Tasting and additional notes about Steens Mountain Brewing

Last Thursday was the High Desert Museum‘s monthly beer tasting event (which runs in conjunction with their Brewing Culture exhibit), and I was in attendance thanks to a concurrent private book signing event taking place there the same evening. I’m glad I was, because I got a chance to try two of the new Steens Mountain Brewing beers as well as meet and chat with owner/brewer Rick Roy and his daughter Carley.

Steens Mountain Brewing

They were pouring two beers that evening: Buena Vista Mexican Dark Lager and Basque Amber Ale. I had both (actually I inadvertently had two pours of the Buena Vista) and thought they were both good: the Buena Vista was malty, rich, and clean, and the Basque Amber was fuller in body but also very clean, like a lager. Very drinkable. Based on the samples I had, I would say Roy has a solid handle on the brewing process, at least on the small scale he’s brewing on right now.

Astute readers will remember I pointed to an article about Steens Mountain in our daily newspaper back in January; in particular, these details caught my eye and greatly piqued my interest:

Rick Roy always kept the hops in the back of his mind.

An avid hunter and fisherman — and a bit of a beer connoisseur — Roy occasionally found wild patches of the plant, a key flavoring ingredient for many beers, in remote parts of Harney County after he and his family moved to Burns 16 years ago when he took a job with the Bureau of Land Management.

“In my travels, I’d run into hops growing out there at these old homesteads,” says Roy, 54, who spent several years brewing his own beer when he lived in Colorado. “I kept those locations in the back of my mind, just in case.”

And of course there’s the hops. Roy uses his secret stash of wild Harney County hops in as many of his beers as possible. After a story ran in the Burns paper about his brewery and his desire to use local produce, people started calling Roy and telling him about even more hops.

“Now I’ve got about five, six, seven different places, all in Harney County where I go get hops,” says Roy, who has also started a hop garden adjacent to Steens Mountain Brewing. “What variety (the wild hops) are, I have no idea. I talked to some of the guys at the hop farms and they told me not to waste my time figuring out what they are. Just call them whatever you want and see what works.”

Naturally having just written a book about Central Oregon’s beer history (and having been fascinated by the homesteading era in our local history for some time), as well as having an interest in foraging for ingredients, this “feral homestead hops” detail is a great angle to approach Steens Mountain. Roy’s theory is that the homesteaders brought the hops with them and brewed their own beer; homesteads in eastern Oregon were isolated enough that planting and brewing themselves was the most economical option if they wanted to drink it. Once the hops had established themselves at the homestead, they persisted; there’s no way of knowing, however, what the varieties might be (likely short of DNA sequencing, if that would even reveal the provenance).

And no, these are not wild hops native to the area: anyone familiar with the High Desert region of eastern Oregon would realize they would be introduced species. Once introduced, however, and receiving enough moisture (some homesteads were established at springs, for instance) they would definitely thrive.

They are low in alpha acid content; Roy assumes in the neighborhood of 4 to 4.5%. They won’t produce high-alpha hop bombs but he has brewed with them, including them in a Porter and other styles, and says the add a nice character to the beer. (If I go into speculation mode, the two varieties that spring to mind as progenitors given the timeframe and availability at the time are Cluster and Fuggles. So I would approach them as such and brew accordingly.) Of course it’s possible (and maybe likely?) that enough environmental and genetic changes over the years has even altered some of them to effectively be an entirely new variety.

But I digress. Roy is brewing tasty beers based on the two I sampled, and the business is a family affair: Carley Roy was helping pour that evening, and she’s the one who designed the logo and graphics artwork for the brewery, as well as creates the tap handles:

Carley Roy of Steens Mountain Brewing

Those tap handles, by the way, are crafted from native wood that have been gnawed on by beavers (all of their tap handles are). In this case I believe Roy said they were alder, and I got a closeup picture of the tooth marks:

Steens Mountain beaver-chewed tap handles

Steens Mountain Brewing has a great story, and I’m planning on making a trip over to Burns (two hours from Bend) sometime soon to interview Roy, check out his brewery and taste more beers. The evening at the Museum was a great introduction and I’m looking forward to learning (and writing about) much more. Steens Mountain is not only the smallest brewing operation in Oregon I believe (on a half-barrel, or 15 gallon, system), but also one of the most remote and isolated. And it’s high time someone opened a brewery in southeastern Oregon.

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