Refreshing and Sustainable Beer in a Can – Fort George Brewery of Astoria is bringing their product to you

SINCE THE FIRST CANS of pre-prohibition-style lager rolled off the line in early April to commemorate Astoria’s 200-year history, Fort George Brewery is right on track, to bring its craft brew product to the supermarket. If you’re a native, you understand the connection between a canning line and the history of Astoria.  And coincidence or not, that the brewery happens to be on the grounds of the original settlement of Astoria, Fort George Brewery (FGB) and Public House makes a full circle, reviving a spirit of resilience that has allowed the region to survive two centuries. Astoria’s renaissance or reawakening – FGB is in the center of the vortex, building a new model of commerce based on sustainability, passion, and commitment to quality.

1811 Lager Jack Harris Chris Nemlowill
From left to right: Fort George 1811 Lager in a can, Jack Harris, Chris Nemlowill

Four years ago, FGB owners, Brew Master Jack Harris formerly of Bill’s Tavern, and Chris Nemlowill who had tutored under Harris and then worked for the Astoria Brewing Company, opened their doors. A long waiting line of eager Astorians anticipated “getting in” to the refurbished, hulking industrial, historical mechanics shop, itself long-awaiting to be inhabited again. Local band Ma Barley beat the reggae rhythms that night (and it may have been their first gig), and crowds stood, or attempted to seat themselves in the oversized wood plank booths, the high beamed ceilings, cut from ‘Land of the Giant” fir trees, looming overhead, as if to say, there’s room to grow.  Soon following, artist couple, Sally Lackaff and Roger Hayes were employed to transform the walls of the spacious unisex toilets into murals, a fort theme and vintage cars, respectfully.  Everybody wanted to go to the loo at Fort George. That was then.

Hipfish recently caught up with busy co-founder, Chris Nemlowill to get the lowdown on the canning expansion scene. Reflecting on beginnings, not so long ago, Chris said with some modest self-astonishment, “We opened our doors with six employees, now we have 34.”

With Oregon Business Development Department supplied-money tied to job creation, as well as the City of Astoria’s urban renewal funds, and the company’s own investment, FGB, added to their already acquired 2900 sq. ft property –  they bought the rest of the block at 14th and 15th Duane (bar the brewery’s namesake city park lot). The Lovell Auto Building, empty for over a decade would be the new home of a larger 30 barrel brewhouse acquired from Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston, Texas, and the implementation of a state of the art canning operation purchased from Cask Brewing Systems in Calgary, Canada.

Running to capacity on their 8.5 barrel brewery system, (they did 1200 barrels last year) and knowing that roughly 12% of the beer consumed in Oregon is made in Oregon, the potential for growth is highly viable (they’ll hit 3000 barrels this year).  And with craft beer and brewpub style socializing showing no signs of slowing the  continuing conversion of the masses, there is a lot good brewing works still to be done.

The 30 barrel brewhouse system, tanks and all its gadgetry arrived in Astoria by five 56-foot trailers worth of equipment. New employees came aboard to help implement the expansion of brewing and canning.  Now, two FGB distribution vans head-out to over 80 locations on the coast, in Clatsop, Tillamook and Pacific County, with draft and can orders to markets, restaurants and pubs.  And going with the flow of convenience, delivery trucks heading back to Portland, usually empty, now carry Fort George orders to thirsty urbanites, and to greater Oregon, equaling the coastal distribution sites and growing.

Cans of beer
25 cans per minute, fresh from the tank.

Bright blue and silver cans of 1811 Lager, and the beautiful, magical spinning hop of the Vortex IPA (both designed by Josh Berger of id branding and longtime friend of Jack Harris) are now showcased at Fred Meyer in Warrenton. A long, tall cooler stacked with fresh FGB beer is ready to quench a summer’s thirst.

The question arises; with all this expansion is the wonder duo of Harris and Nemlowill ready to overtake craft brew in America?

“We want to get beer to everybody in Oregon who wants it — hopefully to the Seattle area by next summer. We have establishments calling from Seattle, “What do I have to do to get your beer? We can’t make enough right now to fill orders,” says Nemlowill.

