Exploring Brewing & Astronomy with John Harris of Ecliptic Brewing

By: Becky Garrison

Upon meeting John Harris, one might not realize that this soft-spoken man is, in fact, a legend in the world of craft beer – not to mention a seasoned astronomer. Chris Crabb, Director and Or-ganizer of the Oregon Brewers Festival, calls him “a warm, wonderful soul” and says she is “honored to call him a friend.”

  Harris has been a seminal figure in the Oregon craft brewing scene for over thirty years. “He’s the only brewer that has brewed a beer for every single Oregon Brewers Festival, representing three different breweries during its 32-year run,” says Crabb. “The festival often coincides with John’s birthday, so he has one of the largest birthday parties thrown in his honor every year.”

  Steven Shomler, author and culinary storyteller, reflects on Harris’ stellar course. “John has gone from home brewing and following Fred Eckhardt’s book ‘A Treatise on Lager Beers,’ to apply-ing for his first professional brewing job at the Hillsdale Brewpub, to being the very first profes-sional brewer in Bend, Oregon, to running his own successful venture: Ecliptic Brewing.”

  Harris’ interest in home brewing began in the early 1980s, just as microbreweries started popping up in Washington State and Oregon. For over thirty years, he worked as a professional brewer, working with some of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest brands. While working with the McMenamins brothers, he was the first brewer to make Hammerhead in its all-grain formulation. His accomplishments at Deschutes Brewery include devising the recipes for their Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Obsidian Stout beers. During his 20- years at Full Sail Brewery, he ran their Brewer’s Reserve program, where his formulations included Slipknot, Hop Pur-suit and the Sunspot Series. After the brewery eliminated Brewer’s Reserve in 2012, Harris felt the need to move on.

  So, he found a former body shop located at 825 North Cook Street in the Mississippi district of  Portland near Widmer Brothers Brewery. He oversaw the shop’s transformation into a 15-barrel brewery, replete with a taproom featuring a 145-seat restaurant and a patio in the parking lot. In October 2012, Ecliptic Brewing was incorporated, and then, on October 20, 2013, it opened for business.

  Harris knew that his brewery needed to have an astronomy name and theme. His interest in as-tronomy was rekindled when he saw a Sky and Telescope magazine on an airport newsstand while traveling for work. He bought a copy, and the astronomy bug was back.

  When asked what prompted his interest in astronomy, Harris points to his uncle, who gave him a telescope when he was a child. From there, astronomy became a hobby that he got in and out of over the years. A year after spotting this magazine at the airport, Harris bought a new and bigger telescope and began going to star parties.

  Initially, Harris had another working name for his brewery, but it was already taken. The Eclip-tic, the astronomical term for the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun, kept popping up and eventually became the name for the brewery. A 25×25 foot mural of an Ecliptic plane, created by Loey Hargrove, graces the restaurant’s bar wall. Spaced themed label art, marketing catchphrases like “Pour some space in your face,” and signature beers such as Ecliptic Starburst IPA and Phaser Hazy IPA give the feel of a brewery founded by someone with their eyes clearly looking upward at the stars.

  “In hindsight, there is no better name than Ecliptic, as this ties into our seasonal beer and food we make here at our brewery and restaurant, as we go around the sun on planet earth,” Harris says.

Signature and Seasonal Beers

  Ecliptic’s beer names represent more of a marketing decision than coordinating a release follow-ing the seasons. For example, during the 2017 solar eclipse, they got some national press for hosting eclipse-themed events and releasing their Chromosphere Blonde Ale. This special release eclipse beer was made using Amarillo and Cascade Hops and had a citrus nose and flavors with a light yellow color that resembled the summer sun.

  For the 2019 Oregon Brewers Festival, they brewed LIGO Key Lime Gose. This beer, named after the world’s largest gravitational wave observatory, featured Ecliptic’s house lactobacillus strain and key lime purée. During this festival, Ecliptic was selected as the host for the 13th an-nual Oregon Brewer’s Brunch and Parade, and LIGO Key Lime Gose was the first official keg tapped at this event. OBF was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid 19 pandemic, with plans to resume the festival July 27-30, 2022.

