Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview Series: In Depth with Jack Harris of Fort George

Festival of Dark Arts is happening tomorrow! Get down to Fort George Brewery in Astoria for a ton of fun surrounding stout month - and read on for an in depth interview with Jack Harris of Fort George!

Stout Month 2012 by artist Chris Lee

How long has Fort George been open? Tell us a little about the new expansion in the production facility? 

Fort George was conceived in the fall of 2005, built in 2006 and opened March 11, 2007. Originally we rented 3000 square feet on the West Half of the main level in the Fort George Building. The pub and brewery were short on space right away. We lobbied our landlord (who graciously loaned us space in another of his buildings) to sell us the Fort George Building from almost the start, with the plan being to expand the brewery into the upstairs with more fermenters and a packaging line. When he finally got sick of hearing from us, he offered to sell the building on the condition we bought all of his Downtown Astoria property at once. Chris (my business partner) took on the challenge and organized a financing package that allowed us to buy the whole block. Once we owned the Lovell building in addition to the Fort George it seemed to make a lot more sense to get a new production brewery to take advantage of the vast expanse of open, ground-level space it afforded. We bought a 15 year-old, 30 bbl DME system from St. Arnold in Houston, Texas in 2010 and had it up and running at the beginning of 2011. This week we took delivery on two 120 bbl fermenters and a 120 bbl bright tank manufactured new at Metalcraft in Portland. They are literally being installed as I write this. This will triple our current capacity and pretty much fills in all the available space we once thought infinite.

What additional changes has the quick expansion and growth brought to Fort George? Increased staff? Increased distribution? 

We have almost doubled our staff, both in the pub and brewery, since we opened the new brewery (affectionately known as Little Miss Texas) last year. While we have been aware of and have planned pretty well for this growth it has challenged us as an organization. It is important that everyone feels like they are in the loop as far as decision making and we have added some management layers that take that intimacy away. Fortunately the managers we have promoted to new responsibilities are committed to our team ethic and work very hard to keep lines of communication open. Our training programs have improved by leaps and bounds and have already paid dividends with improved safety protocols, customer service and organization. Nikki Olsen at Deschutes Brewery has been invaluable as our 5-S/Lean Manufacturing mentor.
Our need for space seems insatiable. We have some creative folks in charge of warehousing our cooperage, cans and equipment, but a walk-in cooler solution needs to be addressed soon. 
As far as distribution, we have a very measured, long-term plan for introducing our beer to new markets. Maletis and Odom Distributing have both been very patient and supportive of our goals.

Where can we find Fort George outside Oregon?

Right now you can find Fort George Beer in the Vancouver, WA metro area downriver to Longview. We self-distribute to the Long Beach Peninsula in Pacific County, WA as well. We have plans for the Seattle area, but are not ready to announce a release date as of yet.

How long have you been brewing? Where did you brew before Fort George?

I began brewing for the McMenimans in 1990 at the Cornelius Pass Roadhouse, back when the brewery and pub were still in the old Imbrie House. I migrated to the McForeign Legion outpost of Lincoln City and brewed there until 1993 when I accepted a job to open a brewpub in Boulder, Colorado. I brewed at the Mountain Sun for three years, long enough to meet my future wife and then followed her back to Oregon where she was enrolled at the National College of Naturapathic Medicine. I spent a year in Central Oregon as the first brewer at Cascade Lakes, living in the front office of the brewery with my dog. A friend told me that Bill's Tavern was going to be rebuilt as a brew-pub and I missed both a pub atmosphere and the beach so I lobbied very hard to get that opportunity. I brewed in Cannon Beach for 9 years before opening Fort George. 

What are your primary focuses when creating a new beer?

There are a million variables, but a few questions I ask before committing to something new are: Are we chasing a fad? What can we add to this style of beer that nobody else has addressed? What distinguishes this beer from others like it? Is it a gimmick or does the new ingredient or technique add value to the beer? Is the final beer greater than the sum of its' parts? Would I drink three pints of this beer at one sitting?

Has your experience at Fort George expanded your creativity in brewing?

Maybe by proxy. I have a host of really creative, enthused and hard-working brewers that have a multitude of beer ideas spilling out of them. They are constantly pitching new ideas and techniques to either improve our standard selection or completely new beers this planet has never seen. Some of those will remain unseen, but folks will be seeing new stuff from Fort George for a long while.

