Before he showed up at the Mash Tun with a real estate agent, James Dugan tried dropping off a résumé.
For whatever reason, Dugan was taken with the moldering little space off Northeast Alberta Street, long forgotten by local beer geeks and with literal cobwebs in the corner. Maybe it was the shiny copper kettles, or the cozy patio, or the simple seven-barrel brewhouse a homebrewer could see himself manning with a little practice.
"I walked by one day and looked in the window and applied for a job, because I liked how the brewhouse looked," he says. "I dropped my résumé off, like, three times and never heard back."
It took a while, but Dugan finally got his foot in the door—by buying the place, along with two other guys from his street in the Overlook neighborhood. They named their Great Notion after Oregon author Ken Kesey's novel about a scrappy logging family, which was in turn named for a line in a Lead Belly song.
Right around Christmas 2015, after lengthy licensing delays, Great Notion finally got its brewing license. The first beer it put in the tanks was called Juice Jr., a recipe Dugan had developed as a homebrewer after becoming enchanted with the cloudy IPAs of New England breweries like the Alchemist, Treehouse, Trillium and Hill Farmstead. He'd traded to obtain the beers, and when he wanted to drink more than he could trade for, he ended up propagating yeast from the packages, which he used in recipes that called for heavy dry-hopping.
Portland had never seen anything like Juice Jr.
Quite literally: The beer is totally opaque, thanks to a yeast strain that suspends wheat proteins throughout, giving it the soft, golden glow of Marsellus Wallace's briefcase. It has only the lightest nibble of bitterness to offset the sweetness. It's soft on the tongue, like drinking a cloud. Mostly, it's juicy—dripping with light, bright citrus flavors.
Opinions were divided at first—sometimes bitterly. Last spring, a mere photo of the beer in a glass could cause a thread to get heated.
"I feel like a lot of the people who have lived here for years and have seen the whole Northwestern style develop think it's a dig at the style, or a lack of respect for the roots and origins of what an IPA represents in this region," Dugan says. "It's almost like, since we're making Northeast IPAs, we're traitors."
That feeling mostly dissipated after a few months, but Juice Jr. and its hazy siblings still offend a few traditionalists and those who've come to like the sharp, grassy chomp of a standard Northwest IPA. But Great Notion also changed the conversation around hoppy beers in Oregon overnight, spurring thousands of heated debates and dozens of imitators, with everyone from the Ram to Fat Head's trying their own version.
All that makes Juice Jr. an easy pick for Oregon's Beer of the Year.
It seems crazy now that it's got the attention of every beer geek in town, but Great Notion came out of nowhere. Neither Dugan nor his buddy—a tall Alabama boy named Andy Miller with red hair and a slight drawl—had any professional beer experience or reputation in the local beer scene. No one had written about their homebrew, and the space they bought wasn't on anyone's radar.
The story could be a movie—opening, of course, on and cold and misty Alberta, where a young James Dugan, wearing his trademark newsboy cap, presses his face to the foggy window of a brewery, his longing palpable as his heavy breath steams the glass.
We soon come to learn that he and Miller had been homebrewing something special in their garage. It's looks a little different than most beers. No one knows what to make of it. But it's good.
One of the first people who came in to try Juice Jr. was a fellow brewer. He was not impressed.
"He asked to talk to a brewer. I come out and he says, 'Hey, buddy, I'm going to do you a favor—because you're new,'" Dugan says. "He says, 'This is not going to fly in Portland.' He went on to tell me why it was hazy, how it was a problem that it was hazy, and that he wanted his money back."
Dugan gave him his money back, but then asked him to go out on the porch, close his eyes and drink the beer. A while later, the customer brought the $5 back.
Other professional brewers have had similar reactions. For a while, there were rumors swirling that Great Notion brewers put actual fruit juice in their beer, or that they use bread flour to generate cloudiness. (They don't.)
And yet, nothing slowed sales.
Paul Reiter, the third partner who just quit his high-powered sales job to focus on the brewery, says Great Notion simply can't make enough beer. If you see it on tap outside its own spot, it's because somebody has something to celebrate.
"We don't sell kegs regularly to anyone. We only distribute for special events—a festival, or an anniversary party or something," Reiter says. "That beer takes weeks to make, and if we give you a keg, we only have 13 kegs left."
That will change later this year when Great Notion opens a large new brewing facility on the fringes of Slabtown. The new space is 20,000 square feet, with a 30-barrel brewhouse and lots of room to add fermenters. It's right around the corner from a proposed new 3,000-person-capacity music venue. The plan is for Dugan to stay on Northeast Alberta Street while Miller and a new brewer move over to get the new system working. They'll use software called BeerSmith to scale up the recipe, just as they did from homebrew. They're buying Fort George's old canning line and will fill 16-ounce cans.
The plan is to sell everything in cases to go rather than rely on distribution, which both adds cost and relinquishes control over quality.
"These beers don't age well," Dugan says. "If you're packaging and those beers are sitting on the shelf at Fred Meyer, that beer is going to drop off pretty fast, especially if it's not refrigerated the whole time. We don't want to sign with a distributor. We want to have complete control of the beer and how it's handled."
That's all because of the haze, of course. The haze makes a statement, and it's become an effective marketing tool, but it also has a function.
Many of the brewers trying a batch inspired by Great Notion have used filtration or finings. In every case we've seen, the magic is lost.
"All those proteins you get from the oats, that's what gets you the silky, soft mouthfeel," Dugan says. "And then, when you dry-hop heavily, all the oils from the hops stick to the proteins, and what happens is your hops stay in suspension instead of dropping out. That's my philosophy on our flavor and how we're achieving the hop flavor."
That hop flavor is truly extraordinary—by any standard. Personally, I think they're the best hoppy beers anywhere in the world right now.
And they're even taking note back east. A few weeks ago, Dugan found himself at the Extreme Beer Fest in Boston, a highly curated event put on by the founders of influential website and magazine Beer Advocate. Great Notion had the longest lines at the festival and sold out in only about 2 1/2 hours.
"In Boston, I had no idea the level of excitement around us," he says. "It was surreal because I'd been there on the other side, as a drinker, just a few years ago. My wife tells me, 'Don't let it go to your head.'"
Sound a little weird? Well, I went to Boston last summer and drank every hazy New England IPA I could find. Great Notion is better than anything I had there. Maybe there's some little backwoods brewery that can top them, but Trillium certainly can't. Odd as it sounds, Portland, Ore., now has better New England IPAs than Portland, Maine.
Great Notion knows its primacy in this niche won't go unchallenged. Not as beer sales overall are down in the country and the growth of the craft beer market has dramatically slowed.
"I know that over time, as more and more breweries realize there's an opportunity if you have a cloudy IPA to outsell everything else you have, at least right now," Dugan says, "you're going to see more of it. We already are."
Reiter, the third partner and career salesman, is ready.
"These younger whippersnappers are coming up," he says. "We've gotta keep our game tight."
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