“If you’re friends with someone for seven years, it’s friends for life.” Rob Lutz and Dan Malech have a friendship that has stood this test of time. Originally from different parts of New York, they were brought together in Portland, Oregon over an unconditional love of Jets football and an appreciation for craft beers. They kept running into each other every Sunday, catching games at different bars and restaurants throughout the city. While watching their home team each week, they talked about eventually starting their own business. Several years and conversations later, still sharing beers and a bond over the wins and losses of their team, Rob and Dan were given a chance to pursue their dream and open their own brewery.
Rob Lutz, co-owner and brewer for StormBreaker Brewing off Mississippi Avenue, had a long journey into the world of brewing. While in college he was studying pre-law, but quickly learned he didn’t want to attend law school like his friends. Rob found a job working as a beer distributor in Poughkeepsie. He was the only employee for the first 10 months, and was in charge of sales, deliveries, invoicing, ordering and shipping beers. After three years, he knew he wanted to be in the beer industry one way or another, and one day have his own brewery. He followed his friend out to Portland, knowing it was a great beer town, and found a job working for Point Blank Distributing. During this time Rob also bartended at Concordia Ale House, learning about the restaurant business. He started washing kegs for Amnesia Brewing, determined he would work his way up into a brewing position. He was holding down other jobs at the same time, bartending for Produce Row restaurant and Cascade Beer House, working about eighty hours a week to gain valuable experience. After three years of washing kegs, Amnesia asked Rob to start brewing for them full-time.
Dan Malech, Rob’s business partner at StormBreaker, took more of a corporate route. He worked for UPS for many years, having studied business in college. He moved from New York to Denver for a position in transportation consulting, then moved out to Portland. He had always liked going to bars for the social part of it, enjoying people’s company over a drink. Dan had been home brewing and learned he didn’t have much patience to be a brewer, but instead his favorite part was having people over to share the beers he brewed. He knew at some point he wanted to own a business, and over time he decided it would involve beer, seeing it as an industry in the northwest that was more collaborative than competitive. Wanting to get out of the corporate grind, he was ready to try something different and started looking for the right set of circumstances for his own venture.
“It just kind of happened, it’s so strange, we weren’t actively looking at that time…but when the opportunity came we had to do it.”
Rob and Dan had talked for years about opening a place together, ever since the early days of watching Jets games back in 2006, but the timing had just never been right. Then an opportunity presented itself while Rob was brewing at Amnesia. They were selling the brewpub at the end of 2013, and the owner came to Rob and asked if he would be interested in buying. “I called Dan and told him we needed to talk. He thought something bad had happened,” Rob shared with a laugh. He brought Dan over to Amnesia. “Remember that conversation we used to have? Do you still want to do that? We can buy this place.” They had always talked about how Amnesia was the type of brewpub they wanted to open. “It just kind of happened, it’s so strange, we weren’t actively looking at that time…but when the opportunity came we had to do it,” Dan shared.
Rob and Dan had talked for years about opening a place together, ever since the early days of watching Jets games in 2006, but the timing had just never been right.
Amnesia Brewing sold in January 2014 and Rob and Dan set the date to open StormBreaker thirty days later. They were working twenty hours a day, preparing for the opening date they had been spreading all over town. “We set a date and had no choice. That’s our date,” Dan shares. “We wanted to open before Superbowl and get more traffic that way.” A few different friends helped with design, layout, and special projects, and Rob and Dan sanded the bar, built tables and recreated the bathrooms. One big question still loomed. “Should we do the floors? Forget the floors, it doesn’t matter, we won’t have time. Let’s do everything else,” Dan shared about their dialogue over the red floors from the previous owners. With only four days left before opening, they ended up renting a cement grinder to sand and refinish the floors. “Red dust was everywhere. The dust coated my brewer, I was almost in tears…I couldn’t brew!” Rob reminisces with a laugh. Friends and family helped with cleanup and final touches before opening, wrapping up just in time. “That table dried two hours before opening, we had a caution sign around it,” Dan said, pointing to a table next to us. On opening day, there was a long line of people down the street waiting to experience the brewery. Rob and Dan underestimated their popularity, making less beer than they needed, fearing they would be “lugging kegs around all over town” to sell after opening. Instead they were brewing more to keep up with the demand.
