Fort George Brews Great Beer, Community Connections

January 2, 2009 on 1:08 am | In Stories by Jim LeMonds |

Northwest Coast Magazine, Winter 2008

World-class beer is the most obvious product of the craft-brewing revolution that has swept the Pacific Northwest in recent years. But brewpubs that get it right are also great places, where a sense of comfort and community are at the top of the menu.

The Fort George Brewery & Public House in Astoria gets it right.

Co-owners Chris Nemlowill, 29, and Jack Harris, 41, opened Fort George in March 2007. In less than two years, they have established a reputation for producing excellent beer and created a watering hole that has become an essential part of the local scene. Fort George currently has beers on tap in Portland, Salem, Manzanita, and Cannon Beach, in addition to Astoria.

Brewing great beer is one part of the equation for Harris and Nemlowill. Contributing to the quality of life in the community is another. In September, Fort George co-sponsored Astoria’s Northwest Brew Cup, which drew nearly three dozen craft brewers. All proceeds were donated to the Clatsop County Food Bank.

“Our focus is on building a sense of community,” Nemlowill said. “We want to create a place where everyone feels comfortable - including families - and we want to be involved in what’s going on here.”

Fort George does not allow smoking or gambling and does not serve hard alcohol. “If you do those things and encourage people to bring their kids in, you’re headed in the right direction,” Nemlowill said.

Where Dream Meets Reality
Harris, who is the head brewer, has a lengthy resume that includes stints at McMenamin’s, Cascade Lakes, and Bill’s in Cannon Beach. He has won numerous medals for beer-making at the Great American Beer Festival.

“I’ve always been a fan of ’subtle’,” Harris said. “I’ve never enjoyed beers that we’re overpowering, whether the flavor is bourbon or herbs.”

Nemlowill graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2003 with a marketing degree. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t suited to a ‘cubicle job’,” he said.

He purchased books about beer-making from Borders, bought a home-brewing kit, and begin producing beers that he tested on friends and co-workers. As part of a study-abroad program, he spent time in the Netherlands, Germany, and Ireland, where he made it a point to visit as many breweries as possible.

“I learned that there’s a huge variety of beer being produced,” he said. “But I think what fascinated me most was the culture of brewing communities.”

In 2004, he introduced himself to Harris, who was head brewer at Bill’s in Cannon Beach. Harris hired Nemlowill as his assistant, and the pair began making plans to open their own place.

“This is my dream job,” said Nemlowill. “Brewing beer doesn’t pay a lot, but it’s a huge amount of fun.”

The Beers
One measure of a brewery is the consistency of its taster tray. From light to dark, Fort George’s brews hold up. Harris and Nemlowill always have at least six of their own beers on tap, along with a one-of-a-kind Fort George specialty batch and a handful of guest beers from other craft brewers.

Vortex IPA (7.4 percent ABV and 97 IBUs) is the best-seller. A big, citrusy IPA in the West Coast tradition, Vortex is packed with taste delivered by five hop varieties.

“Hoppy beers just continue to increase in popularity,” Nemlowill said. “They’re complex and extremely flavorful.

Other standards include Cavatica, a smooth, black stout (8.8 percent ABV); Nut Red Ale, a rich, scarlet ale that relies on a blend of specialty malts; Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, a mellow, dry-hopped ale that is Harris’ favorite; Quick Wit, an unfiltered Belgian; and Golden Goose, a light-but-flavorful golden ale that is the latest addition.

Fort George also produces small-batch brews every other month. Favorites have included Bad Ju Ju Imperial IPA, a well-balanced wonder that boasts 100+ IBUs; Coffee Girl, an imperial stout brewed by Nemlowill in honor of his wife, Astoria coffee-shop owner Zetty McKay; and North, a 10 percent ABV barleywine.

In spite of increased expenses caused by the recent hop shortage, Harris and Nemlowill have done their best to keep prices low, with pints holding at $3.85. Menu items range from $7.95 to $11.95.

“We didn’t go for a waterfront location or a lot of brass and glass,” Harris said. “We want to keep prices down as much as possible so that families can afford to come in.”

Making History
The brewery is located on the site of Fort George, established by the British in 1811 and named for King George III. Intended to protect Great Britain’s fur trading interests in the region, the fort was armed with artillery and home to 65 people. A replica of the original structure stands just south of the brewery at 15th and Exchange streets.

Call it kismet. Jane Barnes, Oregon’s first white female, lived at Fort George in 1814. She was a barmaid.

The brewery is located at 1483 Duane Street in the Fort George Building, which was constructed in 1924 and was home to a Ford dealership until the late 1990s. When Nemlowill and Harris renovated the building, they created a comfortable, open pub that features wooden tables and hand-carved wooden benches. But the real eye-catchers are the old-growth, Douglas fir ceiling beams. The straight-grained behemoths measure 8″ by 28″.

Harris and Nemlowill made their own history even before serving their first beer at Fort George. During the set-up stage, they purchased brewing equipment from a pub in Virginia Beach, Virginia; flew out to pick it up; and hired a driver to truck the equipment cross-country on a 56-foot flatbed. Harris and Nemlowill followed in a U-Haul.

Somewhere in Nebraska a tornado swooped down on them, tearing the mash tun and brew kettle from their tie-down straps and sending them dancing along the highway. After arriving in Astoria with their equipment, Harris and Nemlowill brewed Vortex IPA as a tip of the hat to the power of Mother Nature.

Locals Respect Good Beer
In December 2007, Nemlowill and Harris started a Fort George “mug club.” For $75, members can have their own mug at the brewery. Because the mugs are larger than the norm, members get an additional four ounces of beer with each pull. They also receive first-come status at special events and releases.

“We decided to sell 100 memberships,” Harris said. “They were completely gone in two weeks.” Fort George will sell an additional 150 mug memberships in 2008. Harris said the majority have already been spoken for.

The brewery features live entertainment Sunday and has hosted acts from as far away as Colorado and Hawaii. The menu includes pan-seared Willapa Bay oysters and Astoria’s only “made-from-scratch” sausages.

On Tap
In February, the brewery will hold its second annual “Stout Month,” a celebration of big, rich brews capable of providing solace through the winter months.

Harris and Nemlowill will feature their own Coffee Girl Imperial and Cavatica stouts, along with a specialty brew aged in bourbon barrels. Guest handles will include Imperial Russian Stout from Stone, Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide, and The Abyss from Deschutes. A “brewer’s dinner” on February 18th will offer a sampling of stouts, oysters, and more.

Fort George produced 600 barrels in 2007 and will brew approximately 850 in 2008. Continued growth is a goal, but only to a point.

“We don’t want to get so big that we start sacrificing quality,” Nemlowill said. “Our focus is on growing our presence in Clatsop County and becoming a part of this community.”

Additional information is available online at www.fortgeorgebrewery.com.

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