Ever since the story broke that Barley Brown’s Brewpub Brewer Shawn Kelso was leaving the Baker City brewery to join 10 Barrel Brewing (as the head of their announced Boise brewpub), the Brewpub itself has been somewhat overshadowed by the ensuing news. But after spending the final weekend of spring break in Baker City, visiting friends and talking beer with a number of folks, I’m happy to report that Barley Brown’s is weathering the “storm” just fine and even has big changes of their own in the works—including a new brewer and a big expansion.
And one thing I can’t iterate enough: if you haven’t been out to Baker City and visited Barley Brown’s in person, then you need to find time to make the trip! Yes, they’re located on the far eastern end of Oregon but it’s worth the trek: both for the Brewpub and for the historic, picturesque town of Baker City (population about 10,000). Plan to go soon.
We had visited Baker City once before, back in 2009, and I first wrote a review of Barley Brown’s then: first about the beer, then the overall review. From a review standpoint there’s little I can add—service is good, food is excellent (I had the Shrimp and Alligator Mad Pasta again), the beers are great. It has a casual, friendly ambiance and is authentically a working brewery, from the view of the brewing operations behind glass:
To grain bags stacked in the back:
To the many awards and medals on the wall:
The beer this time came 10 to a sampler tray—all 10 taps—and here’s what was pouring:
- Coyote Peak Wheat
- New IPA probably named “Hoodlum”
- Aged SledWreck
- Espresso Stout
- Disorder Stout
- SpeedWobble IRA
- TankSlapper Double IPA
- Cerveza Negra Caliente
- Two Smoke
- Hassle Brown
A picture, in clockwise order following this list starting with the lemon-wedge-included Coyote Peak Wheat at the top:
Many of these I’d reviewed before, but I do have a few notes about these (of course). The new “Hoodlum” IPA is one of the first beers brewed entirely by the new brewer, Marks Lanham, as is the Hassle Brown (in other words, not following already-existing BB’s recipes). Both are fresh, drinkable beers, the IPA is lightly bodied and bright and floral, the Brown is competently brewed but frankly, it’s a brown ale—not always the most exciting of styles. (This is not a criticism of the brewer either.)
The Aged SledWreck is fantastic: a 2010 vintage of their hoppy strong winter seasonal, it has lovely oxidation notes that give it a sherry character and it’s rich and sippable.
The SpeedWobble and TankSlapper were a couple of the last beers brewed by Kelso I believe, and both are chewy, delicious, and face-smackingly hoppy—the kinds of big bold beers that draw crowds of beer geeks whenever they show up outside of Baker City.
The Cerveza Negra Caliente is a dark or “black” version of their summertime Hot Blonde: a light, crisp ale infused with jalapeno peppers. This version has just the right amount of chili heat to it. And the Two Smoke is their Whiskey Malt Ale, a deliciously chewy smoked beer—it’s the same beer (which I called “the gem of the bunch” three years ago), only the name had to change (for some sort of OLCC-related reason I think, having “whiskey” in the name).
As for the brewery itself, owner Tyler Brown was kind enough to give us a full tour, starting with their new keg washing system (which will clean something like 40 kegs per hour, versus their older method which took seven hours to clean 25 kegs—and this will be crucial in their expansion plans outlined below) and continuing into the 4 barrel brewhouse situated in a tight space just off the kitchen. Three fermenters and a bright tank are behind the glass in the viewable working space (in the picture above), and these are kept full all the time, continually rotating to keep up with demand.
The walls of the inside brewing space are famously plastered with strips of blue tape representing every batch of beer brewed since the Brewpub started: when a batch would hit the tank(s), the tape would go on the tank with the name, original gravity, and date brewed. It’s a little haphazard but a charming detail to the Barley Brown’s story and fascinating from an historical perspective. For instance, this:
That there is the first-ever batch of what would become Barley’s signature Turmoil Cascadian Dark Ale, brewed in 2004 with an original gravity of 1.070.
The other detail to the brewing operations that I really liked is the fact that they mill all their grain with a portable grain mill that they wheel out to the sidewalk behind the Brewpub to operate; Brown was relaying the story of hauling the mill out in 10-degree weather with the new brewer and joked, “You know how they market ‘Frost Brewed Beer’? I said we brew ‘Frost Milled Beer’!” That should be on a T-shirt!
