This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue.
California was flummoxing Gary Fish. For months, the restaurant-industry veteran had been crisscrossing his native state, seeking the perfect plot to plant his dream. “Our idea was to open a brewpub in a cool little town and start a family,” says Fish, who was keen on Northern California. After rolling snake eyes in Sacramento and the Bay Area, he was in need of a lucky break.
His parents, who grew up in Oregon, had recently driven through Bend, a high-desert city abutting the Deschutes National Forest, about three hours southeast of Portland. The year was 1988, and the timber industry, Bend’s longtime lifeline, was in splinters. Labor jobs blew away like sawdust. Storefronts emptied, “and you could literally shoot off a gun downtown and nobody would notice,” Fish recalls of the recession-ravaged city, where the population hovered around 18,000.
Where some would glimpse despair, the entrepreneur saw a silver lining. Bend’s downtown had a solid infrastructure. The weather was sunny and agreeable; proximity to the Mt. Bachelor ski resort meant a steady tourist stream; and real estate was, most crucially, rather affordable. “The idea that anyone wanted to develop a project was met with terrific acceptance,” Fish says of support from local officials. That fall, he leased a downtown storefront and, by the ensuing summer, opened Central Oregon’s first brewpub: Deschutes, named after the river winding through Bend. “We wanted it to be rooted in the town and community,” says Fish, who named beers such as Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond Pale Ale after local landmarks.
A quarter-century later, the brewpub has blossomed into America’s fifth-largest brewery, and Bend has undergone a night-and-day revitalization. The town has swelled to around 80,000 residents, who have been lured by a family-friendly lifestyle highlighted by outdoor recreation, a thriving walkable downtown, an abundance of sunshine—and boatloads of craft beer. Today, there are 17 breweries in Bend (and another half dozen in neighboring towns), each one unique, and together offering an impressive range of beers. If you favor hop bombs, then try Boneyard, 10 Barrel and Below Grade. For wood-aged elixirs, try Ale Apothecary’s funky fermentations, while Crux Fermentation crafts a kaleidoscope of styles, from an unfiltered pilsner to a peaty Scotch ale. Bend Brewing Company pairs pub grub with medal-winning porters and sour ales, and GoodLife and Worthy Brewing specialize in that crucial companion to hiking and fishing: canned beers.
In America, the brewpub has become a key thread in the urban fabric. The public houses are family-friendly safe zones known for fairly priced, crowd-pleasing fare and a house-hewn pint to soothe parents’ short-circuited nerves. But in 1988, Deschutes was a spaceship landing on a foreign planet.
“Bend was a blue-collar town, and nobody could understand why we would not sell Bud Light,” Fish recalls of his early struggles, which were compounded by a manufacturing flaw. An improper weld in the brewery’s grain mill let dust leak out, leading to infected beer. “It was tough to pour beer down the drain when we desperately needed the money,” Fish says.
While brewing kinks were uncurled, Fish redoubled his efforts on the restaurant. “We put more focus, energy and money to making sure that every customer left happy,” Fish says. To familiarize tourists with the beer, Deschutes sold its Bachelor Bitter at the resort, encouraging skiers to pop in for an après-ski pint. Within a couple years, the economic clouds began clearing. The bank was paid off. Sales skyrocketed. To meet mounting demand, Fish built a new production brewery in 1993. “Then we knew we were in a different kind of business,” he says.
The beer economy was officially afoot in the Bend region. In 1994, a trio of brothers opened Cascade Lakes Brewing in nearby Redmond, cranking out beers such as the crisp and golden Rooster Tail Ale. By February of 1995, Bend Brewing Company, perched above Mirror Pond, began pouring High Desert Hefeweizen and Elk Lake IPA. With outdoor recreation and the revitalization of the sprawling Old Mill District as a shopping and dining destination, a new local economy was fermenting. “When you go mountain biking, skiing, hiking or fly fishing, there’s nothing better than having a great craft beer at the end of the day,” says Doug La Placa, the president and CEO of the Visit Bend tourism board.