Last year (2011) we saw a collaboration by Fort George and Astoria Brewing on Batcountry, a stout/lager hybrid. Any plans for new hybrid or collaboration beers on the horizon? 

Bat Country was a huge hit and it only further solidified our positive working relations with Astoria Brewing, who have plans for a brewery expansion of their own. We are currently in discussions with other breweries about collaborations, but it would be premature to announce anything at this time. We will let you know when we have a solid plan.

Where did your love of beer come from?

Beer has been very good to me. It would be hard not to love it for that reason alone. Really, like mom or apple pie, it never occurred to me that everyone didn't love beer. I have just been incredibly lucky to build a life around it.

What's your favorite Fort George beer?

I have heard that secretly, parents do have a favorite child. (We are raising an only child, so I don't know.) Choosing my favorite beer at Fort George is difficult. I am pretty renowned among our bartenders for being hard to predict my choice of refreshment. Time, place and context all have an influence on my choice at any given moment, but if put on the spot, right this second while I am typing on my home computer (our office is taken apart for upstairs remodeling) I would order a Cavatica Stout. Mmmmn, Stout.

What kind of style of beer would you suggest for someone who is completely new Fort George beers? What do you consider your flagship beer? 

Again, that depends on the person. Are they familiar with and appreciative of craft beer? I would get them started with an Oatmeal Pale Ale. Are they new to or skeptical of more flavorful beer? Quick Wit rarely gets rejected. I have never been comfortable with a Flagship Beer, it implies special treatment or a feeling that other beers are less important, but it would be hard to deny that Vortex IPA is our most renowned beer.

festival of Dark Arts poster by artist Sallie Lackaff

Fort George is known for events like Festival of the Dark Arts during Stout Month (February) and the Brewer's Dinners, with special menus prepared by Chef Dana - what can you tell us about what's coming up? 

Well Stout Month (aka February) is looking to be huge. We will have at least 8 of our own Stouts available and will be rotating 8 more stouts onto our guest handles through the month. We hosted our Stout and Oyster Brewers Dinner on Wednesday, February 15th. That dinner featured at least 5 new Stouts with a five course Oyster oriented meal.

Then on Saturday, February 18th we will hold the Festival of Dark Arts - A Carnival of Stout in the Lovell Building. That will entail a huge Dark Art Gallery,a live Blacksmithing demonstration, on-site Tattoo Artists, a Tarot Card reader, Belly Dancers, Pirates, Ambient Music, Fire Dancers, a Fire Eater and at least 15 Stouts that haven't been poured yet during the month. This will be a Beer Festival format, no charge for entry, but you must purchase a glass and tickets to sample the beer.
Update *** Tattoo Artists are almost completely booked up for the Festival of Dark Arts this Saturday. Check with Hold Fast Tattoo Co. & Gallery and Keepsake Tattoo Studio to book your Stout Month tattoo in front of a live Stout Drinking audience!
Fort George is now a pinnacle of the rebirth happening in Astoria and the revival of that community - how do you and your staff carry your mission at Fort George into the community? 

The Fort George Brewery and Public House stands on the shoulders of giants in this community that labored for years to pave the way for businesses like ours to flourish. One example is Uriah Hulsey who spent 20 years running the Columbian Cafe and insisting that good, fresh food could be sold, even in a town that looked like it was dying in the 80's. In his role as City Planner, Paul Benoit starting putting plans together years ago that would protect the waterfront and make it accessible to pedestrians, effectively making Astoria the best walking town in the Northwest. The city has supported our every effort from helping us re-zone to allow our activities, to coming up with creative strategies for us to meet strict building code ordinances while re-purposing old buildings. There are countless other examples of people who went out of their way, at their own expense for the benefit of Fort George. If we have come to symbolize the renaissance of Astoria it is due, in a large part to the community wanting us to happen as much as our managing our development from the top. 
We try to honor this connection by supporting as many of the local efforts as we can either by donating services, hosting in our event spaces or just showing up with a beer about when a beer is very needed.
Anything else you want to tell us about what's happening at Fort George? 

We will be celebrating our 5th anniversary this March and it is really amazing to see where we have arrived at in such a short time. It is easy to get caught up in the day to day operations where the changes often seem incremental. I am always humbled and flattered when folks take notice and share in our enthusiasm and optimism. Sometimes it seems more like a wave I am learning to ride, rather than a business I supposedly run. Thank-you for your interest and hopefully we can share a beer together sometime soon. That is what this is really all about.

Fort George Brewery - visit