This month’s issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine (#112, May 2016) contains an article on Burns, Oregon’s Steens Mountain Brewing Company in their “From the Source” column—written by yours truly. The article is now online here, and I thought I share a few extra “behind the scenes” details that didn’t make it into print.
Much of the story had changed from when I first interviewed owner/brewer Richard Roy for the article back in August; it was the militia takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (located 30 miles southeast of Burns) in January that grabbed national attention and threw things into disarray. In fact, the militia had been in Harney County for months already by that point, stirring up chaos in the region with harassment and intimidation of residents (particularly federal employees and law enforcement personnel).
During the occupation, the threat against the federal employees was enough that Roy (himself a long-time employee of the Bureau of Land Management) packed up his family and left Burns for a time, staying at an undisclosed location well out of town. I talked to him a few times during that time, article still in progress, and even met up a couple of times to drink some of his beers, but since they were still in hiding and the occupation was still going on, I didn’t add any details into the article.
Sales and production slowed down during that period (naturally), and Roy’s original plan of launching a Kickstarter type campaign to raise funds for his brewery upgrade had to be put off from late January until sometime later. On the other hand, his oldest sons had stayed behind and continued to brew so it wasn’t a total wash.
For me the most fascinating aspect of the Steens Mountain Brewing story is the history and wild hops. I managed to get a fair bit about each (I think) in the BeerAdvocate article, but here are some extras that I’d cut before submitting:
How the history and sense of place infuses the beers, both in the hops and in the names. Take the beer with the eyebrow-raising name of Whorehouse Meadows Wheat, for example: the name refers to an actual meadow on the western slope of nearby Steens Mountain where enterprising women would set up tents during the summer to provide services to the sheepherders and cowboys. (“Services” being what you think, yes.) In the 1960s the BLM changed the name to “Naughty Girl Meadows” only to have to change it back several years later in the face of public outcry. “Everything we have is about something here,” said Roy, “and this is about the history here.”
The brewery is located in the historic Grandma Haskell house, originally built in 1890 by “Grandma” Sarah Ann Haskell, a widow who supported herself with her garden (where the hops are planted now) and cooking—she would bake and sell homemade goods to the homesteaders who were passing through Burns. The front room of the light blue-gray house serves as the tasting room, while the brewing system itself occupies the kitchen.
The hop yard is the eye-catching feature, in its first year at the time of our August visit, and is full of both the feral, heirloom hops that Roy has transplanted, and “regular” varieties like Cascade and Goldings. It’s interesting and telling that the wild transplants are thriving, while the domestic hops exhibit stunted, delayed growth one would expect from poor soil and watering. Hops are hardy and can grow in surprising conditions, but it is clearly the ones that have adapted to Eastern Oregon over the past century that thrive.
Next up: expansion, and the County and town are still dealing with the aftermath of the Malheur Refuge occupation. Roy recently brewed and Gruit (unhopped, spiced beer) named “LEO” (for Law Enforcement Officers) to show support and solidarity with the various law enforcement and federal agents who assisted Burns during the occupation. In fact he just sent me a picture of the beer yesterday:
And posted a beer availability update two days ago:
We should have some of our LEO ready to go tomorrow at the brewery. We have: Harney Strong Ale at the Pine Room; Harney Valley Ale for growler fills at Reid’s; we will have Whorehouse Meadows Wheat at Figaro’s on Sunday; Big Indian Bitter at Bella Java. We have bottles at: Reid’s; Rhojo’s, Frenchglen Hotel; Fields Station; and Broadway Deli.
If you’re anywhere near Eastern Oregon, be sure to pick up some bottles or growlers for Memorial Day.