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
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It only took three sentences at the bottom of a press release to set off a frenzy of theories on Facebook.
When Thirsty Monk announced in late October that it would be purchasing a “well-known Portland beer bar,” seemingly every blogger, author and industry insider in town leapt to their social media accounts to pile onto the mound of ideas in this guessing game. Could it be Horse Brass? No way would a brewery fit in that basement. The ill-fated Tugboat? Maybe, but rehabilitating the fire-damaged building made it a longshot. Produce Row? APEX? Blitz Ladd? The debate eventually fizzled after a few weeks came and went without a leak, an official announcement or a correct answer.
“I was reading what everybody was speculating and it’s amazing how everybody always assumes that it’s the bar that’s not doing well, you know?” said Hilda Stevens, owner of Bazi Bierbrasserie, the well-known Portland beer bar in question that no one suspected was up for sale. “Where people should really think about, like, maybe there’s a bar that is doing really well but they have a business plan and they have some priorities.”
What few people knew was that Stevens’ priorities had shifted with time and that she actually never intended to remain at the helm of the business that’s become a Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard headquarters for Belgian-style ales and soccer-viewing parties.
“When I opened this place, I knew it wasn’t something that I was going to do the rest of my life,” Stevens explained, which might sound like a friend just broke it to you that they weren’t really in it for the long haul. It’s all too easy to get attached to our favorite bars, and Stevens admits she’s become synonymous with Bazi, another factor that likely contributed to the surprise surrounding the announcement Thirsty Monk would take over in mid-December.
“I didn’t realize that I had become as much of a brand of this place,” Stevens described. “It’s like, I’ll go to place and people might not remember my name, but they remember Bazi. They associate me with the brand.”
That’s due to six years of cultivating relationships across the bar and around the neighborhood through her involvement with the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association. Bazi has become her home, its kitchen filled with kegs and living room overflowing with rowdy soccer fans watching a match on any given day, and her home is conveniently located just blocks from Bazi. The bar was a result of Stevens’ conservative planning, but even the most thorough proposal can sometimes benefit from a boost due to fortuitous circumstances. Those happened to take the form of a layoff from Stevens’ well-paying job in the tech industry, the arrival of Major League Soccer in Portland and the space Bazi opened in suddenly becoming available. Stevens also points out that the business ended up filling a need few realized existed at that point in the city’s beverage scene.
“I love the fact that we were the first Belgian beer bar to come into Portland in a time where people were like, ‘What is she thinking? A Belgian beer bar isn’t going to make it in hop-centric Portland,’” Stevens said. “It was all about catering to the right community and knowing our audience — knowing there’s a lot of people in this town who have traveled all over Europe and really appreciate Belgian beers.”
Stevens had a target: Bazi’s fifth anniversary. If she could build a clientele and become successful by that milestone, it would then be time to challenge herself once again by either expanding or selling. And when that five-year mark arrived, Stevens wasn’t ready to let go. The search for a second location was underway until, much like the founding of Bazi, unexpected factors intervened. Last March, the neighboring bicycle shop that shared storage space with the bar, which was primarily occupied by hundreds of empty boxes that once contained the two-wheeled rides, vacated the premises. Even before the clutter of cardboard was cleared, however, Stevens had envisioned the perfect purpose for that site.
“Nobody knows that there’s all that space unless you have worked here. And people who have worked here know that,” Stevens said. “And they know that I’ve always joked around and said if the bike shop ever moves out, a brewery needs to open up here.”
But the decision to look for someone else to acquire the business was solidified when Stevens realized it was simply time to go home. On Bazi’s fifth anniversary, her parents’ residence in Houston flooded, which would happen again when Hurricane Harvey pounded southern Texas with record-breaking rain, and Stevens couldn’t help. The distance during their crisis still pulls tears from her eyes; the ease with which she’d talked about Bazi suddenly halts as her voice grows unsteady and laden with sadness.
“And it was really hard, you know, not being able to be there. And … that’s, that’s the part — that’s the part that’s really hard to talk about,” Stevens said. “I can talk about the business side, no problem. But my family, it hurts. And watching how much they slow down, and you’re always missing out.”
