Unconventional beers abound at Portland’s Labrewatory

This playful North Portland brewery has experimented with truffles, peanut butter and even squid ink.

labrewatoryPortland’s Labrewatory specializes in experimental, one-off beers.
Ashley Anderson

At Labrewatory, you’ll never drink the same beer twice. That’s by design — the North Portland brewery makes exclusively one-offs, refusing to repeat even its most smashing successes. It’s a potentially treacherous strategy, but so far, the gamble is paying off, from the staple styles to the wilder experiments.

“The philosophy is, ‘Let’s make some really cool, normal stuff,” says Labrewatory General Manager Drew Salmi, noting that they always have a few IPAs and a lager among the 16 taps. “But after that, literally our slogan is, ‘Brew whatever the f*#k you want.’” (It’s true: The phrase is emblazoned on T-shirts, stickers and growlers.)

Experimental beers at Labrewatory

Thus far, the approach has given rise to beers made with a dizzying variety of ingredients, including smoky lapsang souchong tea, Mexican chocolate, citrusy yuzu fruit and French black truffles. The brewery’s London Fog, a barley wine infused with Earl Grey tea and honey, took home a gold medal at the Oregon Beer Awards in 2018. (And then there was the squid ink gose, concocted in Labrewatory’s earliest days, that risked pigeonholing the brewery as a wackadoodle workshop for gimmicky beers. That stunt predated Salmi, who came on in 2017. “I never even tried the squid ink beer,” he says.)

Labrewatory’s experimental beers often take their names from pop culture references. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Experimentation is hardly unusual in Portland; elsewhere in town, brewers have tossed roasted duck, sea urchin and fermented red shiso leaves into their tanks. But experimentation is Labrewatory’s calling card. And the brewery’s physical space, located in a slightly gritty, less-traveled pocket of North Portland, away from the commercial bustle of North Mississippi Avenue, makes a few nods to chemistry as well. Metal-ringed Edison bulbs call to mind atomic particles, and beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks line the back bar. Patrons can peek to the rear of the space, where a gleaming five-barrel system holds the latest tests. (Opened in 2015, Labrewatory is a project of Portland Kettle Works, which sells brewing systems to breweries around the world. In part, Labrewatory serves as a showcase of the company’s tanks and boilers.)

Collaboration beers at Labrewatory

How does Labrewatory keep the new ideas rolling? In part by calling in co-conspirators on the regular. A collaboration with Agrarian Ales, a brewery located on a 5-acre (2 ha) farm two hours south of Portland, yielded Happy Trees, a Swedish-style Gotlandsdricka. Labrewatory made its version of this beer believed to have been pioneered by the Vikings with juniper berries, lavender and spruce tips. The result was a little earthy and a little sweet.

“That one’s really special,” says Salmi, who previously worked at homebrew shops and as a beer buyer. “Agrarian is, to me, one of the coolest breweries in Oregon. Everything in that beer is organic and estate-grown.”

General Manager Drew Salmi samples beer in the Labrewatory brewery. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Some collaborations get a little more playful. When the brewery worked with Sarah Pederson of beloved North Portland beer bar and bottle shop Saraveza, she recruited her 7-year-old son for the endeavor. He lobbied for chocolate peanut butter, and a porter of the same flavor was born. Salmi grumbles that he’ll never brew with peanut butter again — fatty ingredients can muck up the process — but working with a kid had its perks (and quirks). “He was awesome,” Salmi says. “Sarah was like, ‘What do you want to wear to brew? What would a brewer wear?’ He went to the closet and popped on a full dragon suit.”

Not every experiment soars. When Labrewatory hits a flop, improvisation is key. Salmi says the team gathers to troubleshoot, and they often wind up mixing a few beers together — the boozy equivalent of a soda graveyard. Take a recent blend of a blonde, a kettle sour and a third beer that Salmi refuses to reveal (it was the problem child among the mix). “It needed help,” he says. And it got it: When all three beers came together, the result was pleasantly lemony, a touch tropical and easy to drink. “If you’re doing it right,” says Salmi, “you already have stuff around that you can play with.”

The Labrewatory experience

As head brewer since mid-May 2018, James Petti feels liberated by the brewery’s freewheeling mission. “To me, it’s a more easygoing atmosphere,” says Petti, who previously served as head brewer at Bandon Brewing Company on the southern Oregon Coast and founded Wavelength Brewing Company near San Diego. “If you’re at a brewery that wants to have particular types of core beers, it’s stressful to develop and refine those recipes, to get it just right. But if you’re doing something different every time, it’s more fun. If something works out really well, that’s great. If there’s a hiccup, it’s like, well, we won’t mess with that anymore.”

Curious about Labrewatory’s latest taplist? Check the Labrewatory Facebook page for the latest news.

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