BY LISA MORRISON
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.