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How Brewer John Harris Began His Second Act

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- John Harris is a near-mythical figure in the Oregon beer community, but the reality is that he's just another brewer with beers to make, a brewpub to run and bills to pay.

Harris' brewing career dates back to 1986, when he was a brewer at the McMenamins chain of breweries and brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest. Two years later, he landed a brewing job at Bend, Ore.-based Deschutes Brewing creating the recipes for styles that have helped that Deschutes grow into the fifth-largest craft brewery in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, and the 12th-largest U.S. brewery overall. Every time someone drinks a Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Black Butte Porter, Obsidian Stout or Jubelale holiday beer, they're drinking a brew Harris built from scratch.

Harris spent the past 20 years as a brewmaster at Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail Brewing, creating that brewery's Brewmaster Reserve line of experimental small-batch beers. From Full Sail's small facility in Portland, Harris worked within a small corner of the company creating outsized beers that took more chances -- and generally cost more to drink -- than Full Sail's higher-capacity, production-brewed mainstay and Session beers. Harris' line pushed Full Sail's creativity and helped it grow from 76,000 barrels of production in 2008 to 110,000 barrels last year.

This year, for the first time in his career, Harris is striking out on his own. After spending more than a year attracting investors and laying groundwork -- including a guerrilla marketing effort that made T-shirts for his newest venture ubiquitous at this year's Oregon Brewers Festival -- Harris opened his Ecliptic Brewing in a former industrial space in North Portland at the end of October. His current lineup of beers is by no means permanent, his restaurant menu is as vital to his brewery's future as the products in its tanks and his impressive resume does little to assuage the issues that face every new brewer -- including a wonky drainage system that caused Harris a brief headache the day we dropped in for a visit.

Even for someone as seasoned as Harris, a new stage in his career and a fresh start in an industry he's already made a considerable contribution to can be tricky. We sat down with Harris and talked about his plans for Ecliptic, his motivation for launching a startup brewery and how Portland helped his decision:

This seems like an incredible challenge to take on at any stage of someone's brewing career. What made you decide to take it on after working at Deschutes and Full Sail?

Harris: I was approaching the end of my 20th year at Full Sail in April 2012 and, as I led up to that, I started thinking about where I was and what I'd done. I had just marked my 25th or 26th year of brewing beer and was thinking about the kind of beers I really wanted to make and how I was wanting to get back into the brewery/restaurant setting and I thought to myself that if I was going to do this, now was the time.

At that point I was 48 going on 49 and I wondered, when I turned 50, how much energy I was going to have to undertake this. Sure enough, we open and I'm 50, because it took a year and a half.

As I've told other people, Full Sail was a great place to work and was a loyal company. I have shares in the company. It was a great space, but as I looked into the beers I wanted to make and where that brewery was going with its brands, they weren't lining up. Not in a bad way, but as a creative brewer who ran the Brewmaster Reserve line for many years creating new beers every year, that's what was very important -- creating new product. The way that was going was in a different direction and I knew I couldn't just be a production brewer. I had to be able to make beer.

It also wasn't just some random jump-off-the-cliff kind of moment. It was very well thought out. I got some initial backers and developed a business plan before I left the company. I realized that If I was going to go raise money, I couldn't be at Full Sail looking for money. It would be unfair to the company. With my wife's approval, I quit my job and my benefits and my paycheck and it was a year and a half until this opened.

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