Honorary Beer Scribe for Guest on Tap
A plaque in Astoria’s Fort Astoria Park, proclaims that the fort was home to the first white woman west of the Rockies, in 1814. She is described on the plaque only as “Jane Barnes English Barmaid,” so it’s fitting that the former home of a barmaid should house a brewery nearly 200 years later.
Fort George Brewing Co. brewed its first beer Feb. 7 and opened March 11. Brewer-owners Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill had brewed at other breweries on the north Oregon coast and teamed up to open Fort George last year.
The pair bought the 10 hectoliter brew system from a brew pub in Virginia Beach, Va. They flew out to pick it up, hired a trucker to drive the brewhouse and loaded the other bits and bobs into a U-Haul truck, and headed back to Oregon.
Crossing Nebraska, a tornado did its best to whisk the brewhouse off to the Land of Oz.
Nemlowill describes watching the mash tun and brew kettle “dance” out of their tie-down straps on the 56-foot trailer in front of them. After buffeting the brewers and their equipment the storm swept off into the distance, leaving them shaken but unharmed.
The system was re-secured, and they continued on to Astoria without further mishap. To appease the storm demons the Fort George brewers have dubbed their IPA “Vortex.”
The brew pub is located in part of the Fort George Building, a large car dealership from the 1920s. An iconic art-deco image of the building is the brewery’s logo.
A stylish glass garage door separates the brewhouse from the pub and harks back to the building’s automotive heritage, as does a mural in one of the unisex bathrooms. The other, painted to resemble the log walls of the original fort, is replete with detail.
Slightly upscale pub-grub complements the beer. Try the spicy oyster poor boy with the massively hoppy Vortex. House-made sausages also are a good match for the beers.
The brewery offers a range of beers, including the 4.3 percent abv Weisse Berry, fermented with the renowned Weihenstephan yeast, giving it banana phenols in the aroma which blend with soft red berry notes.
The Sunrise Oatmeal Pale 4.8 percent has a dry oaty aroma with some malt, the flavor is dry from oats, and very quenching.
The 4.9 percent Red Ale has a roasty, toasty aroma, full tawny red color, and robust roast flavor balanced with sizable hop flavor. The roast comes through as a light nuttiness in the finish.
Vortex IPA clocks in at 7.5 percent abv, with a resiny sawmill hop buzz, like a logger stomping into town from the woods. The spicy hop flavor pairs with woody bitterness from kettle additions of Cascade and Simcoe hops. After fermentation the beer is dry-hopped with Palisades, Simcoe and Cascade.
Cavatica Stout at 8.5 percent abv is named for a common brown spider which protects barley from insects. According to Nemlowill, breweries and spiders have long been linked.
“In Belgium it is illegal to kill a spider in a brewery — they keep flies and bugs out of the (open) fermenters at lambic breweries,” he explains. Alcohol appears in the roasty, caramelly aroma, and the flavor has notes of spicy alcohol, a woody dryness, and licorice.
For youngsters and nondrinkers, the brewery makes a Wasabi Ginger Ale with a spicy ginger beer aroma and a syrupy sweetness, which dries out with the spicy flavor.
It was about a year and a half of hard work, including a cross-country trek to “rescue” a defunct brewery and a near miss with a tornado, but beer is flowing at Fort George Brewery + Public House in Astoria.
It’s somehow fitting that the actual location of the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Coast is now home to Astoria’s newest brewpub. Like the original fur-trader site of Fort Astoria, which was named Fort George when the British briefly held it in possession during the War of 1812, this new Fort George establishment was built by a handful of dedicated people who wouldn’t let a little adversity stand in their way.
“We’ve had a ton of help along the way,” says Jack Harris, the former head brewer at Bill’s Tavern in Cannon Beach who co-owns Fort George with former Astoria Brewing’s brewer Chris Nemlowill. “From our trusting financiers, friends and family, locals who love beer, our fabulous relationship with our general contractor, Anthony DeLuz, and now, our incredible staff of motivated, enthusiastic publicans -- we would have never gotten this far on our own.”
Harris says it was the dedication from friends and family that helped them rescue the gleaming brewery that now stands proudly behind garage-style doors at Fort George. When he, Nemlowill, a mutual friend and two of Nemlowill’s uncles ventured to Virginia to disassemble the brewery equipment from a defunct operation so they could drive it across the country, they had no idea of the work awaiting them.
