Over a Pint: Sean Burke of The Commons

Name: Sean Burke

Brewery: The Commons

Professional brewing experience: Since 2011 (Sean went straight from the Siebel Institute’s Doemens Academy in Germany to The Commons).

IMG_0258As Sean and I both recall, albeit fuzzily, we met at a brand new brewpub called Burnside Brewing in 2011. Sean had just moved back to Portland, having been hired by Mike Wright to be the head brewer at Mike’s brewery he ramped up from a home-based nano to a seven-barreler renamed The Commons. Four years and four GABF medals later, the brewery is prepping to expand again, this time to 15 barrels. The Commons Crew has a lot of work ahead of them. (Sean, an expert in cabinetry, used to put his expertise to work at Powell’s but has doffed his brewer cap for his cabinet-making one at the brewery’s new location a few blocks away on SE Belmont.) But instead of burning the midnight oil I found Sean and the crew at the Oregon Beer Awards, an awards ceremony thrown by Willy Week at the Doug Fir. The beer community was rubbing elbows while up to its ears in the crowded lounge and The Commons, nominees for some six awards, took home the golden tap for Best Belgian Style Ale (Urban Farmhouse).

Afterward, we celebrated with A-listers at Spago’s in the Hollywood Hills. No we didn’t. We huffed a block away to The Wurst where Sean and I got pints of Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed IPA. Truth be told, I tried to get him to go for some beers a block in the other direction, to Union Jacks, but the dedicated husband wasn’t down. (He may have only gotten married a year and a half ago but they were a couple for 14 years.) No, I don’t think that’s his reason. It has something to do with having gigged there. Not working the pole, sheesh, but playing guitar in a band with his brother, which is how the Burke boys rang in Y2K. True story. He still plays out, but has switched to banjo in old-timey sounding, beer-influenced, Maris Otter.

In lieu of strippers The Wurst’s entertainment comes in the form of arcade consoles, shooting pool, and busted skeeball and pop-a-shots. I know they’re busted because later in the night I thought it was an okay idea to drop my bus fare quarters to play skeeball and only got 3 balls (but still nailed the 100-point hole) and some pop-a-shot, which Josh Grgas, The Commons’ brand manager, showed me basically worked even without paying since the balls aren’t caught by the catch. Not exactly an arcade game, but Occidental’s Dan Engler was there, too, and somehow we discovered we both had majored in Russian and turned speaking choppy Russki into a parlor game. Incidentally, while I know the focus is on Sean and The Commons, not that WW’s Beer of the Year, Upright Engelberg Pils, isn’t great but IMHO Occidental’s Pilsner is the best in town.

Pilsner, and all manner of lagers, are certainly Sean’s passion, his Belgian-influenced brewery’s slant notwithstanding. Remember, he did study brewing in Bavaria after all. I think we got into an interesting conversation about Franconia, but maybe that was someone else. I was onto a pint of Double Mountain Black Irish Stout by that point and I think Sean was on his second pint of Trumer Pils.

Pilsner. “Crisp and clean.” Reinheitsgebot. The irony is that Sean made one of my many favorite Commons beers by pitching actual yogurt to introduce the souring agent, lactobacillus. Yep, Nancy’s Yogurt right in the kettle. And it had to be Nancy’s since Sean grew up in Springfield, OR where the creamery was founded in 1960. Given the greatness of Biere Royale—the resulting beer augmented with currants like a kir royale (get it?)—it’s not surprising others around town have attempted kettle souring but The Commons was first, at least in Portland. Sean’s pretty positive others had experimented with it sooner. Please send me the link or citation if you know of an earlier example.

Afterward, there was a pizza run, well, walk since Sizzle Pie’s just a block away. There was talk about getting his pizza fix in North Portland where he lives but with substandard pie, which is sad. He also talked about skipping the re-opening of the brewery in a month since it overlaps with another beer festival much closer to his home (he wishes he could ride to work; I think I encouraged him to tackle the five-ish mile ride). I suspect he was kidding. Either way, that’s likely the next time I’ll see him but we won’t have the luxury of sitting down and just talking since it will be crowded and there will be an agenda.

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