Q/A WITH MATT JONES OF BUOY BEER CO.

Buoy Beer has weathered some serious challenges. Credit head brewer Matt Jones with being a steadying force during the storm – making sure the beer got made right. 

His heart sank when Buoy’s waterfront facility partially collapsed in June 2022, leaving the Astoria brewery with no taproom, restaurant, bright tanks or canning line. After contracting out some beer production and bringing in mobile canners, Buoy mounted an amazing rebound. Today, production is back at record levels, there’s a downtown brewpub and new canning/packaging facility, and engineers are working toward a waterfront rebuild. 

Jones, 38, grew up in Vancouver, Wash., and now calls Astoria home. He joined Buoy in 2021 after 14 years at Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland. 

Astoria Beer Zone sat down with Jones for a wide-ranging discussion:

Q: Looking back, what got you interested in brewing?

A: Wanting to drink good beer and wanting to learn how to make good beer on my own. That was always something that kind of fascinated me. 

I started doing some home brewing and really got to the point where I knew I wanted to do it professionally when I was working at a truck manufacturing plant that was laying people off – a big plant in Portland, Freightliner Trucks. 

When I was working down there, I would take the bus, and I just happened to get off at Russell Street right where the Widmer brewery was. I can still remember smelling the wort cooking. It smelled like cereal and I thought, That could be interesting. So, I just walked in – old school – and filled out a paper application.

Working there was a lot of fun. I started off, though, in packaging. I had done some research and a lot of people online said you could go to brewing school or you could get a job at a brewery and try to work your way through. That [brewery job] seemed more approachable at the time. … I finally got into the cellar, and from the cellar into the brewhouse, and then from the brewhouse into management.

Q: In 2021, you were working as assistant brewmaster for Widmer, a big job at a huge brewery. What drew you to Buoy and the North Coast?

A: It was a good time to make a change. My stepdaughter was out of high school; my son had not started school yet. My wife and I had often talked about moving somewhere different and having kind of an adventure. So, it just seemed like a good time. I’ve always loved Buoy beer. … I was thrilled to come out here. 

Matt Jones in the brewhouse.

Q: Some folks may not know what the head brewer at a sizable brewery does. Besides overseeing the brewhouse and its workers, what are your top responsibilities?

A: Primarily, material ordering and scheduling. Typically, in breweries, the head brewer will write the schedule for all production, so you know when beer is going to be ready. … It’s also keeping recipes in line – making sure our recipes are really matching the brand as a whole; not seeing flavor creep one way or another. I found a real passion for dialing in not just how to make a good beer, but how to make a good beer consistently and efficiently without cutting corners.

Q: What are the biggest rewards of the job? 

A: I think it goes back to consistency. You can have a flight from different batches and you can taste the consistency. I take a lot of pride in that. So, yeah, the flavor of the beer at the end of the day is honestly the most rewarding thing. 

I also love seeing different analytics tick in a positive way. I love solving problems. In a brewery, there are always going to be problems to solve and that keeps you on your toes. Keeps you thinking. But the most important thing is still the beer.

Q: You’ve dealt with a couple of major challenges at Buoy: the partial collapse and the pandemic. Let’s talk about the pandemic first. When health restrictions impacted draft beer sales, what were the biggest ripples you had to deal with?

A: Just seeing that loss of draft [beer sales]. So, yeah, a ton of pivoting. It really changed the makeup of what the expansion was going to be, with cans becoming so predominant.

Q: The collapse was an emotional blow for almost every Astorian, given the love for both Buoy and that historic building. When the disaster happened, what thoughts ran through your head?

A: I heard the news from a brewer we had at the building. He called and told me and my first thought was, Is everyone okay? … Second thing was, alright, how can I help with utilities getting shut off in that building? That was a lot of that day, and then it was just kind of watching the aftermath. 

I had only been at the company about a year. I didn’t anticipate how visceral people’s reaction would be to that loss. I saw a lot of tears.

Q: On the beer production side, you must have been pretty anxious. All that beer sitting in the tanks. Did you have some sleepless nights?

A: I lost a lot of sleep, yes. It’s June, the busy season. We’re just starting to hit our stride.

The next day we were on the phone calling mobile canning lines, asking, ‘What capacity do you have to get out here and help us start getting beer out of tanks?’ By about noon the next day, after my hangover wore off, we just started hatching a plan to piece things back together using fermenters as bright tanks and a mobile can line. 

Buoy sold out in all the grocery stores that weekend. People rallied in support and it was really heartening to see. It  gave us the resolve that we can do this. It was going to be hard, we knew, but we could do it.

Jones on the catwalk overlooking a row of fermenters.

Q: On a more upbeat note, you released a special series of four lagers this year. Why lagers?

A: From the beginning, Buoy wanted to be a lager-focused brewery. To hear Kevin [Shaw, brewery operations director] tell the stories of the early days working with Dan Hamilton, the founding brewer, the first recipe they scaled up was a helles [lager], which they made a little too bitter so they called it a pilsner. They didn’t make an ale until a fair amount of time.

So, lager goes to the start of the brewery, and I think it helps Buoy stand out. … It’s really nice playing with different malts. Personally, lager is the kind of beer I like to drink. 

Q: Where are you today in terms of beer production and capacity?

A: We’ll be at about 20,000 [barrels] this year. Full-on, the brewery’s capacity is 25,000. 

Q: Buoy did a major brewhouse expansion in 2021 and a new canning and packaging facility was added earlier this year. Are there further expansion plans?

A: We’re always thinking about adding on. But within the current building, just last summer we brought on two more fermenters. There’s space for two more. And there’s still room to be creative. Getting that pilot system back – the original five-barrel system that Buoy started on — would mean a lot to the brewing staff. [Note: That small-batch system is intact but has yet to be pulled out of the damaged building].

Q: There have been some disturbing reports across the country about craft breweries closing,  including Anchor Steam in San Francisco. It seems like the boom years may be ending. What’s your take?

A: It’s undeniable that younger people are drinking less. I’ve seen it in my own family. I think a lot of people’s preferences are changing toward spirits or seltzers or other things. … But the craft brewing industry can continue to change and adapt, and consumers can continue to change and adapt, and there’s going to be an ebb and flow.

I want to be optimistic. I think people will come back around to it [craft beer]. I hope people come back to it, because lagers are lower ABV, very nuanced, go very well with a meal and don’t leave you overly satiated. So, my hope is that Gen Z does start drinking lagers. [Laughs]

It’s more serious than a blip, but it’s not insurmountable. It just comes back to resiliency. If the beer is tasting good, at the end of the day the consumer is going to be there for it. Might change a little bit. Might not be 20 percent growth or 10 percent growth even, but overall the market is going to be there. 

I guess in the end I’m optimistic. I kind of have to be.

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CHEERS TO THE LAND!

Astoria breweries are helping to preserve Oregon farm and ranch lands for future generations.

Fort George Brewery and Buoy Beer Co. have released their frothy versions of Cheers to the Land, a benefit for the nonprofit Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT).

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