Culmination Brewing is one of our favorite Portland breweries, in the Northeast part of town and overall. We’ve been going here since it first opened, in 2015; we believe it’s the most underrated Portland brewery!
What makes Culmination Brewing even more interesting to us is the fact the founders are a married couple. It turns out—and we were not shocked by this—they also both love to travel.
As we implement our location independence/world domination plans, we draw inspiration from others who pursue their dreams—and make them happen. We spoke with the founders of Culmination Brewing, Tomas Sluiter and April Dudley Sluiter, on a sunny Friday afternoon in August over—what else—pints of beer made just a few feet away.
How Culmination Brewing was made
Tomas and April met in 1994 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they both worked at a bakery—he stocking shelves, she slinging donuts. Eventually they quit their jobs and road-tripped around the country, searching for the right place to live together. The next chapter of their joint life was to be born out of traveling.
They’d heard so many good things about Portland, Oregon, they stopped by in the summer of 2000 to take a look for themselves. And they found what they were looking for.
“We loved the people, the scenery and the proximity to nature,” Tomas said. “And we loved the food and the beer here.”
Through a newspaper ad (“Brewer Wanted”), Tomas found a job as assistant brewer at the Old Market Pub, a popular SW Portland brewery. “We found our cat through an ad in that paper, too,” Tomas joked.
Tomas took the job without expecting it to be long term. But within two weeks of his hire, the head brewer quit and Tomas was thrown into that role.
The first challenge: upgrade the slipshod homebrewing system in the pub’s kitchen. In 2004, Tomas bought a used, 15-barrel system from a Kansas microbrewery, bringing Old Market’s capacity from 200 to 2,000 barrels per year (1 beer barrel is 31 gallons, which equals about 248 American, i.e. 16-ounce, pints of beer).
“Disassembling the system, shipping it, and putting it back together was the biggest learning experience of my brewing life,” Tomas recalled.
In 2008, Tomas left Old Market, tired of “fighting battles I couldn’t win” and with plans to launch his own brewery in Portland. Using his experience running Old Market’s microbrewery, he launched an independent consultancy for brewers, with himself as a showcase client.
The seven years it took to write a business plan, obtain a business loan, lease a space, and purchase equipment were no fairy tale, Tomas and April recalled, with the same look we used to have recounting our own journey to the dream of traveling the world (though, of course, that was nothing like starting a major business undertaking).
Through the trials and tribulations of starting up a brewery, Tomas and April managed to take a break and travel around Europe—he with his father, she with friends, and at the end both together. The itinerary sounded like a beer trail around the continent: Pilsen, Prague, Cologne, various points in Belgium…
“Kolsch in Cologne and kriek in Antwerp were my highlights,” Tomas said, sipping on his own version of the latter style, Kriek Mythology (7% ABV). April’s highlights included Slovenia, France, and Spain.
Culmination Brewing today: Beer + Food + Place = Community
By their own admission, Tomas, Culmination Brewing’s principal owner, and April, one of the partners in the business, complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Throughout our conversation, they often finished each other’s sentences.
Where Tomas would strike you as passionate about beer to the point of nerdiness—when he waxed chemical about the Brettanomyces yeast, my eyes glazed over just a bit—April is the extroverted, public relations face of the business. And, while she retains a full time job in the health care industry, April said, “I’m the support system. I’m okay being a ‘business widow’.”
Asked what makes Culmination Brewing different from the 69 other Portland breweries, Tomas said, “We are uncompromising in our commitment to quality. We use the best hops we can find and real ingredients. If we’re going to make a blueberry beer, we’re going to use real blueberries; if we’re going to make a kriek, we’re going to use Oregon cherries aged in barrels for a year.”
April concurred. “Tomas is particular about product that comes out,” she said. “When we make beer, we make a contract with the person who drinks it. We want to give people something we are proud of.”
As with beer, so with food. When they traveled and when they first moved to Portland, April said, they met a lot of transplants, including foreigners, they got to appreciate food a lot more.
“We’re from the Midwest, we know our frozen food and TV dinners,” April said with a laugh. “We’ve learned what real food tasted like, what was special about local cuisines.”
“We want to be as thoughtful about food as we are about beer,” he said. “We want to put out the best beer and the best food we can. Our chef is creative, sourcing dishes for the frequently changing menu with seasonal and local ingredients.”
The obsessiveness paid off early on. Shortly after they launched, Culmination Brewing was named the Best New Brewery at the 2016 Oregon Beer Awards.
Culmination’s taproom is busy most times. As limited as the seating options are at peak times, when people come for a pint and a bite after work, Tomas said that his, and, by extention Culmination Brewing’s, vision is to “be a gathering place, bringing beer and food and people together.”
Helping Homebrewers Fulfill Their Dreams
Tomas still runs the brewing business consultancy. It mostly consists of trying to helping aspiring brewers understand the job consists of working 80 or more hours a week for several years, never seeing their partners and kids and pets, and having to abandon the idea of spare time (though not hope).
“I used to be in a bunch of bands,” Tomas says. “But I don’t play anymore.”
Scaring new clients off doesn’t always work. In places that are thirsty for craft beer, like Bozeman, Montana, Houston, Texas, or Nashville, Tennessee, his clients’ breweries are thriving. In fact, Culmination is opening a satellit brewery in Bozeman, brewing their IPAs using Mountains Walking Brewery’s equipment.
Like April, who said there was “no way I was going to say no to his dream,” Tomas helps others realize theirs.
Tomas and April keep the traveling spirit alive through the brewery business, bringing people together across oceans too. They enjoy collaborating with breweries overseas.
As part of his consultancy, Tomas forges connections around the globe, including Japan and China, where craft beer is on a slow rise.
Over time he made friends with Chinese brewers. In 2016, brewers from the popular brewery Jing-A flew to Portland and made a gose at Culmination using nectarines and Szechuan peppercorns.
Culmination is now in talks with Chinese importers to see if they can make beer for the Chinese market.
Also last year, Culmination Brewing partnered with the Ise Kadoya brewery in Japan, where Portland is a thing, to make a beer using a rare wild saccharomyces yeast strain. The Japanese brewers found usable strains at a local Shinto temple. Tomas used the yeast to brew a wit beer at Ise, using yuzu fruit instead of oranges.
“The Japan experience was a happy accident after a blogger connected us with guys at Ise,” April said. Culmination Brewing is now a member of the Japan-America Society of Oregon and exports 15 barrels of beer a month to Japan.
They are also organizing a beer festival, to be held in April 2018, featuring brews from 10 Portland breweries made in collaboration with 10 Japanese counterparts. The first batches will be made in Portland, then in Japan, with the plan to alternate every other year.
And who knows, maybe some day Culmination Brewing will partner with a microbrewery from Slovakia.