The Pearl recently had the opportunity to catch up with Tom Cook, vice president of Fat Head’s Brewery (131 NW 13th Ave, 503-820-7721), which opened a beautiful new brewpub in Portland’s Pearl District this year shortly before 10 Barrel Brewing also joined the local beer scene with its brewpub a few blocks away. We asked Tom a few questions about the state of Oregon’s brewery scene and what it’s like to join in some friendly competition with fellow Portland craft-beer makers.
Your main brewery and tap house are located in Ohio and you have saloon in Pittsburgh where you started. Why Portland?
You should have seen the bewildered looks I got when I told people that we were going to build a 280-seat brewpub in Portland, Oregon. The main question that I continue to get asked is: “Why in the world would you ever want to put it in Portland?” With north of 60 breweries operating in the city, to many it seemed like a suicidal undertaking. To those of us involved in the project, however, it seemed like the finest idea we’d ever had. Everyone had their own motives for expanding here.
The brewers wanted to be closer to the best hops. Others liked what an educated craft beer market Portland is and wanted to be a part of it. Selfishly, I wanted to locate the brewery here because I grew up in Vancouver, WA, and I wanted to bring Fat Head’s to my home town.
How do you expect to compete with all of the great breweries here?
We don’t. We’re not trying to compete with the rest of the breweries in Portland, and if you ask just about any craft brewer in the city of Portland, they get it. “The rising tide raises all ships,” is a saying I learned from Matt Cole, our head brewer. We don’t want to compete, we want to elevate.
But is there room for one more brewery in an already crowded space?
Craft brewing still has a tremendous amount of growth potential, and we want to contribute to the revolution. There is no way that I want to go head to head with any of the breweries in Oregon—have you been to Baker City recently? What we wanted to do was simply have a seat at the table (which happens to be BYOB) and contribute to, arguably, the most diverse—Breakside Brewery has done HOW MANY styles?—and exciting beer markets.
Now that we’re open and operating, I’m extremely proud to be a part of the first market where craft beer outsells domestic beer. That is really something special, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for that statistic.
Right after you opened, 10 Barrel Brewing announced they were building a brew pub within two blocks from your location…
I got a whole heap of phone calls that day. Everyone wanted to know how nervous we were that they were coming in. My response was the same—albeit boring—one to everyone and that was, “The rising tide raises all ships. We are going to reclaim the brewery blocks and make the Pearl District a true beer destination along with Deschutes, Bridgeport, Rogue, and now 10 Barrel.”
Not one single person on our team knew what would happen to Fat Head’s when 10 Barrel opened their doors a couple of months after we did. It’s one thing to remain confident and have catchy maritime metaphors, it’s another thing to have a great brewery like 10 Barrel open nearby and put that confidence to the test.
So, how is it going—has the competition been healthy?
The week that 10 Barrel opened, I was nervous, but they were nice enough to invite us to one of their soft openings, which was packed. It didn’t settle my nerves, but I was eager to see what the addition of another brew pub to the area would do to our sales. Much to my amazement, my maritime metaphor came through. We had one of our best weeks ever. When they went on a long wait, they told their hosts to suggest Fat Head’s as a destination for good beer and solid food. 10 Barrel didn’t have to do that, but as I noted, ask any craft brewer in Portland and they get it. I only hope that I can be as good a neighbor to others, as all of breweries in Portland have been to us.
Fat Head’s Brewery is at NW 13th and Davis in the Pearl District. The first Fat Head’s was a craft beer bar in Pittsburgh, PA. The second was a brew pub in Cleveland, OH with a production brewery a few miles away, also in Cleveland. Their flagship beer, Head Hunter IPA, is a two-time National IPA Champion and is the back-to-back World Beer Cup Silver Medal Winner in IPA. Their menu features “headwiches” (sandwiches roughly the size of your head), burgers, salads, and smoked whole wings.