“(One day, we worked) 19 hours in a rat-infested skank hole in a mall. I didn’t ever think I would get the smell of rat urine and feces out of my hair. The brewery was terribly abused, and the mission soon became a rescue operation for what we could tell was a beautiful brewery under layers of, well, I think I’ve spoken enough about the rat sh-t,” Harris says.
After a few other setbacks and a few more days, the big pieces of the brewery were strapped on a flatbed truck driven by a professional trucker with Nemlowill and Harris following behind in a U-Haul stuffed full with the rest of the brewery’s pieces.
Making their way across the country, they were in Nebraska when the dark cloud they were driving under suddenly started rotating.
“A funnel cloud drops out of (the cloud) and hits the cornfield not 100 yards off the interstate and turns the world into a black, muddy, sleet-filled and scary place,” Harris says. “We are communicating via CB with our trucker. He says, ‘Keep going! Don’t pull over!’ Everyone else was pulling over.”
“I’m driving while this is happening, just gripping the steering wheel,” Nemlowill adds. “Meanwhile, Jack’s whipping out his camera and taking photos of the tornado, and yelling at me, ‘Did you SEE that? DID … YOU … SEE … THAT!’”
“I don’t think we’ll ever know how close we came to losing that equipment,” Harris says. “But (the twister) did blow a strap off one tank, which then walked a bit across the flatbed.”
With no more meteorological thrills to contend with, the pair got their brewery safely home to Astoria -- only to face the next adventure of putting the whole thing back together, along with the chore of retrofitting a brewery into the aptly named Fort George Building. The structure was built shortly after the big fire in 1923 , and was a car dealership, service station and home to other automotive-related services until the late 1990s. It then sat vacant until Blue Scorcher Bakery opened up in part of it and Fort George began to take shape in 2006.
“Whenever the city is expecting a remodel inside a nearly 90-year-old building to meet stringent codes, it can be frustrating. All in all, though, (everyone) went out of their way to help us get it all figured out,” Harris says.
Both Nemlowill and Harris wanted Fort George to speak of its noble roots. The building’s original, huge, old-growth beams and hand-forged fasteners remain handsomely exposed and are highlighted by a gleaming custom wood bar and handmade pine tables, benches and booths. Garage doors to the brewery and a collection of several funky pieces of metal equipment -- including a wall-mounted boiler plate that houses a dart board and some leftover piece of an auger screw over the brewery wall—speak to the building’s industrial- age beginnings. Local artists Sally Lackaff and Roger Hayes have converted the two unisex bathrooms into time capsules of either an 1824 rendition of the original Fort George/Fort Astoria trapping post or a 1938 vision of the car dealership that once stood on the same ground.
But now, it’s a brewpub. Harris and Nemlowill collaborate on the beers, which they say will always be a work in progress, as they say they want to let their clientele and the brewhouse itself dictate what beers work best at Fort George. Currently, they offer seven house beers, including Beer #1, their first beer (“We just wanted to get beer going through the system,” Nemlowill says); a unique Sunrise Oatmeal Pale; Vortex IPA, named for the Nebraska twister incident -- and their most popular beer so far; and the lovely Cavatica Stout, named for Charlotte A. Cavatica, the spider in Charlotte’s Web.
“I discovered a. cavatica is the scientific name for the common garden spider,” Harris says. “The Latin root of cavatica is cave, crevice, abyss or a dark place. Just like a stout should be.”
Harris says he and Nemlowill like to offer guest taps because “we like to feature our friends on tap.” And the house lineup will change because for seasons and other reasons.
Still in its fledgling weeks, Harris says kitchen manager Dana McAuley continues to solidify the brewpub’s menu.
“Dana took our sketches of ideas for a menu and turned them into a fully fleshed out cuisine that takes pub food a step higher than I have ever witnessed,” Harris says.
The menu is well rounded, offering a little something for everyone -- even the kids. A chalkboard features daily specials. Already, locals are commending McAuley and his staff for their delicate and precise handling of fish dishes—something that seems to be a closely guarded secret.
“(It’s) just knowing when and how to season the fish correctly,” Harris says. “Any more information than that, and we would have to kill you.”
Fortunately, they aren’t so closely guarded with their tasty food, grub and friendly service at the Fort. Plus there’s live music and no cover on Sunday nights.
Just don’t inquire about the fish.
Located at 15th and Duane Streets, Fort George Brewery is taking local brewing to a whole new level. In a way the brewery sits on sacred ground, this spot is where the first settlement on the West Coast was located.
