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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Zoiglhaus Bets on Lents

Photo: New School
Over the last forty years, one of the roughest pockets of Portland has been the Lents District (once regularly called "Felony Flats") in the outer Southeast. The neighborhood's nexus is at 92nd and Foster, for years symbolized by the seedy, graceless, and dangerous New Copper Penny. Scattered throughout Portland are pockets like Lents, where generations of families have lived in lower-middle class stasis. A couple native sons of the neighborhood, the poets Michael and Matthew Dickman, were profiled in the New Yorker a few years back, and author Rebecca Mead gives an overview of the place:
It was hot outside, and the bus, which was headed downtown, offered refuge from the arid intersection where they had been waiting: Ninety-second and Foster, where a junk-filled antique store with “Closing Down” signs in its windows faced off against the New Copper Penny, an establishment that offered ladies’ nights, and was considerably more tarnished than its name suggested....

Lents, which was originally a farming community that was annexed to Portland in 1912, was until the early seventies a blue-collar neighborhood of single-family homes, with its own commercial center and a distinct, small-town character. Things started to change in 1975, with the construction of Interstate 205: the freeway sliced the neighborhood in two, requiring the demolition of five hundred houses, and seeding strip joints and bars along Foster Avenue.  As the boys grew older, Lents declined. There were drugs and gangs, including the Gypsy Jokers bikers, who had a clubhouse a couple of blocks from the Dickmans’ home. Asian immigrants began moving into the area in the nineties, and there was a concurrent rise in the skinhead population. 
Lents, pockmarked by crime and poverty, has been one of the most intractable problems for the city. Anything beyond 82nd Avenue might as well be in a different county, and Lents has the additional dislocation of being not just east well south of the city. For two decades, the city has been making gestures toward rehabilitating Lents, but it was too remote to move onto the front burner. A few years back, though, Portland finally started making good on some of the plans. They have been looking for anchor businesses to replace the blighted ones that have made the place home, and the Portland Development Commission helped the Ararat Bakery to move into the neighborhood in 2008. The building they invested in was formerly a nightclub (with, apparently, an illegal brothel upstairs) and it seemed like a great exchange--except that 2008 was the start of the worst depression in a century. Ararat went bankrupt in 2011, and the building sat idle.

Panorama of Lents by Twelvizm

All of this very long preamble is to critical to understanding the business that took over the building in 2015--Zoiglhaus Brewing. It is an ambitious project made all the more interesting by its bet on this under-served neighborhood, a good six miles as the Schwinn pedals from the rich vein of breweries nearer to town. The founder and inspiration is Alan Taylor, a Berlin-trained Oregonian who spent five years planning Zoiglhaus, and investigating locations everywhere from Beaverton to the west of Portland to the eastern suburbs. Settling on Lents makes the whole venture more intriguing--though in an interesting way, is exactly in harmony with the region that gives the brewery its name.

Many Portlanders probably haven't even heard of Zoiglhaus, much less been there. It has an odd name, is inconvenient, and is in easy view of that blighted intersection with the New Copper Penny. What they may not realize is that Lents is changing. It's become a multicultural hub and has a wonderful international farmer's market, a more vibrant and engaged local population (ironically, the great recession had the effect of forcing younger upwardly mobile Portlanders outside the core, and many have landed nearby), and that urban renewal is finally happening. Zoiglhaus has arrived, and the New Copper Penny will soon be torn down, replaced by an apartment building. And although it is a ways out of town, it's just off the freeway and right next to a MAX train stop.

For our purposes, though, this is the key fact: Zoiglhous is making some of the best beers in the city, and has instantly landed in the top tier of breweries.

Taylor in lederhosen at the grand opening
(photobomb by Kerry Finsand)
Taylor's long brewing journey began at Linfield College, where the resident assistant in his dorm allowed students to homebrew. “Our dorm at Linfield wasn’t called Newby Hall by the Linfielders, but Brewby Hall,” he jokes. “There was a time we had thirteen batches fermenting at once.” From there he went on to get a master's in Germanic studies, and made a stop off in Berlin while exploring the possibility of becoming a Medieval linguist. Instead, he decided to enroll at VLB, a brewing program in Berlin. He interned there, brewed in Bavaria, came back to the US where he brewed at Full Sail, Spanish Peaks, and Gordon Biersch, then went back to Berlin, and finally returned to work at Widmer. 

