WESTPORT — Mark Wagner likes to think of beer making as “applied microbiology.”
Since the cellular biologist and former college dean moved from San Diego with his wife Robin to “retire” in Westport, there’s been a whole lot of microbiology brewing out of a garage at 118 West Pacific Ave.
The couple christened the Westport Brewery in January and business already is getting so big the Wagners are thinking about a much bigger space for production and eventually hiring employees to handle the load. They have a vision of being a regional brewing company. “I’m very passionate about this and I know more than the average bear about what it takes to brew good beer,” Mark says with a matter-of-fact certainty.
Asked which of his brews he like the best, Mark immediately answers with a simple, “Yes,” which covers all of his creations.
“It’s like having 16 or 17 children. Privately, you could tell each one that they are your favorite,” he adds.
After Mark retired in 2010 as the dean of a small private school, UEI College, in San Diego, the couple decided Westport was the ideal location to indulge Mark’s life-long passion for making good beer. Robin grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Mark was raised in Portland, Ore., but they both spent lots of time in the Westport area and Robin has actually been living at the Westport property since 2005.
Mark traces his beermastering experiences back to 1973.
“I have been doing this a long, long time,” Mark says, drawing a pint from one of the taps and savoring a sip of his distinctive “Horizontal Premium Bohemian Pilsner.” “It’s always been in the front of my mind.”
Mark started his home brewing somewhat surreptitiously under state law at that time as a college student at The Evergreen State College. Although he was a guest brewer for the Bridgeport Brewing Co. in Portland in 1988, Mark, now 57, decided to put his brewing skills on the back burner while pursuing his doctorate and a career in higher education.
When it came time to retire, however, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
“It was time for a change and you can only do things for so long,” he said of the choice to go full-time into the brewing business.
As a student, Mark Wagner specialized in cell physiology, a field that lends itself well to the brewing process. As a professor, he also taught molecular biology and cell biology.
“He’s done a lot of research, and as a scientist he keeps meticulous notes,” Robin Wagner says. “You need a sterile environment for making beer, and he just brews really good, consistent beer.”
There is nothing sterile, however, about the homey atmosphere surrounding the Westport Brewery.
The “beer” gardens are colorfully landscaped and adorned with strands of hops and myriad annuals and perennials in full summer bloom. The tasting room is in a completely remodeled garage where visitors can watch the brewing process as they sample from a dozen or so varieties, depending on the day and the supply.
You can order small samples, pints or growlers from Mason jars, with Robin supplying the spirits and Mark always attentive with the latest batch he’s mixing for the day. The names of the beers are all inspired by local color and Harbor history, with many of them picked over a day spent in the sun reading “On the Harbor” for inspiration.
“We’re a brewery here, and we wanted our names to reflect the area,” Mark says.
There is Plank Island Porter, taken from the old nickname for Aberdeen, a beer named after Cohasset Beach, Cohasset Cream Ale, or Shoalwater Stout.
The hops are grown in the Yakima Valley and the water is straight from the Westport tap, which Mark and Robin say is perfect quality for beer and similar to the aquifer that was once used by the old Olympia Brewing Co. Mark also brews two cranberry beers, a “Cranberry Kriek” and a “Cranberry Blonde Ale,” a “Wetsuit Wheat” beer and a “Bucking Orca Bock” among the concoctions.
Westport Mayor Michael Bruce says the brewery is a welcome addition to the community. Just down the road is the Cranberry Road Winery and the Westport Winery is a few miles out of town toward Aberdeen.
“It just adds more of a flavor to our community, and it’s one of those garage business, literally, that has flourished,” Bruce says, adding it makes him proud to see Westport Brewery beers on tap in a number of local restaurants and taverns.
“It makes me smile. What better ambassador for our town to have product out there with our name on it in a lot of fine establishments in the area,” Bruce says. “I’m really pleased to see what they are doing out there.”
Aside from his interest in brewing, Mark casually shares a vast knowledge of the craft beer industry, and its rise in the early 1980s in Seattle and Portland, as well as in California. The couple have tasted pretty much every craft beer brewed in the West. “We’ve done a lot of research,” Robin laughs. “Always room for more.”
Mark said he personally enjoys a beer with a good hops profile, which is what inspired him to brew a Pilsner, which is a Bohemian-originated pale lager. He also enjoys IPAs, or India Pale Ales, brewed from a pale malt.
Even in the recession, Mark says, the craft beer industry continued to be strong with a minimum 7 percent growth nationwide. For the last 20 years, he says the industry grown about 15 percent a year overall.
Mark won first place for his lager in 1987 in a beer competition, and while he contemplated being a brewer back then, he had already been accepted into his doctorate program, so academics became his focus after that.
It was only when he began thinking of retiring that he decided to pursue brewing as more than just a passion or a hobby.
“This is my nest egg,” Mark says of his investment in the brewery.
After pouring about $300,000 into the process and buying the brewing vats, yeast, grains, kegs and other equipment, the couple opened the tap room in the garage in January. To ferment the beer, Mark has been experimenting with polyethylene vats in addition to stainless steel ones, and he says they have proved to be just as capable.
The proof is in the product, and Mark envision producing 15,000 barrels or better in coming years, which would put Wesport in league with breweries like Mac & Jacks in Redmond or Elsyian Brewing Co. in Seattle.
“We have been busy since about the third week of January,” Mark said. “We’ve been in business six months and we’re already a profitable business.”
The Wagners plan to be at the break-even point in less than a year with the current success of the product.
“The hardest part was that we had to do a lot of repair to the building, we had to work on the yard and make it into a beer garden,” he says.
Robin credits her husband’s ability to juggle many tasks for their success.
“Mark is a one-man show,” she says. “He’s brewing, marketing, sales and distribution. … And he’s keeping his wife happy.”
The couple now is considering how to transition their start-up into a payroll operation with a small staff. They have a Vancouver, Wa.-based distributor and recently picked up a half-dozen new accounts in a day. They are up to 46 accounts and Westport Brewery beer can now be found in Port Townsend, Seattle, at Waves Restaurant in Ocean Shores or Bennett’s Fish Shacks in Westport and Ocean Shores, at the Little Creek Casino in Shelton or the Ol’ Lonesome in Aberdeen.
In their local history research for the beer names, the Wagners found that there hasn’t been a legally operating brewery on the Harbor since World War II. The old Aberdeen Brewing Co. survived Prohibition by producing no-alcohol beers and sodas, and after prohibition began making beer again only to merge with a brewery in Walla Walla. But World War II brought on rationing of sugar, and that pretty much ended its business.
The motto for the old Aberdeen Brewing Co. was, “It’s the ingredients.”
The motto for the new Westport Brewery: “As far West as you can go.”