Oregon Trail was established in 1987, and in many ways the brewery itself still looks like it: we entered the Old World Deli building (itself built in 1910 I believe and bearing much of that historic character) and found the brewery in the back, behind glass and adjacent to the Deli counter. The guy at the counter said someone was still there and we could poke our heads in—so we did.
The owner and brewer of Oregon Trail is Dave Wills, but he wasn’t there that day; instead, it was one of his long-time employees, a friendly and affable man named Gabe, who was on-hand and was, in fact, finishing up for the day—but he was more than happy to show us around the brewery and pour some samples for me. Before we ran into Gabe, I had peered through the window at the kegs and Party Pigs lining the shelves (interestingly, they distribute a good amount of their beer in the Pigs—a very popular choice in a college town!) and had poked my head in the back door, and grabbed a couple of pictures. (You can tell in the gallery below which one was through the glass.)
When I wrote above that the Brewery very much looks like it was established in 1987, I didn’t mean that in a bad way at all; rather, this is very much a DIY, working brewery that has eschewed expansion and has been brewing solid, quality beers for 25 years now. It’s well used and it looks well used, and to me that makes what they’re doing all the more impressive.
The mash tun and brew kettle, for instance: it’s a copper kettle, steel-jacketed, that was Full Sail Brewing’s original kettle. The fermenters and tanks look to be from other breweries as well, or possibly even converted dairy equipment. Everything is packed into a tri-level, tight space, not quite cramped but close; the top level is grain storage and milling (though with freshly painted floors we didn’t go up there), the second level is fermenters and bright tanks, and the first level is the mash tun/kettle and storage.
Do breweries have a steampunk aesthetic? If so then Oregon Trail has it, I think.
Interestingly, they had just that day pasteurized the latest batch of Bourbon Barrel Porter (one of their only bottled beers) and the pasteurization tank was still out: bottles are laid on their sides, stacked up, and then hot water fills the tank to pasteurize them. For such a small brewery I was impressed with this quality control step; and in fact, Gabe told us later that there’s a 76 year-old retiree from OSU’s Fermentation Sciences program that has his small lab on the second level and does their QC for them.
Which explains why all of the beers I sampled were as good as they were: Gabe poured me samples of the Wit, the Brown Ale, the IPA, and the Smoke Signal, and let me just say that based on these tasters, Oregon Trail is brewing the best beer in Corvallis.
No, this is not saying Block 15 or Flat Tail aren’t brewing amazing beers themselves. But every one of the Oregon Trail samples was clean, well-brewed and consistent. (Several of these beers are award winners as well.)
Oregon Trail is also somewhat of a training ground for new brewers freshly out of OSU’s Fermentation Sciences program: then work at the Brewery for one to two years before moving on to larger ones; according to Gabe, three are now at Ninkasi and one is at Block 15 (and of course, Flat Tail’s Dave Marliave started at Oregon Trail as well).
Of the four samples I tried, I didn’t take notes, but from memory I can say the Brown Ale is one of the better examples of this style I’ve tried in recent memory; the IPA is solidly bitter in more of the English tradition than American; the Wit is I think one of the best American Witbiers being brewed right now; and the Smoke Signal (a stronger, smoked-malt version of their Brown) is lovely.
Gabe was also generous enough to give me his bottle of the Bourbon Barrel Porter to drink and review, which I’ll do at some point soon.
Overall, I was very impressed both with the brewery and the beers, and I think an Oregon Trail Brewery visit needs to be on your Corvallis beer must-list.
Oregon Trail Brewery
341 SW 2nd Street
Corvallis, OR 97333
Phone: (541) 758-3527