoaster.”
This is just terrible news. I have made no secret of my admiration of The Commons, and I can't remember a brewery closure ever depressing me more. The beer is special and unusual in this hop-loving town, and the physical spaces (including the previous smaller location a few blocks away) have lived up to Wright's mission ("gather around beer") as great places to drink. It is hard to create something original in a town of 70 breweries, but the Commons is unique and, when it's gone, there will be nothing to take its place. The city will lose a real piece of its character.
(I have only positive impressions of Modern Times, but the kinds of beers they offer will in no way replace The Commons.)
As the news spread, one question I kept hearing was this one: why did a brewery making such interesting, high-quality beer fail to make it in Portland when so many mediocre ones succeed?
Even before this news, it was clear The Commons was in trouble. When they parted ways with Sean Burke, their wonderful, German-trained brewer earlier this summer, it sent off a loud klaxon of distress. I began pondering this question then, and I have a couple theories. The first and obvious answer has to do with finances; Wright built the brewery from a nano and didn't have the kind of cash to avoid debt. Any company that takes on debt puts itself at risk.
But the very thing that made The Commons beloved by some--and they probably have more superfans than Deschutes--made it mysterious to most. It was the Velvet Underground of breweries, making exceptional beer most people didn't understand. Any brewery that routinely offers mild ales and microbiere (a tiny saison) but not IPA is defining themselves far outside the mainstream. The Commons spent years fielding the same question from confused patrons: "which one's the IPA?" For a time, they were absurdly guiding people to Myrtle, a saison in which astute drinkers might detect the presence of hop aroma. That was their sop to the masses.
But a bigger problem, I think, was their failure to brag. In a state with the highest across-the-board standard for quality in the US, The Commons stood out as one of the premier breweries. I've traveled all over the US and Western Europe, and I'm here to tell you they make world-class beer. But they internalized the sense of the non-braggy Everyman--perhaps inevitable for a brewery named The Commons. Their bottled beer sent clues that it was a luxe product, but just clues. And when you went to the pub, you found beers priced at $4 and $5. A lot of the recent wave of breweries swan onto the stage with a regal sense of self regard and charge a mint for their beer, which they serve with a heap of attitude. [Note: "Brag" here is shorthand for signaling, which I recently discussed. You don't literally brag but rather signal to the customer what kind of product you have.]
That left The Commons in a no-man's land. They made unusual beers that never catered to mass tastes, which necessarily limited their audience. But they didn't send the simultaneous message that the beer was a rare and special treat that drinkers might have to stretch to appreciate. Up the street, Cascade offers a clinic in how to do this. Their beers are incredibly challenging AND expensive as hell. And Cascade loudly broadcasts its status as an afficianado's beer. I've watched people take a drink of Cascade, recoil, and then, over the course of the pour, talk themselves into liking it. (Surely in many cases they actually do come to like it--but they get that they're supposed to like it, which adds something to the experience.) At The Commons, I think people shrugged and went looking for an IPA. No one told them that the beers they were drinking were that good.
All of which made me like them all the more. The people who worked at The Commons had the idea that their beer would speak for itself. And for those of us who loved them, it did. Unfortunately, there just weren't enough of us.
If there's any silver lining in this horrible development, it's that the brewery will be around for a few more months. If we can't keep The Commons, at least we can still go there and mourn.
PHOTOS: The Commons