Heavenly brew

How Oregon's craft beer icon gave Ecliptic Brewing its place in the stars

John Harris loves astronomy. You know, the natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. Things like planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies and comets. Take one look at the names of the beer that dot the collection of his Portland, Oregon brewhouse, Ecliptic Brewing, and you get the picture. As Harris tells the story, ecliptic is the path that planets take around the sun each year. Those rotations, if you are following along at home, can be seen in Ecliptic's seasonal beers and menu offerings.

Harris honed his craft until it made him an iconic figure in the world of Oregon beer. As a brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery and Full Sail, his creations spawned some of the state's most beloved offerings, including Jubelale, Obsidian Stout, Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond, to name a few.

In 2013, he transformed that legendary status into Ecliptic Brewing, a must-visit brewery and restaurant in North Portland. With its Brewer’s Spotlight Series and Rotating Lager Series offerings, Ecliptic is the brand today's craft beer lovers anxiously wait to see what comes next. Flagship beers like Starburst IPA, Carina Peach Sour Ale, and Capella Porter, or seasonal favorites like the Quasar Pale Ale and Filament Winter IPA. And don't forget its special releases and Cosmic Collaboration beers.

Today, along with being available up and down the Oregon coast, you can find Ecliptic beers in the state of Washington, Northern Idaho, Colorado, North Carolina, Canada and Japan.

To get a line on where the Ecliptic brand is today—and what the future holds—we sat down with John Harris (JH), owner and brewmaster, Erin Grey Kemplin (EGK), sales manager, and Colette Becker (CB), marketing manager.

What are some of the adjustments you made to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?

JH: Well, losing all of our free cash flow from the restaurant has been an adjustment. We have lost thousands of dollars weekly. We have gone to an all takeout business model in the restaurant. All of our draft production has been swept into cans.

EGK: Our sales team focused mostly with the on-premise side before COVID. Once it hit, we pivoted very quickly to the off-premise model.

What kind of conversations are you having with your customers?

JH: We are trying to stay engaged with our fans through social media.

EGK: We try to find ways we can help them. What needs do they have that we can help fulfill? How can we do our jobs while still making sure they are comfortable during our interaction with them?

CB: When COVID first struck, things felt very somber and serious. There were adjustments to be made in the ways we engaged with our customers. That had to be acknowledged. It almost didn’t feel right to announce a new beer or menu item in our restaurant. It shifted quickly to a “how can we help” type attitude.

But as time went on and this became the “new normal,” we wanted to bring some light heartedness and normalcy back to our brand. We resumed beer launches in safe ways, like holding virtual release parties on Zoom, and started posting regularly on social media, minding our tone, but having fun. For example, we started Space Trivia for takeout orders. Every takeout order included a Space Trivia card, and people could post a picture of it on social with their answer. Each week we choose a winner for some free Ecliptic swag.

"We are about bringing people together with good food and great beer. Everything funnels down—from space, to Planet Earth, to the USA to Portland, Oregon, right to Ecliptic." — Colette Becker, Marketing Manager

What role should a brand play in being a leader in a distressed market?

JH: At this time, they should bring good value and a high quality product. Give people something comforting.

EGK: Try to shift the focus off of us and onto them (the accounts).

CB: I believe in upholding positivity and hope, while remaining mindful of current situations. So it is not all “unicorns and sunshine” all the time, but to be calm and mindful, sometimes even a bit playful, can evoke a certain strength during distressing times. There is so much negativity in the media and online conversations; it is refreshing to see a brand you know and love just “keep, keeping on.”

What is the best piece of advice you can offer to other brands in these unthinkable times?

JH: The first four weeks of the shutdown we were really treading water. We were just waiting for it to end. Recently, we have been more like, “Well, here we are, it is where we are, and we need to just start moving forward. Let’s look for new opportunities. Time to pivot. Who are we now?”

Give us a snapshot of today's craft spirits market from your perspective.
JH: Cans are king. No one wants bottles anymore. It is time to keep innovating and explore all possibilities in beer.

What is likely to happen next?

EGK: The bars and restaurants will start to open very slowly, but people will be extra cautious. It will take a long time to get back to where we were. As the bars re-open, I think that will be reflected in slower package sales.

CB: I think this situation is going to affect our world in more ways than we can fathom, when we get the green light into returning to “normal.” There are discussions about what bars and restaurants will look like or how they will operate—small things, like, will we continue having reusable menus? Or will they be used one time and recycled?

What trends are defining the space?

JH: New takes on IPA. Lager beers. Special releases.

EGK: Cans, cans, and more cans.

CB: I have definitely noticed lots of craft lagers. We just celebrated the release of our first Cosmic Collaboration of 2020 with another local brewery, Ruse Brewing, on an Italian-style Pilsner—another style we have noticed in the market. I know I am biased, but it is fantastic, crisp. We are really excited about having a canned craft lager.

What is your story from a brand perspective?

JH: We are the space brewery—fresh beer from earth.

CB: John’s answer is the sweet and simple one: fresh beer, from Planet Earth. I can elaborate. Ecliptic Brewing is about uniting John’s two passions: beer and astronomy. Yes, our “theme” is space, and that is expansive and fun for branding. We will never run out of space-themed beer names. But there is a lot more to our story. We are about bringing people together with good food and great beer. Everything funnels down—from space, to Planet Earth, to the USA to Portland, Oregon, right to Ecliptic, where we take you on a journey back to space.

