Mike Hunsaker makes an impression. You can’t help but notice a few things immediately upon laying eyes on the guy. Tattoos, bulging biceps, a conical, thick goatee – he looks part metal front man, part marine on leave. It’s a bit of a loud visual presence, one might say.
Camas, Washington couldn’t be more different. Situated on the north bank of the Columbia River, it’s filled with relics like a historic theatre, an old hardware store, and the paper mill that practical built the town. Quiet is the downtown, about four blocks long, and patronized by locals who prefer to keep their money in Camas rather than driving to nearby Vancouver for a latte or Portland for a bite.
Camas’ 20,000-ish residents will soon have new reason to keep it local because the town is about to become home to Mike Hunsaker’s latest creation, Grains of Wrath.
After talking to Hunsaker for all of five minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that he loves beer. And I don’t mean he loves beer like the rest of us – no – he loves beer like no one I’ve ever met before. Considering he is currently in the throes of launching a brand new, from-scratch project, that’s a good thing.
Hunsaker began brewing, like many, as a hobby. After stints in other industries, he was hired by Beach Brewing (now Reaver Beach Brewing of Virginia Beach, VA) after successfully whipping up a beer on their system “on a dare,” he says. After connecting with Fat Head’s Brewmaster Matt Cole at a Wisconsin beer festival and discussing every aspect of beer, he called Matt looking to get out of Virginia Beach and take another step forward.
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it worked out.
Hunsaker had to start humbly despite an acumen for brewing. “I called Matt asking for a job, and he said, ‘Sorry, man, I don’t have anything for you. All we’ve got is a job on the bottling line and it pays nothing.’ Undeterred, Hunsaker took the job, but it wasn’t long until before he found himself where he belonged, in the brew house.
While his persona suggests rock star, Hunsaker was happy to work his way up, and once empowered to brew, he shined. After just a year and a half in Ohio, he wasn’t ready to slow down. Fathead’s announced they would be entering the Oregon beer scene by opening a brew pub in Portland’s esteemed Pearl District. Hunsaker jumped at the chance to head up the new project. He argued that he was the right man for the job with an intricate knowledge of Fathead’s beers, quality and process.
He won the job, but the transition wouldn’t be easy.
Moving in next door to Oregon stalwarts like Deschutes, 10 Barrel, Rogue, and others, he undoubtedly ruffled some feathers. “Nobody wanted us here,” Hunsaker recalls. “People thought, what do these guys in Ohio know about making beer? I took that as a personal challenge.”
Shortly thereafter, Hunsaker took home a GABF Gold Medal – his first – for Blitzkrieg Bock and was named Brewer of the Year in 2015 by The New School, a revered Northwest beer website. That’s when people started to take notice of the new guy in town. Business ramped up for Fathead’s and hasn’t slowed down. Hunsaker released a series of fantastic IPAs, most notably Built for Speed and Semper FiPA, cementing his status in the industry.
But rather than keep cranking out new beers for Fathead’s, he sought a new adventure and a new identity.
The Grains of Wrath project took time to lock into place, but once again, Hunsaker embraced the bold, new challenge. Partnering with local bottle shop owner Brendan Greene and local businessmen Shawn Parker and Brendan Ford, the idea crystalized and Hunsaker officially struck out on his own.
In line with his influences in punk and rock music growing up in Chicago, Grains of Wrath will surely have an edge to it. It’s a chance for Hunsaker to create a new identity around a new brand, perhaps the most exciting challenge of all. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ll be family-friendly,” he says. “But we’re going to play our music and create our atmosphere.” Being just 20 miles from Portland, Hunsaker isn’t afraid to take the city head-on in his efforts to create a unique vibe for the new brand.
At the center of the effort is the extensive and ambitious overhaul of a 1930’s building in downtown Camas that previously served as an auto repair shop. To say the new space is being “gutted” might be putting it lightly. But when all is said and done, it’ll house both the brewery and a sharp new brewpub, complete with an upscale bar focusing on local spirits and a kitchen cranking out exquisite gastropub fare.
If all of that sounds like a lot of work, well that’s because it is. On the day I sat down with Hunsaker, he was kind enough to take a break from pulling nails from reclaimed wood that will ultimately become the restaurant’s tables. He’s been working on the food lineup with his new chef. He’s been working with city inspectors to get the old building up to snuff. And, of course, he’s been dreaming up his new beers.
When asked if this is daunting and if he’s concerned about having to handle the business side of a brewery, rather than just brewing, he said, flatly, “no.”
Hunsaker acknowledges the importance of building a team for a project of this magnitude. “We’ve got aces in the right places. My grandfather taught me how important it is to get the right people around you to help you succeed as a group.”
There are plenty of examples of solid brewers who were unsound businesspeople. Grains of Wrath plans to utilize the collective knowledge and expertise of the group to avoid this kind of issue, something they appear well-positioned to do. This, of course, frees up Hunsaker to do what he does best: make excellent beer.
The doors won’t open for a couple more months. There’s rubble to shovel out of the building, tanks to install, and all of those tables to craft out of old, rough-cut Douglass fir. None of those things have stopped Hunsaker and his overwhelming enthusiasm from getting the word out about the project, however.
Perhaps the only lingering question will be how the quiet town of Camas and Mike Hunsaker mesh.”
He’s embarked upon collaborations under the Grains of Wrath name with Oregon’s Breakside Brewing, The Commons and Barley Brown’s Beer, California’s El Segundo and Noble Ale works, Washington’s 54°40’ and Everybody’s Brewing. He’s even kicking around the idea of partnering with his friends at 3 Floyd’s for a collaborative effort, helping bring the Midwestern giant to the revered Pacific Northwest.
Hunsaker notes that the moves are partly strategic, but says that more than anything he just likes brewing with his friends. With his passion for beer and approachable, infectious attitude, he’s not one to put up walls but rather one to build connections. In less than a decade as a professional brewer, he’s gone from another hand on the bottling line to working alongside some of the best brewers in the country. It’s been a swift process.
Perhaps the only lingering question will be how the quiet town of Camas and Mike Hunsaker mesh. While Portlanders will travel for beer, they certainly don’t have to. But that’s where Hunsaker’s vision for Grains of Wrath comes into play. It’s a not just a new identity for him as a brewer, but a new identity for beer in the area. Grains of Wrath isn’t trying to fit in. The beer will be clean and technically sound, but that’s not whole the point. Keeping a low profile isn’t on the agenda.
“Why not stick out?” Hunsaker asks rhetorically. He rightfully notes that Camas is a quiet little town, but by bringing an edge and a new atmosphere to the region’s beer scene, Grains of Wrath plans to turn up the volume. It’s that identity, above all else, that will either make or break Hunsaker’s latest challenge.