The decision was easy at that point. It was time to pull out of the expansion plan and find Bazi a good owner so that Stevens could move back to Houston after nearly two decades in Portland. She put the business up for sale in July and quickly drew the interest of multiple companies. That included Thirsty Monk, an Asheville, N.C.-based brewery that uses Belgian yeast in all of its beers — from the more traditional tripels and wits to the somewhat unconventional combination of Northeast IPAs or chocolate stouts. CEO Barry Bialik said he put Bazi under contract nearly as soon as he heard it was available and without even seeing it, flying out a few weeks later to meet with Stevens and take a tour. That personal touch was impressive and helped her feel confident about entrusting what she’d built to Thirsty Monk.
“Definitely the fact that it was the CEO was the one out there looking for the location — that in itself says a lot about an organization,” Stevens added.
Bialik also wanted to be involved in making the announcement to the team at Bazi and remained tight lipped about the deal with media until they knew.
“We’re so sensitive to that and how we talk about news and how we share it to make sure we deliver it right,” he said. “There was no other way to even think about it. Of course I wanted to be there to share with the employees. I want everyone to feel comfortable that, yeah, their jobs are safe. They’re going to be part of the transition and we’re all going to help this grow together.”
The CEO had been scouting out possible sites in Portland earlier this summer, but found the perfect match for the company’s ethos in Bazi. The way he describes it, the two could’ve been set up on a beer bar dating app and there wouldn’t have been a more complementary partner out there.
“What was so great about walking into Bazi for the first time is it felt just like walking into a Thirsty Monk,” Bialik recounted. “It had the same kind of energy, it had the same kind of community, it had the same kind of family-pub feel. And they’re on the same top 100 beer bar lists we are. They specialize in Belgian beer just like we do. It just felt like such a natural fit.”
There won’t be many immediate changes—the Bazi name will stay in place until Thirsty Monk’s Denver brewery can supply the Portland spot with its beer. Even then, they’ll stay true to Stevens’ model of offering a wide variety of Belgian-style offerings, with about half of the taps reserved for a rotation of other producers. Bialik’s brother Opus is in the process of moving his family from Seattle to Portland to serve as the new general manager. And as for that storage space housing a brewery, it’s still too early to tell. Architects need to survey the room to determine if a small system could be installed. If not, Bialik said he will either purchase an existing brewery elsewhere in the city or contract brew with another business. Either way, Thirsty Monk will eventually make beer in Portland. Until that happens, Bialik is focused on the ownership change and grateful for Stevens’ assistance.
“I’m so happy that Hilda is going to have the time to stay around and help as long as she’s available to help Opus with the transition and to learn about the community she’s created there and how we can honor and continue that.”
It’s a legacy she hopes will be remembered each time a crowd gathers there to drink Belgian beer as a soccer match plays on the business’s big screen.
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When Scott McConnell was researching his business plan for a brewery in La Grande, he made a jarring discovery. The Eastern Oregon city was one of the largest in the state that didn’t also have a business that made beer. McConnell found that most towns with a population of more than 7,000 people — from the Coast to the Idaho border — are home to a brewpub.
“It was kind of an incredible statistic,” he said. “And so that was one of my big pitches to investors.”
While that swath of land represents some of Oregon’s most rugged and sparsely populated areas — free-range cattle can outnumber people at times — there are still plenty of breweries. La Grande just happened to sit along a dry, lonely stretch of Interstate 84 with Baker City and Barley Brown’s to the southeast and Prodigal Son in Pendleton to the northwest. Terminal Gravity is a winding, scenic drive on the way to Wallowa Lake. So it was about time to fill in the gap.
“You see holes in your community and you’re like, ‘Man, it would be really nice to have a brewpub here,’” described McConnell. “I recognized the need and how this would be successful if we pulled it off.”
Building Side A Brewing wasn’t a solo endeavor, though. The mission to bring brewing back to La Grande (Mt. Emily Ale House closed several years ago) actually reunited McConnell with his two childhood friends from Michigan and helped make a piece of the town’s history more accessible to the public.
It was probably no mistake that McConnell, an economics professor at Eastern Oregon University, ended up on the rural side of the state after an earlier stint in Portland. He and his business partners — Nick Fairbanks, head brewer, and Travis Hansen, head chef — were raised in Alpena, Mich. The town is nestled between a state forest and a bay on Lake Huron near the fingertips of the oven mitt-shaped state. The three all lived about five miles apart from each other on wide-open land where labor was an early part of their upbringing. Those ethics and a shared experience are what they believe led to a solid foundation for Side A.
