The Evolution of Great Notion

The Grand Opening of Great Notion’s new production facility and taproom was heralded by ribbon-cutting and a marching band—which I missed, stuck in two of Portland’s dozens of new-construction projects. Fortunately, when I did finally arrive, the founding trio of Paul Reiter, James Dugan, and Andy Miller were there to show me around.

Their piece of the new building is a massive 60,000 square-foot parcel that includes soaring rafters that were glowing in the rare winter sunlight shining through high windows above the brewery. The building looks newish from the outside, particularly with the new facade that frames the taproom, but those beams, made of Oregon old-growth, are a tell that it’s actually a much older building (1944, according to Portland Maps).

Great Notion has actually had the new place since December 2016, and brewed their first batch there almost a year ago—making the slate of hazy IPAs and pastry beers for which they’ve become famous. But this was the first time customers could visit the bright taproom with giant murals of characters from the brewery’s labels. And visit they did: the ribbon cutting commenced at 11am this Monday; by the time I walked into the front door at about 11:15, the taproom was totally full of fans who wanted to be the first to give it a test-drive.

Before the Beginning

One day several years ago, Andy Miller was walking near his house in the Overlook neighborhood of town when he saw one of his neighbors homebrewing. He stopped and introduced himself and discovered his future partner James Dugan—though that partnership was still a ways off. By Andy’s account, James wasn’t much impressed that he was a homebrewer, but it brought them into each other’s orbit. At the time, Andy was working as a landscaper and James had a small printing business at home. On his son’s first birthday, Andy invited James over to try some of his beer, and they became friends. Andy recalled this period fondly. “We had time to brew beer and hang out with the kids.”

They had success with their beer and had some ambitions to go commercial, and that’s when they met another neighbor, Paul Reiter, who understood finance and money (he has an MBA). He was impressed with their beer and pushed them to consider going pro. “Like a week later he comes back and says, ‘So I have an investor,’” Andy said, laughing. James and Andy hadn’t been seriously considering it, but meeting Paul made the prospect more tangible. They pursued an interesting set of income streams to finance the brewery (SBA loan, private equity, Kickstarter) and eventually took over the underutilized, divey Mash Tun brewery on Alberta. They took possession in 2015 and released their first beer in January 2016.

At this point most breweries make a hazy IPA, but Great Notion broke the ice in Portland. They followed the blueprint of New England breweries like Trillium and Tree House, sold their beer in colorful cans at the brewery, and quickly set the pace for new beer styles in Portland. The half-life of brewing trends happens so fast now, I was surprised to see how recently Great Notion opened—their effect on the Rose City was immediate and profound. In addition to hazies, they led Portland into the “pastry” phenomenon of sweet, confection-inspired beers, as well. The brewery had only sold 536 barrels in its debut year, but Miller, Dugan, and Reiter were already looking to expand based on all the buzz Great Notion was getting. (Great Notion sold 2,000 barrels in Oregon in 2018.)

Andy Miller (Paul and James had rushed off before I could get a group shot.)

Beyond Haze and Pastries

As we looked at the new 30-barrel Pinnacle brewhouse, made on Swan Island, just down the hill from where the three founders live, I asked James about their business model. It’s common when breweries grow to focus on a core group of beers to produce in volume. It’s typical to see a company add a larger brewhouse and get tanks that are two, three, or four times as big to contain the brewery’s workhorse beers. That’s not how Great Notion operates. They have five regular beers, but even together these don’t constitute a giant proportion of total production. Although that tall ceiling would contain some very tall conditioning tanks, Great Notion’s are all modest. They experiment and make a lot of different beers, and don’t need large tanks.

At one point I wondered aloud if this caused them any anxiety. Great Notion has been the belle of Portland’s ball for three years, but what happens if the fashion moves along? “I feel you need to stay ahead of the trends,” James said. They rely on their own tastes and “being in touch with the beer nerds.” As if to answer my next question, James and Andy steered me toward their new barrel area. (The massive production space is wide open, like a barn, and so there’s no real barrel “room.” Off on a wing next to the canning line—which came from Fort George after they upgraded theirs—are stacks of barrels and puncheons and a few pallets of packaged beer that served as a makeshift warm room.)

The next project, one they’re very excited about, is a wild barrel-aging program. The first beer from that project is a wine-beer hybrid made with 49% pinot noir grapes and a mixed-fermentation saison. As you can see in the picture, it looks a lot more like a wine than a beer. That comes from the 200 pounds of grapes they added per barrel. Grape-must beers are having a moment now, but unlike hazies and pastry stouts, they draw on a more traditional lineage of brewing. As they move into more of these barrel-aged beers, Great Notion will be harnessing their creativity to make sophisticated, elegant products—a contrast with the Blueberry Muffin, Key Lime Pie, and Melted Marshmallow that attract throngs now.

The wild program started when James began harvesting wild yeast from “any wild beer we liked.” Those first homebrew projects produced wildly varied beer—no surprise—so they took their concoctions to Dana Garves at Oregon Brewlab to have the different microorganisms isolated. She isolated several different strains, and they brewed with those separately, choosing the ones they preferred.

They’re also doing their own experiments. We stopped into Andy’s office (he heads the new production brewery, while James focuses on recipe development) and on a table were several beakers of wort. One contained wild yeast collected in December in Andy’s back yard, which they’re hopeful about. Who knows, if it eventually becomes a part of the yeasts they routinely use, maybe they’ll call it Brettanomyces overlookensis.

Looking Toward … the McMenamins?

One of the first things Paul told me when I arrived was the most surprising thing I heard on my tour. “We’re really inspired by the McMenamins,” he said. For a brewery sitting on the bleeding edge of the industry, this was a curious comment. The McMenamins, whose scores of hippyish pubs still serve beers created in the 1980s, is not exactly the most forward-looking company. But Paul was thinking of their focus on on-site consumption, the unmatched ambiance their pubs offer, and their successful expansion into inns and destinations.

This makes more sense. Great Notion is known first for its trend-setting beers, but a less-heralded part of their identity is right there in plain sight. When they took over the Mash Tun site, the three founders focused on making and selling the beer in the same place. They don’t have any plans to get into distribution, and have managed to sell all 2,000 barrels out of their own facilities. Looking forward, Paul says, “We’d like to have at least a couple more” locations. That’s not quite as expansive as the McMenamins, but it would allow Great Notion to grow while keeping control over every part of the operation.

As for the newest expansion, it’s open to the public, and you can go check it out now.

Great Notion NW
2444 NW 28th Ave
Sun-Thurs: 11am-10pm
Fri-Sat: 11am-11pm

Jeff Alworth