With John’s rich history in Oregon’s craft beer scene, people are excited to see what sort of creativity he was able to bring to his own brand—a place where he could lead the charge. At Ecliptic, we make beers that people want to drink. It is what the market is looking for.

"We are continuing to give beer drinkers what they want. Watch trends and find ways to use them in our planning. At Ecliptic, we still have strong demand for our beer and brand." — John Harris, Owner & Brewmaster

But we also have our Brewer’s Spotlight Series, which gives each of our brewers a chance to play and experiment in the brewhouse. You might see some more unique or historical styles there. Whatever the beer style, Ecliptic’s beers also aim to teach some astronomy, so you can always learn a little something, if you want to.

John was also determined to have a brewery with great food. In the past, he had always heard people say, “Let’s grab a beer from so-and-so brewery, and then go get dinner elsewhere.” His mission was to make Ecliptic Brewing synonymous with delicious food—a place where people could visit for beer and dinner. Ecliptic’s cuisine is unique, but approachable.

Our story is also about our people. Ecliptic Brewing strives to provide excellent service in all aspects of our business—from the front of house restaurant team, to our brewery representatives visiting accounts, and our brand ambassadors pouring at festivals. Our enthusiasm comes from loving where we work, because Ecliptic Brewing takes great care of its employees.

Overall, our story is about the grandness of space and our place within it, celebrated with high quality food and beer, and made, served and sold by happy people.

What is your branding strategy?

JH: High quality food, beer and service.

What is the biggest issue today related to the marketing and sales side of the craft beer business?

EGK: The sheer volume of options. How do we get the word out about what Ecliptic is doing when it feels like there are at least 20-plus new beers coming out every day? I see the Instagram posts from the local bottle shops, and it feels like there is a wave of new cans and bottles hitting the shelves daily. So many of those beers have incredible labels. How do we make sure we don’t get missed in a market like that?

What is the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy in to?

JH: Make sure they learn something along the way. For instance, we use space beer names to get folks to look at astronomy.

CB: Give people a real, inside look at your brand—humanize it. A brand can often feel like just that—a “corporation” or an innate thing that’s perfectly constructed. But we are real people. It is fun to show consumers the faces behind the brand. What do we do every day to make our products and why do we do it? For example, we have a "Featured Employee" on Instagram each month. This highlights what their role is at Ecliptic and how long they have been a part of our team.

We have low employee turnover for the industry. We take pride in the fact that our employees tend to stick around for a long time. Our chef has been around since we opened, along with others. It is also important to stick to your branding story. Space is incorporated into everything we do, even subtly. You are creating an experience for your customers and encompassing them into your “vibe” from the moment they pick up your beer on a shelf or walk into your taproom.

What is the one thing every craft beer brand should be doing in the way of marketing?

JH: Daily interactions on all social media platforms.

EGK: Utilizing Instagram to the fullest extent of what it can offer and doing it well. In my opinion, it is the best marketing tool out there. But it needs to be done well. Anyone can have an Instagram account, but very few have a great Instagram account.

CB: Social media is so important. It is the voice of your brand, an extension of your overall brand experience. It is often the quickest way to reach your customers these days, too. In the times of COVID, we were able to use social media to send immediate updates to fans about what was shifting with Ecliptic.

Today, along with being available up and down the Oregon coast, you can find Ecliptic beers in the state of Washington, Northern Idaho, Colorado, North Carolina, Canada and Japan.

What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?

JH: We are continuing to give beer drinkers what they want. Watch trends and find ways to use them in our planning. At Ecliptic, we still have strong demand for our beer and brand. Working on finding how to get more beer made. Our physical space is maxed out. We are working with some MBA students at looking at what opportunities we can leverage.

What is the biggest item on your to-do list right now?

JH: Get through to the new normal.

CB: Figuring out how we convey who we are when we do not have a physical brewery for our customers to be immersed in right now. How do we stay agile, shift and create new opportunities, but also stay on brand?

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

JH: Watching people enjoy our beers and food in our restaurant.

EGK: Working with others in the craft beer community—whether it is bars owners, retail shops, other reps/brewery staff and our internal team at Ecliptic. I love being part of this bigger, like-minded group.

CB: When I hear someone say how much they love one of our beers, I get all the warm fuzzies. It reminds me why I do what I do every day. You are so often looking ahead toward the next beer launch, that it is nice to stop and be present in the moment to talk to people about their experience with your brand.

What was the best advice you ever received?

JH: Don’t open a restaurant with less than 100 seats.

What is the best thing a customer ever said to you?
CB: Someone once told me that not only do we have amazing beer, but our whole brand was on point. They loved our social media, our graphics and packaging, working with our sales team, our events. It was incredibly humbling and truly one of the best things I had ever heard, because we work so hard for this each and every day.


Story by Michael J. Pallerino—Michael is the editor of Craft Brand & Marketing magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the "Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award," recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Where to reach Ecliptic Brewing:
Ecliptic Brewing
825 North Cook Street
Portland, OR 97227
http://eclipticbrewing.com/
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