pFriem Family Brewers: Melding Tradition with Ingenuity in Oregon

From the Source by | Jul 2015 | Issue #102

Photo by Leah Nash

In the old days you started as a keg boy. An aspiring brewer spent a year or two apprenticing by cleaning and filling shells, learning the equipment and maybe floating a few ideas in the hopes someone on the brew crew overheard a recipe worth trying.

At pFriem Family Brewers, that job now belongs to the Innokeg KegBoy C2. Designed to bring semi-automated keg washing into smaller craft breweries, the German-made machine semi-automatically cleans the kegs and racks the beer. And while fresh-faced Siebel grad Johnny Henry can clean and fill seven kegs an hour, the steam-pulsing KegBoy manages 35.

Josh Pfriem sees little reason to glamorize the days of achy backs and chemical-burnt fingers.

“The old-school approach is a rustic approach. Everything’s fun and games with being rustic until you start getting old—there’s some pretty beat up old brewers out there,” he says. “We’re trying to take a very high-tech approach to beer on a small scale. Most of the time when you make an efficiency change you can also make a quality change.”

So far, so good at Pfriem’s 3-year-old brewhouse in Hood River—a Silver LEED certified building with a roof covered in solar panels and a rainwater collection system for irrigation down by the park where windsurfers launch themselves into the blustery Columbia River. pFriem is melding European tradition with American ingenuity using tools unfamiliar to most small craft breweries. Besides the KegBoy, there’s a computerized system that allows the brewers to manage the brewing process from a smartphone app and a pressurized chamber that shoots pelletized hops from the brewhouse floor into the top of the fermentors.

That device—the hop shot, they call it—was designed by Pfriem’s team with the help of Portland-based Metalcraft Fabrication.

“The old way was to climb up the tank and dump the hops in. But that’s not safe, and there’s also a lot of oxygen pickup in the process,” he says. “With things like this, we design them, we get a good deal, and we hope other people can benefit from it if Metalcraft brings it to other people.”

Charlie Frye, who owns Metalcraft, says Pfriem is “an exceptional guy” who’s friendly but exacting.

“He won’t settle for anything less than high-quality equipment at this point,” Frye says. “He’s very nice, very friendly—I’ve become friends with him—but when it comes to business he doesn’t mince words. He knows how to ask for exactly what he wants.”

From A-Frame to A-Game
Pfriem’s brewing career began in an A-frame cabin outside Bellingham, Wash. He was 20, studying business at Western Washington University, and living in a lake house about 15 minutes from campus. One day, he decided to try making his own beer, a clone of Seattle favorite Mac & Jack’s Amber.

“After that first batch of homebrew, I knew,” he says. “I wanted to be a brewer and own my own brewery.”

Pfriem worked summers as a mountaineering guide in British Columbia, where he met his wife Annie, now the “Brewmama” overseeing the touch and feel of marketing and the tasting room experience. Together, they decided to go to Utah, where they could ski and snowboard. Josh got a job brewing for Utah Brewers Cooperative, makers of Squatters and Wasatch. Working under the nation’s more restrictive gravity limits taught him a lot.

“If you can make good 4 percent beer you can make anything,” he says. “It takes a great deal of finesse and balance to make a good 4 percent beer.”

At the same time, he perfected his own craft outside the strict limits of Utah sales.

“People used to joke that I had an Alpinist approach to brewing,” he says. “I’d get up early and go to work a full shift, then come home and stay up until midnight homebrewing, then get up and do it again.”

Eager to get back to the Northwest, the young Pfriem family moved to Bellingham, where Josh took a job at the well-respected lager brewery Chuckanut. With Josh as head brewer, it won Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival.

Chuckanut founder Will Kemper taught Pfriem about the Programmable Logic Controller, or PLC, a computer that automates parts of the brewing process, which is common at large lager breweries but rare at the 10-barrel scale. Pfriem has always been an equipment nerd though, and investing in the PLC made sense to him.

“When it’s easier to brew the beer we can spend more time on the innovation side,” he reasons. The other advantage?

“It’s really easy to expand upon,” he says. So far, that’s been big. pFriem has already expanded several times, and will add another 90-barrel bright tank and two more fermentors in August.

Giving it Time
Hood River, Ore., on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains, is best known for windsurfing, drones and Full Sail Brewing. Pfriem worked there for about two years before striking out on his own, launching his brewery with a focus on Belgian-style beers, including a Strong Dark, a Tripel and a Strong Blonde. It quickly won fans with Belgophiles like Hilda Stevens of Portland’s Bazi Bierbrasserie, where pFriem made its big-city debut in 2012. In her first conversation with him, she was impressed by the fact that Pfriem traveled to Belgium’s best breweries—even laying low about his experience at St. Bernardus, where visits from other pros are discouraged.

“He took the time to really learn about the process and what makes those beers special, and I think it shows,” she says. “They’re being very meticulous about their process and they’re being very traditional, which I admire.”

In an era when brewpubs have been known to rush into opening without basics like chairs, pFriem moves slow and steady. pFriem didn’t open its outdoor patio until it had built a concrete and steel structure to house the chairs, fire pit and speakers. The brewery didn’t release bottles until it had conditioned product in the right container, heavy brown glass bottles imported from Germany. And they’ve even taken great care with their boxes—black cubes printed with little gold logos and stamped with the type of beer, like cardboard Louis Vuitton purses.

“That could be your first interaction with pFriem ever, and we want you to see that there’s something awesome inside,” Pfriem says.

Now, they’ve got a full lineup of Belgians, plus hop-forward beers, a Pilsner and a steady stream of one-offs and barrel aged offerings. Last year, pFriem made about 50 beers. The next two years will yield more authentic European styles, including a Flanders Red aged in a huge foeder that held Bordeaux for 15 years.

“We want to create something that’s worth passing down from generation to generation,” Pfriem says. “You look at Europe and you see some of these places where people have passed it down to the fifth and sixth generation. We want to create a legacy that’s more than just business.”

So far, his 5-year-old son Watou, named for the Belgian village that’s home to St. Bernardus, seems interested in following that path. “He says ‘Daddy, when I get older I can clean kegs and you can brew beer.’ And if he wants that when he gets older that would be great.”

Except he won’t need to clean kegs—not unless the KegBoy is on the fritz.

15-barrel, three-vessel brewhouse
1 15-barrel fermentor (sour/wild only)
3 30-barrel fermentors
6 45-barrel fermentors
4 90-barrel fermentors
1 45-barrel bright tank
1 90-barrel bright tank
2 50-hectoliter (1,320 gallon) foeders
200 wine barrels

On Tap
Belgian Strong Dark: A complex Belgian that unfolds slowly: spicy one sip, sweet the next. 10.0% ABV
Down Under IPA: A spicy, strawberry-forward IPA with Australian hops. 7.2% ABV
Flanders Blonde: A bright, lemony Blonde aged in Pinot Noir barrels for 18 months. 7.1% ABV
Flanders Red: A sour, barrel-aged Belgian with lots of fruity, tannic winelike character. 7.0% ABV
Lemon Saison: pFriem’s classic Saison already has lots of lemon—this one got extra zest. 6.2% ABV
Belgian Christmas Ale: This big Dubbel-style holiday ale is brewed with candi sugar, German Perle hops, coriander and a Belgian ale yeast. 8.0% ABV