There was a time when it was harder to define the creative and experimental nature of brewing that’s been built into the DNA of Portland, Oregon’s craft beer scene. There are so many brewers, so many off-the-wall creations, not to mention hole-in-the-wall taprooms. In many ways, Brewmaster Ben Edmunds, of Breakside Brewery, has taken that boutique brewpub archetype and turned it into arguably the most respected independent brewery in the Pacific Northwest.
Fresh off 4 medals at this year’s World Beer Cup (4 out of 8 beers submitted – more than any other brewer in the world), Ben and company are preparing to open their third taproom in just 6 years. We’re still shocked that he had time to spare for us and we’re pretty sure we’ve just wasted that precious time asking him 5 Stupid Questions…
1) Ben, you’ve become one of the industry leaders in innovation, while dialing in one of the best lineups of year-round brews in the nation. With everything going so right, what compelled you to be associated with the likes of us?!
Haha– that’s very kind of you to say. I’m lucky that I get to do a job that I love and work with an amazing team of brewers. But we’re still a small brewery and not well known outside of Portland. I love having the chance to tell more people about our beer and what we do!
2) In 2013, Breakside famously brewed 100 different beers, so it goes without saying that both brew houses were rife with experimentation. What did you learn going through that process and how did you accomplish this feat?
That was a fun and challenging goal, and I think the long-term benefit of it for us has been that it helped institutionalize a culture of innovation and experimentation in our company. We actually did over 100 beers in 2015 as well– even without setting that as a specific goal, and I suspect that the new brewpub in Northwest Portland will only add to that annual tally. What’s more is that that type of continuous push to create new beers or resuscitate and improve old ones, it gives us a huge archive of beers to draw from at any given time. To the outsider it might seem like we brew more beers just for the sake of brewing, but the experimentation and development of new beers is extremely methodical and we treat every experiment or new beer with the same focus that we do our longstanding favorites.
3) The following year, the brewery had a hallmark win by snagging the most competitive award at the Great American Beer Festival, the American IPA Gold Medal for your flagship IPA. What sort of impact did this honor have on the brewery and on you as a brewer?
It was wild– easily a career highlight and such a proud moment for our entire staff. Up until that GABF, I think we were reputed– if we were reputed at all– to be a quirky, experimental brewery. Our hoppy beers were well regarded, but those medals for IPA and Wanderlust brought our hoppy beers to the forefront for consumers and retailers, and it really opened the floodgates for us in terms of growth as a company. On the brewery side, the best part of that win was definitely the fact that IPA was already our biggest selling beer and the one that most of our staff are involved in brewing, handling, packaging and selling day in, day out. It’s great to win medals for small, specialty projects because they validate our experimentation, but usually only a few people are involved in making those beers. To win for IPA was a testament to our whole team of 20 brewers’ efforts. Even two years later, I still get choked up over how proud I am of our team for that.
4) Last summer it was announced that the brewery is opening a third location this summer in NW Portland. We’re guessing it’s the last few pieces of red tape hold up it’s opening. Any idea how soon it will open and what’ll set it apart as a brewery in a town as diverse as Portland?
You’re right about red tape. Everything is moving along now, and the Slabtown brewpub will open this fall. JV Northwest has built us an amazing 10 barrel brewery that we customized to really maximize the handling of hops. Basically, this pub is going to be our Hop Laboratory. We’re going to focus on new varietals, new hopping techniques, an emphasis on freshness and beer-straight-from-the-brite-tank. Northwest will have its own lineup of beers that won’t be available at our other two locations.
5) Which styles haven’t you conquered as a brewer? Is there one you just can’t seem to get right? Do you have anything exciting in the works?
I don’t think we’ve conquered any style, really. We joke about how hard it is to write a recipe and dial in a new IPA even though that’s what we make most often. Every once in a while we get lucky and have a recipe hit the bullseye on the first try, but most of the time we are groping in the dark when we start brewing a new beer. It takes a batch or two to get the recipe focused and then years to refine it. We still refine every one of our core brands on an ongoing basis. Specifically, I think we have a ways to go on some of our dark lagers and Bavarian wheat beers. We don’t make them a ton, but they’re styles that pique my interest, and I think we’re still trying to find our groove with those styles.
In terms of new projects, we’ve got a lot of mixed culture, wood-aged fruit beers that we are working on right now, but most of those won’t see the light of day until late next year at the earliest. I’m very excited about the new lineup of beers we’ve been working on for the Slabtown pub– I think people will be excited to see us brew some new hoppy beers from scratch.
Bonus Question: We bumped into each other at Growler Guys in SE Portland the other day and I couldn’t help but notice you tried a variety of small samples. What’s piquing your interest style-wise of late? Any recent favorites?
I think the Growler Guys in SE Portland has one of the best tap lists in the country. Brendan Cocks does an amazing job of curating and choosing really high quality beers from consistent, innovative breweries. My insider tip these days: Sunriver Brewing has quickly become one of my favorite breweries anywhere. I really think that Brett Thomas is making some of the best beer in the country and it’s only a matter of time before people really start noticing. He won a Gold Medal at the World Beer Cup this year for his American Hefeweizen, and even though I’m not a betting man, I would put a wager on him snagging some hardware at GABF this year as well.
Ben Edmunds photo – courtesy of Emma Browne Photography