“I think we all grew up working hard,” McConnell explained. “In a small, rural community, you work your whole life. That’s just the way it is. And we all grew up in blue-collar families watching our parents work hard and I think it just becomes a way of life.”
“We rarely don’t see things the same way and I think it’s helpful to come from the same background,” Fairbanks added.
They also bring considerable experience to the project. McConnell, who ran the population numbers early on to lure investors, brings business and front-of-the-house knowledge. If Hansen’s name and face aren’t familiar, that’s because he’s normally confined to a kitchen — sizzling, simmering or seasoning. But his food has undoubtedly landed on a plate in front of you at Widmer Brothers Brewing, where he spent a decade. And Fairbanks has been mashing in and overseeing maintenance at breweries across the country for years — most recently at Short’s Brewing Company in northwest Michigan. There he experienced massive growth. The business went from a production capacity of around 4,000 barrels per year to close to 70,000.
The sensibility of the Midwest is infused in Fairbanks’ brew at Side A. There’s also a certain spirited stubbornness — do not, for instance, ask Fairbanks if you can share your idea for an IPA. He’s probably already heard it. And dank hop bombs aren’t a personal favorite. Instead, Fairbanks prefers balance, which is why you’ll find that the Award Winning IPA tiptoes up to the 60 IBU mark, but won’t cross it.
“I’m adamant that IPAs are overdone, and it’s just not my particular philosophy to have six IPAs on tap because there’s so much else out there,” Fairbanks said.
And that includes an early lineup of classics: a hard-to-find-elsewhere altbier, a flavorful toasty oatmeal brown with a slight hop kick and a pale called Copper & Gold that honors his roots with Michigan Copper hops blended with Northwest-grown malts to recognize his home now. While the beers might sound a bit conservative compared to some breweries, Fairbanks is already anticipating the benefits of autonomy in the brewhouse. He’ll begin experimenting with traditional styles in the future.
A restrained approach might make sense in Eastern Oregon where the will to embrace change moves about as quickly as a herd of cows milling around one of the region’s isolated roads. In beer terms, that used to mean prying the Bud Light out of their cold, dead hands. But the Side A crew has found that the resistance to try something new is waning. McConnell credits the shift to those breweries that came before them — Terminal Gravity, Barley Brown’s and Prodigal Son — and the effort it took to get people to take a chance on something new.
“I would say we’re lucky because those breweries all did what they did over the last five to 10 years to 20 years, depending on which brewery you’re talking about,” said McConnell. “I always like to make sure that everyone knows that we are just following in the wake.”
Apart from bringing La Grande back into the brewing community, the Side A founders helped revitalize the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum while forming one of the more unique partnerships in the state when it comes to shared space. It’s actually easy to miss Side A if you’re not looking for the brewery because it’s housed in a building that looks like the fire department. In fact, the sign on the front says “La Grande Fire Dept.” in large red letters above two garage doors that appear as though fire trucks could come bursting out of at any moment, sirens wailing.
You’ll actually find a much calmer scene inside: diners digging into oversized burgers and heaps of dirty fries next to pints and tasters. The open pub is just one half of the structure. An exhibit composed of firefighting equipment and memorabilia comprises the rest of the interior and inspired the name “Side A,” which is how firefighters refer to the front of a building. The museum wasn’t in danger of shuttering, but until the brewery launched its hours were extremely limited.
“They were at a point where they couldn’t afford to have somebody here permanently so that people couldn’t just show up. They had to make an appointment,” said McConnell. “It was kind of cumbersome to visit the museum. Us being open all the time now, people can go see it anytime they want.”
La Grande’s Urban Renewal Agency gave the brewery-museum merge an assist in the form of $40,000. That money went to improvements like adaptations to sewer lines and the installation of ADA-compliant bathrooms.
“We got it for the business, but also the city kind of got it back in the sense that the building is now more functional,” McConnell said.
“It’s a win-win,” said Fairbanks. “We got what we needed; they got a building updated.”
While waiting for dinner, you can take a tour of firefighting through the ages. On display are several fire engines, including a model from 1925 that’s believed to be the only one on the National Historic Registry, an array of old extinguishers and the station’s pole that’s worn in areas where countless hands held on for the slide down.