  Their other Cosmic Collaborations included Blood of Jupiter, a Belgian-style Tripel. They teamed with Umpqua Valley’s TeSóAria Winery, with the base beer brewed by Ecliptic, and then aged in Sangiovese wine barrels furnished by TeSóAria.

  Customer demand for IPAs has led to their signature Ecliptic Starburst IPA, as well as Vega IPA and Phaser Hazy IPA. However, Harris’ creativity includes brewing darker beers and sour beers, which are appearing in greater frequency on their taproom menu.

  Most patrons frequent Ecliptic for the craft beers and space vibe. However, for those bent toward astronomy, Ecliptic hosts occasional star gazing events on their patio for amateur astronomers. Their menu also describes the meaning behind names like Capella (a bright star in the constella-tion Auriga), Phobos (the Martian moon that circles the red planet), and Oort (the mysterious re-gion of our solar system that breeds comets). In addition, they occasionally offer astronomy triv-ia via their social media channels.

Pairing Food and Beer According to the Seasons

  While pairing Oregon’s wines with locally sourced food has always been considered standard practice in the Portland dining scene, beer tends to be treated as a stand-alone beverage.

  “Portland is such a foodie town, and yet there was no brewery that was taking food seriously,” Harris says.

  From Ecliptic’s inception, Harris wanted to create a brewpub that could be on the list of Port-land’s 100 best restaurants. Their menu continues to play off Ecliptic’s name, emphasizing sea-sonal ingredients and beers.

  They continue to host occasional food and beer pairings, such as the Cosmic Brunch, held as part of their “5 Beers for 5 Years” series, commemorating the brewery’s fifth trip around the sun. At this brunch, held on February 3, 2019, Harris and Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster, Garrett Oli-ver, released their Tangerine Farmhouse Ale collaboration along with a five-course meal and several beers from each brewery. They gave away signed bottles of the collaboration beer to each attendee. Other similar collaborative dinners include Firestone Walker Brewing Company (Hazy Double IPA), Breakside Brewery (Nectarine Sour Ale), Bell’s Brewery (Juicy IPA) and Russian River Brewing Company (Belgian-Style Hoppy Golden Ale).

Working at Ecliptic Brewing

  Harris’s history and reputation in the beer industry enabled him to bring on employees like sales manager Erin Grey Kemplin. She met Harris when she was the on-premise rep for Full Sail’s distributor. During that time, she got to know Harris.

  “I was able to not only drink John’s creations but also get to know him as a friend,” Kemplin says. After Ecliptic opened, she frequented the brewery nearly every week. “When he decided to build out a sales department and came to me about the role, I knew the answer had to be yes.”

  She stays at Ecliptic due to the delicious beer, the staff and a boss like Harris. “He is the kind of boss that will support you through thick and thin, but also help you figure out solutions when you are stuck without talking down to you.”

  Like Kemplin, Alisha Goddard, Ecliptic’s human resources and business manager, got to know Harris during his tenure at Full Sail, where she felt drawn to his friendly and fun energy. When she heard of an opportunity six months after Ecliptic opened, she jumped at it. “I had worked at a large operation for a while and wanted to be a part of something smaller that felt more tangible and community-oriented,” Goddard says.

Looking into the Future 

  During the global pandemic, Ecliptic Brewing, like other Portland food and drink establishments, found themselves at a crossroads. When possible, they would offer indoor seating, outdoor seat-ing on their large patio, with beer and food-to-go.

  Pre-pandemic, the brewery hosted a couple of events each month, usually celebrating the release of a new beer. On October 1, 2020, they hosted their first event since March 2020, when they teamed with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to offer a sold-out Star Party. OMSI set up a large telescope on a projector, showcased various celestial bodies on the screen and handed out different learning materials. This social distanced event took place outside with all tickets pre-sold. During the event, people could order food and beer from their regular menu along with a special dessert for all attendees.

  Moving forward, Shomler sees good things for Harris and Ecliptic Brewing. “John continues to sharpen his own skills set, and he has the foundational capabilities needed to have a successful brewery: the ability to brew great beer, lead a terrific team and successfully run his business. Many breweries fail due to deficiencies in one or more of these three mission-critical areas of expertise.”

  Currently, Ecliptic’s beers are available in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, North Caroli-na, Canada and Japan. To learn more about Ecliptic Brewing, go to http://eclipticbrewing.com/

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