The Commons Brewery's First Anniversary: Interview with Mike Wright

Last week, The Commons Brewery celebrated its 1st anniversary. What an eventful year it's been! Mike moved the brewery out of his garage, renamed it, hired a great staff, and won a bunch of awards! Oh, and together they've made some amazing beer!

I chatted with Mike about his experiences during the past year. Here's what he told me.

Congratulations on your first anniversary! How did the first year meet and differ from your expectations?

Mike Wright:  With no commercial experience to guide me, my year one expectations were speculative, and very conservative. We had better sales than anticipated, and I could not have foreseen accolades coming our way from WBC, and GABF. Needless to say, that was a very pleasant surprise.

On the production side, I was really impressed with our ability to come up to speed on our new system and get into a production rhythm.


In our current economic requirement, lending is a challenge for small businesses. You solved the problem by creating your own unique financing opportunity. What did you do and what was the response? 

MW: Trying to get a bank to lend to a start-up run by someone with no industry experience was a long shot at best. I did visit a big bank and that conversation lasted about 3 minutes-I did not walk away with any money. 

I decided to try and secure 10 small private loans and put together a proposal I thought was fair and would be attractive to potential lenders. Once the package was ready for public consumption, I sent out a small blurb in one of our newsletters. I was amazed at the response and was quickly able to secure the loans.

It was important for me to share with the lenders the specific needs I had in the brewery and how I intended to spend the proceeds. All of the money was to be spent on three specific equipment needs where we had gaps. This was basic infrastructure stuff that would enhance our capabilities on the production side (more fermenters, a real chiller and malt handling equipment).

In addition to offering, what I believed was, an attractive loan and clearly spelling out the need, there was some short term return for lenders in the form of perks. From my perspective the deal was a success and allowed us to relive some pain points in our production process.


What has that funding enabled you to do?

MW: We have effectively double our tank capacity (to be fair it was not significant to start), and added a chiller that is targeted for brewery use-the one we had at start up was not cooling like we needed it to. The brewery was started with the absolute minimum necessary components, and the loans have allowed us to move closer to a "real" commercial brewery.

Tell us about your beer lineup. What are your core year-round beers and how many seasonals do you plan to release each year?

MW: Our line up continues to evolve, but we have two year round beers: 1) Urban Farmhouse Ale (draft/bottles) and; 2) Flemish Kiss (bottles). Each month we produce 2-3 rotating, or seasonal draft beers for the local market. It is our goal to offer 1-2 seasonal bottle offerings as well, and 3-4 one-off barrel aged beers annually.

You've done quite a bit of experimenting in the past year. What's your approach to new recipe formulation and experimentation?

MW: We have played around a bit, though I don't consider our beers too experimental. Our overriding goal is to produce a balanced  approachable beer even when we are using new, or non-traditional ingredients. We bounce around ideas, and come up with a desired flavor then Sean (typically) will develop a recipe and then we go for it.

What types of barrels are you using? Have you had any memorable experiments? 

MW: The vast majority of our barrels are red wine barrels (mostly pinot given our locale). We do have some white wine barrels, gin barrels and bourbon barrels in play too. We quickly maxed out on space when we hit about 35 barrels (that's changing now as we add more space).

There are a couple of standouts so far, but with time I expect more. Eleanor, a barrel aged Urban Farmhouse with a variety of micro-flora was a really enjoyable beer for example.

Photo courtesy of The Commons Brewery
You released two new seasonals last Thursday. How would you describe them? 

MW: Fleur de Ferme is a dark, winter farmhouse seasonal with hibiscus, lavender and chamomile. It has a nice roasty note, and a floral nose. The hibiscus produced a subtle gingerbread flavor that works remarkably well in that beer.

Bourbon Little Brother is a Belgian dark strong ale with 40% aged in bourbon barrels. Malty up front, with a balanced bourbon character. We purposely wanted a more subdued bourbon character relative to many bourbon beers on the market. Still, there's no mistaking the bourbon in the beer.

Do you expect each of these will age well? How do you expect they will evolve over time? 

MW: Fleur de Ferme is really meant to drink now, but will certainly hold up for a while. Bourbon Little Brother is high ABV beer at 10% so that will definitely age well.

You recently started shipping to some new regions. In which states is The 
Commons currently distributed?

MW: Oregon, and Idaho (Boise). we are just now moving into Washington state, and have near term plans to ship some beer to California.  

Besides the taproom, where can we find your beer in the Portland area?

MW: We have rotating taps in nearly 50 bars and restaurants in town. Bottles can be found in beer focused bottle shops, and some grocery chains (New Seasons, Market of Choice, Zupans, and Whole Foods). Draft is such a dynamic thing that we can't accurately tell folks where the beer is actually on tap. We do, however, try to keep the following page up to date:

You won awards at World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival. How would you describe the experience?

MW:  Surreal. I found it a very strange, and exciting experience. It's hard to put into words, but suffice to say it was a very positive experience. 

You’re currently expanding into a new space in your building. What will you do with the extra space? 

MW: More cold storage, a dedicated bottling conditioning room, more barrel storage, a mill room, and general storage. We very well may expand the tasting room into a portion of that space in the future, but not in the near term.

Can you give us a sneak peek on any plans for 2013? 

MW: You will see more barrel aged beers in 2013, more concrete seasonal plans and some things we haven't even dreamed up yet. Internally, we are working hard to improve our production processes, and scheduling (challenging with multiple house yeast strains). Slow and incremental change.

You're sitting at a bar next to a guy who's drinking a macro lager. If you could give him any two beers in the world, which would they be and why?

MW: Heater Allen Pils would be a great transition to craft beer. It would likely be familiar, but also represent hand crafted beer in a positive unassuming light. Maybe the second would be something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It's an extremely well made, straight forward, flavorful beer that is widely available. The goal is to introduce beers that are not pretentious and would hopefully not be a radical departure from a macro lager-that's the challenge though.

A big thanks to Mike for taking the time to chat! I can't wait to see (and taste) what 2013 will bring!

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