Interview: Upright Brewing founder Alex Ganum
240 North Broadway
Portland, OR 97227
503 735 5337
View Web SitePhoto courtesy of Alex Ganum
Alex Ganum started in the kitchen, but it wasn’t long before the Michigan native switched to the brewhouse. An inspiring internship at Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York led to Portland. After three years of working in production for BJ’s, he founded Upright Brewing near Portland Memorial Coliseum in 2006. We spoke by phone on May 1, and Ganum shared insights that hint at why he’s found hop-fueled success.
Was it a given that you’d work with beer for a living, or did you consider other careers?
It’s been a long time since I was in beer. It was probably 2002 where I wanted to pursue brewing as a career.
What were you doing for a living leading up to working with beer?
I was in culinary school when I started brewing, but I took to brewing a lot more than other stuff, so I finished school and pursued a beer job.
What was your first professional beer job?
I had an internship at Brewery Ommegang in 2003. That was really cool. I moved back to Portland and worked at the local BJ’s for a little over three years.
How did the opportunity come about for Upright?
It was just something I had been thinking about for a long time. It eventually got to the point where I wanted to leave BJ’s, and decided I might as well do it now, so started to figure things out from there.
Do you have a first beer memory, good or bad?
I remember drinking a lot of German pilsner. My dad always had Spaten or Paulaner Pilsner in the fridge, and Sam Adams Boston Lager too.
What was the first beer that you ever brewed, and how did it turn out?
The first beer we made at Upright was an Old Ale called Billy The Mountain. It came out nice. We put a little bit of Brett in the barrel and started to learn about barrel aging. We’ve learned a ton since, which is cool and exciting from a professional standpoint.
My first homebrew was a mild ale that was part of a kit, and I remember doing a porter, and all the beers that homebrewers go through. My first whole grain beer was a Belgian style Golden, and I remember propping yeast out of a bottle, so that was kind of fun..
What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at Upright?
A bunch of different things. We have a handful of beers that we brew year round, tinker with and make them better, changing ingredients, but seasonal beers or one-off beers, it’s the same as the annual beers. We make tweaks for fun or if we think we can get a better direction or try new things. If we see a tank’s going to be empty next week, we definitely focus on beers we enjoy drinking at the bar.
Does it make your job easier or harder to have so many other craft breweries in Portland?
I think it’s easier. We have a lot of breweries, because there’s a really big audience here. It’s just a big thing between the breweries and audience. To isolate them from each would be weird. Competition’s not a huge issue out here anyway because there are so many people looking for beers. Most craft beer drinkers aren’t so brand loyal that they won’t drink other breweries’ beers.
What was the most recent beer that you brewed, and what was your approach?
Our most recent beer we did was for Cheers for Belgian Beers, where all the breweries used the same strain of Belgian yeast. We made Belgian stout and left it on the cooler side so it wouldn’t be too fruity. We got coffee from a local roaster, Heart Coffee Roasters, so a lot of the subtlety in the coffee came through in the beer.
What’s your top selling beer, and why do you think that’s the case?
Locally, we sell draught wise a lot of German style pilsner called Engelberg. It’s a really easy drinking beer that bars and restaurants like, because there’s not too much in the way of local pilsners available. Otherwise it depends on time of the year. Our wheat beer, the Four, does well for us in July and August. In the wintertime it really evens out quite a bit.
Who’s a brewer you’ve never brewed with before that you’d most like to brew with?
Oh gosh, I really like Ron Jeffries over there at Jolly Pumpkin. I drink his beers whenever possible. They’re really quirky. They have a lot of character and individuality. I also like a lot of simple pub beers, low alcohol, simple stuff, and a lot of brewers are doing that stuff, and I go see them every week and hang out.
What music do you like to listen to while brewing?
We usually have music on that has a lot of horns. The brewery’s loud, so it takes horns for it to come through, stuff like louder jazz, punk, soul, stuff like that.
Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?
Everything. Everything. I really like wine, booze and cocktails. We have a lot of distilleries popping up out here, which is super cool. I mix it up when I go out drinking. Drinking wine, I stick with mostly Washington, Oregon, and California wines, but I also go with French stuff too. There are some really killer French wines out there, especially the whites.
If you could travel to any city in the world right now, primarily to drink beer, what city would it be and how come?
Probably Düsseldorf because we’re going to brew an altbier for the Oregon Brewers Festival and I wouldn’t mind sucking down a bunch of altbiers to figure out to make it. And it would be cool to go to Düsseldorf, regardless of whether or not we were making that beer.
If you could only drink one more beer, and you couldn’t brew it, what would it be and why?
Jeeze. I’ve got hefe on my mind these days, maybe a really fresh Schneider-Weisse sounds really good. I’d like a liter of it.