If you are already a reader, welcome back! If you're new to my site, I'm glad you're here! Whichever the case, I'm happy to inform you that I'm doing a bit of a refresh. Having spent a little time on the blogosphere, I now have a better idea of the kinds of stories that I want to tell, and how to tell them. I'm kicking off this reimagining of Paths to Pours with a visit to Threshold Brewing and Blending, with what will become a signature format. With each brewery or taproom that I feature, I'll tell you how I got there (along with a few ways YOU can get there) before moving into a conversation that I had with the brewers/proprietors. I want to know how the people that create these wonderful spaces and brew these wonderful beverages do their thing. And I want you to know too.
And so, onward!
I started the day bright and early, on a bike route I've been thoroughly enjoying for years now. I rode down from NE Portland and made my way onto the the Springwater Corridor Trail. It was a lovely day, and while it would get hot a little later, the morning weather was perfect for both pavement...
Powell Butte Nature Park is accessible from the Springwater Corridor, and while not all of its trails are open to bicycles, there's enough here to warrant some goofing around. Ride up the hill, mind the rocks and roots, and find yourself with a great view of the surrounding mountains! Then ride down the hill. And back up the hill. And down. Repeat as you wish.
When you're done though, hop back on the Springwater Corridor Trail and follow it to the I-205 bike path, and head northeast, through the Montavilla neighborhood.
Maybe you don't have fat tires on your bike, and want to avoid Powell Butte. That's fine! The Springwater Corridor is entirely paved. Maybe that's still a bit circuitous for you, but you still want to include a cycling destination in your journey. If so, I recommend a visit to Mount Tabor, which is just southwest of Montavilla. On a few occasions, I've ridden to the top, then swooped down and up across Burnside and into Montavilla, via 76th Avenue.
If you're in a car, you can get off of Interstate 205 and onto SE Stark Street, or you can come over just north of Mount Tabor via Thornburn, which turns into Washington. If you're bussing it, Tri-Met's line 72 will get you here. Montavilla feels like a hidden gem, but it is actually pretty accessible, and not as far east as you may imagine.
And it's a cool neighborhood. They have a bunch of restaurants, a coffee shop, a tea house, a movie theatre, a food co-op, and now, four great spots pouring great beer. Roscoe's and the Beer Bunker are beer bars. Montavilla Brew Works opened its doors in 2015, and it has now been joined by Threshold Brewing and Blending. All four spaces have very different vibes, and the two breweries focus on different styles, but they are all essential pieces of the Montavilla beer ecology. Their close proximity begs for some beer bar hopping. Some day, I'll make the rounds. But not today. Today, my focus was on Threshold.
Those of you who have followed my wanderings know that this was not my first time visiting Threshold, but though I’ve had the chance to chat with them about their beer, their taproom, and Gracie’s Apizza (an incredible food truck that is usually stationed there on Saturday evenings), this time brewers/founders/owners Jarek Szymanski and David Fuller sat down with me and really got into their process.
You do a lot of experimentation. Could you talk a little about your process, from the conception of a new beer up until brew day? How and where does experimentation come up?
If we’re trying to think of a new beer, it’ll come from a concept, like “let’s do a big, fruity IPA.” And then we think, “What are the pieces that we think will work well. What do we have here, and what could we order?” And we’ll just discuss it over a week or two.
It’s almost like reverse engineering a beer. We know what we want to brew and serve, so we need to go back and get into process and ingredients and things like that. To me, it’s also a trial of circumstances. We’re still pretty small, and when it comes to hops, certain ones are widely available, and others are really popular and you have to hunt for them. Sometimes, with that fruity IPA, we can’t get a particular hop, so we see what we can substitute. Can we help it with yeast, or fermentation temperature?
We’ve got a stable of recipes, since we’ve been brewing for ten years. And with some of those recipes, you want to make something like it, but you can’t get Mosaic, or whatever it is, and so you substitute, and that becomes experimentation. We’ve found some of our favorite hops that way, honestly. Idaho 7 is great. We hadn’t tried it before.
