Q+A: Thad Fisco, founder and owner of Portland Kettle Works

A graphic with a portrai of Thad Fisco wearing a blue hat and jacket
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he worked in his family’s manufacturing business. | Photo via Thad Fisco

Though Portland Kettle Works (PKW) may not ring a bell, if you’ve enjoyed a pint or two around the city, then you’ve probably seen the company’s handiwork without knowing it. 

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of stainless steel craft beer brewing and beverage systems, it supplies many of the giant, shiny tanks that loom behind the scenes at some of your favorite breweries, like Grains of Wrath and Rogue Ales & Spirits.

We spoke with founder Thad Fisco about what goes into creating these colossal cauldrons that enable the magic of Portland’s beer scene and beyond to bubble at its best.

Q: How did you start your company?

A: Portland Kettle Works kind of came out of the recession. I was in real estate development and had a construction business, but all that kind of shut down.

Local brewers started to bring their brewing equipment into our shops to do repairs on it. One thing led to another and we designed a little three-barrel, 100-gallon brewery system in 2011. We took it to market, even though we’d never made one before. Between October and the end of the year, we sold a dozen of them for $12,500 apiece. 

When we built the first one, which I think we made for Rogue, we realized that it cost us $12,500 to make it. So, we immediately doubled the price, and just kept selling at those prices, and that’s how the company got started. 

Q: Was it hard to transition your career?

A: I don’t know. Maybe — there wasn’t much going on. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I worked in our family manufacturing business. So I cut my teeth on that, but never thought that I’d be back in it until [PKW] came along. 

Q: How do you make your products?

A: We buy plate steel, and we bend it, roll it, and weld it — basically the fabrication from small parts to finished components.

A person grinds a stainless steel tank from Portland Kettle Works
PKW has worked with 400+ clients in Portland, Oregon, and across the country. | Photo via PKW

Q: What kind of equipment goes into the brewing process?

A: You got the hot side, which is a brew house that can be heated with either gas, electric, or steam — the preferred method.

And then you’ve got fermentation tanks, where yeast gets pitched into the wort. Everything’s got a name in there that’s different from anything else, it’s kind of like sailing.

The yeast eats the sugar, creates alcohol, gets the flavor, and then it goes into another set of tanks called bright tanks, sort of like finishing tanks that are used for clarifying and carbonating the beer. At that point, it’s ready to serve and you put it in kegs, bottles, and cans.

The equipment that’s associated with brewing, it’s sort of like having a commercial kitchen. Once you have it, technically you can brew any kind of beer that you want to brew.

There are nuances to it. But, the idea is that with our equipment, we want people to be able to brew just about anything they want to brew. We sacrifice some of the outside ends of the extreme; I would say that our brewery equipment is mostly ale brewing equipment.

But there are a lot of people making lagers with it too now, so it just kind of depends; it’ll make a lager, or it’ll make an ale; it’ll make a heavy ale, it’ll make just about anything you want. Its sweet spot is really around ales, though, for the most part. 

Q: We know ingredients can affect the beer, but how does the quality of the equipment change the outcome?

A: It’s a capital intensive business. You gotta have good equipment to make good beer.

You need to get your grain cracked precisely so that you get maximum extraction from it. You want it to be handled gently, so it’s not pulverized.

And then in the brewing operation, you have to have very precise control over temperatures. Especially in the mash time, there’s a lot of chemical reactions that are going on in the process where you’re putting hot water into the cracked grain to extract proteins and sugars and so forth.

There are a lot of features in our equipment that allow a brewer to have an enjoyable and efficient workday, versus jumping through hoops trying to get their equipment to just do the basic things. That’s sort of been our mantra all along, because we want the brewing to be the best part of the brewers’ day.

It’s very solid equipment that doesn’t create problems, and doesn’t act differently today than it did yesterday or the day before that. So being able to use it consistently to make consistent beers. Because over time, I mean, that’s really what the name of the game is; you don’t want to put out a beer today and have a name on it, and then three weeks from now brew it again and have it come out differently, even though you thought you ran the recipe the same way. 

Q: Who are some clients you’ve worked with?

A: Oh, we work with everybody. We work with Grains of Wrath. We worked with Bridgeport before they disappeared. Assembly. Ruse

There’s a bunch of ‘em. Yeah I mean, we’re out there. We’ve been instrumental or worked with a little over 400 clients now. We’re really all over the map, or all over the country. We’ve got a decent number of clients in Portland and Oregon, but by far the most of them are actually outside the state. We have a lot of repeat business. 

The first five years of the business, it was almost 100% new companies getting into the business. In the last five years, we’ve had a lot of clients that come back and buy two and three breweries from us as they expand.

Once they get in with our equipment, they like it, they just keep coming back. We see a lot of breweries — more right now I think — growing, than starting from scratch, or maybe it’s about 50/50, which is sort of new. That’s definitely an all time low, as far as repeat clients versus people starting in the business.

Q: Craft brewing is a competitive industry — is it the same with brewery equipment manufacturing?

A: There are a handful of US manufacturers for brewing equipment, but I would say between 90% and 95% of the market is owned by the Chinese

The stuff is — you know, when we started the business, it was a joke. Unfortunately, US competitors of ours really trained the Chinese very quickly how to make good beer equipment.

But, I would say that there is no Chinese made beer system that is even nearly comparable to a Portland Kettle Works system. Nor has there ever been. That said, there’s also oftentimes huge differences in price.

So, you know, 30%, 40%, sometimes 50% of the cost of our equipment is what you could buy Chinese stuff for. When people have a big outlay — two, three, four hundred thousand dollars in equipment, that can make a big difference. So they’ve been a very difficult competitor for us. 

Q: Are there other applications for your equipment?

A: We’re in a lot of different industries; primarily, beverage seems to be our strongest suit. You know, we’re finding a little bit of penetration into pharmaceuticals and people are making fake meat and all sorts of things these days. Those tanks and the stuff that we make for them are highly customized. Our beer equipment is probably 80% plus of our business still. The other stuff is a sort of infill.

Coffee, wine, beer, kombucha, just about anything, sodas, CBDs, we’ve done a little bit of working with the guys with THC, but not got very much of that.

A Portland Kettle Works employee assembles a stand for a tank.
Other applications include coffee, wine, beer, kombucha, sodas, and CBDs. | Photo via Portland Kettle Works

Q: Tell us a little bit about how you got through the pandemic.

A: One day in February, we didn’t have any orders anymore, our business shut down cold.

So we were looking for something that we could develop quickly that would help in the fight against COVID, and that little germ fogger machine was sort of our answer to it. It got us busy. It certainly filled in a lot of work for us. Now the market for it is essentially completely gone. But during the period of time that we were marketing it, it was pretty helpful for us.

Q: Is your EntreBREWneur Academy still operating?

A: Yeah we’ve still been doing that. We’ve run some classes recently. Certainly when there were a lot of people getting into the business that was a very popular program.

We’ll probably do a couple of classes this year, where we’ll bring in new brewers, teach them the nuts and bolts of operating a brewery from the business perspective, then let them spend three or four days working live on our equipment so they can really understand how their equipment is going to operate.

Q: Why did you start recycling equipment?

A: It started because we were getting our clients calling and they wanted to upsize their equipment and didn’t know what to do with their [old] stuff. So we began offering trade-ins on it, and then just reselling it, which is what we’re doing today with it and that works pretty well. 

I mean, the equipment really holds value, which is nice. So it allows us an opportunity to keep working with previous clients and put them into a new system and get somebody else going with a used PKW system. It makes it more accessible.