How to Build a Perfect Pub
Montavilla Brew Works is on no one’s radar. The four-year-old brewery does not make a hazy IPA, a kettle-sour, or anything “experimental.” The taplist is a blend of traditional styles—German lagers, a saison, a barley wine—and Northwest brewpub ales, with reds, wheats, pales, and piney IPAs. Except for those lagers, the beer list seems almost aggressively unfashionable, purpose-built to conceal the brewery from beer geeks.
That wasn’t founder Michael Kora’s goal, but it is a consequence of a decision he made to do something surprisingly rare and modest in scope: to build a brewery pub that was perfectly aligned with its outer-Eastside neighborhood. And, over the course of an afternoon I spent listening to his story and drinking his beer, the more I began to see this as a wonderful, essential vision—and perhaps not as modest as it first appears.
There’s been a lot of talk of “third places” recently—as if Starbucks had invented the idea. But for as long as there have been towns, pubs have been at the center of life, offering people a neutral, secular meeting space where they could enjoy an easy moment with their neighbors. The vast, vast majority of these spaces were not sleek halls of innovation and wonder, they were simple, welcoming, and homey. In the corner pub, people discuss what happened at work, lay plans for the future, share pints while falling in love, deliver bad news or mourn it. They are places for life and living. To create a space that invites this kind of community life is not much celebrated in the Instagram-driven world that favors the shiny, the new, or the rare. Such a venture is too small to attract the attention of those who obsess about “the industry” and document the strivers and stumblers. But considered at the level of a neighborhood, its impact can be considerable.
Montavilla straddles 82nd Avenue, an important marker for the inner and outer Eastside. It’s a lower-middle class neighborhood that hasn’t been fractured by crime or collapse—going back more than a century, it’s been a neighborhood where families could build home equity and raise their kids in a relatively safe environment. (The Widmer family started there, to cite one example.) Unlike many neighborhoods closer in, Montavilla hasn’t experienced the turbulence of rising or falling fortunes or gentrification. A decent core of the neighborhood is populated by lifers who grew up there and never moved out. There are lots of established businesses around that have anchored the neighborhood for generations. In other words, it’s a pretty good place to situate a pub.
Kora did just that when he opened Montavilla Brew Works in the heart of the neighborhood’s commercial district in 2015. He found a great building that had formerly been an auto body shop and turned it into a gracious space built around the brewery, which is at the front of the building. He has used wood to good effect, giving the pub a softer feel than many warehouse conversions. All of this was done with an eye to making the place welcoming to those who, like Kora, live nearby.
Kora is a native of Detroit, where he was a professional drummer. He started homebrewing there, and brought that passion with him when he and his wife moved to Portland in 2005. His first stop after arriving was with the Ponzi winery, where he was a “harvest grunt.” When co-owner Nancy Ponzi asked him what he wanted to do after the harvest, he mentioned brewing, and she said: “No, honey, what do you want to do for money?” Nevertheless, Dick, who with Nancy had founded BridgePort, gave him a leg by up telling him, “Go see Karl Ockert and tell him I told him to give you a goddam job.” Ockert did and Kora spent the next eight years there, all the while turning over the idea of starting a brewery. In 2014, he and his wife began acting on that plan, and Montavilla Brew Works opened the following July.
Montavilla isn’t a Spanish word, and it’s not pronounced “mon tah vee-ya.” Back when streetcars ran up and down Stark Street, it was known as Mount Tabor Village, shortened to Mount. Ta. Vill. on the train car—and it eventually came to be called Montavilla (“mon tah vill-uh”). Kora had settled into the neighborhood, and he had grown very fond of it. He wanted to situate the brewery there, and the neighborhood became the focus of the vision. This gets back to that goal of creating a comfortable place for locals to gather.
There are a lot of ways to build a business around a brewery. Very few people focus intently on such an intimate audience, however. In fact, it’s an axiom in brewing to avoid selecting a place name that would limit growth by alienating people outside that community. Most entrepreneurs are ambitious, and they dream about their beer traveling far afield. Focusing their business on a neighborhood pub is not what most brewers set out to do.
Listening to Kora talk, though, I began to understand why he has a different perspective. The other great passion in his life, music, helped me understand. As a former musician, you’d expect him to love music, and he does. Musical references appear in beer names, and he mentions references it frequently. That’s not uncommon, though—most brewers love music and many play instruments. When I mentioned this frequent connection among brewers, he shrugged as if to say, “Of course.” But then he pointed out why.
Montavilla turns out very well-made beer in a rotating list that includes some gems. Among many favorites, Kora admitted that “lagers are our jam.”
Flam Tap IPA is the brewery’s bestseller—it’s an old-school, somewhat bitter, piney IPA.
Plywood Pilsner is named for a neighboring company and has rotating hops. Their best beer, and when I visited, with tangy Santiams the day I visited.
Old Cowboy Altbier is one of the best American alts I’ve had.
Korabrau Helles is solid but slightly bland.
Pale ales are also excellent, and he offers a rotating range.
It wasn’t obvious to me, but as a musician, he could see where they intersect. Both bring people together and create singular moments that exist through that communion. You can’t experience them alone, you can’t experience them second-hand. Being at a concert or sitting in a pub—or listening to music while sitting in a pub—bring about an experience that can only happen collectively.
Montavilla Brew Works isn’t a fancy place—it’s comfortable. Kora doesn’t make abstruse or trendy beers—he makes session beers. He has tried to create a space that will be inviting to the people who live in the neighborhood. He wanted to create a business as enduring as his neighbor, Mr. Plywood, which was founded in the 1960s or the Academy Theater down the street (1948). Looked at this way, his vision, to establish an institution that becomes as essential to life in the neighborhood as an organ is to a body, is in fact incredibly ambitious. He sees it as a long game. “We want slow, controlled growth; we want to grow into [the neighborhood].” He seems well on his way.
I should note that you’re actually allowed to go into the pub if you don’t live in Montavilla. No one checks IDs. For those of you who love a neighborhood pub that actually reflects the neighborhood, I highly recommend a visit. Montavilla has begun to develop quite a little beer scene, so if you’re looking to spend an afternoon, start with Montavilla Brew Works and then check out Threshold Brewing, Roscoe’s, and the Beer Bunker. Or just settle in for a session at Montavilla.