Part of the experimentation nature is coming from a homebrewing background. When you’re a homebrewer, you’re stress free, and you can pretty much do whatever because you’re not bound by any time constraints, or financial constraints. And this kind of stuck to us. Now, we run a ten-barrel brewery, but we still have the spirit of experimentation.
Some of the stuff is small volume too, so it’s not a big investment or risk.
So you have more room to experiment with one-offs, but what kind of flexibility do you have with a more regular offering, like your Day Runner IPA?
Part of it is relying on the homebrewing experience. We’re rolling out products that are familiar to us. Because we’ve scaled up to different systems, from five to ten gallon batches up to ten-barrel, there’s a learning curve when it comes to the process and the ingredients, so we’re dialing in recipes right now. There are certain things that are a little bit less risk, but still experimental. It’s always finding the right balance. Especially with full batches. With pilot batches, we do have more flexibility. One of those was our Valentine’s Day beer, the IPA made with Galaxy hops, and fermented with blood orange. It had a really good reception, and people have been asking us if we can make more of it. Now we know that if we can get our hands on Galaxy hops, it’s possible that we can brew a full batch in the future.
Yeah, with flagships, we have a product that we’ve made on a large scale, so to an extent, we’re trying to match that product. And if something doesn’t quite match, then we have to change the recipe to see if we can get it to match better the next time. So there’s less freedom, but if we want to make it better, we will.
The barrel-aging stuff is a completely different beast. That’s something we’ve been learning for many years now, but there’s no certain guidance. It’s almost like being an apprentice, and learning with every single batch. But then you have a base beer, and you can always do something with it later, like put it in fruit. There’s flexibility. Sometimes I like to compare it to being a photographer. Maybe it’s sunny out, and you can use the sun to do something. Or you can hide in the shade, and that affects the pictures. I think you can apply that analogy to almost every discipline.
It sounds like there’s flexibility in every aspect of brewing, in different ways. But what excites you more: brewing something completely new, or doing something that you’ve made before but feel like you’ve improved upon it?
A little bit of both.
It feels good to make that best batch of that beer. But I’ve always enjoyed trying that new thing. I just did a kettle sour for the first time on the big system. It took me three days. It was challenging and fun and interesting. But it’s a little bit of both. I like getting stuff done, so maybe I’m making a really easy beer, but I’m focused on some other project while making it. And I have a good time.
Every single time we get to brew is a fun time.
Let’s talk about the blending side of things. Not every beer drinker is familiar with the idea of blending. How do you pitch the idea to somebody that is curious, but has never heard of it?
You can always do the wine comparison. Essentially, we’re taking a beer, and putting it in a whole bunch of barrels and other vessels, and aging it. At various points, you’re tasting those, and in order to package the beer, you have to blend them. They’re different. They’re from different barrels. It adds a new taste factor to the process. At the end, you’re creating a new beer out of a few beers that you made. Just like winemakers have a whole batch of wine that goes in different barrels, all of which are different, and then they have to make a single wine out of those. But there are specific recipes we have that are different beers blended together after certain aging periods.
Sometimes blending involves one type of beer from different barrels, and sometimes it’s several different beers from different barrels coming together. We envision blending more alcohol potent beers with some sours, and with some beers with funk to them. You have sour, you have horse blanket funky, you have dark, whiskey-forward beers. To me it begs to start blending, and playing with different ideas. That’s exciting.
We’re both fans of the beer de garde idea. You “garde” or save, a bunch of beer over the course of a season or a year. Then you blend it with fresh beer. Maybe a quarter of it is this funky, more sour thing, but put together it’s balanced and complex. We’ll do more of that once we have more aged beer.
We’ve already done a couple of quick blends. A little saison, and a big, slightly sour imperial stout.
How were those received in the taproom? What kind of feedback did you get? How fast did they go?
