Jamie Francis/The Oregonian
The Lovell Building (lower white structure in the middle) will become a 30-barrel brewery by the summer of 2011. Fort George Brewery partners Jack Harris and Chris Nemlowill bought the building, which dates to 1921 and is adjacent to their existing brew pub.
Thanks to the expanding Fort George Brewery and Pub, Astoria will soon be a canning town again -- but instead of fish, these cans will contain 16 ounces of Vortex India Pale Ale.
In October, Fort George partners Chris Nemlowill and Jack Harris bought their entire city block with the help of the Small Business Administration. The purchases include the 1924 Fort George Building that houses their brewpub -- they previously leased 2,900 square feet of the building -- the adjacent 1921 Lovell Building, a disused 30,000-square-foot GM auto dealership and other property for $1.65 million with the help of Small Business Administration loans.
Jamie Francis/The Oregonian
Head brewer Spencer Gotter cleans mash as he makes Cavita Stout at Fort George Brewery and Pub in Astoria. Celebrating February as “Stout Month,” the Stout & Oysters Brewers Dinner will be held at the pub Wednesday evening.
The deal gives Astoria its own Brewery Block, and Nemlowill and Harris have lots of plans, beginning with a new production brewery and canning line on the ground floor of the Lovell Building.
Subsequent phases include an open air beer garden for the sunnier months, new outdoor seating and a multi-level deck at the pub, artisan shops -- a glassblower, metalsmith and historic renovators -- on the second floor of the Lovell Building and eventually a barrel-aging room and event space on the second floor of the Fort George Building.
"We're looking to attract synergistic businesses to the block," said Nemlowill, "people that will integrate with our emphasis on the local and on Astoria history. We'll make it a one-block version of what the McMenamins have done with Edgefield."
If you go
Address: Fort George Brewery & Public House, 1483 Duane St., Astoria, 1-503-325-7468
Stout Month: Fort George celebrates the dark month of February with the darkest of beers, stouts, and has several pub-brewed stouts on tap, including Badda Bing, a flanders-style sour cherry stout; The Murky Pearl, brewed with Willapa Bay oysters; Bourbon Barrel-aged Cavatica Stout; Spank Stout, brewed with 3 varieties of hot pepper; and Coffee Girl Stout, made with espresso.
Stout & Oysters Brewers Dinner: An introduction to a sublime food and beer pairing -- five courses of fresh oysters and hearty stouts. 6 p.m. Wednesday at the pub; $55.
Right now, though, they're concentrating on the 8,000-square-foot former auto repair shop that will house the new production brewery, canning line and cold storage.
Brewer Jack Harris and his crew of helpers will trek to Houston, Texas in March to disassemble a used 30-barrel brew system (930 gallons) and three 1,800-gallon fermentation tanks that they're buying from St. Arnold Brewing and load it onto five trucks for the trek to Astoria. The system will increase capacity nearly fourfold from thee current 260 gallon brewhouse, which will remain in operation in the Fort George Building.
Harris expects to have the new system installed and in production by September and hopes to have cans of Vortex IPA in Portland for the July 2011 Oregon Brewers Festival.
If the idea of good beer in cans surprises you, you've missed a quiet revolution.
Craft brewers are increasingly using cans because they protect beer from light damage -- those beers in green and clear bottles acquire their special taste from light turning hop oils into off-flavor compounds -- and they prevent oxidation. Brewers are learning that if you put good beer in cans, you'll get good beer out. Also, recycle rates are higher for cans, transportation costs are lower and they appeal to outdoor-minded craft beer customers.
"Canning is so perfect a metaphor for Astoria," said Zetty McKay, Nemlowill's wife and owner of Coffee Girl, a popular local coffee shop on Astoria's Pier 39. "Canneries used to line the wharves in this town, so it'll be good to have an Astoria product in cans going out to the world once again."
Nemlowill, Harris and McKay are well attuned to their community and its history, and their emphasis on running businesses that appeal to locals has paid off. "We don't especially go after the tourist dollar," says Nemlowill, " because Astoria really isn't a tourist town like all the cute beach towns with their boutiques. This is a working river town -- Astoria is very blue collar."
It's also chockablock with history. The original Fort George, founded in 1811, was the first American-owned settlement on the Pacific Coast. The Fort George Building stand is built on the site of old fort, and the spring that watered it. Astoria is coming to realize and capitalizing on its history as seen in the renovation downtown and the fact that Clatsop Community College now offers classes in historic preservation, but the brewpub's future home was in sad shape when Nemlowill was looking for a building.
"This was derelict when I first saw it in October of 2005," he said, sitting in the warm, woody dining room of his bustling brewpub. "The windows were busted out and the city said the place was a public nuisance, but when I looked up and saw those huge wooden beams, I just knew that we had to try and save it."
"I asked Jack Harris, who was brewmaster at Bill's Tavern in Cannon Beach, to be my business consultant," Nemlowill said. "But I was really hoping he'd become my business partner, because Jack has years of experience in the business, and he makes wonderful beer."
Jamie Francis/The Oregonian
Fort George Brewery and Pub partners Jack Harris, left, and Chris Nemlowill recently bought the 1921 Lovell Building adjacent to their existing Astoria brewery and plan to starting shipping cans of beer from the new 30-barrel brewery during summer or fall of 2011.
Nemlowill and Harris became business partners and moved into the bigger part of the ground floor of the Fort George Building -- a bakery and coffee shop called the Blue Scorcher occupies the other part -- and began to refurbish and build the brewpub. The booths are made from 40-year-old Alaskan cedar that located in a float shack near Brownsmead, east of Astoria. The cedar was too knotty to be used, as intended, for a boat, so a transaction was negotiated for $1,500 -- and a bottle of Wild Turkey to close the deal.
They restored the senescent building to life and usefulness by creating a place that exemplifies the central tenet of craft: the best beer is local. Fort George is a reminder of why the Brits call their favorite pubs "locals," and it's an example of how to build a business in tough times by paying attention to your customers and your community.
"There are lots of people who want to rent this place out for parties," said Walt Postlewait, an Astoria-based business consultant, "but these guys just won't do it."
But Fort George is feeling a bit cramped thanks to its success. Sixty people filled the dining room for a brewers dinner in mid-January and Nemlowill says he could've sold 20 more tickets if he had the room. "Our business plan called for expanding," he says, "but more like in 10 years, not after three-and-a-half years."
John Foyston is a Portland writer and expert in Oregon craft brewing: 503-805-0637; ; blog.oregonlive.com/thebeerhere