Taylor left Widmer with the idea to start Zoiglhaus. I'd met him while he was at Widmer, and before I went to Germany in 2012 I visited him at his house to bone up on helles and dunkel. Even by then, he had the name and concept, the design work, and had seriously considered some properties. But things dragged on, and eventually he took a job at Pints while this slow process unfolded. That was a fortunate step, because it put him in contact with Chad Rennaker, a developer and the owner of Pints. Rennaker later opened a brewery in Albuquerque, and is involved with Zoiglhaus as well. (He's also the developer who is redeveloping the New Copper Penny site.) Taylor, meanwhile is overseeing brewing operations in all three sites.

Germany is famous for being one of the most advanced brewing countries in the world, but it actually contains multitudes of traditions. One of the oldest is tucked in Northeast Bavaria between Franconia and the Czech Republic. Here, local villages have maintained the medieval zoigl tradition of community brewing. Communities each had their own craft-brewery sized kit, and townspeople could brew on the system and then take the wort home to ferment. They sold the excess they couldn't drink, and announced they had beer to sell by posting the six-sided brewer's star. That tradition still continues, and you can still go to towns like Mitterteich and Falkenberg and find private homes serving the beer they made at the town's brewery. (Taylor went on a fact-finding mission to the region and discovered these insanely old, crude systems fired by wood that still use coolships. The tradition hasn't been much updated.)

Zoiglhaus's concept knits some of the elements of the zoigl tradition that inspired Taylor. He has future plans to do some community brewing events in the brewery, but the main "zoigl" element involves working with other brewers who use his system. The community element comes more into play in the way the pub was conceived. The building itself is vast, with a huge pub space (a capacity of 270, recalling German beer halls), centerpiece bar, private room and quieter nooks. There's a huge, spacious basement underneath the pub, and a a full story above (space to expand is always a bonus), plus room for a kitchen and spacious brewery.

Even in commercial venues, Germans "live" in pubs. They spend hours there together with their families, and many pubs even hold tables for regulars. Zoiglhaus is meant to be a community living room for Lents, with a play area for kids, and spaces that families can inhabit as if at the kitchen table. I'm not much of a food critic, but Taylor has spent a lot of energy trying to get the menu right and is aiming for something a cut above standard pub fare--though prices are relatively low (entrees range from $9-$14) to make it accessible to the community. The size may actually be a liability in the early months, because it can feel empty even when dozens of people are scattered around the pub. The vision, though, is clearly to fill this space with the din of the neighborhood's voices.

Source: Brian Byrd

The Beer
In the end, I suspect that success will rest on the quality of the beer, which is where Zoiglhaus really stands out. Taylor's background is extremely rare--few have brewed lagers in Bavaria, traditional ales in Northern Germany, and American ales across the western US. It is reflected in the kinds of beers he brews, which lean heavily on German traditions, but which also includes American IPAs and pales and the occasional Belgian style. I have no doubt that the Haus IPA is the best-seller, and that people walk in carrying their normal American expectations. Eventually, though, people should flock to Zoiglhaus because those German beers are not only extremely well done, but authentic in a way few are in the US. Four examples:
  • Lents Lager. This is a classic helles of the type you find in every pub and brewery in Bavaria. It is in some ways the most elemental beer style made, depending on the pure, subtle flavors of German malts and hops. These beers were purpose-built to be drunk by the liter (5% / 22 IBU): as tasty and refreshing on the first sip as on the last. One thing you learn if you spend time in Bavaria is that all helleses are not built the same--many have flaws or end up blah. Taylor's would fly from the taps in Munich.
  • Kicker Kölsch. Similar in function to the helles, the kölsch is a beer to be drunk by the stange  (a .2 liter cylinder). Unlike helles, kölsches can vary quite a bit in palate, with pronounced mineral notes, soft or sharp hopping, and downy or toasty malting. Taylor acquired his kölsch yeast strain from Cologne and brought it back to Oregon; he ferments cool for low ester production. It's definitely a bit on the hoppier side, but is characterized most by its bready malts.
  • North German Pilsner.  Taylor once did a presentation for the Master Brewers Association where he identified three sub-types of German pilsner, including his favorite, the northern variant. Typified by Jever, it is very dry, with a minimal malt body and strident, even grating hop bitterness. All these are relative terms, though, and to the American palate, this beer is agreeable and flavorful. People who try the Lents Lager and wish it had a bit more oomph will enjoy this one. It also has a slightly educational quality, letting people see that Germany does indeed contain multitudes. This isn't in the regular line up (yet), but I hope it makes it.
  • Berliner Weisse. This nearly-lost style has been revived in the US as a kettle-soured solution into which fruit juices are typically infused. But in its original Berlin incarnation, it was made with multiple wild microorganisms, including wild yeast. Taylor learned a ton about this style when he was in Berlin, and part of his education involved discovering old bottles of Berliner weisse and tasting them. If you want the truly authentic article, visit Zoiglhaus during the summer when it's pouring. A year in the making, it has that typical flavor that the wild yeast creates by converting lactic acid into esters. It's one of the best examples made today, certainly one of the few made properly, and it is truly a spectacular beer.
There are a number of German-trained brewmasters working in the US, but almost none of them have worked both in Bavaria and the north. It means that you'll find some of the most authentic and well-made German beer right here in Oregon, made by an Oregonian. Because Taylor is an American, though, he understands American palates and creates these beers in a way that is at once wholly traditional but also accessible.

