Caldera Brewing Company is well settled into its colossal new digs in Ashland, Ore. and fresh off its biggest year yet.
The 17-year-old brewery is starting to button up its big britches and though it’s still just a fraction of the size, it isn’t out of place now for the up-and-comer craft to be uttered in the same sentence as some of Oregon’s most renowned craft breweries – Rogue Ales, Full Sail, BridgePort, Ninkasi or Bend’s mammoth Deschutes.
To be among that crowd is a badge of honor said Caldera’s lead brewer and brewery manager Adam Benson, who’s been peeking his head into Caldera’s mash kettles as lead brewer for four years and running.
In 2013, Caldera's 30-barrel production beer system and one-off specialty 10-barrel set-up pumped out about 10,000 barrels worth of beer – that’s over 300,000 gallons – and that’s about a fifth of what the brewery can manage inside its new headquarters.
The sky is the limit, Benson said. Caldera has greater expansion on tap.
For comparison, Deschutes offloads about 350,00 barrels annually, while Ninkasi is brewing about 95,000 barrels annually and plans to push that to 200,000 annually once its current expansion is complete this spring.
The year-old 28,000-square-foot Caldera brewery and restaurant sits a few hundred yards up south Ashland’s Clover Lane from the brewery’s former 6,000-square-foot brewhouse, whose 10-barrel system is nestled in a side room of the new brewery.
Maxed out for years producing about 6,000 barrels annually, the old 10-barrel is strictly being used for experimental brews, seasonal one-offs and other hard-to-get beers that you can’t normally find anywhere but the tap wall, Benson said.
And it still gets worked plenty hard, considering Caldera has about 40 taps to fill on its tap wall and only cans its Pale Ale, Ashland Amber, IPA, Pilot Rock Porter and Lawnmower Lager, and bottles eight other brews in 22-ounce longnecks.
The light-tasting Lawnmower Lager and the Pilot Rock Porter are the newest additions to the Caldera can family, and “both of them have taken off, especially the Lawnmower. I am not even sure how we’re going to deal with it this summer once people start really drinking,” Benson said. “To get a micro brew in a can for under $4 locally is huge, so people are just gobbling it up.”
Caldera is well known for kicking off somewhat of a canned-beer-can-be-good phenomena among craft and micro breweries.
“It’s a better product in a can. You’re not getting light struck and ecologically it’s so much better, it’s lighter – either empty or full – you can take it places,” Benson said. “It’s just getting over that stereotype of only big brewers use cans, garbage beer, so that’s what we have been dealing with the last 10 years or so. Now it’s pretty well accepted.”
In 22-ounce bottles Caldera offers: Hopportunity Knocks IPA, Ginger Beer, which is brewed with fresh organic ginger and Belgian candi sugar, Rose Petal imperial golden ale, brewed with real rose petals and you can smell it, Vas Defrens Ale, a strong Belgian-style that has a straight-out-of-hell label inspired by owner Mills’ very own vasectomy, Rauch Ur Bock, a German-style lager, Old Growth Imperial Stout -- it’s thick, Hop Hash, which is made using chunks of hop resin, and Mogli, a chocolate Imperial Porter, aged in retired oak Jack Daniel’s bourbon barrels.
The hop resin-induced Hopportunity Knocks started as an experimental one-off, Benson said, after a chunk of resin once mistakenly turned up inside a batch of fresh whole hops and Caldera decided to use it.
“We were calling them and asking for more of it!” said Benson, noting that the hop resin was free of charge until the supplier caught on.
During the winter months Caldera’s brewery gets by with Benson and brewer Frederick Martinez, who’s been with the company for three years. From May through September, the thirsty season, a third brewer is added. When the brewery is running full tilt for a triple batch, there are three brewers and five other people overseeing the gargantuan purple canning line, which has pushed out over 70,000 cans on many days, Benson said.
Martinez remembers vividly when Caldera was still slinging six packs using a six-can hand packer.
“Ah it was brutal, but we did it man. We had to,” he said. “And Jim was right there with us ... this place is great, I love it, it’s a family.”
Between Caldera Tap House on Water Street in downtown Ashland and its new restaurant and brewery headquarters, Caldera is run by about 50 employees, said General Manager Charlie Shoemaker, who is also known as the ‘glue,’ among the Caldera family.
Shoemaker, who had a hand in building the new Caldera headquarters as an employee for Medford-based contractor Ausland Group, hit it off with Caldera owner Jim Mills when construction was underway and jumped ship.
After building about a mile of shelves, Shoemaker helped place Mills’ 4,979-beer bottle collection, which wraps around the inside walls of the 96-seat restaurant. Don’t worry, they’re glued down.
There are another 250 bottles stashed in storage boxes that will go up as soon as the restaurant’s upstairs expansion is complete, Shoemaker said.
There are another 80 dining seats on the outside patio of the restaurant, which makes a point of incorporating beer into several of its recipes.
The menu is loaded with pasta dishes, smoked salmon, gourmet burgers, freshly baked jumbo pretzels, hand-tossed pizzas hot out of a stone oven and homemade crackers and bread. Aside from 34 beer choices on tap, there is also Caldera-made root beer and ginger ale, which is going into cans in the near future Benson said.
Not to mention, Mills has a mean hibiscus and rose petal tea concoction.
The restaurant’s crackers are made from the brewery’s spent grain, he said, and whatever spent grain doesn’t become a cracker is sent as feed to a Northern California pig farm, from where the restaurant gets its pork.
It’s quite the operation and in about a year, the brewing company hopes to start distilling its own spirits – scotch, vodka, bourbon and gin.
Even with everything going on, Benson says, there is always plenty of time for experimenting, developing new recipes.
“We always have something new coming on, I am doing a Mother Pucker Raspberry Sour ... it’s a sour beer, but it’s not done the typical way,” he said.
Kihei Snow, a burnt coconut, toasted cane sugar stout, is one of the newest additions to the tap wall, he said.
The last time Benson counted, Caldera beer was available in 12 states and British Columbia, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Holland, Denmark, England and Puerto Rico – and the list is always expanding, he said.
“It’s exciting to know that the beer I brew is going around the world and people are enjoying it everywhere,” he said.
Of course, he would not name a favorite, but he is most proud of Caldera’s Helles Lager and Pilsener Bier.
“They are just extremely well made. A lot of lagers are rushed; ours get the time they need.”
( a ) 590 Clover Lane, Ashland
( p ) 541-482-4677
(h) 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., every day
Owner: Jim Mills
Brewer: Adam Benson
General Manager: Charlie Shoemaker