The Session #87: Local Brewery History

The SessionThese last few months of The Session have for me been less about the “first Friday” of the month and more the “first weekend” instead, so of course May continues that trend. (In case anyone is keeping count, I am up to roughly the years 2003-2005 in the draft of my book on Bend’s beer history.) This month’s Session is hosted by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale, and for the topic he has chosen one entirely apropos with my writing project that has ironically delayed this post: Local Brewery History.

In Session 87, I want you to give your readers a history lesson about a local brewery. That’s a physical brewery and not brewing company by the way. The brewery doesn’t need to still exist today, perhaps you had a local brewery that closed down before you were even born. Or you could pick one that has been producing beer on the same site for centuries.

The only thing I ask is that the brewery existed for at least 20 years so don’t pick the local craft brewery that opened two or three years ago. This will exclude most small craft breweries but not all. The reason? There’s not much history in a brewery that has only existed for a few years.

Also, when I say local, I mean within about 8 hours’ drive from where you live. That should cover most bases for the average blogger and in many, allow you to pick one further away if you don’t want to talk about a closer one.

With those stipulations I had previously noted that an eight hour drive for me would encompass most of the Pacific Northwest as well as Northern California and Nevada! And the 20 year minimum requirement puts a bit of a further limiter on things, considering the craft brewing movement here in the United States is only slightly more than 30 years old—most breweries simply even haven’t been around 20 years yet.

Here in Central Oregon, only Deschutes Brewery and Cascade Lakes Brewing are at the 20-year mark, and Cascade Lakes only hit it this year. Bend Brewing Company will turn 20 next year. However those are all breweries whose histories are going into the book, so while it would be easy to grab some portion of what I’ve been writing to post here, I thought I’d go a bit more lateral and pick something perhaps a bit more low-key and unexpected: Oregon Trail Brewery in Corvallis, Oregon.

Oregon Trail BreweryI was fortunate to visit and get a short tour of the brewery a couple of years ago. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about it then:

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.

…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.

I loved the beer on that visit and loved the story. Oregon Trail was one of Oregon’s first breweries, located in a city whose brewing scene has exploded in the past few years (which is a common story around Oregon these days). Fortuitously, they have an expansive history page on their web site, from which I will crib.

One interesting fact is that the brewery is actually in its second incarnation; the first was when it was launched in 1987 and lasted until 1992, when personal and financial problems plagued owner Jerry Shadomy. Dave Wills and Jerry Bockmore took ownership and re-opened the brewery in 1993.

The original brewery was the idea of Jerry Shadomy, an award-winning home brewer from Corvallis, Oregon. Although he had no previous professional brewing experience, Shadomy was able to raise over $80,000 from investors and secure a $30,000 loan for operations. He arranged a five-year, rent-free lease with Ted Cox, the owner of a picturesque downtown Corvallis building. The Old World Deli, a popular restaurant and homebrew supply store (also owned by Cox), shares the same space as the brewery; the brewery operates in plain view of the patrons in the deli’s dining area. It’s no wonder the deli was the brewery’s first draft account.

Shadomy was lucky enough to purchase the original 7-bbl brewhouse from Hart Brewing, which had expanded into a new building with a new 20-bbl system.

Initially, Oregon Trail beers were consistently good, and the company’s growth was also consistent, if a bit slow. Shadomy got good exposure at various festivals, including the then-fledgling Oregon Brewers Festival. Oregon Trail’s brown ale was awarded a Beer of the Year award in 1989 by Fred Eckhardt, who at that time was the beer columnist for The Oregonian newspaper (Portland). Things looked good, and the brewery seemed poised to make the jump from 300-400 bbl/year to 1000-1200 bbl/year.

In ’93 when it was re-opened, Bockmore was the brewer.

When Bockmore and Wills first unlocked the doors to the brewery, they saw a fairly well-designed system, one taking up very little floor space. The layout of the brewery was very similar to a traditional vertical design; three levels, taking up a total of 1800 square feet. The brewery’s greatest strength is that it was set up to take full advantage of gravity at almost every stage. Malt starts on the third floor, delivered there by hose from the grain truck (two-row malt) or manually, bag by bag (specialty grains). From there, though, it’s all downhill, except for the transfer of wort to the fermentors.

Bockmore’s first act was to get rid of the two poorly located open fermentors, thus eliminating the brewery’s biggest infection risk. Other equipment changes included the addition of glycol temperature control for all the fermentation tanks and the purchase of Zahm & Nagel (Buffalo, New York) CO2 and air testing equipment. Kegs were changed over from Golden Gate to Sankey to better match what the rest of the industry was using. A thorough cleaning of the entire brewery was all that was left before serious brewing could begin.

They launched with a Witbier as the flagship style, and followed that up with a brown ale:

Surprisingly, in a market dominated by fruits and wheats, the brown really caught on. In fact, it became so popular that demand for it soon equaled that of the white. Evidently the tasting panel at the GABF agreed, awarding Oregon Trail Brown Ale a silver medal in the American Brown Ale category in both 1994 and 1995. In 1995, the bronze medal went to Pete’s Wicked Ale, a beer that most consider the archetypal American brown (Golden Gate, by Golden Pacific Brewing, Emeryville California, took the gold in 1995). Needless to say, Wills and Bockmore were thrilled. Now they just had to figure out how to get the word out to their customers.

They package in kegs and 22-ounce bottles and have remained fairly under-the-radar since those GABF wins. The space they are in, behind and above the Old World Deli, offers no room for expansion so unless they ever decide to move it seems likely they will continue to be one of the oldest and possibly least-known Oregon breweries. Yet they continue to quietly produce some 700-1200 barrels per year of some interesting beers, including a Ginseng Porter, Smoke Signal Rauchbier, and Bourbon Barrel Porter (not to mention their flagship Wit which is really a nice beer).

Pretty good for a brewery that, at 27 years old, is still embracing that DIY ethic.

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