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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Meet the New Brewery: Gigantic

One of the most-anticipated new breweries opened in Portland a couple weeks ago--Gigantic Brewing, the new project by Ben Love (Pelican, Hopworks) and Van Havig (Rock Bottom).  How anticipated?  So much that when I was visiting there yesterday, a constant stream of people were trying to get into the tasting room including--I kid you not--a woman who fell to her knees in supplication when she realized it was closed.  Gigantic isn't a brewpub, has no food, and the tasting room's window is limited to six hours, five days a week.  Ben and Van didn't figure a production brewery in the industrial Southeast would get a lot of visitors. 

The Project
Not that Ben and Van didn't do a lot of figuring.  Gigantic is built on a totally novel business plan that starts with just a single regular beer--an IPA.  This they will bottle, along with a constantly rotating series of new releases, two a quarter plus the odd specialty releases.  Each beer will be different, and they'll come in numbered bottles that will stay on shelves until the next series displaces them.  This follows a trend in the market toward seasonals, but takes it to a whole new level of evanescence.

Ben looking at the label for IPA.
Counterintuitively, Ben and Van are focusing on the bottle market--which makes producing new packaging for every beer a seeming nightmare.  That was actually part of the plan, it turns out.  They are working with a third member of the team, Rob Reger, who is acting as an art director.  The Emily the Strange artist made the label for IPA, but he is soliciting art from other artists for new labels.  Each label has a central panel that looks like a comic book, fully illustrated by the guest artist.  The only consistent element is the "Gigantic" banner and the Gigantic "G" in the right corner.  Even the "Brewing Company" under the name is different each time. J. otto Seibold, Olive author, did City Never Sleeps and Jay Howell did Axes of Evil.  (You can see the art here.)  Gigantic gives the artists an additional boost by putting up original pieces in the tasting room.

Ben told me he hoped to take the concept even further and work with bands and artists to make original music connected with each release, and maybe even put a QR code on the bottle that takes you to a video of the band performing the piece--which might have additional animation from the artist.  "We don't really have an ad budget--we'd rather give it to [label] artists."

The Brewery and Beer
Ben Love and Van Havig appear to be an unlikely pair.  Van fizzes with energy, and his mind generates 9.2 deadpan jokes a minute.  Ben, by contrast, is an eye of still peacefulness in the Havig storm.  They seem to have a mind meld when it comes to beer, though.  During our tour, they would regularly finish each other's sentences.  The IPA, which will probably constitute over half their total production, could have been a fraught beer.  They each went off and drew up their ideal recipe and came back together to see how far off they were.  Not far, it turned out: the only difference was bittering hops--they had all four of the same late-addition hops.

Built with room to grow.
Between them, they have 24 years of brewing experience.  That was a big advantage in setting up the brewery, which Metalcraft built to their specs. It's a 15 barrel system, but tweaked so it has a decidedly English flair.  (I think it's coincidental, but Van spent a year at the London School of Economics.)  It starts with a homebrewed version of a Steel's masher, which wets the grist as its coming into the mash tun--more fully, according to Havig.  The mash tun is built to produce a floating mash for greater efficiency.  A direct-fired kettle produces noticeable caramelization, and the wort goes through a proper, English-style hop back, a flourish that adds up to an hour to each brew but saturates the beer in hoppiness. Gigantic is currently using a yeast from Sunderland's famous, now-defunct Vaux Brewery.  To coax esters from the yeast, they built fermenters at a 1:1 ratio of height and width (the pressure in tall fermenters represses ester-production). 

Gigantic isn't trying to become an English-style brewery, but because it's a small system, Ben and Van relied whenever they could on tried-and-true methods.  That it borrows from English systems is more a matter of function than tradition.  (Indeed, with a rauchweizen, imperial saison, and no beers under 5.5%, you can find little evidence of Englishness in the final products.)  The point is underscored when you go into the cask room and discover a 660-gallon (21-barrel) foeder (or foudre, in French).  It's a fifty-year-old wine vessel that now holds a batch of beer that will begin to encourage a wild ecosystem.  (We have to wait 12-18 months to try that beer.)

The beer is very good.  The IPA has already developed a loyal following.  The first batch was cloudier than intended but has a green, spritzy liveliness that belies its heft (7.3%).  Ben and Van focused on the nose and hop flavors to produce a beer that's not hugely bitter but vivid with fresh hoppiness.  The City Never Sleeps is an imperial black saison that has a bit of rustic yeast character but scans more as an imperial stout, and a wild experiment called Rauchweizen and the Bandit (they were screening Smoky and the Bandit on the new DVD player when I arrived), a 40% rauchmalt weizenbier.  It's as if a Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock collided with a Bavarian weizen.  Finally, my fave is a rich pale ale called St. Tennenholz, named for the OLCC agent who helped smooth the process for Gigantic.  Amazing creaminess and bright aromatics.

There's a lot more texture I could add--like why there's a gun, boar, and axe mounted on the walls, for example.  But best you go down and check it out yourself.  Mind you go at the proper times, though--hump day through the Lord's day, 3-9pm.  Even genuflection won't get you in outside those hours.

As always, more photos below the fold.

You say foudre, I say foeder ... normal people call them vats.

The lights over the bar are made of Orval bottles.

The modified Steel's masher. 

Although these look taller than they are wide, 
you have to account for the cone and the level 
of wort, which enters below the upper hatch.


  1. Rauchweizen is a "wild experiment"? Schlenkerla brews an excellent rauchweizen.

  2. You're right, experiment isn't the right word. But it's a damned obscure style--certainly something I've never had.

  3. Does the door say "Tap Room and Champagne Lounge"? and if so do they actually serve Champagne? That would be fitting.

  4. I actually think they do have Champagne (or the Americanized version) in the cooler. I think I'll stick with the beer, though.