It’s stunning how quickly things are evolving these days in the craft-beer industry: styles, trends, rules and regulations, even the packages that beer is sold in. Breweries are bought and sold; they change names, change focus and change addresses. One day a beer maker can be on the top of its game, and the next, it can be left behind, wondering where everybody went.
The pace of change caught Epic Brewing off-guard on September 1, when news broke that The Commons, a well-loved Portland brewery, would close its doors at the end of this year; its space will be taken over by San Diego's Modern Times, which is opening a new outlet in Portland. Founded in 2011 by Mike Wright, the Commons had grown quickly from its original garage into a 10,000-square-foot showplace of a brewery and tasting room, gathering accolades, attention and lots of debt along the way.
What’s the connection to Epic? “We were literally chopping up honeydew melons and adding them to the foeder when the news popped up on my phone,” says Epic national sales director Darin McGregor. “The melons were for a collaboration beer we were making with the Commons.”
Common Interests, a sour ale brewed with Oregon red winter wheat and Colorado honeydew melons, will debut next week, during the Great American Beer Festival, on tap at the brewery and around town. But rather than being a celebration of the ties between Epic and the Commons, it will serve as a tribute to the Portland brewery and a reminder that things can change a lot in the time it takes to brew a single beer.
The collaboration began last summer when Epic’s brewers flew to Portland to see friends at the Commons, in particular star brewer Sean Burke, who had been with the Commons since 2011. Burke then flew to Denver to plan the project at the Evergreen home of Epic founder Dave Cole, and returned to Oregon ready to go. In the meantime, Epic brewers Kevin Crompton and Anthony Biaz got to work on their side of things.
Epic had just acquired two huge wooden barrels, adding to its already brag-worthy collection of foeders, which are typically used to aged sour beers. “We thought of this beer the moment we got them,”McGregor says. “It will be the first one to come out of them.” Once brewed, the beer was emptied into the foeders and allowed to age for months. But in June, Burke, who had been with the Commons since 2011, left suddenly and without public explanation. That news came as a surprise and a bummer for Epic, which also began having trouble reaching anyone at the Commons, McGregor says.
In late August, Crompton and McGregor drove to Rocky Ford — a melon-growing region east of Pueblo — to pick up 4,000 pounds of ripe honeydews. A few days later, they set up an assembly line by the foeders to disinfect the melons, rinse them, slice them open, seed them and chop them into cubes, McGregor says.
That’s when they heard that the Commons was closing. “We are not upset. We are empathetic. A lot of breweries are having a hard time making the ins and outs balance. I think that is what this beer represents. It’s hard to even complete a collaboration because of how quickly the sands are shifting," McGregor says.
Something similar happened to another Denver brewery five months ago, when Black Project Wild & Spontaneous Ales got the news that Anheuser Busch InBev, the makers of Budweiser, had purchased sour specialist Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina. Black Project was in the midst of two collaborations with Wicked Weed at the time, one in Denver and one in North Carolina.
AB InBev has bought ten formerly independent breweries over the past few years and used them to leverage sales. Because of the corporate giant’s business practices, Black Project, like many other independent craft breweries, doesn’t support AB InBev or its subsidiaries.
“In Denver alone, we've seen several instances of highly aggressive, predatory and what we consider to be unethical practices,” Black Project wrote on its blog in May. “We truly believe that AB InBev intends to systematically destroy American craft beer as we know it. We don't personally buy, seek, trade or acquire any of their products for this reason, and we've been known to encourage our friends to do the same.”
As a result, Black Project decided to dismantle its half of the collaboration, blending the beer that was supposed to have been a part of it with another beer in order to make something different. The brewery also asked Wicked Weed to take Black Project’s name off the version of the collaboration that was aging in North Carolina.
Although that situation is very different from what happened to the Commons, the point is the same, McGregor says: A lot can happen in the time it takes to make a single sour beer.