Thad Fisco, a native of Cleveland, is the owner of Portland Kettle Works in Portland, Ore. The business manufactures custom brewing systems and has outfitted more than a dozen craft breweries in Ohio, including Collison Bend, Zaftig, Lockport, Terrestrial, Streetside, and Platform.
Question: What got you into the brewery equipment-making business?
Answer: A longtime lover of craft beer, I met an economic bump that we turned into an opportunity. And Portland Kettle Works was born. While my roots are in Northeast Ohio, I had been living in Portland for 10 years, re-developing old buildings into new modern spaces when in 2008 the lights went out. There were some dark days, but by 2011 we had repurposed our fabrication shop from structural and architectural work to all stainless as local Portland brewers brought projects to us.
Without even realizing it, we were cutting our teeth as a manufacturer to the brewing industry. We were modifying all sorts of craft brewing gear, and even built a still. It was fun and exciting and good to be working hard in such an awesome market and industry.
We had an idea to design a simple three-barrel brewery and advertised the concept in late 2011. We immediately received 12 orders, and spent all of 2012 fabricating them. Next we collaborated with Portland brewers and our clients to design our flagship brewhouses and we have not looked back. Our culture is rooted in innovation, sustained improvement and a fierce competitive spirit. Today we have over 200 of our brewhouses, three- to 30-barrel capacity, in operation worldwide.
Q: What are you seeing in terms of trends with the industry? For example, are more brewers launching with nano systems or are more starting with larger systems? And are you seeing any geographic trends of where breweries are starting? (Cities vs. suburbs vs. rural areas and parts of the country.)
A: Someone needs to write a book about what has happened in the craft beer industry over the last six to 10 years. The reality is that the industry is evolving from a hot, crazy, almost gold rush mentality into a more sustainable plan-and-execute type of brewery startup model. Clients are not necessarily more educated, but they sure want to be. And the resources available are fantastic. For instance, we offer a very popular three- or four-day Practical Brewing Academy at our brewery in Portland.
Years ago, the industry was friendly to the boot-strapping model, but things have changed. The consumer has high expectations, and a lot of choice. The bar is raised, and a lot of money has rushed in to support upstart breweries. I think the near future holds sustainable additions of new smaller breweries designed to sell hyper local, unique and super high quality beer. These breweries can open almost anyplace and be successful if the focus is quality.
I am excited about the developing market for farm breweries, and see a lot of momentum from cities of all sizes as they realize the economic impacts of small breweries opening in neighborhoods all over the country. Until recently many property owners were not interested in breweries. Now both economic development authorities and landlords have a new-found appreciation for their value. While bakeries and coffee shops used to be the firebrand for neighborhood revitalization, breweries have begun to be more sought after than coffee and bread combined.
Established brands will capitalize on this trend by opening satellite taproom locations to leverage the local element into increased distribution. There is an incredible amount of intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit around this industry. The energy in our profession promises a future full of many great things for beer lovers.
Q: You’ve helped supply brewing equipment to plenty of new breweries. What’s the biggest mistake you see new breweries make?
A: Buying too large a brewhouse. I urge clients to begin from a humble place, make outlandishly good beer and prepare for growth to be something you need to constrain.
There is unquestionably a right sized brewery for every concept and it’s paramount to hit that mark. If the equipment is too large, the brewer will never become the best they can be because repetition and practice, make perfection.
My mantra is brew often and a lot. That usually means starting on a smaller scale. I spend a lot of time talking people down in size.
Q: There’s plenty of talk about craft beer reaching a saturation point. Where do you stand on this topic? Are there too many craft breweries? Is there still plenty of room for growth?
A: I have some interesting personal experience. Portland has an incredible number of breweries and is one of the most competitive beer markets in the world yet we still see four or five successful breweries open here year after year. Against all sound judgment, we started our own totally experimental brewery here 18 months ago just two blocks from Widmer Brothers and within five blocks of four other breweries.
We named it LABrewatory. We did not market; we didn’t even put a sign on the building. My team hammered me, “people don’t know we exist!” My attitude was let the beer and the space dictate our future. We turned a profit at month 11 and are now worrying about how to add additional seating.
In this industry quality reigns supreme. If you do the right thing, people will find you, even without a sign. We still don’t have a sign. If Portland isn’t saturated, the rest of the country has a long way to go.
Q: Which beer – any beer in the world – do you wish that you created/invented/brewed and why?
A: IPA. That may sound boring, but look at the history of that beer. It has been and will continue to be an unstoppable force in human history.
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