Making their dream a reality came with its own risks and challenges. Rob said that when they opened StormBreaker he was bartending six nights a week just in case they didn’t make it. They came up with best and worst case scenarios for the business and continued to evaluate their plans. Reflecting on the first year, they said it felt like a whirlwind. “We knew what we were doing, but we didn’t know what we were doing,” Dan explains. “We were confident that we would be on top of everything, but there was so much to learn. We feel even more confident in year two. The small things add up. At first it seemed like everything was a roadblock. But what was great was that we were able to work through everything. Nothing was too big, we would just fix it somehow.” They recounted a story about the first beer they brewed on day one. “It was a pale ale, and the kettle broke every ten minutes. It came to a boil and shut off. It had never happened before, but it happened fives times during the boil. We were thinking, ‘what have we gotten ourselves into?’ But the fix turned out to be easy. It wasn’t the beer we wanted, it was more hoppy, bitter, but we made it work and then recreated it for our one year anniversary.” They appropriately named it “Kettle Breaker.”
“At first it seemed like everything was a roadblock. But what was great was that we were able to work through everything. Nothing was too big, we would just fix it somehow.”
From the beers, food menu, eclectic décor, art and photos on the walls, and down to its name, everything about StormBreaker reflects the northwest. Rob and Dan wanted the name to keep it local, and they were focusing on the weather. They came up with “Right as Rain” and “Savage Nimbus,” which ended being stellar titles for their beers, but weren’t the right names for the brewery. “It was easier to name my kids!” Dan jokes about the decision. He came across “StormBreaker” from a book he read called Night Dogs, by Kent Anderson. The book is set in Portland, Oregon and Mt. Hood was referred to as “StormBreaker” for how it rips through the storm clouds. They felt it was a fitting name, their friends agreed, and the idea represented their journey as business owners.
Dan came across “StormBreaker” from a book he read called Night Dogs, by Kent Anderson. The book is set in Portland, Oregon and Mt. Hood was referred to as “StormBreaker” for how it rips through the storm clouds.
Dan searched for different artwork and prints, including historic photos from Mt. Hood. The booths are made of dark wood and designed with peaks and valleys to reflect the mountain, adding to the atmosphere. Dan found different chairs for seating, wanting to give the space character. The outdoor patio is the perfect spot to people watch on Mississippi Avenue, filled with benches and fire pits. “We didn’t want it to be a cookie cutter or the all the same stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we liked switching it up and wanted it to feel like home…There were picnic tables before, more of a warehouse feel, but it felt a bit cold. We wanted it to be warm, more inviting, especially during winter. We knew we could open the patio in summer and say ‘come on in’ and our patio would be full, but we wanted that feeling all year,” Rob explains.
Friends and culinary geniuses Alex Chong and Patrick Miller, co-owners of Grand Cru Hospitality, developed the food menu. Rob and Dan knew they wanted a menu that surprised people, as breweries aren’t always known for the best food options. StormBreaker truly breaks this mold. The warm kale bacon salad (a personal favorite) has quite the following. They also have sandwich and burger choices, feature different daily specials to keep it new and fresh, and they recently started “Taco Tuesdays” with trivia. They are also equipped with a full bar and are known for their beer and whiskey pairings as well as their house cocktails.
Rob believes in working your way up and learning from everything you do. “Find what you want, if you have experience in it, great, but you may have to start at the bottom. I washed kegs for three years…I put my time in and knew I would work my way up…the best piece of advice I have is to be patient…if you’re really passionate about it and want to do it, it’s not just going to fall in your lap. I think a lot of people want instant gratification, especially in this day and age. I worked two other jobs and didn’t get paid to wash kegs, but that was the route I wanted to go. I did it until they made me a brewer and then things fell into place…I worked every job I could to learn the industry, learned every side. I’ve been fortunate to do distribution, bartending, delivering, ordering, managing restaurants, brewing…I wanted to make sure I had every facet dialed in before I took the leap.”
“The best piece of advice I have is to be patient…I wanted to make sure I had every facet dialed in before I took the leap.”
Making informed decisions is important to Dan. “Do what you want to do, but don’t just do it…you have to be smart about it. If it’s what you want and what you work for, it’s going to eventually get there. I was waiting for the right timing, preparing for it, and when it did finally happen, I was more prepared to take those steps. There is so much that goes into it. I went to business school and read so many books about starting a business, which made it a little bit easier, but you still don’t know everything. Just be as smart as possible.”
“Do what you want to do, but don’t just do it…you have to be smart about it. If it’s what you want and what you work for, it’s going to eventually get there.”
It’s clear that Rob and Dan are excited about the work they do each day. Everything from interacting with customers, working with their staff, taking shifts to help out, or brainstorming their next business move brings them a sense of fulfillment. They both have strong work ethics, fun-loving personalities and share a quit-witted sense of humor. They are also a good balance for each other and are able to maintain their relationship as friends and partners. “It’s awesome. It hasn’t changed that much. We share a brain, we are both from New York and have very thick skin…any animosity we may have never lingers. We can fight, scream at each other, and then high-five minutes later. We get it off our chest. It’s been really nice. We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” they shared. “If you’re friends with someone for seven years, it’s friends for life.”