The saison was very popular, partially because of its lower ABV, and partially because of its lightness. In the case of the stout, fewer people would look at the menu and order a 10% beer. Nine out of ten people really enjoyed it. But with a big, sour stout, you always have somebody that says “it doesn’t really work for me.”
There are a few styles right now in the brewing world that are really popular, and one of those is the big imperial stout. But still, it seems like those move really slowly. Especially as the sun starts to come out. That sourness is a really interesting thing to add to that style, though. Right now, so many of those beers have chocolate or syrup or vanilla. They’re these big pastry stouts. As much as I love those, it’s refreshing to have a sour element instead, which cuts through the big beer. I don’t think you see many sour stouts.
Stouts have bitterness, and you can’t do that with a lot of sour. So it’s tricky.
But yeah, we agree, a slightly tart stout done well is really nice during warmer months. And those big vanilla whiskey stouts are the perfect choice for bottling now and opening around the holidays. We’ll start thinking about bottling in a couple of months, and start doing specialty releases. Some of the beers we first made have been already barrel-aging for three months. And soon it will be six months. Time flies. There are a couple of beers that we’re tempted to keg and put on tap. Like our upcoming barrel aged coffee stout. It’s in barrels now and is developing a nice, delicate whiskey flavor and a touch of oak. It’s getting there.
But you are planning on doing some bottling?
Yes, absolutely, but limiting bottling to specialty beers. Largely the barrel-aged and sour beers do better being bottle conditioned.
Crowlers have been a relatively inexpensive and nice way to get our beer in the hands of people outside of our taproom. But the hope in the future is to bottle those specialty beers, and use canning services to package our fresh beer.
That’s become huge in the last few years. I think it’s wild that you can now walk into a grocery store and see all these beers from breweries that you used to only be able to get in the taproom.
Everything is changing so fast.
You’ve got plans in place, and beers in the tanks. Can I ask though, what are you fantasy projects? What are the beers that you want to make, but haven’t started brewing, or even seeking ingredients for?
Those are actually tied to our barrel-aging program. We have a lot of fresh stuff on right now, but once our beer in barrels ages a bit more, we can start blending them. That’s when our taplist will become a lot more diverse.
We still need more barrels and more time. For instance, there’s a plum stout that I love to make but it will take about a year-and-a-half. I’ll start it later this year. It’s a blend of fresh stout and aged Brett stout, with plums.
It’s 11%, and drinks like 7%.
So even with the beers you’ve yet to make, it sounds like it comes back to blending. The aged beers are part of it, mixed with the fresh beers, to be brewed in the future.
Exactly. Although there are plenty of interesting beers that don’t require blending or barrel aging. Like, I’d like to do a stout fermented exclusively with Brettanomyces. I made something like that before, and it wasn’t barrel-aged, but it had a lot of interesting flavors.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had an entirely Brett stout.
I’d like to do a triple IPA at some point too. And there are all kinds of possibilities with Oregon fruit being at its prime in a few months.
I’m excited to go to the market when peaches are in season, to get tons of those.
There’s a time of year too, when everybody does a pumpkin beer. Like pumpkin spice. We did a crazy beer once that had roasted gourd in it. Some nice tartness to cut through the pumpkin and spice. But it was a lot of work, and would be really hard to do on a large scale. Maybe we’ll do it as a very small batch.
Some people love pumpkin beer, and other people just revile it.
It’s very seasonal.
I think of them in the same way as pumpkin spice lattes. People are excited when they come out. I won’t touch the stuff.
Sour pumpkin beer.
A good sour pumpkin beer...
I'd drink that!
I’m excited to see if that sour pumpkin beer pops up in November, and I’m excited to see what comes of the continuous experimentation with fruit and hops and all of the beers sitting in barrels and coming into their own. Our conversation came to a close pretty shortly after the talk of beers that might someday be, but whatever ends up on tap at Threshold in the coming months will be exciting. It will be methodically planned, but with plenty of room for experimentation.
And you should drink it. Make the trip to Montavilla. Bike. Bus. Car. Pick your path! Go!