Gluten Free Brewery and Bottle Shop Opening In Portland
Mutantis Brewery and Bottle Shop
I have some amazing news! There’s a new gluten free brewery and bottle shop coming to Portland, Oregon and guess who’s opening it…(drumroll)…Jason “Igliashon” Yerger, former head brewer and co-founder of Ghostfish Brewing Company.
In a few months time (early 2020), Jason will open the doors to his next venture, Mutantis Brewery and Bottle Shop. I decided to to sit down and do a little Q + A to learn more about Jason’s current plans and to find out what the gluten free community has to look forward to in the coming months.
Interview: Jason “Igliashon” Yerger
Owner, Head Brewer
When and why did you transition to a gluten free lifestyle?
Jason: I went gluten-free in 2009, after trying a series of different elimination diets that I tried to resolve my constant digestive issues. Only the gluten-free diet brought relief, and gluten challenges after a month of being gluten-free brought on immediate reactions. Not long after I went to a doctor and got a Celiac diagnosis, so that sealed the deal!
How strict are you with your gluten free diet?
Jason: I never knowingly ingest any gluten. I seldom eat out, and when I do, if I can’t eat at a dedicated restaurant, I at least avoid shared fryers and scratch pizza kitchens that don’t have a dedicated gluten-free kitchen area. I’m also on a low FODMAP diet, which means I have to be careful about minimizing all kinds of other common ingredients (onions, garlic, apples, most cruciferous veggies, etc.), so to be honest, avoiding gluten is usually the EASY part!
What is your beer brewing background? (Glutenous vs. gluten free brewing)
Jason: When I was still in college (I graduated in 2007), I did three or four batches of homebrew with barley after learning about gruits and getting curious about beer made without hops. My first homebrew was a basic kit just to get my feet wet, a clone of New Belgium’s 1554 Black Lager. That one came out fine, but when I started trying to formulate my own recipes, I got a bit too adventurous with herbs and adjuncts a bit too fast. The last couple of brews I made were practically undrinkable, and I gave it up after I graduated.
In 2011 (I think?), my girlfriend at the time wanted to get into mead making, so I dusted off the old homebrew equipment to help her with it. I figured as long as I was breaking out all that gear, I should try my hand at brewing some gluten-free beers, since I was mightily unsatisfied with the 2 or 3 that were on the market in my area at the time. I really wanted a dark GF beer, so that was priority #1. I think I homebrewed about 20 different batches of my own recipes before I went commercial, getting a bit more serious and scientific about it each time, and transitioning to all-grain around batch 13.
You were a co-founder and the head brewer of Seattle’s first gluten free brewery. Can you speak to your departure from Ghostfish Brewing Company?
Jason: When Ghostfish was founded, we all shared a vision of “world domination”. I don’t think any of us really knew what that looked like or entailed; I certainly didn’t! I had very little experience in anything professional at that point; most of my work experience was entry-level retail or manual labor. When I first joined the team, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to handle brewing on a commercial scale; there was lots of talk of hiring a professional brewer and just having me focus on R&D.
Well, what ended up happening was that not only did I take to commercial-scale brewing like a duck to water, I also found myself taking on a lot of managerial responsibilities I hadn’t expected. Being a typical cash-strapped startup, we didn’t have the luxury of hiring a full management team in the first couple years, so as we grew, I kind of got pulled into more and more of a management role, while hiring assistant brewers and cellar staff to take over my responsibilities related to actually producing the beer.
Though I was severely underqualified for these managerial responsibilities, I did my best to rise to the occasion, and I think any of my partners would agree that I did an admirable job. But it was not the kind of work I had ever seen myself doing, and I really did not have a passion for it the way I did for brewing.
By the end of year 3, I was quite unhappy with how my career path was going. I was doing almost no brewing, not even on the pilot system, and the stresses of managing production at a rapidly-expanding brewery were wearing on me. I was also getting frustrated with the fact that our facility was really not suited for the level of production we were at…large portions of my days were spent just moving pallets of raw and finished goods in and out of the parking lot to make room for various things, as well as reconciling inventories to make sure we even knew what we had in our overcrowded production area.
In short, I was a LONG way from doing the things I was passionate about (brewing, experimenting, and concocting new recipes), and felt like a pinball getting bounced around by the needs and demands of the various departments. I was working close to 80 hours a week and barely keeping my head above water, and I finally had to admit to myself that there was no realistic end in sight for me if the company stayed on that path.
As one of the founders, I didn’t want to throw in the towel just because I was unhappy—it was partly my company, so maybe I could change the direction? I tried to make the case that maybe we should walk back the “world domination” angle, and do what a lot of other Seattle breweries were doing at the time: pull back from distribution and focus on the local market. I wanted to get back to doing what I enjoyed, and I thought it would also ease some of the other expansion-related issues we had…even if it meant disappointing customers outside of our local market.
For better or worse, I failed to convince enough of my partners to take this path, so for my own sanity’s sake, I declared that I would transition out over the course of 2018 and eventually sell my share of the company to the remaining owners if we could come to an agreement. That agreement was finalized at the end of 2018. My transition out of an active role actually happened quite a bit earlier, though, as I had to temporarily move to California to take care of my dad while he was being treated for cancer (he’s fine now, and one year cancer-free!).
It was a tough decision to give up on something I had worked so hard to build, but that often happens to businesses: they take on a life of their own, and ownership might have to step out of the way to let them do what they need to do. I’m thankful for all I got to learn and experience while at Ghostfish, and proud of what I achieved, and my exit was amicable. I wish them the best on their challenging path to world domination!
What’s next? What do you have in the works?
