As I’d mentioned previously, my wife and I took a day trip over to Corvallis on Saturday to visit some of the local breweries and check out the growing beer scene. It turns out that Corvallis is a relatively easy jaunt that works well for day trips, being about a 2.5 hour drive away (joining the ranks of other less-than-3-hour trips like Eugene, Hood River, and Oakridge), so I can easily see more trips in the future.
Block 15 Brewery was the primary brewery I was interested in visiting for this trip (though we were lucky to also visit Flat Tail and Oregon Trail, which will be their own blog posts), so I’d emailed ahead to owner/founder Nick Arzner to find out if he would be around and if I could get a tour of the brewery and famed barrel room(s). Nick is out of the country right now but was kind enough to email back and get me in touch with Erik Salmi, who also works in the brewery, to make arrangements for that tour.
We got to town around 12:45, just in time for lunch, so headed straight to Block 15 at 1:00 to check in with Erik and grab a bite to eat (plus beer, of course!).
Downtown Corvallis is incredibly pleasant to walk around in and we found Block 15 occupying an historic brick building on the corner of Jefferson and 3rd Street—in fact (according to the website), the “building was originally built in 1926 for the Gazette-Times newspaper” and it definitely has an historic, well-used feel to it. The interior is colorful and straddling the line between “sports bar” and “brewpub”, leaning more towards “brewpub” (except for the soccer on the big screen TVs with the cheering patrons), and as you walk around you get the sense that the brewery has spread out into the building organically rather than being built or remodeled with a particular plan in mind. Big windows let in lots of natural light, old brick and wood adorn everything (with a big, old, central wooden beam bisecting the restaurant).
The downstairs consists of the bar, tables, booths, divided between the main (and somewhat narrow) central area and smaller rooms towards the back; there’s an upstairs that almost seems like an afterthought (but works out well, it’s where we ended up sitting); and a “game room” in the back that is bar-only (and hence 21+ only) with a shuffleboard, dartboard(s), tall bar-style tables, next to the window looking through glass into the main kettles for the brewery and accessed via a hallway lined with bags of grain.
Throughout it all you’ll find worn wood floors and cheery colors punctuating the wood and brick, and everything has a well-worn feel to it, a patina of wear that makes it seem like an old favorite (and judging by the crowd, that’s exactly what it is). The tables are all blackboard-topped, with cups of chalk on them, so you can draw directly on them while you eat and drink.
They have a stunning 17 beers on tap (“stunning” because their brewing capacity is only 7 barrels!) and for sampler trays, you can pick any five beers for $5. The five that I picked were:
- Corvallis ½ Marathon Gose (3.5% abv)
- Fruit Wheat Ale – Boysenberry (the seasonal fruit) (5.75% abv)
- Aboriginale (7.1% abv)
- Millennium Falcon (7.5% abv)
- Highland Spring (4.6%)
I’ll get to my notes on those in a moment. For food I selected the Hawaiian Burger off the specials list, and my wife chose the Tuscan Chicken Sandwich; we chose sweet potato fries and garlic parmesan fries, respectively, as the sides. We both really enjoyed the food, and I can confidently say that the burger was the juiciest, and messiest, burger that I’ve had in a long while (due not only to the beef but also the slice of fresh pineapple and the teriyaki sauce on it). This is a good thing. The fries were good too, and we came away entirely satisfied with the meal.
For the beers, here are my notes:
Corvallis ½ Marathon Gose: Very mild, taste of wheat and coriander and salt (not as salty as the word “salty” brings to mind, but it’s there). A bit tart. Very crisp and tasty and I could drink a lot of this. [I was thrilled to see this on the menu, especially seeing that it's only 3.5% abv!]
Boysenberry Fruit Wheat Ale: Not sweet like I’d expect. But earthy and a touch tart and it looks like muddled berries are in it. [Looks great, but frankly doesn't fulfill the promise---to me---of a sweet and tart and fruity berry beer like I thought it should be.]
Highland Spring Scottish Ale: Malty but thinner that I’d expected, and a touch of astringency. Could make a nice warm-weather beer as light as it is, but I’d personally like more body to it.