Incidentally, if you want to hear a long discussion Patrick and I had with Alan recently, including a wonderful tasting session in which we discuss helles, pilsner, and Berliner weisse, give a listen to the podcast.

I hope people manage to take the long trek out to Zoiglhaus and take these beers for a spin. In reality, it's not actually that far, and it's certainly a lot closer than Munich or Berlin.


  1. And you can take the Max: Zoiglhaus is located just behind the Lents station.

  2. Very interesting, nice work!

    Hmmm...a Zoigl Brauhaus in Zoiglland having a "craft-brewery sized kit". Rather more Hillsdale-craft-brewery sized than Boston Brewing, I suppose.

    Not just any townspeople are or were allowed to brew at the Kommunbrauhaus though, only a few with a "right to brew" granted by a nobleman or even a bishop, IIRC. It's not like a U-Brew in any case.

    Is it related to the one that's popped up in Texas or somewhere else in the SW? Not sure how the real Zoigl brewers would react to these places opening up. There was an attempt to get "appelation controlle" (or however it's written) to protect "Zoigl" a few years ago à la Kölsch & Champagne, but they couldn't get their case advanced in the courts. I forget why.

    If I'm ever back in Portland again, this will have to go on the agenda. Don't suppose he's doing a cask bitter though.

  3. "Not just any townspeople are or were allowed to brew" is true, but the "right to brew" ("Braurecht") was and is tied to location these days. Buy the right piece of property in central Eschawo, and you to can sign up, pay your kettle fee ("Kesselgeld") and get in on the rotation, or just contract with Robby Sperber and he'll get 'er done for you. There was an eligible piece of property for sale a few years ago, a house or two away from "Da Roude." It used to house one of those Schlecker shops until all of them shut down in 2012.

  4. I was wondering how it's awarded these days. Is it correct to assume the number of them per Brauhaus is fixed and won't change?

  5. For some reason, Google/Blogger eats certain comments. This one was submitted by Mike, and I'm posting it on his behalf.

    Zoigl is a local name for a brewing and beer distribution system. It is NOT a type of beer. Communal brewing, like Zoigl, existed all over what is now Germany and has been in existence for over one thousand years.

    There are many villages, particularly in Bavaria, that still have communal brewhouses that were only abandoned in the last 150 years. Over the past few years, in some villages, local residents or nearby beer enthusiasts have renovated these abandoned communal breweries and put them back into service. They do not always use the Zoigl model: in one case I know the communal brewery is operated by a city employee who brews beer that the city then sells to several of the pubs in town (town residents can also buy the beer). The city used to have it's own pub (that's where the term Ratskeller comes from), but closed it to expand the city offices. Thanks to this system, the village has been able to renovate the town's medieval wall, presumably without raising local taxes.

    In some other villages, an association was formed to make and distribute the beer. In at least one case, that beer is only distributed to members of the association.

    While communal brewing was originally restricted to residents with a braurecht, today that is not always followed. I assume not enough people with a braurecht are willing to volunteer their time and effort. I know of around 20 communal breweries outside the Zoigl area, which has around six or seven villages that follow the Zoigl model. I rather expect that more villages will renovate their brewhouses. BTW, during the middle ages, when many communal breweries where in service, some villages needed to call the militia to maintain order while families rushed to pick up their beer.


  6. Excellent beer, GREAT location (b/c it's on my'hood.)

    Also, the Belmont Goats are right nextdoor...