From Ultimate Frisbee to Award Winning Beers: A Chat with Ben Edmunds of Breakside Brewery
By Michael Chamberlian-Torres, Owner/Chief Consultant at Hospitality by Torres
Recently, I was invited to the Breakside Brewery Tap Room in Milwaukie, OR to tour the brewing facilities and sit down for an interview with Head Brewer, Ben Edmunds. Only three years old, Breakside has already earned notoriety on the American Craft Brew scene, winning metals at the Great American Beer Festival and partnering with some of the city’s top chefs. Next time you are in the mood for something new and delicious, take a break from the usual and taste one of their truly unique brews. Check out the interview below to hear from the man behind the beer.
Michael: Ben, to start off, and for those people that aren’t familiar with Breakside, how would you describe what your brewery is all about?
Ben: The motto of Breakside Brewery, or maybe the core value that we have, is that we want our employees and our customers to enjoy life, enjoy beer, relax, kick back, and you know have a good time, while eating and drinking. That’s sort of where we came from. The term Breakside originally started as an Ultimate Frisbee term; it has to do with kind of the flow of the game and a way the offense can get ahead of the defense in the game. When we opened the company we realized that marketing to an Ultimate Frisbee audience was pretty narrow, so Breakside sort of morphed into this idea of enjoying life, enjoying beer, enjoying time with friends, and I think that even though on the day to day what we do is make beer, we are trying to create a company culture and an environment for our customers at our pub and at our tap room that feels like a place to relax and enjoy yourself.
Michael: Looking back at 2013, it seemed like a busy year for you guys. I saw that you brewed over a hundred different beers. Can you tell me about one or two that really stick out in your mind? Maybe not necessarily your favorite, but just ones that are memorable.
Ben: Well, I got asked that recently, and I always like to talk about the ones we screwed up, because I think that it is a healthy practice. One beer that I made this year that did not hit the mark for me was the anniversary beer that I made this year which is a Duck Porter. I actually got a hundred pounds of duck carcasses, and we roasted them in the wood-fire oven at Nostrana. We got this beautiful caramelization; it was crazy though you know. I mean it took hours, and we were shoving carcasses onto hotels trays and throwing them into the wood-fired oven trying to get them not charred, and get just the right level of caramelization. Anyway, we brought them back, and I put these ducks into big bags and stuffed them into our kettle at our pub brewery and basically brought our wert up to 200 degrees and then steeped it onto the ducks for about 96 hours, as though I was making a stock, as opposed to just bringing it up to a boil and then hopping it and you know treating it like a normal beer. So we turned our sweet wert into a duck stock. After 48 and 96 hours, it tasted so rich and fatty and ducky. It was awesome…but by the end of fermentation all the duck flavor was gone, and we have no idea what it was. My best guess is that the yeast took whatever those savory flavor compounds are and broke them down during fermentation into less [powerful] flavor compounds and used it as nutrients maybe. So we ended up with a really nice porter that had been really expensive to make…and was made with ducks, but didn’t really end up tasting like duck. Anyways, it was kind of a miss. I want to try making a meat beer again but try to do it a little bit differently next time to really maintain that flavor that we had in the kettle. Another beer that stood out for me is our Passion Fruit Sour. That is a beer that we had done a couple of times at our pub. It’s a very tart, traditional German style wheat beer (Berliner Witze) that we add passion fruit to after it’s done fermenting. It’s 100% soured with Lactobacillus and then fermented out with our normal house yeast, most breweries who do sours tend to do them in very small scale projects; we did this on our big system, 30 barrels; it’s kind of a risk. Jake Leonard, who is our Director of Brewery Operations thought that I was crazy to do this on the big system, but it worked. It won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year, so that was a pretty proud accomplishment. To hit a beer that was very technical on our first try on our new system.
Michael: I think that sours seem to be growing in popularity; they are kind of the in thing right now. What is your take on sour beers in general?
Ben: Sour beers, particularly amongst kind of the beer [community] are really becoming more and more popular. I think that it’s for people who are open to craft beer but not necessarily in love with craft beer, especially really hoppy beers…sour beers offer a really different kind of experience and a gate way into craft beer. It’s very wine like in ways because you have the increased acidity; it can really draw people in when done well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of really mediocre sour beers out there …[some] are not really achieving technically [by] putting out to market beers that are either kind of underwhelming, or not sour enough, or just too sour. So you know a sour beer does give people a full license to make things just as sour as they possibly can… I think it’s about creating desirable flavor profiles, just as you would for regular beer…as we move forward there will be more and more excellent sour beers on the market.
Michael: You described your company as a fun place to work, [a place] to create an enjoyable balance between work and life, and being a brewer seems like an ideal life to a lot of people, but what do you find to be the hardest part or most challenging thing about being the Head Brewer?
Ben: Well first of all, most of brewing is janitorial right? That’s the reality of it. We have seven guys who work for me here in the brewery and three of them are glorified janitors. I mean they love what they do, but they clean tanks, and they clean floors, and they clean kegs. It’s backbreaking, long, monotonous work that requires incredible precision, because beer, unlike wine or spirits, is lower alcohol and higher ph so it’s just more susceptible to contamination, so you really have to be on your toes even though you are doing this tasks that very physically demanding and in some ways kind of mundane. For me in the Head Brewer position…I run logistics and the business parts of the company as much as anything else. I wish that I could say I spend my days designing a hundred new beers or tasting out of barrel or all the [other] really fun parts of brewing, but in reality it’s a business just like any other…We are a growing brewery right now, going into Seattle this year, going into some other [new] markets for us…knowing what the demand is and then growing to meet that demand a real challenge.
Michael: You had this new tap room for over a year now?
Ben: Yes, exactly February 1st will be our one year anniversary.
Michael: So has the expansion to this new space affected your business and what you guys are able to produce?
Ben: Well, up until the end of 2012 we never made more than maybe 550 barrels a year of beer and that was really maxing out. I mean we were making as much beer as we possibly could on that little pub system and we were selling it all right over the counter. It was only once we started brewing our beer over here that we were really able to start distributing our beer beyond our pub at all. In a lot of ways we are still a very new brewery even though we have been around for three and a half years now. A lot of people only had become aware of us in the last six months or year and certainly that is the case even with our regular customers in the tap room here. We have a completely different crowd who is coming in, this completely different set of regulars, people who a year ago had no idea who Breakside was. We are really excited to be down here even though it is a small tap room. It doesn’t have any food, it’s really just about the beer, and it is filling a niche for Clackamas County and for Milwaukie, where there really aren’t that many great beer options.
Michael: You mentioned [in a previous interview] a few cities where you like to go try some beer. Did you have a chance to explore around Denver your last time out for the Great American Beer Festival?
Ben: Yeah…I used to live in Colorado…there are a lot of spots in Denver that I like. Chad Jacobson at Crooked Stave is a good friend of mine, and I think he makes some really world class beers. Troy Casey just left AC Golden; he is going to be opening his own brewery, I think it’s called Casey Brewing and Blending. He is going to be making some really wonderful barrel aged sour beers and fruit beers. Those two guys are really at the forefront of a lot of the trends and high-end, I hate to call it boutique beer, but it is boutique beer… it serves a very small audience, but it’s very unique and delicious. They are two that I watch a lot…I always try to get into Bull & Bush when I’m in town there. It’s a great little pub, with some really high quality beer. I [also] go to Avery a lot and Great Divide when I can as well.
Michael: That’s all I have for today, thanks for your time Ben.
Ben: It’s my pleasure; I’ll show you around the brewery.
For more information about Breakside Brewery and their two Portland locations, click here.