Ecliptic Brewing: Third Beer from the Sun

Pioneering Oregon brewmaster John Harris launches a new North Mississippi brewpub

By Kelly Clarke April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

You might not know it, but you’ve probably sipped, guzzled, and toasted with John Harris before. The Portland native has spent nearly three decades brewing some of Oregon’s most iconic beers, from sneaking extra hops into McMenamins’ Hammerhead to concocting instant classics at Deschutes. Now, after 20 years working on Full Sail’s Brewmaster Reserve Series, the burly brewer has blasted off on his own with Ecliptic Brewing, named for the path the earth traces around the sun. His astronomy-themed N Mississippi–area brewpub boasts both a seasonal menu and a constantly revolving roster of heady brews. Taps pour intensely hoppy IPAs alongside oddball experiments like “sparkling ales” spiked with Riesling grape juice and golden “hefepils” cloudy with yeast. “A lot of brewers move on to a new job and they just want to brew their old recipes,” Harris says with a shrug. “I’m like, really? You already did that.” We take a tour of the ubiquitous brewer’s far-reaching beer universe—tasting notes included.

In the Beginning

In 1986, a housemate waved a Willamette Week job ad reading “Brewer wanted, Hillsdale brewpub” under Harris’s nose. “All I’d ever made was homebrew, but she said, ‘This is your job. Go get it,’” he remembers. Brewing for McMenamins was the 22-year-old’s first real job.

The Bends

In 1988, Harris accepted a gig as head brewer for a beer upstart called Deschutes in Bend, a town where he says bars boasted a dozen taps, “Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Lite, Blitz ... and Schlitz.” Harris’s robust brews were a different species entirely, but they caught on—especially Mirror Pond Pale Ale, an all–Cascade Hops stunner with a nice fruity character. “I’m a bit of a hophead,” he says. “I basically made Mirror Pond for me. I just thought it tasted good. I still do.”  

Afraid of the Dark

It took convincing for many tipplers even to try Deschutes’s now beloved Black Butte Porter, which Harris notes is sweeter and “chewier” than most styles, despite its inky hue. “In the [1980s] the most common thing you heard was ‘What’s your lightest beer?’ People hadn’t even seen dark beers—unless they were in the military or traveled Europe. They’d stare at the glass and say, ‘You want me to drink that?’”  

pdx tinkerer

After moving back to Portland in 1992, Harris ran Full Sail’s rotating Brewmaster Reserve Series, brewing, packaging, and promoting more than 30 beers over the course of two decades.

my sun and stars

Ecliptic’s astronomical influences—beers named for spiral galaxies, an ambitious food menu that rotates based on the “Wheel of the Year,” and a giant light fixture in the shape of an analemma (a curve tracing the changing angle of the sun)—are no gimmick. Harris has been obsessed with astronomy since childhood and regularly camps out “with other crazy people in the middle of nowhere” for star parties. The brewpub is only a small corner of his massive 14,000-foot warehouse, peppered with old mash tuns salvaged from Bridgeport and Dogfish Head and stained oak wine barrels. There’s still enough room left over to build a basketball court (a popular idea among brewery staffers).

Who’s the Boss?

Why open his own brewery after so many years? At Ecliptic, “I don’t have to have to get approval to make a beer,” he says. “I just approve it myself, from using unconventional ingredients—be it vegetables or spices or herbs or fruits—or more obscure, esoteric barrel-aging styles.”

What's on Tap

You like Mirror Pond?

Try Arcturus IPA: A full-bodied celebration of C hops (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Columbus), with a nice “pop-whack” at the end, as Harris puts it. “My plan wasn’t to lock into recipes so early, but if I killed Arcturus right now we may have a mutiny. People really like it.”  

You like Black Butte Porter?

Try Capella Porter: This smooth, chocolate-nosed draft with hints of caramel tweaks tradition with its use of citrusy American hops—Harris named it after a pair of binary stars.

You like light-yet-weird beers?

Try Spica Hefepils: Harris says this crisp but creamy unfiltered golden lager was always in his “back pocket” for when he opened his own brewery. “I like pilsners, and some of the best at Full Sail were the samples we’d take right off the tank’s zwickel [sample valve] before we filtered it.” The cloudy brew’s name translates to “yeast-pilsner.” 

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