The lead brewers in the project are Chris “Nimz” Nemlowill, the former brewer at Astoria’s Wet Dog, and John Harris of Bill’s Pub in Cannon Beach. They actually were both brewers at Bill’s for a short time where they started tossing around ideas of starting their own.
Their idea for Fort George has been discussed for over 2 years and that dream will become reality in the next 10 days.
History of Fort George
The Fort was originally founded in March 1811 by Captain Jonathan Thorn. It was first named Fort Astoria and was the Pacific Fur Company’s primary fur trading post in the Northwest. In 1813 the Fur company sold it to the British. Even though it was already under British control, a British ship named the Racoon seized it in late 1813 and immediately named it Fort George.
Today there is said to be a green line where the Fort was originally located, but can’t always been seen and the old Fort faced a bit more toward the West in order to look down the Columbia.
Equipment for the Brewery
Fort George has 6 brewing vessels that all serve a different purpose. All the equipment was purchased from a Brewery on the East Coast and had to be trucked all the way to Astoria. On the way back the truck had to drive through a tornado, in which both Chris a Jack thought they were going to lose everything. But luckily they made it through with everything intact.
The process of brewing beer has typically 5-7 steps, with the first called “mashing”. At Fort George a lawn-mower size machine sits above the brewery where barley is fed. The machine takes it and sends a consistent stream of barley down a tube and into the first vessel. Here hot water is added to crack the barley. Enzymes break down the starch in the grain into sugars. Whether the beer is darker or lighter, depends on the temperature of this process. Higher temperatures equals darker beer.
The next step is lautering, this basically involves separating the sugars from the spent grain. Fort George uses a Lauter Tun with a false bottom which allows the liquid to filter through, but not the spent grain.
Boiling follows this stage, this is where the liquid, AKA “Wort” is boiled and hops are added. This lowers the PH and causes the proteins in the wort to coagulate.
The next step is fermentation, this involves adding yeast. At this stage the “Wort” is metabolized into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This usually takes one to two weeks to become fully digested.
After the fermentation the liquid is conditioned and filtered, which involves removing the yeast and other left over particles from the beer. This process takes the longest and 4 of the 6 tanks at Fort George are used just for this.
It is now ready to drink, or store in kegs and holding tanks.
At Fort George they built a special cooler for the storage where 4 giant tanks fill the room. Each tank has a hose that leads to a CO2 apparatus and this leads directly to the tap behind the bar.
Local, Local, Local
From the start “Nimz” and Jack wanted to keep everything as local as possible.
Much of the wood is form local sources. For example the bar table itself is partially made from a fallen walnut tree from the Elk Refuge. The vents that were left over by the previous owners for ventilating the auto painting booth, now have the cooking grill directly underneath to send the smoke outside. The window booths are made from scrap wood from a old boat East of Astoria and much of the wood needed for paneling in the entryway was cut and plained at the Olney mill. If this wasn’t enough, I knew this Brewery was as local as it can get when they commented on how much of a help some guy named “Barefoot Bill” was on the project.
The Future of Fort George
In a breath of fresh air, the owners are very careful about turning this into a big money maker. They view it as more of a public service and a spot for the locals to hang out and drink some good-quality beer. According to them, the most important part of this operation is to keep everything as affordable as possible, while still making payments on some rather large loans.
Opening, Hours and Events
The hours are not set in stone yet, but at the moment they will be “11 to 11” Mon-Sat and “Sometime in the late afternoon” till 11pm on Sunday. 11 to 11 was chosen because “it has a nice ring to it”. Every Sunday will also feature a live band. A stage was built on the East wall of the bar and bands can leave the sound equipment at home, because the whole bar is wired with a sound system.
The food menu has not been decided yet, but will feature many of the goodies you will find at other Brewery Pubs. And down the road they hope to offer a variety of smoked products as well.
The opening date is very fuzzy. The owners feel that the bar is creating so much buzz, that an advertised “Grand Opening” would fill the 100 seats available and they would have to turn people away. Chris already had to do this once when KMUN hosted a Reggae Party at the unfinished Brewery a few weeks ago and doesn’t want to turn people away ever again.
So in Chris’s words “we will be open sometime during the week of the 12th…..when we sneak over and turn the open sign on”.
I’d say this looks to be one of the ever increasing success stories in the revitalization of Downtown Astoria.