Tuesday evening at Fort George Brewery, wedged between hulking, custom-built 120-barrel fermentation and conditioning tanks, pallets of kegs and cans and rows of bourbon barrels filled with aging stout, played Brainstorm, a Portland-based indie-rock group of the record label Tender Loving Empire. The band was recording a music video amid actual canning, while several photographers and videographers floated around them, recording the out-of-place musical set.
Around the musicians and media labored several Fort George employees, loading empty, topless beer cans from pallets into the canning line, which churned out 25 filled and sealed pints per minute of Tender Loving Empire Northwest Pale Ale, set to be released in March as the brewery’s spring seasonal offering. Members of the record label, bandmates and Fort George employees, who are in a joint marketing effort to promote the beer and the label’s bands, cracked open the first cans off the line in celebration of the new brew.
Such has been the casual, yet undoubtedly growing presence of Fort George Brewery, a modest operation that started six years ago in a vacated Chevy dealership named after Astoria’s famed fortification. Over that time, it has become the 15th most prodigious brewery in Oregon, made itself a regional brand and continued developing its own beer campus on the Fort George block.
“The growth has always been a solid uphill climb,” said co-owner Jack Harris of Fort George, which has grown over the past six years by nearly 6,000 barrels in annual sales, 30,000 square feet and more than 30 employees.
Fort George, opened for business March 11, 2007, ended December of that year ranked 57th for quantity sold in the state, with 415 barrels. By the end of 2012, it was the 15th largest, with more than 6,200 barrels, just behind Laurelwood Public House and Brewery of Portland. It grew so much that Fort George had to secure a redesignated liquor license from the Astoria City Council Feb. 4, going from “brew pub” to a “brewery” to pass 6,500 barrels a year.
“About 75 percent of the beer we make goes to Portland,” said Chris Nemlowill, the second coowner, about Fort George’s regional reach, which spread into Portland a year after its opening and into Seattle last March.
“We’ve talked a little bit about Northern California. Oregon and Washington alone are keeping us really busy.”
Harris said that Fort George could pass 10,000 barrels of production this year, although it doesn’t have national aspirations.
Along with Tender Loving Empire, the first of four upcoming seasonals, Fort George is planning to release a summer seasonal collaboration with Lompoc and Gigantic breweries of Portland called Threeway IPA, a fall seasonal named Plazm in collaboration with the Portland design firm of the same name that created its logo and a new winter addition to the North series of beers in collaboration with a Washington brewery.
“We want people to try our beer, then come out to Astoria and enjoy our beer,” said Nemlowill. “We want to be a destination. We don’t just want to get our beer in 50 states.”
Developing the Fort
For now, the partners are focusing on expanding within their city block, with 45,000 square feet spread out between the Fort George and Lovell buildings. Today they cut a circular hole in the first floor ceiling near the Duane Street entrance of the Fort George Building, through which a reclaimed piece of the former Astoria Column spiral staircase will lead to the brewery’s second-floor bar expansion, expected to open sometime this year.
“It’s going to be very similar to the bar downstairs, the layout,” said Nemlowill. The bar, shaped like the letter “U,” will wrap around a second kitchen area, a similar beer tap selection and an apple and pear wood-fired oven they plan to install, along with an extra 80 to 90 seats. Another piece of the column staircase will spiral up from the courtyard outside to the second floor of the Fort George Building, which will also have a special ADA access ramp from Exchange Street.
Two large Douglas fir doors will open along 15th Street, with the main entrance to the second floor leading up a former loading ramp.
Sweet Virginia and Little Miss Texas
Fort George started with an 81⁄2-barrel brewing system nicknamed across the U.S. from Virginia Beach, Va. – about three miles from the Atlantic Ocean – to Astoria.
Its first batch was named “Beer#1” and has slowly evolved into Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, one of the brewery’s staples. On any given weekend, Fort George could have about 15 to 18 beers pouring between its two main buildings and 30 beers available from its distribution center in Warrenton.
Although it upgraded about two years ago, it keeps keeps Sweet Virgina in the rear of the Fort George Building for the experimental beers and specials.
“That’s why we can produce 14 stouts for stout month,” said Nemlowill.
The current brewhouse, or collection of equipment used to make beer, is nicknamed “Little Miss Texas” because it’s from Houston. The 30-barrel system came with several 60-barrel fermentation and bright (conditioning) tanks. In November of last year, Fort George sold the tanks to Hilliards Beer in Seattle.
It currently uses five custom-built 120-barrel fermentation tanks and two 120-barrel bright tanks in the area of the brewery called the “cellar,” where the beer ferments and conditions before it’s canned or put in kegs.
Harris said the brewery now has a capacity of 22,000 barrels, with room enough to add another row of tanks. “We’re really hoping to kind of stabilize a bit, use our capacity smarter and smarter.”
From brewers to brewery owners
The working relationship between two of Astoria’s pre-eminent brewers started when Nemlowill decided to show off some of his porter to Bill’s Tavern in Cannon Beach, which hired him as an assistant after one of the brewers, Harris, liked the taste of his beer.
“I heard stories of Jack and how he was a really good brewer,” said Nemlowill, who’d recently returned from The Netherlands, had a computer science and marketing degree from Southern Oregon University but didn’t want to work in a cubicle.
Harris, who said he’s never homebrewed, is a veteran of more than 20 years in the brewing scene, starting in 1990 at McMenamin’s Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and brewing as far away as Boulder, Colo. He’s run every brew house in Clatsop County save for the newer Seaside Brewery.
Nemlowill has also run the entire circuit of local breweries – at that time Bill’s Tavern and Astoria Brewing Company – before he and Harris hooked up to start the county’s third, albeit largest brewery, with between six and 12 employees. When they found the Fort George Building, the two said there was no question what the name or location of their operation would be.
“We hung some very modest signs in the window saying ‘brewery,’” said Nemlowill, adding that the building’s owner, Robert Stricklin, had wanted one in part of his real estate and had been great to work with.
“He was offering very good rates on rent. He offered us the first six months rent-free.”
By Oct. 14, 2009, under the name Big Beams LLC, Nemlowill and Harris bought the Fort George and Lovell buildings from Stricklin for $1.65 million with the help of a Small Business Administration loan, taking control of nearly the entire Fort George block in an effort to expand their business and double their workforce.
“He tried for years to market this building,” said Harris of Stricklin’s property, “and he’s always had a hard time.
“I think we demonstrated to him that we were on the same page that he was. He wouldn’t have sold it to us if he didn’t think we were going to take care of it.”
Fort George installed its canning operation, with the financial assistance of Clatsop Economic Development Resources, Business Oregon (funded by the Oregon Lottery) and ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia, in March 2011, by that time with about 28 employees. Upstairs in the Lovell building is what Nemlowill calls “the land of cans,” which at one time can hold about three-quarters of a million cans, stacked on pallets and shrink-wrapped until they’re put to use.
The owners are content right now building out their Fort George block, which employs about 45 people, and continuing to make the kind of beer that brings people to Astoria.