Aboriginale: “The first original beer brewed at Block 15.” Tasty, fairly rich strong ale with a coppery note running through it [note: not "coppery" as in metallic, but that's the term I sometimes use when describing red(dish) ales---that sharp roasty character of black patent or similar color-yielding malt]. Earthy, malty, solidly hoppy without straying into IPA territory. Very nice and I’d definitely drink it again.
Millennium Falcon IPA: [Made with Falconer's Flight hops, and with a name like that I had to try it.] Big, resiny and green, almost fresh hop-y. Hops are the highlight here and it’s a very nice—big without being heavy. Super tasty. Draws out the characters of the hops really well.
I ended up bringing home a growler each of the Gose and Aboriginale. (Note: they don’t fill growlers with the Super Aboriginale or the Millennium Falcon.)
After eating and drinking we met with Erik who gave us a fantastic tour and walkthrough of not only the brewery and barrel room(s), but the entire sprawling basement brewery complex they’ve built out—earlier in this review I wrote how the brewery feels like it “spread out organically” into its space—well, if that’s the case then the basement portion has done that tenfold! You almost get the sense that you’re walking through some sort of brewery catacombs, hidden rooms and passages that extend out throughout the entire block underground.
The mash tun and kettle are both on the main floor, a seven barrel brewing system; the fermenters and everything else is in the basement. What this means is that Brewmaster Steve Van Rossem has to pump everything downstairs via hose that has to be dragged up and down the stairs. (They are in fact working to remedy this, installing passthroughs into the floor at some point.) Considering the number of beers they have on tap (17, remember), and the smaller-than-expected brewing capacity, this means that they are brewing 5 to 6 times per week.
The first thing you see when entering the basement section of the brewery are fementers—lots of fermenters, mostly smaller capacity, and most of them have active beer in them bubbling away into the overflow/airlock buckets. I didn’t count while there in person but a rough count from my pictures (see the gallery below) comes to 15! They’ve done a good job maximizing the available space, and in fact later in the year they are going to have to shut the brewery down for a week so they can move fermenters around to install sloped floors (to make it drain better)—a logisitics task I don’t envy them.
Moving out from the fermenters you start to come across barrels, and each time you come across a room full of barrels you think, “this must be it” until you enter another room with barrels, and another after that. Arzner is aggressive about his barrel program, and frankly I’ve not seen anything quite like it. There are bourbon and brandy barrels full of things like Super Nebula, Imagine Imperial Stout, and a golden barleywine, barrels full of Belgian-inspired ales, barrels full of straight-up wild concoctions with Brett and fruit and lacto, solera program barrels (where some of the beer is emptied and the barrel is topped up with fresh beer), and more. They even have a coolship—and open fermenter—and are experimenting with spontaneously-fermented wild ales (like lambics). Erik drew up a sample of the White Framboise lambic (with golden raspberries) from the barrel, which was fantastic.
And the barrels certainly lend to the overall “catacombs” feel that I described earlier—modern, urban brewery catacombs with concrete walls and arcane fermentation experiments going on all around you. The only thing missing was old bones, but a few gnomes helped make up for it.
All in all, a fantastic tour of a fantastic brewery and one I’ll definitely be happy to visit again.
Afterwards, we stopped in to Les Caves next door: Block 15’s European-inspired “Bier Taverne” to grab another beer and just check it out. It’s very different in atmosphere to the almost-sports bar brewpub next door, with dark wood and old-world ambiance and specialty food and beer menus. It’s quite nice, and among their beers on tap are two Block 15 brews just for Les Caves: an IPA and a Saison. I got a half-liter of the Saison and a sample of the IPA; the IPA is earthy and strongly bitter, without the floral and herbal flourish of American hops: very nice, but you have to be in the mood for a big hop punch. The Saison I found the perfect après-tour beer and a great warm-weather one as well: Crisp, spicy, and peppery, earthy with maybe a hint of barnyard funk (in fact this is one of the solera-styled beers Block 15 is producing, intentionally trying to develop that Belgian funk into it). Nice hazy golden color, with a well-attenuated dry finish.
Downtown Corvallis is lucky to have both Block 15 and the newer Les Caves, both places I could spend a lot of time at.
Block 15 Brewery
300 SW Jefferson
Corvallis, OR 97333