It was hard to tell who was more surprised when the Kansas Territorial Brewing Company began filling with people on Tuesday, Feb. 10—Luke Mahin, a founder of the Courtland Fermentation Club, or Brad and Donna Portenier, owners of the microbrewery.
“I didn’t know we had that many members,” Mahin said, looking around the room. Across the street a small bus disgorged its passengers, all of whom made beelines for the door. “Some of these people have never been to a meeting.”
Brad Portenier, busy filling coolers with unlabeled silver cans, watched as another dozen people walked in. “I hope we have enough beer,” he said.
The club was there on a field trip to sample the fledgling brewery’s wares as well as to discuss the process of crafting fine ales, stouts and lagers on a commercial scale. As for the microbrewery, it had just received the necessary licenses to operate and was finalizing the initial selection of beers for review by the Kansas Craft Alliance, a statewide collective of Anheuser-Busch distributors. Considering that the club’s members consisted of amateur brewers who were passionate about the craft, the sampling was a perfect opportunity not only to have the company’s beers critiqued but also a means to generate buzz. But first it had to pass the taste test.
On that point, there should have been no worries. Before Portenier could corral the group for a short introduction, club members were already rating the beers, with the stout, in particular, singled out for acclaim.
The fermentation club, founded in June of 2014, was created after Mahin and a friend, Tanner Johnson, researched options for serving home-brew during special events such as the annual Courtland Fun Day. They were surprised to discover that a large number of residents throughout the county were versed in making their own beers and wines, and dismayed to discover that serving home-brew at public festivities was illegal.
At the time, state laws banned the sharing of home-brew outside of the brewer’s house or among anyone but the brewer’s immediate family, Mahin said. Those archaic laws were struck down in mid-summer, and now under new regulations home brewers can share with club members or in invitation-only settings where the public isn’t allowed.
The club is loosely organized with only about a third of its members involved in home brewing, and the others either interested or learning. (“People always say that it’s the best club they ever joined,” Mahin said. “It’s the only meeting I go to where I don’t want to drink afterwards.”)
The Washington field trip was a first for the club, and also the most-attended meeting since the club’s inception. About 35 people showed up.
The idea behind the microbrewery was part economic development, part historical continuity and part fun for fun’s sake, Portenier said.
“Most little towns in Kansas are like where I grew up,” he said. “There were 180 people in town, and I was in the biggest class in school—there were seven of us. My brother was the only one in his grade. I always wished we could do something to save that town.”
Though he was born in Washington, he grew up “everywhere but here,” in his words, and upon his return he and his wife, Donna, decided to stay and build. They started Bradford Build and made a success of it, but as they looked around his hometown it was evident, and depressing, to see so much of it gone, both people and businesses.
“You look at the old pictures and it’s just a shadow of what it used to be,” he said. “But it’s not too late. We can try to keep something going here.”
With that in mind, they purchased three empty buildings downtown. One became the western clothing shop, another Miss Donna’s Doll House, and the third Mayberry’s, a restaurant. When Duckwalls, a general store, went out of business several years ago, the Porteniers couldn’t stand seeing it empty. It was time for something a little more fun, he said.
From the start, it was envisioned as a microbrewery. “The number one attraction in a town is a microbrewery,” he said. “There are a lot of people who really enjoy the art and craft of making beer.”
They bought a little brewery kit, assembled it, but then started having second thoughts. Not about making beer, but about the eventual size of the operation.
“We started thinking that if we’re going to wash the dishes for one barrel, it won’t take much longer to do the dishes for 20 barrels,” he said. “You can see the kit sitting over there in a corner. We never did use it.”
After putting feelers out for a qualified brewmaster, his supplier slipped him a name: Parker Harbaugh. He arranged for a meeting and knew immediately that he had his man.
“Parker brews with a passion and knows how to use a slide rule,” Portenier said. “He read a whole book on water. Anybody who does that is serious about it, and he got it right.”
During remodeling, they kept finding horseshoes and hand-forged items dating back a hundred years. Prior to Duckwalls, the building housed a car dealership (Portenier’s father bought a ’57 Chevy there), and before that—long before that—it was a livery stable.
Honoring the past, whether personal or regional, is important to Portenier. The name for the brewery came about because of his desire to promote everything local as much as possible.
“All these buildings in our downtown effort here had their abstract signed by an authorized signatory of Abraham Lincoln, so that’s his signature, probably by someone else. But they’ll say ‘City of Washington, Kansas Territory,’ so that’s where that name came from.”