Bend’s rise to beer Mecca was as steady a climb as Mt. Bachelor’s beloved Red Chair ski lift. As Bend’s population ballooned (52,000 residents by 2000), so did the number of breweries. Tyler Reichert opened the one-man Silver Moon Brewing in 2000, the operation evolving into a brewpub noted for live music. Several years later, the McMenamins group repurposed a 1930s Catholic schoolhouse as the Old St. Francis School hotel, outfitting the basement children’s nursery with a brewing system. In 2006, twins Jeremy and Chris Cox launched what later became 10 Barrel; today, you can pop by the brewpub or the production brewery and try the amber, citrusy Apocalypse IPA, expertly crafted by brewmaster Jimmy Seifrit—a Deschutes veteran.
That’s no surprise, given the brewery’s track record as a brewing-talent incubator. In 1989, self-professed “snowboard bum” Tony Lawrence moved to Bend, where between mountain runs he washed dishes at Deschutes. After becoming friends with brewmaster John Harris (he now runs Portland’s Ecliptic), Lawrence transferred to the brewery. In 2001, he left to pursue other brewing jobs, before being drawn back to Bend a half-decade later to fix up his rental home. “A few weeks turned into a few months, and here I am eight years later,” Lawrence says, laughing.
To stay solvent, he started Brewtal Industries, a brewery construction and consulting business. His travels took him from Indiana’s Three Floyds to breweries in France, Mexico and nearby Sisters, where he helped Three Creeks get going. Along the way, “I started to see brewing equipment that was not in service, worth very little or broken down,” Lawrence says. He bought tanks, pipes and kettles from the brewery boneyards, where unwanted equipment is stored, and shipped them to his Oregon garage.
By 2010, Lawrence had accrued enough odds and ends to cobble together the aptly named Boneyard Beer. “My brewer buddies were like, ‘What are you going to do with this piece-of-shit equipment in a town that’s saturated with breweries?’ ” recalls Lawrence, whose business plan was simple. “I thought, ‘If I can brew one batch of beer and sell it, then we can sell two, then four.’ ” He quickly found a following for his citrus-forward, pineapple-scented RPM IPA, which has become one of the Pacific Northwest’s most cultish bitter beers, along with the Hop Venom double and Notorious Triple IPAs.
Instead of hop bombs, Deschutes alum Paul Arney took a decidedly different tack with Ale Apothecary, which focuses on old-world, wood-aged beers partly inspired by serendipity—much like Arney’s Bend arrival. A few months before graduating from a brewing program in 1996, he wrote hundreds of breweries in search of employment; only Deschutes replied. “In the same week, my wife and I decided to get married and move to Bend,” recalls Arney, who relocated from Seattle.
During his two tenures at Deschutes (broken up by globetrotting wanderlust), Arney learned both brewing’s practical side and how to push boundaries, helping develop oak-aged and wild ales and concocting beers with lichen, yams and wormwood. “It really set me up for when I walked into this project,” Arney says. Today, in his cabin brewery hidden in the mountains, Arney tinkers with Lactobacillus bacteria and untamed yeast strains, before sending his experiments to slumber and further evolve inside oak barrels. Each batch is singular, such as the tart, earthy and tropical Sahalie; the fruity and malty El Cuatro, which spends up to a year in brandy barrels; and Sahati, made in a lauter tun (which separates the wort, or unfermented sugar broth, from the grain) carved from a centuries-old tree and lined with spruce branches. “I let my inner brewer lead me,” Arney says.
That maxim also guides Larry Sidor, who spent nearly a decade as Deschutes’ brewmaster developing cultish beers such as the Abyss imperial stout. “I’ve worked hard my whole life,” says Sidor, who turned a transmission shop into Crux Fermentation Project. “Now it’s my turn to have some fun.”
