[For the the rest of our top 10 beers for 2013, go here.]
Mike Wright looked like a different man a year ago. When Wright opened his Commons Brewery to a gaggle of local beer writers last March, he was clean-shaven and wearing a polo shirt, resembling an IT guy more than a typical brewer. Which, in fact, he was: his business cards at the time read “Project Manager” for Multnomah County.
Today, you’ll find Wright with a full beard and wearing a hoodie, rubber boots and rolled-up jeans. He looks the part of a Portland brewer to a wort-stained T. “It was really about a lifestyle change,” he says. “I spent 15 years in the corporate world, and I wanted something different. Great benefits, nice retirement, all that stuff—that’s all gone.”
In lieu of money and security, Willamette Week is happy to give Wright, owner of Southeast Portland’s the Commons Brewery, one foamy pint of glory.
The Commons Urban Farmhouse Ale—a respectfully traditional and very charming saison—is our Beer of the Year. It’s an honor that wasn’t won with a single glass or bottle, but by becoming a beloved standby. In a town where it’s impossible to keep up with every exciting new brew, Urban Farmhouse achieved the difficult feat of becoming a beer worth going back to, again and again. At only 5.3 percent alcohol by volume and $7 for a 750-milliliter bottle, it’s a beer that begs to be enjoyed regularly. We’ve popped bottles at the beach, at dinner parties and after long days at work. Commons’ effervescent Urban Farmhouse is subtle, interesting and, above all, consistently gratifying.
It’s also the first beer the Commons ever made. The brewery has made a steep and steady climb since being founded in a garage three years ago. Wright homebrewed for a decade, but hadn’t considered a career in beer until he took second place at the 2010 Cheers to Belgian Beers festival in Portland. That beer was Urban Farmhouse, still made using the yeast strain required for every beer at that year’s festival. For kicks, Wright decided to undertake what he calls the “bureaucratic journey” of getting a brewery licensed in his garage.
“It was a low-risk thing—I already owned the garage, it was just a matter of going through a bunch of paperwork,” he says. “It seemed like a ridiculous idea, but as I went through the process, I learned that a number of other people around the country had succeeded in that, and, to my surprise, so did I.”
His “beetje”—a Belgian word that means “little bit”—nanobrewery employed a half-barrel system to produce enough beer to sell to bars within walking distance of Wright’s house. In any other city, he thinks he would have failed. But in Portland, Wright found welcoming handles at places like Victory Bar and Hawthorne Hophouse.
“Some were easy and some I had to work on a bit,” he says. “But Portland beer drinkers are constantly looking for something new, and it was not a huge risk for them.”
The product sells itself. Urban Farmhouse is the perfect Portland version of a saison, a style of beer traditionally made for farmhands as a refreshing, low-alcohol substitute for potable water. Plenty of other Portland breweries make saisons, but no one else has yet nailed it like Wright. While most American saisons end up hitting one note too heavily, Urban Farmhouse rides a groove of floral, citrus and spicy notes from light malts and Northwest hops—from glass to glass and bottle to bottle.
“The yeast that we use speaks very loudly in this beer, which is on purpose,” Wright says. “The hops and the malts that we use really let the yeast come through. We often joke that we’re a yeast-forward brewery. It was really just meant to be a flavorful, sessionable, refreshing beer. It was also meant to be drunk on the occasions I like, which is sitting on my back deck with some friends and good food.”
The beer has won a dedicated following, even if it has not been universally embraced in a town famous for high-alcohol hop bombs.
“I’ve heard that it’s really simple and it’s kinda ‘meh,’” Wright says. “And I can’t argue with that. It actually says ‘a simple, refreshing farmhouse ale’ right on the label. We’re not trying to make the most complex beer in the world.”
The Commons Brewery, on the other hand, is nothing like the rural farms where the beer was born. Wright wasn’t prepared to jump right into being a proper publican, so his industrial space doesn’t even have seats, let alone a kitchen. It does, however, have exactly what he pined for in his polo-shirt days.
“You can buy full glasses of beer and you can walk around the brewery and touch the equipment,” he says. “You’re in it. You can walk through the brewery and see all the recipe sheets hanging right there. That’s something I always wanted when I was on the consumer side. I was the one with my face pressed to the glass, looking down into the brewery.”
The Commons Brewery, 1810 SE 10th Ave., 343-5501, commonsbrewery.com. 5-9 pm Thursday-Friday, 2-9 pm Saturday.