Burnside lives! …Sorta… For Now..

When Burnside Brewing closed back in February, it was ugly.  Leaked employee emails about not getting their last paychecks, padlocks on the doors and a note that they hadn’t paid rent in three months, announcing they were closed for a snow day and then never opening again.  Lots of rumors, and to my knowledge still no official announcement from the Burnside Crew.

The Oregonian dropped a bombshell on Friday that really flips the Burnside story from negative to somewhat positive.  Apparently, famed Danish brewer Mikkeller (who also has locations in New York and California) is going to take over the Burnside location in a series of pop-up pub situations as they try to navigate the regulatory hurdles to open a permanent brewery/restaurant in that location.

There’s a couple of really juicy tidbits in this story that caught my eye.  The first is that Mikkeller and restaurant partner Chefstable have purchased all of Burnside’s physical assets (brewery equipment, bottles, kegs etc) and paid off all of Burnside’s debts. Not only is this a huge windfall for the Burnside crew, of course, it also signals that the Mikkller crew is all in on this location.  Technically, they probably paid way more than they would have for a blank empty location.

Also, in the agreement is that Burnside keeps all of their “soft” assets. Names, trademarks, etc.  So, in theory, Burnside Brewing could reopen in a different location and start up again.  Not sure how likely that is, but it could happen. The Burnside “brand” still lives somewhere out in the ether. This, according to a follow up story from New School Beer.

A lot of the discussion around this is how well Mikkeller will fit in to the crowded inner Southeast Portland space, but I think they’ll do just fine. What is interesting to me is that Portland has been considered a “beer destination” for a long time, from the point of view that people come here for the beer.  That is starting to flip (and is a direct byproduct of the beer tourism) to a “brewery destination”, i.e. breweries are looking to expand and they think “Well, we have to have a place in Portland.”  It was relatively close to the old Burnside location where San Diego brewery Modern Times took over the old Commons location (the Commons also retained their names/rights etc and are rumored to reopen at some point). Even small local breweries are getting into the act, Vagabond Brewing out of Salem just recently opened a Portland taproom.

2019 has been a rough year for the local beer scene.  Hopefully this is a little ray of light to offset some of that bad.  There will still be more breweries that struggle and close. Such is the nature of business, but hopefully some places will continue to grow and shine.

My experience with Mikkeller is very limited.  I’ve had four of their beers, but the first one was certainly a doozie.  The first Mikkeller beer I had was Black (Grand Mariner Edition) at the Festival of the Dark Arts.  It was an imperial stout aged in Grand Mariner barrels and clocked in at 21% alcohol. That was a beer that when I saw it on the menu I just had to try it, but was also very glad it was only a 3 ounce pour. I can’t imagine drinking much more than a few sips of it.

The Mikkeller pop up is scheduled to open in June and then run till the end of the year, when it will close again with the hopes of reopening permanently.  One of the articles also mentioned that Mikkeller has to find out what the building owner intends to do with the space. So, it seems they have an agreement for the short term, but the owner may still decide to sell the space or tear it down.  My assumption when Burnside closed was that it was going to be bulldozed for condos, like basically everything else in Portland (especially inner Eastside). This keeps the location intact. At least, for now.

When one door closes…

Last year, the number of breweries that opened and closed was about the same. Jeff Alworth has written about this several times demonstrating how this is actually a good thing, sort of.  Of course it’s sad for the places that closed, but it shows the beer market in Portland is beginning to mature.  Instead of a new place opening every 6 months (which still happens) and some places closing after a year or less (which still happens) you have places that have been around for a while and have stabilized and usually the places closing have been around for a long while as well and for whatever reason are throwing in the towel.

The last few weeks have seen an onslaught of bad news for the Portland area, this week in particular, within a 24 hour time span.

A few weeks ago Lompoc announced they were closing their location on NW 23rd Avenue, a new up and coming part of town.  This was the original Lompoc location, opened in 1993 and renovated in 2013.  Lompoc will still operate their North Portland location and brewery as well as the Oaks Bottom Public House in Sellwood (SE).  This comes on the heels of another satellite location of theirs, the Hedge House, closing last year and becoming the pub location for Little Beast Brewing. Lompoc is still alive, but they seem to be struggling.  What’s interesting is I found out the same day that the Abbey Bar’s second location, right next door to Lompoc, was also closing.  That leads me to speculate that they are getting priced out of that building.  An article from Eater website (READ HERE) mentions the Lompoc location will be replaced by another taproom.

This week, places started dropping like flies.  On Tuesday, it was announced that NE Portland stalwart Alameda was closing it’s doors and putting it’s production brewery up for sale.  A 22 year vet of the Portland beer scene this was an established player, not a flash in the pan.  Sadly, reading the articles it sounds like it came down to money, with an investor who jumped in a few years ago and then pulled the plug a few years later. But, one thing that also stands out with Alameda, as Jeff Alworth mentions in his post about it on Beervana, Alameda’s beer line up hadn’t changed in many years.  In this city, and in the current “try the new thing, tick the box” beer culture, that’s a death sentence.  You don’t have to chase every trend and release something new every 3 days, but you to have to revamp every now and then.  Amber, malty IPAs aren’t in style anymore.

Then yesterday (Wednesday), it was announced that Seven Brides brewing was closing its taproom and restaurant.  It appears as though they will continue brewing for off premise sales (kegs and bottles) but how sustainable that is is unknown.  I have to confess, I only visited Seven Brides once.  Down in Silverton, it’s not that easy to get to from Portland and I’m sure that hurts them as well.  Included in the post about Seven Brides was a note that Two Kilts in Sherwood had also closed, and apparently had been closed for a few months, but nothing had been said or announced.  Again, in a way off location and very small volume, even a handful of GABF medals can’t save you if no one can find your products.

