From the mound of peeling matzah box empties, it looked like a massive Passover seder was brewing.
Instead, Ambacht Brewery co-owner Tom Kramer was tossing the discarded boxes to the brewery floor after adding crushed up matzoh to a bubbling mash of soon-to-be Matzobraü Beer.
Matzobraü beer is the after-Passover brew of a two-room brewhouse on the outskirts of Portland. While Ambacht is a Dutch word referring to artisan craft, co-owner Brandon “Brandy” Grobart said the name wasn’t chosen merely for its descriptive qualities. “When we were thinking of a name I said, ‘I don’t care, just make it start with an ‘A’ so it comes up first alphabetically’,” said Grobart.
Nonetheless, ‘Craft’ is truly the essence of the operation. All ingredients are hand-pitched, the mash and wort is hand-raked, and both the fermentation and bottling processes are manual. “The only automation is our new label maker—before, we were applying the labels one bottle at a time, using a two-by-four as a guide,” said Grobert.
According to Kramer and Grobart, “The first year we were trying to figure out all the equipment; the second year, we made awful beer; the third year—that was good stuff.”
The brewery is small—the entire brewhouse occupies a two-car garage—but the attractiveness of their matzoh beer may extend farther than the brewers’ Jewish community. Ambacht embodies the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mentality sacred to its Northwest locale.
A recent batch of Matzobraü was the product of a leftover matzo “donation drive” at local synagogue Neveh Shalom, which Kramer rewarded with an Ambacht keg for the shul’s Simchat Torah celebration.
Even non-Portlanders appreciate the brewers’ clever way to rid Jewish pantry shelves of their leftover Passover haul. In an unsolicited phone call to the brewery, an unidentified, but distinctly “old, Jewish, and Floridian” voice extolled the brewer’s genius for finally doing something tasty with the “matzoh he had been eating for years and years,” according to Grobart.
While the two-man brewery is a small fish in sea of Portland craft breweries that—according to the Oregon Brewers Guild—has ballooned to at least 50 breweries, Ambacht’s rising profile is being noticed, especially in Portland’s Jewish community.
When Matzobraü first hit the shelves, local rabbis lauded the brewers’ distinct “not Kosher for Passover” label as a guard against accidental consumption on Passover—the beer is definitively a chometz [Passover-prohibited leavened food] treat made using a distinct recipe.
Starting with the brewery’s signature Ambacht Golden Farmhouse Ale recipe, Kramer and Grobart add up to 13 pounds of crushed matzoh to the pre-fermentation mash. “That’s about two sheets of matzoh per bottle,” said Kramer. The end product is a darkly-colored wheat ale with a crisp finish and a 6.5% abv that makes for a surprisingly sessionable quaff.
Alongside their saison-style Golden Farmhouse Ale, Ambacht brews around eight other beers depending on the season.
Kramer and Grobert offer a zesty and thirst-quenching Ginger Beer with a kick-in-the-teeth bite that comes from ginger harvested down the road from the rural brewhouse. It’s interesting enough by itself but would pair well with a shot of gin and the juice of one lemon for a Sucker Punch-style beer cocktail.
Ambacht’s Brown Ale is really a brown-ish ale, absent the nuttiness of the more well-known Newcastle Brown. Its characteristic deep soil color and chocolate malts are more familiar.
Other highlights include a Pie Cherry Dark Ale whose second-fermentation addition of local blackberry honey balances the tartness of the pie cherries. It won’t convert fruit-beer haters but its dry finish was a welcome departure from the cloyingly sweet fruit beers of other breweries.
Glaringly absent from Ambacht’s regimen is a contribution to the swath of bitter India Pale Ales that have come to saturate the artisan beer market. Not a single Ambacht beer eclipses the 30 IBU mark (used to measure the bitterness of beer). Grobert said they would not make any “weird IPAs” asking, “How could we make any beers we don’t like?”
Locals can find Ambacht beers at New Seasons markets as well as the big Portland bottle shops and on tap at the Milo City Café and Panache on Oregon’s Newport coast.
National readers will be hard pressed to find Ambacht beers outside of Portland; the two friends do all the marketing and distribution of the beer, which additionally sells at area farmers’ markets—Matzobraü included.