Increasing production and filling more orders is a matter of the fermentation process. Nemlowill informs that two more fermentors are in the works. “This size brewery is perfect. It is big enough so that you get enough consistency in your beer, and its not so big that your beer losses its character. “

But the 50 states are not in these brew masters manufacturing projection.

“It doesn’t make sense to ship water. It’s not good for the environment for people to ship water all over the United States. Why steep your tea on the west coast and ship it to the east coast? Steep your tea where you are going to drink it. As long as we can keep the quality high on our product,  this is the criteria for shipping.”

The Tap Room
The Tap Room, Lovell Building. Open Fri 3-8pm, Sat 1-8pm, Sun Nonn-5pm. Enter through the Fort George Parking Lot, or 14th Street. Brewery Tours: Saturday and Sundays @ 1pm & 4pm

Harris and Nemlowill are also setting a new precedent. They want to keep their product regional, based on what they are creating. That precedent is one they are making in the Oregon craft brew community. Cans of FGB, must be kept cold, never warm-stored, and must be sold within 60 days of delivery. It is not a safety precaution – it’s a quality requirement. Craft brew after 60 days, is not the brew they painstakingly craft to stimulate the beer lover’s senses.  FGB just invested in a very expensive can labeler, which puts the quality date on the bottom of the can.  Cans of 1811 lager and Vortex IPA are the only beers sitting in the back storage dairy cooler in grocery stores about Oregon.  Serious passion.

“We believe in our beer – we know how much work we put into it – we know the quality of the ingredients. We want people to experience this,” states Nemlowill resolutely. “We pull the beer if it’s past the date. Then it goes into the black box.”

Tim Ensign, is FBG’s top dog sales rep, whose beer career covers the gamut, from working for Sierra Nevada Bottling, to Trader Joes, and large beer distribution companies.  Even Ensign at first was dubious as to how retailers would respond to this very unique policy, but customer by customer, Nemlowill states, “It’s creating distributors who are beginning to appreciate the quality edge.”

“I feel lucky to go out and sell something that is higher quality than what anybody else can sell to that customer. It feels good to have that competitive advantage. It is also a competitive edge for our customers. “

Nemlowill is an advocate for more people doing small manufacturing in Astoria, and he says, “It’s the best way to have complete control over your products.” And local jobs are a cherished and ever-valued commodity.

If part of your product is serving the public, Fort George is now slouch at that either. The public house is jammed to the brim any given night of the week. The service is amazingly good in a packed, music-filled, lively house. Young, hipster waiters don’t flinch at a crabby customer, whom may peruse what’s on tap or take in the gorgeous chalk art on not one,  but two expansive boards created by a bevy of coastal artists.

Beer in a can is what you get on draft – basically a keg is just a big can, giving the consumer the freshest, most pure brew possible.  And cans, as opposed to bottles, protect beer from light and oxygen. Cans are airtight and oxygen-free. When light consistently hits a bottle of beer, it can turn skunky and ultimately undrinkable. Yuck. Cans too, are more easily recyclable.
The canning of the two brews is the current ticket, but Nemlowill says, eventually they’ll be looking at several more styles to add to the canning line in the future, this with the inclusion of seasonal specialties. They also love to hear from customers as to what they may want to have in the can.

While the can played a huge role in the economy and history of Astoria, as commercial canners were mad to get rich on shipping salmon and tuna to the demanding consumer public, it also played a part in depleting the resources. This can renaissance has a new value structure.  We “can” romanticize and celebrate history, but if we pay attention, a new kind of prosperity is on the horizon. Thrive on Fort George. Lets tip up our cans and drink to that!

Miss Atomic DuoEvery SUNDAY LIVE MUSIC
When Fort George started the LIVE music on Sundays, part of the mission was to provide entertainment on an otherwise usual slow night. Not competing with other venues. Seemed an improbable audience.

Who would have thought that people, really needing to get out of the house, now just bring their kids with them for a beer and to end the weekend.

So Don’t Miss Atomic Duo from Austin TX, fronted by Bad Livers originator Mark Rubin, July 24. 8pm, No Cover.