From His Mother’s Basement to the BBC15: Chris Nemlowill of Fort George Brewery Talks to BeerGraphs

Harris King, July 23, 2015

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Asheville. When I saw it announced at the end of last summer, the location, about 75 minutes from where I live in Upstate South Carolina, made it very appealing to me. In September, I registered for the conference, made my hotel reservations and joined the BBC15 Facebook group. It was nice getting to know my fellow attendees through social media, but I really didn’t know what to expect when the conference rolled around. Nonetheless, I was excited to attend and represent BeerGraphs. Ultimately, I was blown away with how knowledgeable yet unpretentious everybody was. And the sessions were outstanding.

By the end of the first day on Friday, I already had ideas for three different posts. That day, we visited Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada before returning to the hotel for an epic bottle share dubbed the Night of Many Beers. On the bus to Oskar Blues, I happened to sit next to Chris Nemlowill, who I soon discovered is the brewer and co-founder of Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Oregon. I found his story of how he became a brewer fascinating and also wanted to talk to him more about why he was attending the conference. I sat down with him next day for an interview and learned a lot about what it takes to be successful as a brewery.

Nemlowill started out as a homebrewer in college but upon graduating in 2003 with a double degree in Marketing and Computer Science, he approached his Mother with a proposition that will sound very familiar to the baseball nerds who also read and write for BeerGraphs. He explained, “I was going to go do an internship at a corporate tech company, and I just decided I couldn’t do it. About a week after I got done with college, I called my Mom and asked ‘Mom, can I just move back into the basement this summer and brew beer?’ That’s really all I wanted to do. I wanted to see what it takes to be a professional brewer. She finally said ‘All right let’s do this.’”

After a summer in which he “brewed and brewed and brewed,” he traveled abroad to add to his knowledge of brewing. “In the Fall I signed up for a study abroad program in the Netherlands. I set it up so I only had to go to school on Monday and Tuesdays,” he recounted, “and the rest of the week I traveled around to breweries.”

Following his return to Oregon after his semester abroad, he decided he was ready to take his skills to the public, but was willing to start on the ground floor. “I came back after that and took some of the beer I had brewed the previous summer and took it down to Bill’s Tavern in Cannon Beach, Oregon, let the brewer down there sample it and told him I wanted to come work for him for free to see what it takes to be a professional brewer. And they ended up hiring me there. I apprenticed under him for nine months and then got offered a head brewer job at another brewery. I took that for nine months and then walked into the Fort George.”

Nemlowill and his partner Jack Harris, who he had apprenticed under at Bill’s Tavern, first looked at their current space in October 2005 and opened for business in March 2007. Since then the growth has been impressive. “The first year was 300 barrels [and] we are shooting for about 15.000 barrels this year. We have just been trying to keep up with demand. It’s been a fast pace.”

And from what it sounds like, the growth in the space they now own has been just as impressive, if not more. Fort George’s eight years of existence has seen it grow from “renting 2,900 square feet to owning 45,000 square feet,” which makes up “almost an entire city block in downtown Astoria.” As Nemlowill explained, “We now have two floors for our brew pub that have different menus, and we have a tap room that has a bigger selection of beer. Our production brewery is next door.”

While Fort George has established itself as a successful brewery on the Pacific coast of Oregon, it wasn’t always certain that the new brewery would get off the ground. That is, getting off the ground was the peril when Nemlowill and his partner were trucking their new brewery across the country. “We found our first brewing system in Virginia Beach, Virginia, about as far away as you can get form Astoria, Oregon and still be in the United States,” he said. “We found that it was the perfect size, …it was the perfect system for us. Two weeks later we dismantled it and drove it back 3,100 miles. When we were cruising through Nebraska we had a tornado drop down on us which actually almost destroyed our brewery …We thought we might die, and we thought we might lose our brewery. We got through it, so we had to name our beer Vortex IPA after the tornado. That’s the beginning of Vortex, and Vortex IPA was really one of the first beers that took off with Fort George ...and is really one of the reasons we have grown so fast.”

Nemlowill and two of his Fort George co-workers made the trip to Asheville to visit their former pub manager who moved to Asheville, but to also to check out the growing beer scene in Western North Carolina. “People all over the United States are talking about Asheville and it becoming more and more of a beer scene and some big players have moved out here. I thought it was really going to be very interesting to see what some breweries that have been very successful in other parts of the country …would do if they moved out here and could do anything.”

After visiting the new facilities at both Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada on Friday, Nemlowill found he had more in common with Oskar Blues because “we’re a canning brewery …and looking at some of the techniques they have used on their canning lines so they can do multiple different cans [and to] see how they have run their brewery ...was great.” He continued, “It was fascinating looking at Sierra Nevada, but it’s almost so big that it’s like Wow…I probably learned a little bit more at Oskar Blues. They’re about ten times as big as us and Sierra Nevada is about ten times bigger than them. I can see where Oskar Blues went from our size to where they are now.”

Overall for Nemlowill, “It’s awesome seeing the beer scene in Asheville and going around to all the little breweries, just seeing them kind of clustered together on the South Slope of Asheville. I am also just checking out the town because I find it fascinating walking through old, historic towns. It’s a beautiful town.”

Not only did the Fort George brewer and proprietor visit the as many breweries as possible while he was in Asheville, he also took part in all of the sessions sitting right along aside the 150 plus beer bloggers and writers in attendance. And I must admit I had to smile when he declared that “Beer Bloggers are awesome. They are one of the reasons we do our jobs. If you didn’t have somebody who was really excited about what you were doing, you wouldn’t feel inspired to go out and do it. I make beer because people tell me they really like drinking it, that there excited about it. That’s what pushes me to do more and to continue to be really excited about it. It’s quite an honor when somebody takes an interest in what you’re doing and wants to write about it and talk about it and spread that information with others.”

Full disclosure: the Sunrise OPA from Fort George he gave me on Sunday morning as the conference was wrapping up did excite me that much more about writing Fort George’s story. It’s a great (breakfast) beer. 

I am a long ways away from Astoria, Oregon from my current location in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There are now so many breweries across the United States, but I now have another reason to visit a college friend who lives in Portland. I know I can get a Vortex IPA at a Portland Timbers game and that Astoria is only about two hours away. What about you? Have any of you visited Fort George? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Note: This was the first of at least three posts I plan on writing based on what I learned and who I talked to at the BBC15. Look for a piece on the “Asheville Brand” based on an interview I did with Burial Beer’s Doug Reiser, as well an interview with the German contingent of Brauhaus Riegele who have collaborated with Sierra Nevada on a soon-to-be-released Oktoberfest. We talked about how the collaboration came to be and also on their view of American craft beer and how the German scene is currently changing due to its influence.

Harris is still reeling from being able to try Pliny the Elder during the Night of Many Beers. He can be found on Twitter @ohkiv where he is often the ornery, old guy talking (sometimes in German) about baseball, music and beer. Also, thanks to Brad for help with the header image.