“It’s a way to keep the historical value of the community,” Fairbanks said. “And there’s a great amount of people that actually come to see the museum outside of coming to have a beer.”
“We get a lot of firemen who worked in this building to come in and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible!’” said McConnell. “And to be able to show off a piece of La Grande history — every little town loves to be able to show off its history, so it’s neat to be able to partner with that.”
Side A Brewing
1219 Washington Ave., La Grande
Great American Beer Festival Oregon Winners 2017
The Great American Beer Festival awards are some of the most coveted in the industry and Oregon continued to perform well in 2017. There are 96 style categories and the possibility of winning gold, silver or bronze in each. The following is a list of local recipients from this year’s competition, which were announced Oct. 7 in Denver:
BRONZE American-Style India Pale Ale: Breaskide Brewery & Taproom, Breakside IPA
SILVER American- or International-Style Pilsener: Full Sail Brewing Company, Sesion Cerveza
BRONZE American- or International-Style Pilsener: Elk Horn Brewery, Lemon Pils
GOLD American-Style Sour Ale: Flat Tail Brewing, DAM Wild Hops and Lemon Verbena
BRONZE American-Style Strong Pale Ale: Breakside Brewery + Beer Hall, Breakside Stay West
GOLD American-Style Wheat Beer: GoodLife Brewing Company, Sweet As Pacific Ale
GOLD American-Style Wheat Beer with Yeast: Sunriver Brewing Company, Fuzztail
SILVER Belgian-Style Fruit Beer: Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, ZuurPruim
BRONZE Brett Beer: Alesong Brewing & Blending, Touch of Brett Mosaic
SILVER Double Red Ale: ColdFire Brewing Company, St. James
BRONZE Fruited American-Style Sour Ale: Breakside Brewery & Taproom, Breakside Passionfruit Sour Ale
GOLD German-Style Pilsener: Zoiglhaus Brewing Company, Zoigl-Pils
GOLD Gluten-Free Beer: Ground Breaker Brewing, Dark Ale
GOLD Imperial Red Ale: Sunriver Brewing Company, Cinder Beast
BRONZE Rye Beer: Breakside Brewery, Breakside Rye Curious?
BRONZE Session Beer: Three Creeks Brewing Company, Stonefly Session Ale
GOLD Specialty Saison: Base Camp Brewing Company, Rye Saison
SMALL BREWING COMPANY AND SMALL BREWING COMPANY BREWER OF THE YEAR: Sunriver Brewing Company, Sunriver Brewing Team
North American Guild of Beer Writers Oregon Winners 2017
Brewers weren’t the only ones honored during the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The North American Guild of Beer Writers recognized the best beer and brewing industry coverage in 11 categories, ranging from newspaper and magazine stories to podcasts. The following list is composed of Oregon award recipients:
FIRST PLACE Best Beer Book: Jeff Alworth, Secrets of Master Brewers
SECOND PLACE Best Beer Blog: Jeff Alworth, Beervana
THIRD PLACE Best Beer and Travel Writing: Brian Yaeger, Beer at the End of the World
SECOND PLACE Best Local Reporting: Andi Prewitt, Brewers Make Foray into New Areas of Fungi Kingdom
THIRD PLACE Best History Writing: Jeff Alworth, Bourbon County Brand Stout: The Original Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Beer
HONORABLE MENTION Best History Writing: Ezra Johnson-Greenough, An Oral History of the Horse Brass
SECOND PLACE Best Technical Writing: Brian Yaeger, Savoring Acidity: The Quest to Explain Sourness in Beer
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
The call for 100 more pickers at a Southern Oregon hop farm appeared on newsprint nestled between other want ads for a piano tuner and a maid along with comic strips. It was Aug. 12, 1943, and the need for extra hands had prompted this Grants Pass grower to look north and place his offer in Roseburg’s News-Review. But help wanted notices for hop yard labor in small-town papers was nothing new for that part of the state. Requests for 50 people here, 300 people there were staples of classifieds going back decades. However, besides the older folks who experienced the itchy work as kids and producers in the Willamette Valley who ended up buying equipment from the last operating farm, Rogue Valley hop cultivation has largely been forgotten.
Yet, it is not gone.
