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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Grains of Wrath: Testing a Theory in Camas

One of the great fascinations of our time is that all brewers want to own their own breweries. Well, almost all. Time and time again, we see successful (and unsuccessful) brewers taking the leap from employee to brewery owner and head brewer. It doesn't always end well.

Enter Mike Hunsaker, ex-head brewer at Fat Heads Portland, soon to be known as Von Ebert Brewing. In 2016, Hunsaker announced he would leave Fat Heads to co-found Grains of Wrath in Camas. There was great excitement.

Like a lot of brewery projects, Grains of Wrath took longer to open than anticipated. It also cost more than the partners expected...going significantly over budget, apparently. The place finally opened this week...to a warm welcome, fortunately.

I stopped in for lunch on Wednesday, which was opening day. The facility is impressive. Right away you note the massive outdoor patio, complete with fire pits and a beer garden. Inside, there's a large seating area that looks out north facing windows (garage doors) onto the patio.

The bar, a smaller area shoehorned between the brewery and kitchen, is fairly typical. It's slightly dank, thanks to low lighting and dark fixtures. There are high tables and chairs. Behind the bar, sports flicker on a couple of large TVs. The brewery is visible on two sides. No minors allowed in here.

They were pouring 10 beers on my visit, pretty good for a place that just opened. Hunsaker built a solid reputation with his hoppy beers at Fat Heads. But he's far from a one-trick pony. Luger, a German-style Pilsner, is excellent. I did not not taste the full list, but did prefer the EGA IPA to Overkill. Opinions will vary.

They have 26 taps to work with and all but a few will eventually be pouring house beers. That's exactly as it should be. Give Hunsaker and crew a few months and this beer list will be packed with interesting choices. Grains of Wrath will have good beer. Make no mistake.

My guess is food offerings will follow the same pattern. The lunch menu on my visit was not extensive. The dinner menu evidently has more choices. Fine. But I think the food menu will evolve just like the beer offerings. We've seen this before.

Grains of Wrath bills itself as a family oriented pub. That's a good strategy in Camas, which is effectively a suburb of Portland/Vancouver that somehow retains a small-town identity and feel. The median income is high in Camas. It hasn't been overrun by millennials like Portland. A lot of families do live out here.

But the family motif appears to me to be at odds with the edgy, punk rock, metal branding. On my visit, the sound system was blaring some unknown (to me) metal. It was too loud for comfort. The punk branding isn't completely in your face, but it's obvious enough. The package makes me think this isn't a place for families. Yet that's who they say they're targeting here. Fascinating.

Prices are another concern. Pints are $6 and $6.50. Add tax (10 percent of my bill) and you've got what some, perhaps many, will consider to be an overpriced pint. I usually drink half pours so I can sample a few beers without getting gooned. I asked for a half pour. "I can do that, but the price is the same," returned the barkeep. Again, fascinating.

A lot of thought and money went into this facility. It's an attractive space. The beers and food are going to be fine or better. The patio is going to attract hoards in warm weather. But there's a disconnect here: The branding and ambiance don't align with the stated target audience.

Maybe Grains of Wrath quietly hopes to be a destination for meandering Portland millennials. In that case, the branding makes some sense. But that strategy runs counter to current beer market logic, which suggests craft beer fans, even millennials, prefer to drink local and close to home.

There is, of course, the possibility that brand identity and ambiance don't matter, that you can succeed regardless of wonkiness on those fronts if you're good enough or unique enough. Grains of Wrath may be the perfect test case for that theory.

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