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The Commons Head Brewer, Sean Burke
While the rest of us under-aged kids were trying to convince shady-looking strangers to buy beer for us, nineteen-year-old Sean Burke and his friends figured out that even though they weren't old enough to drink, they could still buy supplies to make their own beer. This idea would prove to be pivotal. Years later, while Mike Wright was running a nanobrewery called Beetje (“bee-tcha” - Flemish for “little”) out of his garage in Southeast Portland, Burke was studying large-scale brewing in Munich through a Master Brewer's program run by the Siebel Institute and Doemens Academy. Wright spent so much time making beer in his one-barrel system that it didn't leave much time to run the actual business of the nanobrewery so he decided it was time to expand and hire help. Immediately upon flying back home from Munich, Burke found himself at The Commons. Wright's brainchild, The Commons Brewery, was launched in the summer of 2011, with Burke as the head brewer, and by 2012 had already produced multiple award-winning beers, gaining significant beer geek recognition worldwide.

Likely their best known beer thus far, Urban Farmhouse, was the Bronze Medal Winner of the 2012 World Beer Cup, the 2012 Northwest Brewing News People's Choice Award for the best Belgian-style ale, and was voted Best Beer 2012 by the Portland Tribune and 2013 Beer of the Year by Willamette Week. Farmhouse ales were originally brewed in rural Belgium to serve as an alternative to the non-potable water, keeping farmers hydrated during the long workdays. Urban Farmhouse is a great light-weight beer true to the original intent of a farmhouse ale – refreshing, crisp and moderate in alcohol (5.3%). But it's packed with flavor, complex and very well-balanced. It pours the color of golden straw with a thick, stubborn head characteristic of a Belgian ale, a smell that is fragrant and floral with a hint of fresh straw, tropical fruit and a little funkiness. It's slightly sweet, with notes of pear, cider, pineapple, a hint of barnyard and a slight, very well-integrated hops bitterness that mellows as the beer warms.

Beetje – no longer housed in Wright's garage – is now primarily used to produce a special small-batch series for The Commons which can only be found in their tasting room. One such beer which came and went quickly was Brotherly Love, a bourbon-barrel aged Belgian-style strong dark ale brewed with sour cherries and locally-roasted Ecuadorean cacao nibs. Brotherly Love is one example of their higher-alcohol beers at 10% by volume, and something to keep an eye out for if, like me, you seek out the unusual and experimental in craft beer.

“Gather around Beer” is The Commons tag line. Burke emphasized that it is the gathering that is really the focus, while the beer serves only to facilitate and enhance the social experience. Sure, the beer is important – you want the beer to be good, but you also want to have more than one and still be able to relax and socialize – not get stupid drunk. This is what really set The Commons apart from other breweries – particularly in the Northwest, where it's often thought that bigger is better. I include myself among those who seek out beers that punch you in the mouth when you taste them: hop-forward, heavy in malt, heavy in flavor and complexity – and by default, heavy in alcohol. Part of my reason for seeking these beers out, though, is that the lower-alcohol “sessions” have often lacked flavor at best, and are downright awful most of the time. The Commons dared to make something with just as much flavor and complexity, but with less alcohol. And with this, they unearthed a strong need in the craft beer market. Now their main problem is a good one to have: how to meet the demand.

It is clear, by looking at the size of the space and the size of the initial system, that Wright didn't anticipate The Commons rocketing success – and one has to wonder how much longer they can exponentially grow without outgrowing their space. In mid-June, they added brewer Mike Johnson to their team, and now, their seven-barrel system is about to drastically expand with the addition of two new thirty-barrel tanks, allowing them to expand distribution into California, Washington, British Columbia, and possibly as far as Vermont.

While the main focus is to produce beers within the mid-alcohol range of about 4.5 to 6%, Burke says, “We don't want to back ourselves into that corner where that's all we do...because we definitely know how to make bigger, stronger beers, and I think they have their place too.” Burke hopes that what really stands out is the quality. And with meticulous attention to detail, The Commons artfully engineers their beers to exceed expectation every time.

I am a very anxious person, so when I first visited The Commons tasting room a couple of months ago, I was too afraid to go in. I waited outside until my friends showed up. I waited outside for so long that the guy selling hot dogs out front started to look nervous. This is likely why I've come to love my adult beverages, as it takes the edge off of life a bit – but I'll save that for a therapist. The tasting room is an afterthought in the corner of their brewery, in a renovated warehouse with concrete floors, exposed brick walls that seem to reach to the sky, huge gleaming steel tanks, stacks of wooden barrels, and light pouring in through tall multi-paned windows. Everything is spotless and there's a smell of malt and hops in the air. There is one tiny bar with eight taps, one barrel to serve as a table and four metal stools. It feels like you're somewhere you're not supposed to be. But if getting up-close and personal with the brewery isn't enough to get you to the tasting room – even if you're a chicken-shit like me – go for the damn good beer you'll never otherwise have a chance to taste.

One Commons beer which hasn't been regularly available and is expected to be released again in August is Maybelle – one of Burke's personal favorites. Maybelle is a farmhouse ale aged in Chardonnay barrels with a strain of Brettanomyces (a specific type of yeast used to produce wild ales and sours) cultured from a world-class brewery in Beersel, Belgium, an area famous for its Lambics. “Sometimes, when you're imagining the way a beer should be, it takes a while...” If you're a perfectionist like Burke, you'll need to tweak this or that to make it just right – but this one, Burke says,“Right out of the gates, it was exactly the way I wanted it.”

Other Commons beers on my list to seek out: if you have a chance to make it to to Puckerfest this year at Belmont Station (July 12th through 18th ), you'll be able to try The Commons latest collaboration with De Garde – a new Oregon coast brewery that specializes in all-wild fermented beers – which combines a bourbon barrel-aged De Garde Berliner Weisse style with a touch of smoked malt.. Also soon to be released is a collaboration with Widmer: a dark farmhouse ale which combines The Commons yeast with a variety of Widmer's experimental hops. Burke says it's an unusual flavor profile for The Commons, but he feels it represents both breweries well, with a distinct Commons base and a strong Widmer hop character. The Commons is also getting ready to release bottles of Emelie, a Flemmish-style red ale you may have tried at Cheers for Belgian Beers in 2013.

As both a craft beer enthusiast and an aspiring business owner, The Commons Brewery has been an enigma to me. Their sudden presence in the craft beer scene and their immediate success seems almost alchemical. In my interview with Burke, I tried to get to the heart of their success but I found the answer to be deceptively simple, and – admittedly – a little underwhelming: Wright “...saw what other people did better than him and hired them to do that,” says Burke, “...having good focus from the beginning...and having the right people in place.” The addition of Josh Grgas to manage sales and distribution has been instrumental to their success. And they all work well together, which certainly helps. There is no doubt that their success – like beer-brewing itself – is part art, part science, and a little luck.

The Commons is located at 1810 SE 10th St. in Portland, Oregon. The tasting room is on SE Stephens St. between 10th and 11th and is open Thursday and Friday 5-9pm; Saturday 2-9pm; and Sunday 2-6pm. And bring your comfortable shoes because odds are, you'll be standing.

For more information on The Commons Brewery
For more information on Puckerfest

Thanks to Sean Burke for letting me take an hour out of his day to talk to me, and thanks to The Commons Brewery for contributing to the great craft beer of Portland.

 


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