More than 20 years after the final growers’ poles and wires that served as the bones for leafy plants came down, bines were once again winding their way up strings on a plot of land that no one really expected to be very good for hop cultivation.
When Steve Pierce signed papers for a foreclosed home with a few acres of land that would someday become Alpha Beta Hops outside of downtown Ashland, he’d never even laid eyes on the property. And he had a pretty good reason — Pierce was in the Indian Ocean on an aircraft carrier. As a Naval intelligence officer, he’d previously spent four years stationed in Munich, which is in some ways like being sentenced to an endless Oktoberfest. It would be nearly impossible to emerge from a stint in beer-soaked Bavaria without becoming enamored with brewing. Pierce said that’s where he “got the beer bug” and had hoped to spend his last year in Germany before retirement, but the military had other plans. That’s how he found himself on an aircraft carrier a world away from Oregon while authorizing the purchase of a mystery farm where he’d soon start turning the soil.
Pierce’s wife actually found the place on the side of I-5 with yellowing grass looking toward the lush, green valley where others warned there wasn’t any water for agriculture. While the Carney clay ground in those parts might be a bit stubborn, stuff grows. But before they could even get to that point, there was enough demolition and rehabilitation to be done that the property could’ve been the focus of an HGTV home improvement show.
“So [my wife] said, ‘Don’t worry, we can fix it up.’ It was a wreck,” Pierce said laughing. “Oh it was horrible. Shag rug.”
Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops. By then, his two grown sons had boomeranged back to Ashland after fulfilling that near-universal urge among young adults to get the heck out of where they’d been raised only to return after realizing their hometown was not so bad after all. Morgan Pierce and wife Jessica now live on the farm in a converted burgundy-hued barn, while younger brother Spencer Pierce is just a short drive away. The brothers became an integral part of the business after Morgan Pierce discovered his dad had a new crop on the way.
“Came home one day and he was out in the field plowing rows,” Morgan Pierce recalled. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘We’re planting hops! I’ve got 3,000 of them coming in a couple of weeks.’”
“It’s been a huge family project because we built the whole thing,” Steve Pierce said.
That includes every building, base to ceiling, and infrastructure on the hop field — aside from the bolts and wires. Every other aspect, from the solar kiln to the walk-in cooler, was constructed by the Pierces. It took eight months to get the terrain ready starting about 10 years ago. That meant unloading 120 yards of steaming organic compost that left faces and hands streaked in soot-colored grime that had them looking “like a couple of coal miners,” Steve Pierce described. After that, 160 20-foot-tall juniper poles had to be pushed into place. Wire was strung in the spitting snow to create what looks like an oversized clothesline where they’d dangle 4,000 paper strings. The family planted 1,800 rhizomes that first year with the goal of giving Ashland-area beer makers a neighbor they could buy hops from. Steve Pierce also wanted to help revive the crop in Southern Oregon.
“So it was just an idea that hop yards had been around earlier in the 20th century — kind of bringing it back,” he said.
What exactly happened, then, to Rogue Valley’s once-thriving hop farms, most in and around Grants Pass? Answering that question is no easy task since archives are scattered and memories fade. It doesn’t seem plausible that one day acres of aromatic buds suddenly sat bare. After all, Josephine County harvested 2,086,400 pounds of hops in 1946, according to “The Hop Press: A Memorandum of What’s Brewin’” from the Oregon State College (now University) Extension Service. Jackson County, while not as prolific, still saw a haul of 67,130 pounds that same year. Tracking down the trail of documents and people who were there begins to fill in the gaps about the hop farm disappearance. Steve Pierce chalked it up to the business of agriculture.
“Hops have always been a very volatile crop, and the price just shoots up and down. Grants Pass had a huge hop yard and that went out of business,” he explained. “But until the craft brewing thing started, where there were so many breweries around, the price stopped fluctuating as much and you could get a pretty good price for hops. So that made it more viable.”
Grants Pass was actually a standout growing area for the Cluster variety, which was being decimated farther north.
“The Willamette Valley was fighting and eventually losing the battle to save Cluster hops from downy mildew, a disease that was introduced accidentally in the late 1920s,” according to Dr. Al Haunold, a now-retired United States Department of Agriculture hop researcher.
