Brewmaster at Laurelwood Brewing Company
When Vasili Gletsos first moved to Portland from Vermont in 2004, he was an avid home brewer dreaming of breaking into commercial brewing. Nine years later, he currently serves as brewmaster at Laurelwood Brewing Company, having risen through the ranks at some of Portland’s most well-established brewpubs, including BJ’s Brewhouse, Rock Bottom Brewery and Portland Brewing Company (formerly known as MacTarnahan’s).
In a town with a taste for unique microbrews, Gletsos asserts that while his brewing resume is perhaps not the most titillating, it has given him a strong foundation that not all brewers have access to. “I felt very fortunate,” he says. “They might not be the most popular or most sexy breweries in town, but in those positions I worked directly under people who were really at the top of their game. They had all the proper methods of doing things, which is a big part of brewing. You can get a feel for the artistic side and everything else, but as far as getting it right the first time or not learning bad habits, I was very fortunate to get an excellent foundation.” A former puppeteer, Gletsos compares his beer education to his time at art school. “You have to learn the basics of drawing, the basics of sculpture, the basics of design, and then you go on to do your own expression,” he says. “Brewing is the same way.”
Brewmaster at Laurelwood since 2011, Gletsos has implemented a number of initiatives at the 12-year-old brewpub that demonstrate that he has the foundations down pat, and is ready to push himself and his staff in a more inventive direction. “I think that in addition to making our core beers that people love, one of our biggest opportunities is making things that push the envelope a little bit more,” he says. “Frankly with the limited amount of beer we can produce, we don’t need another best seller. So being able to produce something that’s innovative, that gets people’s interest and is distinct, those are really the opportunities to make an impression.”
One such initiative is Laurelwood’s barrel-aging program. “Like a lot of brewers, we’ve got a two-track barrel aging system,” Gletsos explains. “Part of the program is second use on whisky, gin or bourbon barrels, where you’re trying to extract those flavors from the barrels.” Laurelwood has also been experimenting with souring beer. “You’re actually inoculating the barrel with different bacteria, so it’s really about establishing the culture and trying to balance the needs of those different cultures in the barrels to make really interesting and distinct beers,” Gletsos says.
Gletsos is also heading up Laurelwood’s Portland Pale Project, a rotating line of pale ales available on tap at the brewpub. “We take turns going around the brewery making different sorts of pales for that project because there’s actually a lot of variety and depth in pale ale,” he says. “Pale ale can sound pretty generic, but being able to explore things like Belgium- style pale ales, wheat pale ales, or single hop pale ales really gives the brewers the opportunity to explore the different variety within that style of beer.”
For Gletsos, inspiration for new beers comes from several different sources. “Sometimes it’s other brewers and beers that I try around that inspire me, or a new material I’m not familiar with, like a new hop variety or a new kind of malt,” he says. “Sometimes I just get a picture in my head, like some sort of fun image.” He turns to Megafauna, Laurelwood’s hugely hoppy award-winning imperial IPA as an example. “I decided to make a double IPA, and the first thing that came into my mind were these CGI dinosaur documentaries I watch with my kid,” he says.
Laurelwood Brewing Company beers are available on tap at Laurelwood’s four Portland-area locations and in bottles at retailers around the city. Sample some of Gletsos’ seasonal brews at Portland’s summer brew fests, including the Portland Fruit Beer Festival June 8-9 and the North American Organic Brew Festival June 27-30.