By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
The names of 14 beers are scrawled in chalk across two blackboards hanging over the taps at the newly opened Running Dogs Brewery in St. Helens. And after a particularly busy weekend in mid-December, the Claytons were down to just one of their own. A smoked hefeweizen was the sole survivor of an onslaught of eager drinkers looking to try what the locals made. In a way, it was a good problem. But Jaron Clayton knew he needed to get back in the brewhouse — a challenging task to schedule while trying to launch the business and working in another profession all at the same time.
“The one thing I definitely didn’t want was to be that one brewery where you go in and there’s only one beer of their own and all these other guest taps,” Jaron said. “And I quickly found out how hard that was to do, especially when you have another job.”
But Jaron is now a full-time brewer — about a year earlier than he anticipated — after the first two months of sales proved to be strong, allowing him to leave his position as a licensed administrator for a skilled nursing facility in St. Helens. It’s not often you celebrate a retirement while kicking off a new career, but that’s exactly what happened to Jaron with a party celebrating both occasions Dec. 22 at the taproom. Since opening the last week of October, the changes have come quickly. The business seems to be accelerating faster than the Claytons’ Hungarian Vizslas, part of the inspiration for the brewery’s name, set loose in a dog park.
When applying for an Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau license in 2016, Jaron planned on distributing his beer, but not opening a venue where customers could actually hang out and drink. Maybe in the distant future there’d be time and money to grow. However, the plan was a slow approach at the beginning. Running Dogs would’ve been more like a hobby that brought in some money rather than an occupation. But it was actually Jaron’s wife who suggested they go big.
“I came home one day and Maggie said, ‘Let’s open a taproom,’” Jaron explained. The announcement hit him like a kid being told they were getting a Disneyland vacation. “I said, ‘You serious?! ‘Cause I always wanted to!’”
From there, they started the search for a location, which resulted in the discovery of a vacant storefront once home to a cafe/bakery in an old two-story brick building across from the county courthouse. Once again, though, a deliberate pace was hastened. While applying for loans following months of fine-tuning a plan with the assistance of the Small Business Association, Maggie got word that they weren’t the only ones eyeing that property. A friend who works for the City tipped her off that another party was going to make a move on it.
“I remember it quite clearly,” Maggie said. “I was on the way to the gym and got a phone call. I pulled into the gym and turned right back around and I went straight to Jaron’s work. I’m like, we need to get this done now.”
So Jaron scrapped his plans for the loan, immediately secured a personal line of credit and got the landlord on the phone that very day.
“We put in the notice right before the other people did,” Maggie said.
“And so we got it,” added Jaron.
Almost as soon as the lease was signed, news got around town that a brewery was in the works and anticipation began to build. It’s easy to forget that there are pockets around Portland that look nothing like Beervana. On the drive along Highway 30 to St. Helens, a billboard for Miller beer juts conspicuously into the sky. Sure, you can find a Widmer Hefe pretty easily in Columbia County, but not much more when it comes to craft. Based on the Claytons’ descriptions, many bars in those parts are about 20 years behind with Bud and Coors dominating menus and only a sliver of space for something like a Drop Top — if you’re lucky. Moreover, the only beer producer around, Columbia County Brewing, closed in 2017 due to the owner’s terminal health diagnosis. St. Helens was ready for Running Dogs and hopeful it would actually open.
“So people saw that we were coming in and were like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ They didn’t believe it,” Jaron described. “How many times have we heard that you guys could single-handedly change St. Helens into what it should be? Especially this downtown area.”
But the community wasn’t going to leave it to the Claytons and simply wait. People scrambled to help and that’s how Running Dogs became a brewery built by its village. For instance, a contractor just happened to be walking by the taproom and popped in to offer his labor for the bar. Maggie’s walking/running group called Sole Sisters gave the interior a fresh coat of paint. And a high school student built every single wood-topped table for a senior project. Even the folks behind the counter, besides the couple, are pouring pints and delivering food as volunteers — and some of them don’t even like beer. They do it to support the Claytons and what their taproom provides for the town. Even the original artist who created a mural of St. Helens along one wall returned to paint several dogs throughout the setting to better match the brewery’s theme. There’s now a sign challenging customers to find them all in a giant, Fido-themed take on “Where’s Waldo?”
For only being open a couple of months, Maggie has organized a slew of events — from cookie decorating to ugly sweater crafting. During a normal day, you’re likely to see people huddled over a high-stakes game of Monopoly or celebrating when they’re the first to Connect 4. There are games spilling out of a shelf near the front window thanks, in large part, to donations. Maggie put out a call for them one day on Facebook and the response was surprising.
“Before we knew it, people were bringing in board games like crazy,” Jaron said. “That’s become a thing in and of itself. People come here with their families, get off their phones, disconnect and play board games. There’s been times where every table is full of families playing and interacting.”
Games aren’t the only draw, of course. There’s a reason the taproom was almost out of Running Dogs beer in December. Jaron was looking forward to putting his 1-barrel garage-based system back to work to resupply. There will be an ever-changing lineup of classic styles with a twist like his kolsch that incorporated local blackberries and blueberries. Don’t expect a flagship since the couple likes to experiment with flavors.
Jaron’s introduction to brewing began as many do: with a well-intentioned gift of a Mr. Beer Kit that never results in anything you’d actually want to drink. But his motivation to continue to brew with proper equipment is different than most. The hobby found him at just the right time — Jaron had returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq. Readjusting to civilian life while grappling with what was eventually diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder took a toll. But the hands-on task of learning to make beer helped him cope.
“I was in a funk. I was kind of depressed when I first got back home. And I didn’t really leave the house much. It was a bad place to be, mentally. And so our dog at the time helped because he was my comfort. But brewing gave me something physically to do,” Jaron said. “It was also something to keep my mind off of the struggle from being back home.”
Maggie also started brewing and, as the lone female competitor, recently won a homebrewing contest held by the St. Helens Booster Club. The two collaborate on recipes now for Running Dogs, but their approaches to the process couldn’t be any more different. Maggie is meticulous and well-researched while Jaron’s the kitchen sink-type of brewer.
“A lot like my cooking,” he explained. “I’ll throw in whatever and see if it works out.”
At that point, Maggie shook her head.
“We’re so opposite,” she said. “With his style, if it doesn’t work out, it REALLY doesn’t work out. But if it works out, it’s amazing!”
They’ve learned to combine their styles, with Maggie often acting as recipe writer and Jaron as the brew-tinkerer. Seven years of marriage has helped prepare the two to tackle the challenges that will come with the business, whether that’s a tossing bad batch or upgrading to a bigger brewhouse.
“I always reference the time I was in Iraq. I was there for a year. And that was probably the hardest time for our relationship. We were brand new and we worked through all of the initial struggles any relationship would have, but with great distance,” Jaron said. “And so we’ve obviously grown in the seven years together, grown as adults in a relationship and figured out that communication really well. With the business, it’s no different.”
Now they’re just getting used to their new roles.
“It still hasn’t fully hit me,” Jaron explained. “I mean, she’ll come home some days and say, ‘Jaron, we have a brewery. We actually have our own brewery.’ I’m like, ‘I know! What the heck?!’”
Running Dogs Brewery
291 S. First St., St. Helens
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.