Nick Herrera, Portland’s first Mexican American brewery owner, dies at age 45

Nick Herrera, a father and husband who held a doctorate in microbiology but left that career to become a brewer, eventually founding Entre Compas, Portland’s first Mexican American-owned brewery, has died. He was 45.

Angel Medina, Herrera’s business partner in Entre Compas, announced the death on Wednesday. Medina said Herrera died of liver and kidney failure.

“Nick was a brother to me, not just to me but to many people,” said Medina, founder of Portland’s República Hospitality Group. “He was just a brilliant man whose time was cut short way too soon.”

Medina said Herrera had been suffering from alcoholism and in recent months had attempted recovery. But his damaged organs began shutting down, Medina said. Herrera hid his disease from the people around him, but Medina said looking back on it he now sees the signs.

“The tough part of (Wednesday) was pulling up a picture of Nick, and realizing that in every one of my pictures of him, there was always a beer at his side,” Medina said. “So that’s where we are.”

Medina said Herrera’s widow, Kelly Key Herrera, had asked for privacy and asked Medina to handle the announcement and reaction to his death. Herrera leaves behind two young sons, Cruz Key Herrera, 5, and Ezekiel Kery Herrera, 3.

“She’s struggling, but she’s going to be as fine as one can be under the circumstances,” Medina said.

Herrera was a first-generation Mexican American, born and raised in California by parents who emigrated from Mexico as children. Herrera’s father is a retired police officer, and his mother worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in California’s Central Valley.

Herrera earned his doctorate in microbiology from the University of California at San Diego after a bachelor’s in genetics from the University of California at Davis. He worked for a decade in biotech before starting in the San Diego brewing industry. He moved to Oregon in 2018 to be near family, and he brought his background and desire to always be learning to the brewhouse at Labrewatory, a now-closed experimentation and instruction brewery in North Portland.

“In my whole tenure of going to graduate school, you have to learn all the different disciplines in science – there’s math, there’s physics, there’s chemistry, and biology of course – and all of those are used in brewing,” Herrera said during an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, with whom he collaborated with on an instructional beer-making project in 2019. “So I feel like that’s my advantage, is just knowing all the little scientific details of making beer.”

After the pandemic caused Labrewatory to close, Herrera went to work as a procurement manager at Multnomah Athletic Club. But he still dreamed of opening his own brewery, a goal he first discussed with Medina, who had moved from Portland back to Mexico City in 2019.

Herrera would travel frequently to Mexico City, where he would teach for Labrewatory owner Portland Kettle Works, a brewing-equipment manufacturer. On Herrera’s first instruction day, Medina walked him over to the Mexico City brewery where Herrera was teaching.

“I left him there like a kid on his first day, then three days later he said to come meet him there,” Medina said. “I got there and his entire class was there, they’d come from all over Mexico to learn from this guy, and it was something amazing. This dude was a straight-up professor.”

Medina said Herrera’s approachability and humility connected with people.

“In Mexico City, to have that familiarity to see a brown guy doing these things, to be able to learn from a Mexican American, that’s why they loved him the way they did,” Medina said. “He was always on the outside looking in, and his humility came from that. But his confidence came from the fact that he was wicked smart.”

Allison Granby, a co-worker at the Multnomah Athletic Club, where Herrera continued to work even after starting Entre Compas. She said employees at the club were “all really struggling.”

“He was so personable and just so genuine,” she said. “It’s so hard to see so many people who were touched by him and the impact he had in their relationships, both at work and personally.

“With Entre Compas, he was trying to create something for his boys,” she said. “And what that leaves behind is just heartbreaking. A lot, a lot of heavy hearts, and we’re all just trying to make sure we’re there for each other and supporting his family.”

Thad Fisco, owner of Portland Kettle Works and Herrera’s boss at Labrewatory, said Herrera was “an extremely talented brewer. Quite frankly one of the most talented brewers I’ve come across.”

“Especially on a small brewing system like we had at Labrewatory, where it can be difficult to maintain a focus on consistency, he was the guy who could do that,” Fisco said. “He’ll be missed by everybody that knew him.”

Herrera and Medina in October announced they had leased a building on North Lombard Street, where they planned to open Entre Compas’ first taproom. He said it was the culmination of everything Herrera had worked for.

“I knew how much this meant to him,” Medina said. “When I gave him the keys, he just broke down into tears and said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”

But then Medina only heard sporadically from Herrera, who, unknown to Medina, was attempting recovery and undergoing treatment for conditions caused by his disease.

“Then last week I got a call from him saying, ‘All the (beer) recipes have been saved. Make sure they get out there. Make sure if anything happens to me, make sure the legacy lives.”

Medina said he was confused, but now realizes Herrera likely recognized his body was shutting down. Medina said he has every intention of continuing on with Entre Compas, both the brewery and the spirit that Herrera embodied.

“I’m going to continue with the beer. I don’t know about the taproom yet — we’ll come up with a plan after this week,” he said. “Even if it’s just two beers, his IPA and something else. I want to make sure that the funds we generate from this beer either go to the greater good or back to his children or both.

“His legacy is that I don’t want the meaning of this to disappear, the essence of Entre Compas — the whole idea of the meaning of between good friends. When there’s less fog in front of me, the concept will expand beyond the beer. If I have to buy all the beer to continue this thing, to put together a small slush fund for his kids, then that’s the legacy he would want.

“And Entre Compas will become something greater,” Medina said. “The taproom will need to be something greater that encompasses the spirit of ‘entre compas.’ It will be something bigger than what he imagined. That whole ‘entre compas’ was all him, and it’s brilliant.”

A memorial has not been planned, Medina said, but friends and family are discussing a gathering the week after Thanksgiving to celebrate Herrera.

“It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of the story that the man was an alcoholic, and he was human because of that,” Medina said. “What breaks my heart is that when we talked about it, this was going to be his life’s accomplishment.

“But in retrospect, I realize he already had his life’s accomplishments, his wife and his kids, whether or not we ever opened the doors to Entre Compas.”

In addition to his wife and sons, Herrera is survived by his parents, Cruz Herrera and Elena Herrera, and a sibling, Vivian Herrera Zettle.

— Andre Meunier; sign up for my weekly newsletter Oregon Brews and News, and follow me on Instagram, where I’m @oregonianbeerguy.

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