Jason: I am excited to say that I am opening a new dedicated gluten-free brewery, all on my own, in Portland, OR! Mutantis Brewery and Bottle Shop is slated to open in early 2020, and reflects a very different set of goals than the ones I had when Ghostfish was founded.
Mutantis will be hyper-local, avoiding wholesale distribution entirely and likely never venturing outside of Portland. It’s a taproom-focused model where I will never brew the same beer twice, and only do a very limited amount of hand-bottling beers. It will also be Oregon’s first dedicated gluten-free bottle shop and tap house—I intend to give each of Oregon’s other dedicated gluten-free breweries their own dedicated taps, and stock a reach-in cooler or two with their packaged products.
I want to be the hub for gluten-free beer in Oregon, a place where gluten-free beer drinkers know they can always find the latest beers they’re looking for. I also want to involve the homebrewing community in a big way, not just by offering homebrewing classes and events, but also by publishing all of my recipes and processes. There will be NO trade secrets or intellectual property at Mutantis—everything I’ll do there will be open-source!
What do you love most about brewing beer?
Jason: There are a lot of things I love about brewing, but mostly it’s the process of discovering new flavors! Gluten-free brewing in particular is so full of uncharted territory…we never really know what we’re going to get by combining new ingredients, so it’s always a bit of a surprise to see what can be accomplished.
Sometimes we nail what we were hoping for, other times we find ourselves pleasantly surprised, and on rare occasions, we miss the mark by a wide-enough margin that we have to get creative to save the brew. Ironically, it’s the latter circumstance that can be the most rewarding…creative problem-solving is something I’ve always enjoyed, and sometimes the best beers come out of those unexpected circumstances!
What’s the most challenging (gluten free) beer style you’ve brewed to date?
Jason: Ironically, it’s the very first style I set out trying to brew gluten-free: a stout! Even though the first stout we made at Ghostfish won gold at the Great American Beer Fest in 2015, I’ve never felt like I’ve nailed the kind of smooth, sweet, full-bodied flavour of the glutenous stouts I used to enjoy.
I’ve seen other brewers come close, especially in imperial stouts, but for me, it’s still the one style that always ends up being “obviously GF”. Just about any other style I feel can be brewed to be indistinguishable from barley-based counterparts. But we’ll get there!
Why do you think there’s such a high concentration of gluten free beer options (breweries, retail access, gluten free bottle shops, etc.) in the Pacific Northwest? (Relative to the rest of the country.)
Jason: This is a question that’s really tough to answer, but it comes up a lot! I think the biggest factor is just that beer in general is more widely-accessible here. You rarely find retailers with large beer selections in most of the country, and tap houses with 20+ taps of local beer are veritably unheard of.
Even in California, which has more breweries than any other state, the retail channels are a lot narrower, so it’s hard for breweries to gain market share. The PNW is also very supportive of local businesses and fairly hostile to chains and big corporate operations, and also very health-conscious. So you have this kind of perfect storm of lots of support for craft beer, lots of support for local business, and lots of awareness of health issues.
That being said, most of the gluten-free breweries here are on the smaller and younger side, and still technically in the start-up phase. We’re really testing the limits of what the local market will support, and that’s a big reason why I’ve decided not to pursue wholesale distribution—I don’t want to take shelf space away from any of my peers, because I know what a challenge it is to make it, even in this market.
Where do you see the gluten free beer industry in 10 years? What changes would you like to see?
Jason: It’s tough to say. Five years ago, there were only a couple dedicated gluten-free breweries, now there’s something like 15 or 16! I expect to see a few regional breweries continue to grow and start to dominate certain markets, not unlike what happened with craft beer in the ’90s and ’00s. I expect to see a lot more small, locally-focused players enter the market.
What I would most like to see is our raw material costs go down; that’s still the biggest hurdle for all of us. Even straight sorghum extract, which gets an undeserved bad rap among a lot of consumers, is more than 3x the cost of pale barley malt. Millet malt, which is kind of the gold standard in malt for gluten-free brewing, ranges from 5x to 8x the cost of barley, and we just can’t make up for that by raising the price of the beer we sell.
Most gluten-free beer is only marginally more expensive than barley beer, and that means we brewers are taking a big hit on our profit margins that makes it difficult to survive, as well as cost-prohibitive to brew certain recipes. I doubt millet malt will ever get to price parity with barley malt, but if we could get it down to 2x to 3x the cost instead of where it’s at now, I think the whole industry would become a lot healthier!
What’s your biggest piece of advice to a newly diagnosed Celiac?
Jason: Educate yourself! Learn about how the pathology works, learn about hidden sources of gluten, learn who the dedicated businesses are. Beyond that, seek out community! For the first several years after my diagnosis, I didn’t know one single other Celiac, and I felt really isolated. Having people to commiserate with, and share food and resources, is invaluable to your mental health!
If you could have any gluten free beer (in the world) in your hand right now, which would it be?
Jason: That’s a tough one! Probably one I’ve never been able to try before, because I always want to try something new when I can! I’ve been excited to see what the folks at TWØ BAYS in Australia have been getting up to, so maybe their flagship pale ale?
How can beer lovers who are excited about your new venture connect with you and support you?
Jason: Right now my social media game is pretty weak, but I do have a Mutantis Brewery and Bottle Shop facebook page and a website that I keep updated on my progress. I’m working on getting a mailing list set up as I get closer to opening, and if anyone wants to be on it, they can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know!
Thank you Jason, for spending some time with Best Gluten Free Beers and sharing your gluten free brewing journey with us! Best of luck on your next venture. I can’t wait to visit the new brewery and bottle shop. Cheers!