“People called our IPAs ugly, dirty, some would even ask for their money back without even trying them,” James Dugan, co-brewer, Great Notion Brewing Company, says of his early days making New England-style IPAs in Portland, Ore.
When Dugan, Paul Reiter, and Andy Miller opened Great Notion in the former Mash Tun Brewpub space in 2016, most Portland craft beer drinkers thought of IPAs exclusively as “clear, packed with crystal malt, and aggressively bitter, with those sharp pine and grapefruit-pith flavors,” Dugan says.
Great Notion persisted with patience. “We would say, ‘Just close your eyes, drink the beer, and really think about what you’re tasting,’” Dugan says. “And customers came around to them… Customers who thought they didn’t like IPAs realized there was a difference between bitterness and hoppiness.”
Thanks to Great Notion’s turbid trophies, including Ripe, Juice Box, and Juice Jr., local acceptance quickly grew to national attention. Now the brewery is among the style’s most prominent producers — cans are highly coveted currency among traders — and a trailblazer among Portland brewers. “You can’t really find a brewer around here that doesn’t make at least one [hazy IPA] now,” he says.
Great Notion also brews up sour ales Blueberry Muffin and Strawberry Taffy, as well as breakfast-inspired imperial stouts spiked with maple syrup and coffee (Double Stack), or toasted pecans, brown sugar, and cinnamon (Sticky Bun). The sour Heart of Hold won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2016, and Double Stack won the same award in 2017.
With demand far outstripping supply, Great Notion added a second production facility early last year. Its taproom and restaurant will open to the public this spring. The 20,000-square-foot space includes a 30-barrel brewery that helped increase production to 2,300 barrels in 2018, up from 950 barrels the year prior.
Still, the only way for beer enthusiasts to taste Great Notion’s lineup is to go directly to the source: Nearly every drop of beer is sold on-site, and almost all of it packaged in 16-ounce cans.
“We want to continue to focus on selling all our beer directly,” Dugan says. “Our customers have driven our success, and we’re incredibly grateful for their passion and never-ending thirst. This model of direct-to-customer sales began in the Northeast and has worked its way west. It gives us the opportunity to retain control of our product and sell the freshest beer possible to the customer.”
This commitment to deliver beer at its peak is not lost on fans, as waiting lines for releases of limited-edition ales routinely start to form outside the brewery hours before. “I feel truly humbled by the show of support,” Dugan says. “It’s crazy to think we were brewing these recipes in my garage three years ago, and now we still can’t make enough.”
So what does Dugan do when he’s not revising recipes or chatting with customers? Here, he tackles our Lucky Sevens questions and shares what motivates him as a brewer, the best (and worst) beers in his fridge, and why he thinks hazy IPA plus nigori sake is a no-brainer.
1. What’s your desert-island beer?
Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils. IPAs don’t age very well, but stouts and lagers do. But if it’s tropical and hot and you’re stuck on a desert island, you’re not really likely to reach for a rich pastry stout. Pivo is crisp, refreshing — just a great example of a modern pilsner. It’s a beer I wouldn’t tire being around for long periods.
2. What’s the beer that made you fall in love with beer?
Pliny the Elder from Russian River. I lived in Oakland before Portland, and at least once a week my friends and I would go to a local bar called Ben & Nick’s because there was a fresh keg of Pliny. At the time, Pliny was the only beer that blew me away with its hop profile. Piney, fruity, dry — just completely hop-saturated. Plus it was a double IPA, which I’m a real sucker for.
Something I’ve always admired about Russian River is that Vinny [Cilurzo, brewmaster and co-owner] has always been forthcoming to homebrewers about his ingredients and recipes, which is something we’ve tried to do with our own processes. Back when I was homebrewing, I tried an all-grain version of Pliny. It came out nothing like Vinny’s and after the third time I gave up, knowing I’d be just as happy just drinking the original.
3. FMK three beer types: IPA, pilsner, sour?
I would f*ck IPA. It’s a very sexy style that turns me on and inspires me. Hops are what motivates me as a brewer.
I would marry pilsner. Pilsner is very trustworthy, a solid communicator. I would feel very comfortable making a lifelong commitment to a pilsner.
This is a tough one, but I guess I would kill sour. Though I don’t want to kill any beer style, honestly.
4. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper beer?
Bottle Logic’s Fundamental Observation. For me, this is the epitome of a barrel-aged imperial stout. It’s essentially a meal: so rich and thick, full of flavors like toasted marshmallow, vanilla bean, oak, and chocolate. It hits all the basic food groups — at least those of a brewer creating barrel-aged imperial stouts.
5. You can only drink one beer for the rest of your life. What is it?
I have to pick our Ripe IPA, a beer that’s very special to us. This is a beer that started off as a homebrew recipe and ended up winning first place in Paste Magazine blind tasting of over 300 IPAs, something I’m so proud of. This is a beer that represents the history of my homebrewing but also the evolution of our company, the many people that have used it to build and grow us to where we are now, and to where we’re going in the future. Plus it’s just fucking delicious. We’re really proud of it.
6. What’s the best and worst beer in your fridge right now?
I don’t have a worst beer. I love all beer. For best, I would say our collaboration with Bottle Logic, Paisley Cave Complex, which is a hybrid of our Blueberry Muffin sour and their imperial stout process. I’m real proud of the collabs we do.
7. If you could no longer drink beer, what would be your beverage of choice?
Nigori sake. I’m heavily intrigued by sake production. If we ever have the time, we want to build a sake branch of Great Notion. I think there’s great potential for sake-hazy IPA hybrids. Nigori is creamy and thick and hazy; it would be the perfect complement to a hazy, juicy IPA. I’ve actually blended Ripe IPA with a local nigori, from Momokawa, and it tastes phenomenal. It’s uncharted territory and something we definitely want to explore in the future.