Level Beer brewery offers true brews
"We're like professional beer drinkers," jokes brewer Shane Watterson, half-kidding and mid-gulp.
We're like 90 percent janitor," counters Jason Barbee, his business partner. "When you work in a brewery, it's mostly about cleaning stuff. And at the end of the day, (brewers want) something low alcohol and drinkable."
"Watterson and Barbee are two of three partners behind Level Beer, a month-old brewery at 5211 N.E. 148th Ave. off Marine Drive in East Multnomah County.
The experienced beer-makers are tired of the ultra-hoppy, triple-bitter IPAs that tend to leave customers scrambling for a taxi (or a nap) after just a few sips. And they're betting the public would like to drink like a fermenter, too.
"(Lighter beers) are harder to produce, because there's less to hide behind," notes Barbee.
"The really bright, punchy stuff — that's what customers go for," Watterson adds. "But brewers lean toward subtlety."
A tasting room, glass-walled greenhouse patio and gleaming production area are open for business at the former site of The Barn, a 40-year-old seasonal farmers market that closed last year. Minors are welcome.
There are no plans for a full kitchen at Level Beer, but three food carts in the parking lot are already serving up hot meals.
But the real draw is what's on tap — all 20 of them.
Here's a partial list of the potent potions patrons can expect at Level Beer, now and in the future.
• "Game On" — The less-alcoholic IPA will be Level Beer's first official batch. Look forward to a big punch and hoppy aroma, brewers say.
• A dark-colored, "mild" English ale is also planned, if Barbee and Watterson can ever settle on what to call it. Potential names include "Into the Mild," "The Call of the Mild" and "Mild and Crazy Kids."
• "Level Headed" — This collaboration IPA was brewed at Fat Head's Brewery in Portland while Level Beer waded through Portland's permitting process. Unfortunately, this top-seller has already sold out.
• "Cactus Wins the Lottery" — A pink-colored German sour beer was Barbee's brainchild while working as head brewer for Ex Novo brewery in Portland. The name, of course, is a reference to the satirical website Clickhole.
• Other tag-team brews flowing at Level Beer include "Biscuits to a Bear," a bitter collaboration with Laurelwood Brewing Company, "Bonus Level," a hoppy collab with Breakside and "Saison Quest," made in partnership with The Commons.
Level Beer is a 20-barrel brewhouse, which means the start-up can create roughly 620 gallons of beer per batch. (One barrel fills about 31 gallons.) Eventually, they hope to start a bottling operation to complement in-house sales.
But the boys are equally proud of a two and one-half barrel brewing system installed alongside the larger boil kettles.
They want to use the smaller-scale system to make "fest" and wedding beers, plus the brewing experiments that alternate between fun, weird and commercially unviable.
"Want to make something really unpopular? Let's make less of it," is how Watterson describes the pilot system.
A graduate of Troutdale Elementary, Reynolds High and Mt. Hood Community College's general studies program, Watterson went on to earn a philosophy major at the University of Nevada before studying brewing.
The transition from deep thinking to deep drinking took the 37-year-old to Deschutes Brewery in Portland's Pearl District and later to Laurelwood Brew Pub, where Watterson rose to the position of brewmaster.
During his six years at Laurelwood, Watterson helped concoct a Flanders Red Ale that was aged for more than two years before its release. The brew was honored with a second place finish in the Classic Sour category during the 2016 Oregon Beer Awards.
Barbee, a Lakeridge High grad who attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., connected with Watterson while the duo was working at Deschutes' Portland Public House.
They worked on a business plan for almost two years before joining forces with Geoff Phillips, who founded the highly-rated Bailey's Taproom 10 years ago. Phillips purchased the two-acre property for Level Beer last December.
For now, the gravel and pigweed fields out back are mostly unused, though the brewers foresee an outdoor bar along the backside of the cold storage room — and maybe a bluegrass band tuning up on the old loading dock.
Even as plans develop, the tasting room and greenhouse lounge are bubbling with activity.
There's plenty of room to grab a drink with friends after work, but also quiet spots where solo imbibers tap on laptops. Paintings of video games and pop culture icons like Samus, Mega Man and Homer J. Simpson dot the interior walls.
"A lot of people don't have a job where they can say 'I made that,'" says Barbee. "But not only do I get to make a beer that I'm proud of, but we can look out and see people out here — happy, enjoying the space — and that feels awesome."