Dr. Haunold first visited the remaining two Grants Pass hop growers in the late 1960s with plant pathologist and groundbreaking hop research Jack Horner. They’d been told that there were five farms in the area at one point, but all that still stood was an approximately 250-acre field owned by Chuck Lathrop and another 150 acres that belonged to Mel King.
“They both grew late Clusters, a vigorous hop with good yields and alpha acids content ranging from six to about eight percent,” Dr. Haunold said, having come back to Southern Oregon at least once a year during that time. “When Talisman, a Cluster-derived hop ... was introduced to Grants Pass, it produced even better yields than late Clusters. And some Cluster fields were replaced with Talisman, despite a slight preference from brewers for Grants Pass Clusters.”
Even though hops continued to flourish, there appeared to be competition for land with other crops, particularly fruit — perhaps most famously Harry & David’s Royal Riviera Pear. Dr. Haunold recalls that Lathrop mentioned getting offers for his fields from both pear and poultry farms. King eventually sold in the 1970s. Lathrop continued farming after his son, who worked with him, suffered severe injuries in a fall while performing maintenance on a hop picker. What finally prompted Lathrop to take an offer for the property — and the timeline — is still uncertain, but growers and researchers have settled on a few theories.
Just as today’s beer drinkers are always chasing the new, exciting hop varieties were debuting in the 1980s and Cluster just couldn’t keep up. Ultimately, it was an old hop that was falling out of favor with producers.
“It sounds like the biggest factor is the fact that there was just one farm down there. They’re kind of an island,” said Michelle Palacios, administrator with the Oregon Hop Commission. “And they grew a variety that was not very popular at the time, and so they had to make a decision: Do we plant something else or do we close shop? And it looks like their decision was to close shop.”
“Perhaps pricing pressures from other higher-alpha hops and also increasing land values convinced Mr. Lathrop to sell his operations,” said Dr. Haunold.
He wasn’t quite sure what became of the land, though Dr. Haunold speculated the pear farm snatched it up. Indeed, fruit bound for those Harry & David gift baskets was grown there by Wild River Orchards and then a family took over the pear trees. The property now feeds individuals in need of assistance thanks to the Josephine County Food Bank, which plants a variety of produce, and the City of Grants Pass.
Now it appears another island of hops has emerged in Southern Oregon. Steve Pierce has hosted plenty of visitors allured by the brewing industry with hopes of starting their own farm, but it’s unclear whether any had success. Even if the Pierce family is the only grower with bines crawling skyward for miles, solitude is not a deterrent.
Farming at Alpha Beta is more of a way of life. It’s where two miniature donkeys — Charlie Brown and Lucy — begin braying for attention first thing in the morning as soon as they hear their owner Morgan Pierce’s voice. It’s where his 4-year-old daughter can wrestle with the dog near the hop yard, and the dog will never tire of trying to get the ornery lamb on the other side of the fence to play. It’s where travelers from another state or country become family — even if only for a few days or months thanks to the Pierces’ participation in Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF), an exchange program for would-be farmers. Volunteers give their labor in order to learn from the producer along with the promise of two meals per day and a place to camp. Alpha Beta Hops relies on their help much like farms decades ago needed migrant workers who erected tent cities and picked. But the experience changes the volunteer lives, too. Steve and Morgan Pierce list off names and tell stories of past WWOOF participants like they’re teachers recounting favorite students: a nano-electrical engineer now travels the globe, farm to farm, with his guitar through the program; a man who desperately needed a change from his job denying health claims spent six months farming with the Pierces.
“We are introduced to all sorts of people from everywhere, all different backgrounds,” Morgan Pierce said. “The WWOOFer program is amazing. We couldn’t do the maintenance and the harvesting and everything without the WWOOFers and our community.”
And those vital members to the Alpha Beta operation gathered at the farm once again for an all-day pickathon at the very end of August. Fingers turned yellow and sticky as buckets filled. Food energized their efforts and beer fed conversation among four generations of people, including the Pierce family. Stories are always shared by those who used to help harvest in Grants Pass — back when cones were a bit harder to get to even with the use of slacked lines and stilts.
“We’re supposed to be picking...” Morgan Pierce described of the annual tradition.
“Well, a lot of talking,” added his dad. “It’s a lot of talking and just constant hum — almost like being in a beer garden.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.