The New Brewer(s)
The new brewer is Marks Lanham, who previously did a stint brewing at Bend’s Boneyard Beer, and before that, was with Grand Teton Brewing in Idaho. (Ironically, I’ve got a press release from 2011 about Grand Teton that mentions Lanham.)
Lanham likes hoppy beers, which makes brewing for Barley Brown’s a perfect fit, but is by no means limited to big hops: In addition to brewing the Hoodlum IPA and Hassle Brown, he also has a fermenter full of an Irish Red that he wanted to brew as a spring beer, in part for St. Patrick’s Day.
Talking (and drinking) with Lanham several times over the weekend, it’s apparent that he is a knowledgeable, passionate brewer with an appropriate level of “brewer’s arrogance”—he isn’t shy with his opinions which earned him some good-natured ribbing—but he knows his beer and he’s definitely in the right place to exercise that passion.
The other brewer we met was Eli Dickison, a Baker City native and former employee of Barley Brown’s who is currently attending Oregon State University in their Fermentation Science program. He was back in town for spring break and helping out in the brewery, and will be coming back on full time in June after he graduates from OSU. He’s bright and enthusiastic and will definitely be a brewer to keep an eye on.
Right now, Barley Brown’s is a non-bottling brewpub with a 4bbl capacity, and nearly every drop of beer they brew is only served in Baker City; when the occasional keg does make it over the mountains to Portland (or on rarer occasion, Bend), it’s because either owner Tyler Brown or the brewers have driven it over in person. Which is why, despite all of the awards and buzz that Barley Brown’s has been garnering these past few years, very few people outside of Baker have actually had their beer.
That’s about to change.
Last year they bought the building next door (and just across the street), a 6400-square foot space that was originally built in 1940 as a Safeway grocery store and was subsequently an auto parts store. It has its own parking lot (which Barley Brown’s customers have already been using, as the Brewpub itself does not have off-street parking) and that combined with the option to close the (side) street shared between the buildings, gives the Brewpub a great venue option to be able to host outdoor events.
The building itself has high open-beamed ceilings and solid concrete flooring which makes it perfect for their needs. Since the first of the year they’ve been clearing the space and drawing up plans for their expansion into the building: a 20bbl JV Northwest brewhouse with ample cold storage, room for additional fermentation tanks as they grow, and a nice open tasting room that will have a great view of both downtown Baker City and the open brewing area.
This expansion will serve as a production brewery that will produce kegs of beer to meet their growing demand and which will finally allow them to distribute outside of Baker City. I believe there will be bottling equipment as well, though likely small-scale at first (or perhaps a phase two development). They will be brewing all of their “house” beers in the new brewery, while still retaining the 4bbl system over in the pub, which will be used for smaller-batch and special brews and recipe development.
They will likely self-distribute at first, before exploring various distributor options. This also means it will still stay fairly local initially, which means within Oregon. (And even then I wouldn’t expect to see their beer everywhere in Oregon—the Coast, for example, which is as much a matter of self-distribution logistics as anything.)
The distribution angle is huge; I don’t think the demand for Barley Brown’s beer outside of Eastern Oregon can be understated and Brown is very aware of this demand and growth potential—while at the same time, he’s very focused on staying “local” and putting Baker City first (and rightly so). But with kegs of their beer more widely available and the overall expansion underway, I could easily see how this could all work to make Barley Brown’s much more of a “destination” brewery and start drawing a lot more people to them.
(Incidentally, Baker City is around 5 hours by freeway from Portland, about 4.25 hours from Bend, and around or just under 2 hours by freeway from Boise.)
There is still a lot of work to do in the new space and the JV Northwest brewhouse is currently being built, and even given how construction projects of this nature can go, Brown is cautiously optimistic that they could be up and running sometime between June and mid-July. Then of course with ramping up production and beginning to distribute kegs, I can imagine seeing Barley Brown’s beers outside of Baker City as early as the end of the year—though this is entirely my own speculation (or wishful thinking).
Big things are happening, and I’ll reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post: make the trip to Baker City. Particularly sometime soon as the weather warms up; do yourself a favor and visit Barley Brown’s in person. It’s worth the drive.
Here’s the full gallery of images from the visit: