Out of This World Beer

Ecliptic Brewing

With 2016 coming to a close, American craft beer is more mainstream than ever. Investors stand ready to venture capital on breweries with track records and big plans. Craft beer nerds are awed by sightings of stars like Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo or Steve Hindy and Garrett Oliver.

After years of long hours and resulting successes, the A-listers absolutely deserve their recognition. But other brewers, like John Harris, keep their distance from the limelight. “John who?” you may be asking.

If you’ve ever sipped a Deschutes Black Butte Porter or Mirror Pond Pale Ale or about any brew from Full Sails’ Brewmaster Reserve line, you can thank Harris. He got his professional brewing start at McMenamin’s before heading out to Bend and Deschutes. From there, he spent twenty-two years at Full Sail in Hood River, turning out great beer and earning serious respect among West Coast brewers.

With the big five-O on the horizon, Harris said good-bye to Full Sail and returned to Portland with plans for a brewery where he could be his own boss. In 2014, Ecliptic Brewing opened its doors. What’s happened since is exactly what you’d expect from a brewer with Harris’ creds.

When my brewer husband Hugo and I arrived in Portland on Sunday, Ecliptic was at the top of my scribbled list. On Monday, I told Hugo we were going to Ecliptic and was surprised when he started riffing on his respect for Harris. Hugo began his full-time brewing career in 1978 when “microbrewing” was in its infancy. Even in the mid 1990’s when he was heavily involved with the Master Brewers Association of the Americas, microbrewers were still on the fringes. Yet, John Harris was serving on MBAA technical committees alongside brewers from some of the largest international breweries, Hugo recalled. “He was always one of the hardest working and most knowledgeable people on any committee.”

Monday, 11:50 a.m. We walk into a near empty Ecliptic dining area for the 12:00 brewery tour. I’ll admit to being a bit of a beer tour snob. Tours with thirty people, crying babies, bored pre-teens or adults who couldn’t answer when the guide asked, “What are the four basic ingredients in beer?” aren’t my favorite ones. I figured not too many beer tourists would show up on an overcast Monday morning in November. With luck, we’d get a guide who could adjust the standard talk according to the visitors’ knowledge.

Ecliptic medals

Ecliptic medals reflect clouds and weak sunlight

To my snobbish dismay, another person joins us. I busy my nosy self with studying the medals Ecliptic has received, counting a show-stopping ten from five competitions in 2016 alone. A minute later, Joe introduces himself as an Ecliptic brewer and our guide before leading us through the door into the brewing area.

The rich aromas of steeping mash nearly knock me over as a brewer nods and slips around us. Then, in a breath-hitching moment, between equipment, I catch a glimpse of John Harris himself. This doesn’t happen on public brewery tours. I can’t recall ever seeing the owner and founder working like any other brewer as tourists file around him.

Our awesome tour guide, Joe Pucci

Our awesome tour guide, Joe Pucci

I distractedly try to focus on the tour and what Joe is saying. Hugo and I ask a few questions and Joe answers, upping the information level very well. Soon, our fellow tour-taker asks a question about the brite tanks and it’s clear he’s more than a casual beer drinker. This tour is starting off nicely.

The brewing area is large for a brewery that produced 3000 barrels in 2015, its first full year. The size is a good thing because Joe says they’re on track to double production this year and likely double that in 2017. Newly arrived fermenters await installation. A can line will soon follow and join the bottling line.

A peek inside Ecliptic

A peek inside Ecliptic

We ask more questions which Joe seems happy to answer. Interestingly for all those aspiring brewers who want to come to Portland, don’t expect breweries to welcome you with open arms and big pay checks. Joe started in sales at Stone, then brewed at Golden Road in Los Angeles. When his wife took a job in Portland, he figured he’d find a job easily enough. It took nine months before he was hired at Ecliptic. He mentions one way newly-trained brewers in Portland find jobs is by starting out with mobile canning businesses, those folks who travel between breweries too small to afford their own can lines. This way, they get to know brewers and vice versa.

As we wend our way deeper into the brewery, I’m highly aware of Harris back in the corner. When we reach the walk-in cooler, we’re mere feet from the man. As Joe continues what has become a very solid tour, I’m aware of Hugo shaking Harris’ hand and a conversation starting. Before long, Harris is telling Joe that Hugo is a former MBAA president. With the tour at a halt, Hugo’s introduces me to the man who is an Oregon brewing legend. Harris seems in no hurry to have us move on. After a few minutes, I ask for a photo. Harris throws and arm around me and smiles for the camera. I’m pretty sure nothing on the rest of the trip will top this moment.

NOV 2016 Portland OR with John Harris at Ecliptic Brewing

The John Harris photo!

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Post-tour, Hugo and I visited the restaurant where the food was gastropub quality. (I highly recommend the beets with pumpkin seeds and pecorino cheese. Hugo says, “Farro burger.”) Of course, we were really there for the beer, and it didn’t disappoint. The overall impression I took away was smoothness and terrific balance in all of the half dozen brews we sampled in five styles. I found plenty of variety, yet each had its own complexity. In fact, among the descriptions of the fourteen beers on tap, many were brewed with six or seven types of malt or hops.

Check out those beets and the flight

Check out those beets and the flight

I’ve written before that Portland is a craft beer lover’s paradise. My advice when you travel to PDX: definitely visit the big players like Deschutes, Rogue and Hopworks. Just make sure you go to Ecliptic first—and ask for a tour with Joe.

Our beer savvy tour mate, Chris

Cheers to our beer savvy tour mate, Chris

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