Most breweries take months, if not years, to find an audience. The breweries fine-tune recipes, experiment with new styles and upgrade equipment in hopes of building a dedicated following and generating a bit of buzz for their flagship beers.
Great Notion Brewing, based in Portland, is not most breweries.
When it launched in January 2016, Great Notion opened with a tap list that included an imperial stout “fermented with an irresponsible amount of maple syrup” (according to the brewery) and a New England-style IPA, a hazy departure from the hop-forward West Coast style firmly entrenched in Portland taprooms at the time.
But the experiments with unconventional styles and culinary-inspired recipes paid off. Just one year after opening, Great Notion announced plans for an expanded production facility in Northwest Portland; a little more and than a year after that announcement, that 20,000-square-foot facility — which includes a brewpub and coffee shop — opened to the public, quadrupling Great Notion’s brewing capacity in the process.
Longtime friends and neighbors James Dugan (co-founder and co-head brewer), Andy Miller (co-founder and co-head brewer) and Paul Reiter (co-founder) launched the brewery together and, more than three years later, remain closer than ever. After all, their kids all play together on the same block in the North Portland neighborhood.
Dugan discussed the brewery’s early days, where he and Miller find inspiration for their creative beers, how Great Notion stands out in a crowded market, and what lessons the trio has learned along the way.
1) How did the brewery’s early success influence or inspire the beers you’ve produced over the past three years?
We’re trying to trust the marketplace; the customers are really driving the market. Take pastry stouts, for example. When we opened, we weren’t doing a ton of stouts at the time [other than Double Stack]. And the marketplace was kind of demanding that.
So I think part of being a really good brewer is having your ear to the ground and knowing what’s hot and what’s interesting — and not playing catch-up, but being ahead of the curve. We want to have those beers available before customers say, “That was popular last summer.” If you’re always trying to catch up with the trends, that’s not the business we strive to run. We’re a creative bunch and we want to stay ahead of the curve and drive trends.
2) You and Andy brew a lot of fascinating beers; where do you find inspiration for some of your more creative recipes?
Honestly, my biggest inspiration is ice cream flavors. You go into an awesome ice cream store and see a combination of flavors, and you think, “Man, how can I turn that into a beer?”
You can channel the dairy or milk sweetness of ice cream by using milk sugar, for instance — and there are so many beers you can do that with, whether it’s an imperial stout, kettle sour or something else entirely.
3) How do you stand out or stay top of mind in a competitive, mature beer market like Portland?
The uniqueness factor is really how we do it. When you come into Great Notion, you hopefully have a craft beer experience like you haven’t really had before. There haven’t been a lot of breweries that are culinary-driven — inspired by foods, desserts and other crazy flavors — so we’re asking ourselves, “What interests us?”
And it comes back to quality — if you don’t love it, don’t serve it.
4) What lessons have you learned since opening Great Notion?
To stay true ourselves. When we started Great Notion, the three of us talked about the three most important aspects of operating a brewery: quality, creativity and family.
Every decision we make together — if we don’t have an immediate answer, we go back to those factors. We say, “Let’s get the best quality product we can use in our beer.” And we’re always striving to push the boundaries of what craft beer can be. That’s near and dear to my heart, challenging the drinker and making them wonder, “What’s in my glass? I’ve never had anything like this before.” And we want our employees to feel like this is a home for them. We want to take care of you, give you benefits and perks, and encourage you to stay and grow with us.
So I feel like most of our learning has been about staying true to our core values. It’s hard to do — it’s harder than it seems — and trusting each other, that’s huge.