After hiring a graphic artist to design labels, they received a letter from the U.S. Patent Office’s attorney advising them of a conflict with the too-similar sounding name of the Wyoming Territory Brewing Company. “Apparently Wyoming sounds a lot like Kansas to the Patent Office,” Portenier said.
He’s currently working with an attorney in Wyoming to resolve the issue. He also called the owner to tell him he didn’t intend to infringe on his patent. “He said he knew what I was going through,” Portenier said. “He offered use of the name for one dollar per year for 50 years, after which time it automatically renews. That’s the attitude of everybody in this business. It’s been fun.”
As for the labels, Portenier said they were doing everything they could to promote the Midwest.
“Kansas builds more aircraft than anywhere in the world,” he said, “so we have one that loosely resembles Clyde Cessna’s first plane. I thought that was cool. Atchison, Kansas, used to build locomotives. If you build stuff for a living, that’s just impressive as heck, so we wanted to pay tribute to that.” Their Breakfast Brown label shows the Burlington Zephyr, a train that in 1938 set a speed record from Denver to Chicago. Another, aptly named Summer Breeze, depicts a tornado filled with flying debris. Every label incorporates a grain elevator somewhere within the design.
Portenier has been happy with the ales that Harbaugh and Eric Helms, the associate brewer, have crafted. The stout, in particular, was a favorite, though he admitted to liking everything he’s tried so far. “We wanted an IPA that didn’t punch you in the nose with pine needles,” Portenier said. “I think Parker hit that dead on. It has a nice IPA aroma and flavor but it’s not so intense right up front.”
He’s eager to try the lager when it’s ready in about a week, he said, adding that he doesn’t know of a single other brewery that makes lagers.
The company currently offers a honey brown ale named Breakfast Brown, a lager, a stout, a red ale and a wheat beer, but intends to expand into speciality varieties, including beers using recipes from the fermentation club and other home brewers.
So far, dozens of samplings have elicited mostly rave reviews, though there have been some exceptions, Portenier said.
“One Coors Light fan sampled the stout, ended up drinking four of them and announcing it good,” he said. “Others say it’s too much for them. And that’s okay. If everybody liked vanilla, there wouldn’t be any chocolate.”
Hosting the club boosted their confidence in the quality of their products, Portenier said.
“It was a shot in the arm having the club come over,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re the only horse with a harness. They were so enthusiastic and so much fun that it was really encouraging.”
Club members were equally impressed, Mahin said. “Brad’s is one of the best stouts I’ve ever tried,” he said. “I’m glad there are people like Brad who are crazy enough to do this.”
A soft grand opening is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 26. “We’re going to go ahead and ease into it,” Portenier said. “Down the road a bit we’ll have a big to-do.”
On March 4 the Porteniers will take samplings down to the Kansas Craft Alliance for a final critique of the labels and beers. “I’d say so far the stout is fantastic, the IPA is fantastic—we’ve had good luck,” he said. “I see no reason why you won’t see our beers on the shelves in six to eight months, maybe a year.”
For more information on the Courtland Fermentation Club, check out their Facebook page or call Mahin at 785-374-3511.
I've been thinking about you and Lori of late. Nice to see a post.
Texas's oldest craft brewery (est. 1994) is right here in Houston. I'm sure your friends would know about them, but here's a link to what they produce. I'm rather fond of the Weedwacker, myself. ;)
They started out in an abandoned building, too, and pretty much learned on the fly. It's turning into a Big Deal around here, the business of craft brewing. I hope it goes well for them.
What ARE those things in your header image? I know rocks, but... I can't quite decide if they're some of those the glaciers rolled down, or something else.
Linda -- I've been busy with other things and haven't done much personal work, unfortunately. I decided to add a news story I wrote for the Washington County News because extra publicity is always good for rural startups and because I had a real hankering for their wonderful creamy stout.
All this talk of beer is making me terribly thirsty...
The header photo was taken at Rock City outside Minneapolis, KS. The park contains about 200 huge Dakota sandstone concretions, most of which are in spherical proportions. Very odd and very scenic.
I haven't been out and about much due to the cold weather and my nerve damage from shingles. In short, I can't take the cold, so whenever possible I'm inside trying to stay warm. I'll eventually beat this thing, but until then I'm eagerly waiting for spring.
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