Ben Edmunds greets the beer tourists from a Portland beer bus excursion with friendly ease during a brief pause from his brewery duties. Modest and efficient, he welcomes us to the pub, where we’re sitting with flight paddles full of Breakside Brewery’s creations. With a laugh, he acknowledges my baited question posed in innocence: “Can you tell folks who aren’t from Portland a bit about your philosophy and how your background and education plays into what beers you produce at Breakside?”
Edmunds’ scholarly approach to brewing is laid in a substantial foundation. However, there is no mention of his Siebel Institute education, training in Germany and Belgium, and degree from Yale. Ben Edmunds is a brewer who one suspects is constantly thinking about the way in which beer can be better; how new flavors can be incorporated and combined; and how styles can be tweaked and perfected.
Don’t look to Breakside to tackle every style of beer, as Edmunds explains: “There are some classic styles we’ll likely never brew because we don’t believe they are as delicious as others. We also have a reputation as being an ‘experimental’ brewery, and we do experiment a lot, but it’s always with a tight focus on what we want the final beer to taste like—what we want the drinking experience to be.”
Artistic expression is apparent in each beer Edmunds and co-brewer Sam Barber craft. One expertly executed twist on a classic is the Aztec—a spicy reinterpretation of an American strong ale with cocoa, serrano and habanero peppers, and a sneakily smooth finish on a 9.4 percent ABV beer. Recently, I met up with Edmunds, who was pleased that the most recent iteration of Aztec was coming along even better than he’d expected. “The yeast profile is really where I want it,” Edmunds confides.
“(We) have to believe that the finished beer will taste delicious.,” says Edmunds. “Whether we brew a very traditional style, like a German helles, or something experimental—like our gin barrel-aged sour golden with Thai ginger and kaffir lime leaves—the most important thing is that the beer be drinkable, refreshing and tasty.”
Creative dedication is forefront for Breakside: “I think some of the techniques we use have come directly from being able to play around with a small batch format here,” Edmunds explains. “We’ve learned a ton about working with fruit, spices, sour mashes, Solera-style barrel aging, to name a few things, that I hadn’t been exposed to either in brewing school or at other breweries.”
Edmunds waxes philosophical about customers’ initial acquaintance with his beer: “I always ask what sort of beer they like to drink. My hope is that any customer who comes to Breakside for the first time finds two or three beers that they love. I don’t expect everyone to love every beer on the menu. Where someone’s entry point with beer is depends on their own palate.”
His personal tastes are equally as diverse. He dodges my attempt to ferret out his favorite brew, replying: “Trick question, no such thing. Does any brewer ever say they have a favorite beer amongst their own?”
On reflection, he offers, “A few beers that I’m very proud of and would serve to a visiting brewmaster: Pilsner, IPA, Dry Stout, Gin Barrel IPA, Cedarbaumbier.” This thoughtfulness is woven throughout the spirit of Breakside. Opening in May of 2010, the pub and its brewers have become synonymous with ingenious food and beer creations at their pub in northeast Portland.
In 2011, Breakside rolled out 92 different beers. Despite recently celebrating their official two year anniversary, Edmunds explaines: “When we opened we were still awaiting licensing from the TTB. It wasn’t until November 2011 that we really started rolling out beer of our own from the space.” This year they’re on track to brew 80 different beers, including a few returning from last year.
Food as Inspiration For Beer
How does Edmunds come up with so many ideas for innovative taste sensations? He credits his mother for expanding his horizons, exposing him to a “wide range of cuisines and eating experiences.” He explains: “I think that my interest in beer is rooted in my broader interest in food and drink. Homebrewing clicked for me as an outlet for creativity in a way that no other hobby ever did. I feel a lot of understanding for the motto on the labels of New Glarus’ Unplugged Series where it quotes Dan Carey saying something like, ‘Some people paint, some sing, others write…I brew.’”
When asked about the beer he feels embodies the spirit of Breakside, he reveals his willingness to take on technical challenges in addition to the quest for creative endeavors. “The IPA is our biggest seller, by far, and we really love the huge nose of Citra and Simcoe hops that just overwhelms you,” Edmunds says. “That said, I think that the German lagers we’re able to make in the slower months are closest to my heart as a brewer. A great helles or pils is about as good as it gets, and they’re some of the most technically challenging beers to pull off.”
Breakside Adds a Production Brewery
In addition to the existing pub system, Breakside is opening a production brewing facility south of Portland, in Milwaukie, Ore., where they’ll start with 10,000 barrels. By the end of the year, Edmunds estimates: “If we max out the cellar with more tanks, we might be able to push 30,000 barrels out of the space.” The facility will offer up additional jobs in the Milwaukie area, and is a welcome expansion to Edmunds.
“Currently, Sam (Barber) and I do all of the brewing, says Edmunds. “Our business is so busy that 95 percent of what we produce is sold right over the bar. We’ve actually had to pull back on outside accounts because we can’t keep up with demand given the limited amount we can produce from our pub system. It was always our plan to grow the business to have distribution beyond the brewpub, and our new production facility in Milwaukie will set us on that path.”
The new Milwaukie placement for Breakside will include a tasting room and growler sales, with hours coinciding with the original pub. Edmunds credits the pub as the hub of Breakside’s neighborhood-centric focus, and the production facility brewers will be expected to do double duty as barkeeps. Those visiting the taproom will be able to discuss more nuanced details of the beer, and by the beginning of 2013, he posits, Breakside’s brews should be throughout the Northwest in Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho.
Edmunds ponders the two distinct functions of the locations: “No matter how many people come to us as a destination brewery/restaurant, our neighborhood customers will always form our base. We have so many folks who come in once a week or twice a month, just to see what’s new. We try and make sure that our serving and brewing staff are connected with all of the regulars, that we make the place accessible to help foster neighborliness,” he says. Milwaukie residents are looking forward to participating in Breakside’s culture as well, with eager requests for updates on the future of the new facility.
One needn’t look further than the desk in the existing brewery, where a silver medal from the 2011 Great American Beer Festival resides happily amongst brew notes for a clear indicator of Breakside’s trajectory. The silver (and a newly won bronze medal from the 2012 World Beer Cup) for Breakside’s Dry Irish Stout have also recently been added to the brewery’s accolades.
“We feel so fortunate to have had a great run over the last two years,” says Edmunds. “It’s crazy to think about what the next two have in store…” As for what beer comes next, there’s no sign of Edmunds’ creativity running out any time soon: ”I’m so full of ideas for what we do as we grow, it’d take a much longer column to include all that’s coming up.”
820 Northeast Dekum Street
Portland, OR 97211
Sunday: 12 – 10ish
Monday – Thursday: 3 – 10ish
Friday – Saturday: 12 – 11ish
Emily Engdahl is the founder of Oregon Beer Country, a travel and tourism site dedicated exclusively to the craft beer culture of Oregon. As a craft beer writer, community events coordinator, and homebrewer, Emily encourages consumer education, community craft beer connections, resource building, informed craft beer choices, and keeping craft beer fun and accessible. Emily is also a self-taught graphic designer and trained mediator. Find her on twitter at @emilyengdahl and @ORBeerCountry.