Since the brewery opened in summer 2012, Sidor has brewed 38 distinctive beers, ranging from the dark and strong DoubleCross Belgian ale to a pre-Prohibition lager and a roasty, creamy stout served on nitro. From the get-go, Sidor and his partners never envisioned Crux as a large beer outlet; partly that’s because Crux sits in a funky industrial stretch of Bend. “You have to be a bit of a pioneer to get to Crux,” Sidor says. Despite the difficult location, eager consumers have come in droves. “We have had more customers than we ever imagined. Bend supports its local breweries.”
Does Size Matter?
For its population, Bend has an embarrassment of beer riches. It boasts the most breweries per capita in the country (one for about every 4,500 residents), and 2013’s freshman class included Rat Hole, Oblivion, Bridge 99 and RiverBend. Moreover, there are another half-dozen regional breweries on deck. The boom begs the unavoidable question: Can Bend support this many breweries?
That query weighed heavily on Chad Kennedy, the former brewmaster for Portland’s Laurelwood. When he and hops merchant Roger Worthy were looking to launch a production brewery, Bend, where Worthy owned land, both thrilled and frightened Kennedy. “I was a little apprehensive,” he says, especially given his outsider status. But Bend’s intangibles were too perfect. For a brewery, “you need good water, access to freeways and a great lifestyle choice, not only for people who work at the brewery but the customer base,” says Kennedy, who debuted Worthy Brewing last February. Worthy went big, equipped with a hop yard, restaurant, a canning line and the ability to brew 60,000 barrels a year. Instead of counting on locals to drink every last drop, the brewery also sent its beer across Oregon and western Washington, with Idaho slated for 2014. The local-export plan has worked so well that “we’re having trouble keeping up with demand,” Kennedy says.
Given the town’s size, distribution is instrumental for many Bend breweries. Six months after GoodLife Brewing’s fall 2011 unveiling, the brewery was sending beer across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. For Boneyard, “about 75 percent of our beer is shipped outside Deschutes County,” says Lawrence, whose brewery recently underwent a massive expansion. And a good amount of Ale Apothecary’s lineup is sold in Portland. “We’re making these crazy, intense beers that are not for everybody,” Arney explains.
While plenty of beer departs Bend, hops-focused tourists are also flocking to town (last year, 45 percent of the town’s 2.2 million visitors hit a brewery). “We didn’t see that type of visitor five years ago,” says Visit Bend’s La Placa. By 2010, La Placa explains, “we reached a critical mass of great breweries within walking distance of one another,” a situation that led to creation of the Bend Ale Trail, a passport that encourages visitors to see a number of breweries, and that has helped stimulate beer tourism in Bend.
As Bend’s identity solidifies around beer, numerous complementary businesses have opened. You can visit breweries aboard the Bend Brew Bus, while Bend Adventure Tours unites scenic hikes with brewery pit stops. Alternately, pedal to them on the Cycle Pub—drinking permitted—or, if you’re feeling lazy, Let It Ride offers the electric-bike Brewdie Tour. To sip some fresh local beer and then bring it home, try the patio-equipped Broken Top Bottle Shop & Ale Café and, in a converted church, the Brew Shop. (It sits above the brewery-equipped Platypus Pub, which serves great regional craft beer.) As for growlers, grab a fill at the Tumalo Country Store and Growler Phil’s, which doubles as a taproom. Drivers can simultaneously grab a growler and wash their ride at Empire Car Wash, which contains Gorilla Growlers, and you’ll find Growler Guys inside several gas stations.
Though there’s competition around town, it’s friendly and not cutthroat. “It’s still a very close-knit group of folks,” says Worthy’s Kennedy. He notes that he receives text messages from fellow brewers requesting ingredients, while Ale Apothecary’s grain and glass shipments arrive at GoodLife. As for Deschutes, the brewery refuses to rest on its laurels. It continues to expand brewing capacity and expand distribution, while the flagship brewpub (which recently underwent an extensive renovation) still anchors Bond Street, now a bustling corridor.
“If you asked me 25 years ago what I would’ve liked to have, it would be a great little pub,” says Deschutes’ Fish. “I don’t think any sane person could’ve envisioned the explosive growth of craft beer.”