We sat down recently for a wide-ranging discussion with Brian Bovenizer, Fort George’s decidedly unconventional marketing director. He first visited Astoria in 2008 and immediately was smitten by the fledgling brewery. From a bar stool, he asked co-founder Jack Harris for a job, but that didn’t happen until a year later when he started working as a cook with zero experience.
The company expanded quickly, so it didn’t take Bovenizer long to land a marketing/sales job. He’s been helping chart Fort George’s future ever since. He lives in Astoria with his wife and two children, and still manages to find time to play in a band and surf.
Q: During your career, you’ve been in a unique position to witness the growth of craft brewing in Astoria and the North Coast. What do you make of what’s happening?
A: The natural progression of the city, I think, was to become a tourist destination, but outside of the Column and Maritime Museum and Oregon Film Museum, we didn’t have much going on. There was Astoria Brewing, but I think as Fort George developed, it gave visitors a little bit more of a reason to stay for a little while. And the other breweries that have come have added to that experience. … Definitely a rising tide that floats all ships.
Q: Ten years ago, could you have imagined that Astoria would be home to a half-dozen breweries?
A: Absolutely. Without a doubt. I think it was just inevitable the city was going to get ‘found out,’ and I knew that more people were going to see the city for what it was – tourists or people who wanted to move here. I didn’t have a crystal ball, but I definitely thought we’d have a lot more breweries.
The potential for Astoria has always been there. We still have vacant buildings, and we’re the biggest city in the Oregon coastal area. This town was built to support tourism, while other towns would have to build up to that.
Q: Chris Nemlowill and Jack Harris launched Fort George in 2007, at a time when craft brewing was something of a novelty in the region. What was it about the brewery that made it so popular?
A: Jack was just a phenomenal brewer and super well-accomplished. He brewed in Colorado; he brewed all over, learning the craft better than many. … He and Chris jumped on hop-forward beers really quick and that resonated with the community.
The brand in the pub was ‘for everyone.’ One time at the bar, I was literally sitting next to a lawyer, a fisherman and a carpenter, and I just hadn’t been around a lot of places like that. Everybody was welcome. It was a meeting place, a gathering place. That was definitely part of the success.
Q: We’ve had Rogue and Breakside breweries enter the North Coast from the east, Pelican expand from the south. It would seem logical for Fort George to open satellite brewpubs of its own. Why hasn’t that happened?
A: It’s a conscious decision to not do that. We have four locations in Astoria. So, we do have multiple locations; they just are all in Astoria. Chris has used this line for years, that ‘every beer can is just a postcard to come back to Astoria.’ We love Astoria. We want people to come back to Astoria. It’s our whole Greetings from Astoria campaign, showing off pictures of the North Coast. … Trying to bring people here has always been a goal. So, we’ll continue to expand our own pubs as long as the demand continues.
Q: When Dave Coyne left Fort George in 2022 to open Obelisk Beer Co., he was your top R&D brewer. Yet you didn’t seem to miss a beat. In fact, you released a record number of new beers that year. The experimenting didn’t slow down. How have you been able to achieve that?
A: We don’t like to think of one person as being the face of Fort George. We want to celebrate everybody. We do allow basically anybody from the brew staff to submit a beer idea, as well as servers – they even let me make a beer. We hired a new R&D brewer, Matt Rhodes, who’s fantastic and cross-trained him with Dave for months. … It’s the philosophy of the brewery to allow any brewer to grow in any direction that they want, and creativity is encouraged.
Q: Do you think craft brewing is an art? Are the best brewers artisans?
A: Absolutely. I call them artists as often as I can. What it takes to make a great beer is both technical and creative and skillful. You can give two brewers the same recipe, have them brew on the same system, and it’s going to come out different, and that to me is the mark of an artist. Somebody who has it in their head what their vision is, and they’re going to execute it. And some artists are better than others. It’s not unlike cooking. I consider chefs artists as well.
Q: Why is collaborating with other breweries so important?
A: The beer industry is one of the only competitive industries that does that. Brewers will share all of their trade secrets with you. Everything. Like, ‘This is how I did it. And if that’s not enough, let’s brew it together and I’ll show you exactly how I did it.’ It’s really fun and really just more higher learning. You go to someone else’s [brewing] system, and they’re doing creative things and you go back and think, ‘I never thought of that.’
Q: When you envision Fort George a decade from now, what do you see?
A: [Laughs]. I want a Ferris wheel. I want an ice rink. I’m not going to stop pushing for the ice rink. But it’s really hard to think past the next year right now. I hope that we’re just respected and the pubs are rocking as well as they are [now]. I don’t see us getting that much bigger. … I see us, you know, finally getting on top of the wave and riding it. I don’t think we can expand much further as far as our footprint goes. I hope we just keep keepin’ it real.
Q: You said previously that beer tourism will continue to grow in Astoria as long as hotel rooms and restaurants keep pace. Is that still your thinking?
A: Yes, absolutely. If we want to have more demand at the pubs, we have to have more supply at the hotels. … While I don’t want a ton of hotels [in Astoria], we clearly need more hotels. We also need more housing for the people who work at the pubs.
Q: Why are beer fans from Seattle and Portland coming to Astoria in record numbers when they have so many breweries back home?
A: They just want to be here. It’s a completely different environment than those cities. It’s small town. You’ve got this beautiful view of the river leading into the ocean, and it’s just a vacation destination. It’s also the gateway to Oregon.
Q: Finally, a personal question. You seem to excel at balancing a demanding job with a family and fun. You still play in a band. What’s your secret?
A: [Exhales] I think I’ve just learned to not take it too seriously all the time. You got to be able to turn it off. I can’t turn it all off, it’s always going to be up there, work is, but at a certain point I’ve got to just dial that back and be present in the moment.
For me, music is that zen moment that I can escape to. … Family is what I get to go home to. I’m playing T-ball after this. And, of course, having a phenomenal, supportive wife really helps.