By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
After five years of ups and downs, Eugene’s current newest brewery, Mancave Brewing Company, now distributes its “palate-altering ales” at 25 locations in the Eugene/Springfield area. Co-owners Brandon Woodruff and Wes Gunderson have combined vision and grit to make their way despite many obstacles.
Brew What the People Want
Mancave’s first tap handle, for Single Release Farmhouse Ale, went to Growler USA near the University of Oregon. “I even signed the first card for them,” says Woodruff. Both Farmhouse Ale and Exalted IPA have quickly sold, but Woodruff notes that flagship beers won’t be part of Mancave.
“We are not going to mass produce or mass market one beer or multiple beers that taste the same,” he explains. “We are going to brew what you want.”
Woodruff’s vision is to produce Mancave beers on a seasonal release timeline. Exalted IPA will be produced at different times throughout the year. Bang Biscuit IPA has been released as a summer IPA, followed by Irkalla Oak-Aged Porter in late July and again during fall and winter. Year-round Dueling Hop series pits different hop varieties against each other. “We sold out of the first 15 kegs in the first week.”
While starting small with three 7-barrel, 30 percent fermenters and one brite tank, Woodruff is already feeling the pinch of their nano system. “We brew as often as possible. We only yield around 700 liters of finished beer and even less for IPAs,” Woodruff explains. “We have to double batch just to get to those levels.”
However, Woodruff plans to add three 10-barrel fermenters in the next few months. “Our goal is to do around a thousand barrels during our first year of operation. We are pretty close to the capacity to hit those numbers.”
Despite the growing number of area breweries, Woodruff is optimistic. “We all make different beers. I look at craft beer like music,” he explains. “If your genre is doing well, you will too.”
That optimism is hard-fought though.
Woodruff, 31, is a “multigeneration local” who graduated from North Eugene High School. He grew up not far from the Whiteaker neighborhood at a time when it was known far more for social problems.
“Sure it has cleaned up a bunch, but I still pick up needles on my walks,” says Woodruff. “I have had members of my family murdered over [drugs], and too many friends die from the drugs that come out of the Whiteaker.”
Woodruff “grew up about as poor as you could imagine in a family with six kids. Section 8 [housing], food stamps and food boxes for the better part of my life,” he says. “I learned a ton from my mom, her never-give-in spirit.”
After high school, Woodruff worked as a barista, then a bartender. He signed up for eight years of service in the U.S. Navy, but was discharged early for a pre-existing knee injury a few months in. Upon re-entering civilian life in 2006 and returning to Eugene, Woodruff began homebrewing. Bartending paid the bills, but a dream was already forming. “After being released from the Navy, I wrote a letter back home saying how someday I was going to start a brewery.”
Opening the Cave
In winter 2010, Woodruff and a friend were brewing together in a freezing shack. As they talked about how cold it was, Woodruff’s friend said, “At least we have this cave.”
At that instant, Woodruff knew what he was going to do.
“When we came up with the word ‘Mancave,’ I don't know if it was even around yet as a household word,” Woodruff says. “At first glance one would think the name could come off as suggesting only men. When we ran our Indiegogo and Kickstarter, nearly 80 percent of the pledges came from women. Some of our greatest followers are women, but of course when we say the name to someone the number one question is, ‘Are women welcome?’ If anything, it’s a good conversation piece.”
Plans for Mancave have bumped along. Partner and CFO Wesley Gunderson came on board in 2013. They are the only employees, but relatives have pitched in with tank cleaning or other tasks, and Woodruff’s grandfather, a farmer near Coburg, helped purchase Mancave’s first kegs.
Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns fell short of their goals. “We didn't even have our space yet,” he recollects. “Having your location is huge to crowdfunding. People need to see it to believe it.”
A silent partner pulled out of the project. “Red tape” was another challenge. “We almost had to build three-hour fire walls that would cost more than the equipment we own,” says Woodruff. “That felt like a dagger. After many thousands paid, we found out, in fact, we didn't need them.”
Despite the setbacks, in May Woodruff finally began hand-selling kegs to Eugene-area pubs and restaurants and added a beer-by-bike delivery service in June.
Currently 20-25 accounts regularly pour Mancave beers. “We slow our production often to ensure these places that have commitment with us will receive product on time and the quality is where we want it.”
But in between all the tasks of running a brewery, brewing beer and self-distributing, Woodruff is also watching the big picture. Current plans include opening a tasting room at Mancave’s 540 Fillmore St. production brewery, with an eye to opening Hohle Verein (German for “Cave Club”) later this year. “It’s for members only,” Woodruff explains, but “anyone can become a member by purchasing a piece of merchandise. In turn, we give 100 percent of profits to local nonprofits and will compound it one-for-one.”
In 2016, Woodruff and Gunderson plan to scale up production to be more competitive in the local market, plus have 15 employees.
After so many challenges and setbacks, Woodruff is starting to see Mancave gain traction. “Minds are being blown,” he says. “We are starting to gain regulars.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.