If you think Portland’s all craft-brewery’d out, just pay a visit to Assembly Brewing. Portland’s umpteen-millionth brewpub opened its doors in March, and it’s already doing a roaring trade amid a perceived downturn in the fortunes of Portland beer-makers. As long-established breweries like BridgePort and Burnside Brewing disappear virtually overnight, it seems as though there’s still plenty of room for a neighborhood gathering spot where the beer is fresh and the vibe is come-as-you-are.
The space, on the newly vibrant Southeast Foster, is terrific. The former site of a Korean grocery, Assembly’s building has been radically overhauled by the owners, George Johnson and Adam Dixon, who have transformed it into a state-of-the-art facility, with a 15-barrel brewery on the south end and a spacious pub on the north. The pub features immense old-growth Douglas fir beams anchored high above the room; Dixon tells me they didn’t even know they were there until they removed the grocery’s drop ceiling. A four-panel mural in the style of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry series takes up most of the east wall with appealing, intricate detail; it’s a decided step up from some of the amateurish artwork found at McMenamins. The bar is substantial, running across the south wall, but it seems dwarfed by the rest of the cavernous room. Three pinball machines gleam in the corner, and a covered patio runs alongside the parking lot. (Oh—Assembly has its own parking.)
When you visit, definitely order some pizza. It’s made Detroit-style, from Johnson’s recipe, and is served in thick, rectangular slabs with a crispy bottom, plenty of cheese, and the tomato sauce splashed on top of the cheese. That’s for good reason—the sauce fully deserves its star status, with a sweetness that contains both bright, fresh tomato taste and a hearty complexity. You’ll want to spread it out towards the edges of the crust.
Toppings are up to you, but I’d recommend the veggie, with green peppers, mushrooms, red onion, and black olives. The supreme—the same toppings, plus pepperoni and sausage—is also quite good. The rest of the menu is rounded out with basic salads, sandwiches, and appetizers, but you can’t steer wrong with their pizza.
Assembly’s seven beers, developed and brewed by Johnson, are slightly less successful. They veer toward the lower end of the alcohol spectrum, with ABVs ranging from 5 to 6.7 percent. No double IPAs or paint-strippers here. The styles all broadly follow the English tradition: pale ale, porter, stout, amber, and a trio of hop-forward ales including an IPA, a “Live PA,” and the simple, pleasant Smash, made with one variety of malt (2 Row) and one variety of hop (Ekuanot).
The Smash and the Live PA are among Assembly’s better offerings, each with a well-rounded flavor and drinkability. The biscuit-y amber and the sweet, dessert-like porter also have appealing malt profiles and go down easily. The rest of Assembly’s beers are kind of interchangeable and somewhat muddled, without any dominant characteristics to set them apart. While there are no bad beers in the lineup, there’s probably not one worth driving across town for, either.
Not that the neighborhood denizens who have been filling Assembly since opening day seem to mind. With Foster-Powell on the up-and-up, Assembly fills a hole in the neighborhood—Dixon takes pride that the location is equidistant from Hopworks and Zoiglhaus, each around two miles away.
Just don’t bring the kids. Assembly Brewing has taken an outrageously bold stance for a Portland brewpub by being strictly 21-and-over, with no hours for minors whatsoever. In short, this is wild. Most Portland brewpubs thrive on the family clientele; some, like Hopworks and Laurelwood, seem to have made it their primary identity. A Portland brewpub without any kids at all is a bracingly different thing in the year 2019, and for now, Assembly seems to be making it work. Whether they’ll stick to it remains to be seen; I wouldn’t be too surprised if they eventually capitulate and allow the rugrats in for, say, weekend lunch.
Assembly’s also open nightly until 2 am—another way it’s setting itself apart from the typical brewpub business model of keeping restaurant hours. We’ll see if that sticks, too. The place doesn’t feel like a bar; it feels like a big, roomy, echoey brewpub rather than a nocturnal den of inequity. And that pizza—man, kids are really going to love it. They’ll just have to wait until Assembly incorporates its planned delivery service, or when Dixon and Johnson cave to the pressure their young, professional, baby-making customers are probably already applying. For now, you can enjoy Assembly’s excellent Detroit-style pizza and serviceable beer in a kid-free zone. Enjoy that last part while it lasts.