There are many stories in Beervana, this is the tale of Metalcraft Fabrication and the under-appreciated craft industry that fabricates the tanks and kettles so that the brewers can make the beer. Most beer fans might imagine these parts are coming out of some factory or huge company in Detroit or even more likely do not think about it at all. Here in Oregon a micro industry has grown to service our small but outsized demand for tanks and kettles better welded for brewing than re-used dairy equipment. One of the most successful to rise in the last few years is Metalcraft Fabrication of North Portland, founded by husband and wife team Charlie Frye and Jen Baque. In a short seven years they have risen to national notoriety and late this year will be relocating to a much larger facility and serving the industry in new ways.
If Oregon is the craft beer capital it’s as much because of our local resources as the consumer and community, while much is made about our great water and our local hop farms, the craftsman that create the equipment are overlooked. An art form in of itself, fabrication takes a special passion and dedication that has directly improved the quality of the beer and puts America toe-to-toe with the industrial giants of Germany. If a brewer is like a Chef that gathers the disparate ingredients and uses them to prepare something special, that makes the fabricator the creator who carved the scythe, the sickle and created the fire. So is these craftsman’s importance to beer’s legacy.
Today, Metalcraft is a national leader in a niche market — raising expectations in the craft brewing industry, with custom equipment that focuses on high design and exceptional performance.Oregon has quite a few of these manufacturers and some of the most respected in JVNW and the relatively new Metalcraft Fabrication which is quickly becoming the go-to company for up and coming brewers across the country.
Metalcraft Fabrication co-founder Charlie Frye exudes passion for his work beyond what is profit driven and approaches his business as a serious artform. Originally from Chicago, when he arrived in Portland in 2001 it was his intention to make a living as a creative in artful metalworking but as he says, “I wanted to be an artist, but didn’t want to starve.” He soon fell into sanitary stainless steel fabrication where he spent time learning the trade at Oregon’s renowned JVNW – manufacturer of tanks and vessels. ” The very first tank I built for a brewery was a 75 gallon caustic tank for Upright. I built that one in my 125sq’ garage” it was all history from there. He met his wife Jen Baque who was working PR for a national Veterinary group and after finding out they had a kid on the way as well as Charlie getting laid off she provided the integral help in starting their own business. While working her job full-time, Jen allowed Charlie to begin working on his own custom projects from their garage where he handmade tanks for Lompoc and Lucky Lab Brewing. Soon the couple realized they had to grow beyond a household business and needed a real warehouse and production space and with Jen’s experience in business, marketing and branding they crafted a full legitimate operation with employees and they were off and running in 2007. The first full brewhouse Metalcraft built was for Burnside Brewing in 2010, they also delivered tanks for Three Creeks Brewing in Sisters, Oregon and quickly became an in-demand company. The biggest challenge in this industry has been finding skilled and qualified fabricators in a dangerous profession. Another step up, building brewhouse’s larger than the common 10 or 15bbl but the 30bbl system. As a brewhouse gets larger the challenge is moving the larger amount of “Mash” or malts around, simply scaling everything up from a 10 to a 30 Mash Lauter Tun wont cut it and sometimes more drastic and expensive measures are necessary. They have now dialed in that popular system and as Charlie notes, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about learning, fixing and working through those problems.
With the new brewery boom in the last 5 years there has become a scarcity of used equipment and Portland being the central of all things craft beer we have had tons of tank manufacturers pop-up, chief among them Metalcraft Fabrication. Many beer fans are familiar with the current Metalcraft facilities as the host location for the Oregon Brewers Guild’s annual Cheers To Belgian Beers Festival over the last three years. This warehouse headquarters in the North Portland industrial district features now ten 5 ton bridge cranes, and several 1 to 3 tons hoists as well as an outdoor area and location just off of the MAX line that makes it a perfect festival location.
But, in just a few years Metalcraft has already outgrown this facility and will soon be moving to the former home of Bridge City Steel in the Northwest industrial district at 2401 NW 22nd near Montgomery Park. The new spaces square footage jumps from about 19,000 to 30,000 and they will have 20 cranes that allow them to take on more jobs, finish the work quicker and allow them to spend more time on advanced tank building for concept fermentation vessels. Even though Metalcraft is moving next month, they have already contributed some early concept designs for new tanks that are being used at Burnside Brewing and that they hope can be improved upon to make cheaper and more sturdy fermentation vessels. With demand at an all-time high and breweries from Denver’s Crooked Stave to Florida’s Cigar City clamoring for Metalcraft tanks the lead time on fabricating them is currently about 8 months out. The new building will hopefully cut that time greatly while also allowing the company to build much bigger, up to 600bbl tanks that they could not do before. The new location will also have a tasting room with a handful of beers on tap and a showcase for brand new advanced test tank systems. One of their challenges in addition to staying ahead of the many other tank manufacturers is finding qualified personnel and they will jumping from about 40 employees currently to 50 or 60.
Now if your selfishly thinking about where the 2015 Cheers To Belgian Beers Festival will replace such a cool venue, its you lucky day. Metalcraft won’t be selling the old space but turning it into an overflow venue even more appropriate and open for festivals like Cheers after being emptied of all the equipment. Jen Baque is spearheading the building at 723 N Tillamook St to host parties and festivals during next years Craft Brewers Conference and more while focusing on industry events and supporting the community who has supported them.
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