Nick Herrera, a father and husband who had a PhD in microbiology but gave up that career to become a brewer and eventually founded Entre Compas, Portland’s first Mexican-American brewery, has died. He was 45.
Angel Medina, Herrera’s business partner at 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 República Hospitality Group in Portland. “He was just a brilliant man whose time was cut short far too soon.”
Medina said Herrera has been suffering from alcoholism and has been trying to recover for the past few months. But his damaged organs began to shut down, Medina said. Herrera hid his illness from those around him, but Medina said looking back now he sees the signs.
“The hard part of (Wednesday) was pulling up a picture of Nick and realizing that in every picture I took of him, there was always a beer by his side,” Medina said. “So here we are.”
Medina said Herrera’s widow, Kelly Key Herrera, asked for privacy and asked Medina to edit the announcement and response to his death. Herrera is survived by two young sons, Cruz Key Herrera, 5, and Ezekiel Kery Herrera, 3.
“She is struggling but will do as well as the circumstances allow,” Medina said.
Herrera was a first-generation Mexican, born and raised in California to parents who immigrated from Mexico as children. Herrera’s father is a retired police officer and his mother worked for the US Department of Agriculture in California’s Central Valley.
Herrera received his PhD in microbiology from the University of California, San Diego after receiving a bachelor’s degree in genetics from the University of California, Davis. He worked in biotechnology for a decade before getting his start in the brewing industry in San Diego. He moved to Oregon in 2018 to be near his family, and he brought his background and desire to always learn to the brewhouse at Labrewatory, a now-defunct experimental and training brewery in North Portland.
“Throughout my time in grad school, you have to study all the different disciplines of science — there’s math, there’s physics, there’s chemistry, and of course biology — and all of those are used in brewing,” Herrera said during an interview with The Oregonian /OregonLive, with whom he collaborated on a beermaking teaching project in 2019.
After the pandemic caused Labrewatory to close, Herrera worked as a procurement manager at the Multnomah Athletic Club. But he still had dreams of opening his own brewery, a goal he first discussed with Medina, who moved back to Mexico City from Portland in 2019.
Herrera traveled frequently to Mexico City, where he taught for lab owner Portland Kettle Works, a manufacturer of brewing equipment. On Herrera’s first day of classes, Medina accompanied him to the brewery in Mexico City where Herrera was teaching.
“I left him there like a kid on his first day, three days later he said to come and meet him there,” Medina said. “I got there and his whole class was there, they came from all over Mexico to learn from this guy and it was something amazing. This guy was a no-nonsense professor.”
Medina said Herrera’s accessibility and humility are linked to people.
“In Mexico City, to have that familiarity, to see a brown guy doing those things, to be able to learn from a Mexican-American, so they loved him like 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 incredibly smart.”
Allison Granby, an associate at the Multnomah Athletic Club, where Herrera continued to work after Entre Compas was formed. She said the club’s staff were “all really struggling”.
“He was so personable and just so real,” she said. “It’s so hard to see so many people that have been touched by him and the impact he has had on 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 is “an extremely talented brewer. Honestly one of the most talented brewers I have come across.”
“Especially on a small brew system like we had at Labrewatory, where it can be difficult to focus on consistency, he was the guy who could do it,” Fisco said. “He will be missed by all who knew him.”
Herrera and Medina announced in October that they had rented a building on North Lombard Street, where they planned to open Entre Compas’ first taproom. He said it was the culmination of everything Herrera has worked for.
“I knew how much that meant to him,” Medina said. “When I gave him the keys, he just burst into tears and said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.'”
But then Medina only heard sporadically from Herrera, who, unknown to Medina, was trying to recover and undergoing treatment for conditions caused by his illness.
“Then last week I got a call from him and said, ‘All the (beer) recipes have been saved. Make sure they get out of there. Make sure the legacy lives if anything happens to me.
Medina said he was confused but now realizes Herrera likely realized his body was shutting down. Medina said he has every intention of continuing with Entre Compas, both the brewery and the spirit that Herrera embodied.
“I’ll continue with the beer. I don’t know about the taproom yet – we’ll develop 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 monies we generate from this beer either benefit the greater good, or benefit its children, or both.
“His legacy is that I don’t want the meaning of it to go away, the essence of entre compas – the whole idea of the meaning of between good friends. With less fog ahead of me, the concept will go beyond the beer. If I had to buy all the beer to keep this thing going, to put together a little slush fund for his kids, that’s the legacy he wants.
“And Entre Compas is going to be something bigger,” Medina said. “The taproom needs to be something bigger that embraces the spirit of ‘entre compas’. It will be something bigger than he imagined. This whole ‘entre compas’ was all himself and it’s brilliant.”
A memorial is not 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 therefore he was human,” Medina said. “What breaks my heart is that as we spoke about this, this was going to become the accomplishment of his life.
“But looking back, I realize he already had the achievements of his life, his wife and children, whether or not we ever opened the doors to Entre Compas.”
In addition to his wife and sons, Herrera is survived by parents, Cruz Herrera and Elena Herrera, and a sibling, Vivian Herrera Zettle.
— André Meunier; Sign up for my weekly newsletter Oregon Brews and Newsand keep following me Instagram where I am @oregonianbeerguy.
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