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Friday, August 02, 2013

Rustic Urban Brewing With The Commons

The Commons
1810 SE 10th Ave (entrance on Stephens)
Thurs-Fri 5-9pm
Saturday 2-9pm
Sunday 2-6pm

It has been something like three years since I first tasted Urban Farmhouse Ale, a beer Mike Wright was brewing on a glorified homebrew system in his garage.  It is a testament to how fast things develop that even just three years ago, rustic ales were still a bit of a rarity.  Even now, when they're pretty common on grocery store shelves, most of the people I encounter don't really know what to make of them.  Nevertheless, Urban Farmhouse found an immediate audience. From the success of that beer grew a full-size commercial brewery.  Rechristened The Commons, it opened not quite two years ago.

To my shame, I only managed to tour the place last week. It was a proper tour, though, in that I got to ask all the questions I always ask but rarely report out.  Like for example that the brewery uses a single-infusion mash and mash low, 145 degrees, to make a lithe and attenuated beer.  They use simple malt bills, Gambrinus pils and two-row, with not a lot of specialty malts.  The brewhouse was one of first systems built by Practical Fusion, a seven-barrel job that Mike admits actually yields closer to six.  They've already added 15 barrel fermenters and have larger tanks on the way.  The bottling line--wait, are your eyes glazing over?  They are, aren't they?  See, this is why I usually don't report that stuff.  Let's back up.

All about the yeast
If you look through the list of beers made at The Commons, you'll see a few stray styles on the margins, but the brewery is mainly committed to rustic ales.  (Remember that the most famous saison/farmhouse brewery in the world, Dupont, has for decades brewed a pilsner, and has lately dabbled in styles like stout.)  Some more recognizably fall in the saison camp (Urban Farmhouse, Madrone) while others are rustic but dance to their own tune.  A few have been kissed by wild yeast (like Flemish Kiss), but these are perfectly rustic, old school rustic, too.  So what is rustic?  The question interested me enough to write a post about the question--but I put it to the men of The Commons, too.

Midway through a glass of beer, Mike Wright
had to grab a wrench and go fix something.
The life of a brewer.
Each one--Mike, his brewing partner Sean Burke, and Josh Grgas--began talking about the general philosophy of beer.  Mike referenced the way saisons were once brewed on farms to be drunk by farmers while farming.  They were quenching beers, refreshing.  "It's the spirit of farm in terms of consumption"--meaning the communion of drinking together.  The brewery's motto is "gather around the beer," and I take it that the idea is that the beers should be a natural impetus to conviviality.  They should be toothsome enough to encourage sessions of drinking.

This is not a unique view about beer--cask ale and Bavarian and Czech lagers perform the same function--so then there's the philosophy of beer, which is "all about the yeast" (I failed to capture which one said that).  Mike originally selected the house yeast after the 2010 Cheers to Belgian Beers event--a farmhouse strain that comes from family-run Brasserie de Blaugies.  Unlike some of the other commercial saison yeasts out there, this one is easier to work with.  It attenuates across a wide range of temperatures (saison yeasts are notorious for crapping out before full fermentation) and doesn't morph with use.

The yeast produces a ton of character, and in primary fermentation produces warm tropical fruit esters.  It's interesting to try Urban Farmhouse Ale on both draft and from the bottle side-by-side.  On draft, when the beer has gone through only one fermentation, it's all mango and lemon-orange.  But The Commons also bottles their beer, putting them through a secondary fermentation in a warm room typical of Belgian breweries.  (Though the "room" is now actually just a corner at the back of the brewery.)  That fermentation adds a lot more spice and herbal/floral notes and even, to my palate, a stony minerality.  The draft and bottled versions taste different enough one could easily mistake them for different beers.

The Beer
It's possible that I've buried the lede here, but the Commons is making an exceptional line and Urban Farmhouse Ale may be Oregon's best beer.  For some reason, breweries think they have to brew saisons big--the vast majority are within spitting distance of 7% or higher.  (I suppose we could blame Dupont, which brews its standard saison at 6.5%).  Yet no style is as tasty when brewed small--the esters and phenols of that rustic yeast come through even in very low-alcohol beers, so there's no reason to brew them strong.  In this spirit, Urban Farmhouse is brewed to drink at 5.3%, yet it has layers and layers of flavor.  As with many saisons, you'll find a lot of variability bottle-to-bottle, but drink several and you'll start to really recognize that yeast coming through.

Enough visitors to The Commons requested IPAs that Sean Burke brewed Madrone, a beer with a bit of hop character.  He modeled it on Italian beers, which often blend the use of Belgian techniques with American hops.  Madrone's got a touch of color and some hops--nothing like an IPA, but they are evident.  The result is a slightly sweet, melony rustic ale.  (And according to reports, IPA lovers can actually be tricked into giving it a chance, usually finding that they enjoy it.)

When I visited, they had a few experiments on hand, including a small saison called Petite Classique (4.3%) made with pink peppercorns and the lush aroma of fresh peaches.  In the mouth, the warming pepper surges forward, the peaches turn out to be a phantom, and the yeast finishes things off with a dry snap.  Kindred is a collaboration with Widmer Brothers using an experimental hop (sexily named X-431) that has a distinctive basil note.  Myrtle goes through a lactic fermentation and is finished off with Meridian hops for a sharply tart beer bursting with fruity orange and tangerine flavors.  Plum Bretta, made with Italian plums, is another of my favorites--lightly tart, full of fruit, excellent balance. 

If you haven't been over to The Commons, don't feel ashamed.  Just go instead.  To whet your interest, I'll throw in a batch of photos below the fold.

This high-tech device is used to regulate the
flow of milled malt.

Barrels occupy various open spaces.

More barrels

A whirling Josh Grgas pours beer.

The tasting room and the brewery are one.


  1. Even if you don't agree that the Commons are making some of the best and most interesting beers in Portland (perhaps in the country), I think it's a difficult to say that they shouldn't be considered in the discussion. They're doing incredibly interesting beers that are grounded in tradition, while clearly expressing their own vision. Nice write up.

  2. Good story, well told.
    ... quenching beers, refreshing
    ... conviviality
    ... toothsome
    suffice to demand a visit when next near Portland.
    .. And, I appreciate the brewhouse details; ie, my eyes did not glaze.

  3. Always interesting to hear about these legendary types breweries that have completely slipped through the cracks- I've never hear of them. New name added to my 'must try' list.

  4. Have had several Commons beers and all are nothing short of "perfect".