What this means for the Portland beer scene is probably unknown and I’ll leave it to the experts to suss out, but it is troubling nonetheless.  The last few years people have been asking when will the beer bubble burst, and maybe this isn’t a burst, but it’s not the rocket growth we’ve seen the past few years either.  Things are slowing down for sure.  As sales continue to drop industry-wide, smaller operations will feel the pinch, including speculation about increases in ingredient costs.  If you’re barely hanging on, you likely won’t be able to hang on much longer.

Upcoming 2018 Breweries

New School Beer recently published an article called The Most Anticipated New Oregon Breweries of 2018.  I got a chance to read the article before we left for Mexico but I hadn’t had time to react to it.  I would suggest reading the whole thing, but here’s what jumped out at me.

First, several of these breweries were also listed on the Most Anticipated of 2017 list.  It’s becoming more and more apparent that city planning and permitting and licensing in the City of Portland goes at it’s own pace, and that’s very slow.  I don’t understand why that is, considering these businesses, especially breweries, bring a lot of money into the city coffers.  They should be excited to get them up and going.  But, such is the way of bureaucratic red-tape.  In at least one case, it’s been nearly fatal.  Ross Island Brewing is struggling to stay open, despite only being in business around a year, due to over a year in delays before opening.  They went deep into debt while they waited, and anyone with student loans can attest how hard that can be to get out from under.  Hopefully, Ross Island makes it (Go there and drink beer! They do good stuff!) and these other ones can survive as well.

Next, Southeast Portland is getting some love! Assembly Brewing which is opening at 61st and Foster is just a stones throw from IPA-bar N.W.I.P.A and is walking distance from my house.  That will be the third brewery in the area (including Zoiglhaus and Double Mountain’s Portland Pub) that’s within walking distance.  Ruse Brewing will hopefully finally open at their location on 17th Avenue in inner SE.  This is one of the  holdovers from 2017, although, they were targeting a December open so it didn’t take a huge delay to push them over.   Looking at Spring 2018 opening now, this one is certainly on my Most Anticipated list.  I haven’t had much of their beers (currently co-op-brewed at Culmination Brewing) but what I’ve had has been amazing.  Threshold Brewing sounds interesting and Montavilla is a hopping place these days.  Although, one thing does give me pause.  It says they plan to make barrel-aged beers, mixed fermentations and hazy IPAs.  All things that are super trendy right now but how long will that last? I hope they have a back up plan or can be flexible.  Some people are arguing against “flagship” beers since the Untappd and RateBeer style encourages as many new styles as possible, but a good solid Pale Ale or IPA can go a long way to cement you while still giving you room to experiment.  Case in point, Gigantic Brewing.

Lastly, while only tangentially mentioned in the article, one thing that hangs over the whole list is the 10 breweries that closed/transitioned/sold in 2017. I read, in an article that I, of course, cannot find now, that this smoothing of the peak (10 closings vs 14 openings) is not necessarily a bad thing.  It’s a sign of a market that’s maturing and stabilizing.  It’s bad, of course, for the 10 places that closed, but it could mean good things for those that live on.   I’m not an expert in any sort of business stuff but it seemed to make sense to me.  If I ever find that article again, I’ll link it here.

Three places on this list fit into that category.  First, the 10-ton gorilla in the room.  San Diego, CA based Modern Times, who has desired to be in Portland for a long time, is finally opening their Portland Brewery dubbed the Belmont Fermentorium.  The hitch is, they are opening their new place in the space formally occupied by The Commons.  A brewery that, by all outside indicators, seemed to be doing great and very suddenly shut down.  I will give Modern Times a ton of credit.  They have been very delicate about the “take over”, saying they were fond of The Commons and they aren’t “replacing” The Commons and hopefully The Commons can exist again in some other form.  The Commons still owns the building and some of the equipment that MT is leasing from them, so a steady source of income, and there are rumors that The Commons may not be as dead as previously thought.  I hope it’s true.  They had a small niche market, with sours, saisons and Belgian style beers but they were world class.  Next, we have Bazi Bierbrasserie, a Belgian focused beer bar that is being bought by Thirsty Monk.  While sounding vaguely familiar, I was surprised to learn Thirsty Monk is based out of Asheville, NC and has a location as well in Denver, CO.  Bazi was only a beer bar, but Thirsty Monk plans to install a small brewery at the location to make house brews.  They will likely also serve other commercial Belgian style beers.  The unfortunate story behind this sale is the owner needed to move back to Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to help her family and be closer to them.  Hopefully, Thirsty Monk can live up to the history the place has, and it sounds like that’s the plan.  Last is Von Ebert Brewing.  This is a weird one for sure, but I feel like it will work out for the best.  The team behind Van Ebert will be the same team behind the award winning beers out of Fat Head’s Portland location.  Turns out, the Ohio based brewery is expanding operations in the mid-West including a new production brewery in Ohio and they couldn’t continue to support the franchise in Portland.  Both sides mutually agreed to end the agreement and go their separate ways.  Von Ebert is keeping the brewing team intact and restaurant employees will be given the opportunity to keep their jobs as well, so this should be a pretty quick transition, but as far the official stats go “Fat Heads” will close and “Von Ebert” will open, even though it’s essentially the same brewery.

Lots to look forward to in 2018, it’s going to be a busy year!