Looping through Eastern Oregon for beer

This past weekend we embarked on an impromptu road trip into the wilds of Eastern Oregon as part getaway, part seeking-out-beer. I’d had on my “to do” list for awhile now to pay Steens Mountain Brewing Company a visit, located in Burns—a relatively easy two-hour drive from Bend. But since we hadn’t been to Baker City in ages, the decision was made to head out for an overnight trip first to Baker City then down to Burns—something of an Eastern Oregon “beer loop” if you will.

I have in mind a number of detailed pieces that can (and will) spin out of this, but for now here’s something of a brief synopsis on the trip, Eastern Oregon, and the three breweries we visited.

The Eastern half of the state has simultaneously an incredible scenic beauty and charm and a well-worn, behind-the-times atmosphere. You’ll follow the highway into a winding, narrow canyon skirting a river with amazing rock formations, or climb into pine-flecked mountain passes and then pass by dilapidated ranch houses with peeling paint and junk in the yards, or through few-and-far-between small towns that seem run-down and in a recession. A notable number of “cemetery” signs along the way as well.

The trip was tempered by the wildfires that have been ravaging the Northwest; there was a fire in Prairie City (on the route to Baker City) that a friend thought we would have to turn back for (fortunately we didn’t have to). And Baker City itself has been ringed by wildfires these past weeks.

There is beer, of course! Our first stop was in John Day right around 11:30 to briefly visit 1188 Brewing Company. (Brief because of the fire just up the road.) 1188 is located right on Highway 26 on the main drag through town, a small brewpub in its second year with a western facade and a retro-post-modern roadhouse interior.

1188 Brewing Company

1188 Brewing inside

We ordered the spinach and artichoke dip appetizer, and I sampled four of their house beers on tap (I’m linking these to myUntappd checkins, so you can read my comments if you like): Big Al’s Amber Ale, Rimrock Red Ale, Mazelnut Brown Ale (brewed with hazelnuts and maple syrup), and Black Oak Instigator (an Imperial Stout). The Black Oak is their most popular beer, not a huge Imperial Stout at 8.4% abv but still nothing to sneeze at—and who would have guess in John Day of all places, that would be their most popular! Overall, they were decent beers and the appetizer was good.

1188 Brewing beers

From John Day we continued onward to Baker City, only one and a half hours away and home to the best brewery in Eastern Oregon: Barley Brown’s Brewpub, and their accompanying Baker City Brewing Taphouse directly across the street. I’ve reviewed Barley Brown’s before, and the last time we’d been in Baker we only saw the beginning stages of the new brewery build out. So this time around, we went straight to the new Taphouse which opened at 2pm (the Brewpub opens at 4pm).

I have to say, the Taphouse looks great, and they have 22 beers on tap! You’ll find all the ones they are known for as many others that you will only be able to get from the source. You can get a sampler of any eight, which is naturally what I went for.

Barley Brown's Taphouse

Barley Brown's Taphouse - 22 beers!

Barley Brown's sampler

Here’s what I sampled (again linking to my Untappd check-ins):

At this point I should disclose that Tyler Brown, owner of Barley Brown’s, called the Taphouse to let them know we were there and ended up comping our visit. (Tyler was in Portland but I had emailed hoping to visit with him while there.) We also got a tour of the brewery and a couple of T-shirts, which was more than generous.

Baker City brewery

While in Baker for the rest of the trip I also ended up drinking more of their beer (paid): Pallet Jack IPA, Zitrus Weizen, and Pygmy Pale Ale, the last of which was at the Taproom again that evening (paid for that one).

The next day we set off for Burns, following Highway 26 back to John Day to catch Highway 395 south. This passed through Canyon City and climbed up out of the valley to the plains of the High Desert—a beautiful drive unfortunately marred by the Canyon Creek Complex fire which had come right up to the road and destroyed a number of houses. Burns is relatively close to John Day, less than 70 miles and the transition from mountain foothills to sage plateau is striking.

Steens Mountain Brewing is located several blocks off the main drag in downtown Burns, in an historic house with a yard planted with hops—naturally. If you recall I met owner/brewer Richard Roy and tasted his beers, and one of the fascinating aspects of his story is his foraging and use of feral (heirloom?) hops from various locations in the area.

Steens Mountain Brewing

Right now is hop harvest time, and the fruits of that labor was apparent and drying in the brewery:

Hops drying at Steens Mountain Brewing

And it’s a small brewery, the smallest in Oregon by OLCC reckoning—it’s a 21 – gallon system:

Steens Mountain Brewing system

It was a good visit, Roy and his family welcomed us to the brewery with several beers and was happy to talk beer and brewing, Harney County, family, and more. Much of which I hope to turn into an article or two.

On the way out of town we stopped to pick up a couple of their bottles for sale at a local convenience store, and then made the two-hour trek back to Bend. All in all a fun, beer-productive trip and definitely one to do again, perhaps adding more stops along the Eastern Oregon Beer Loop.

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