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
By Brian Yaeger
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In the winter, Oregon gets fewer than nine hours of sunup. That’s a lot of darkness. Beer-wise, darkness is something our brewers do very well. Some of those stouts and porters get a big spotlight while others, pardon the expression, are generally left in the dark. There’s no arguing that Deschutes’ The Abyss is a world-class imperial stout or that Barley Brown’s Turmoil deserves to be the award-winning Cascadian Dark Ale that it is. But there are more than 200 breweries across Oregon. Some simply get less lip service; some stellar beers may be overlooked. So in honor of wintry dark ales, especially as imperial stouts get their major love-fest this Valentine’s Day at Fort George Brewery’s Festival of the Dark Arts, take a moment to try and seek out these other opaque and obscure onyx beauties.
Seaside’s eponymous brewery, Seaside Brewing Company gives the arcade and taffy-laden town what it really needed: a brewpub. Their imperial stout, Black Dynamite, lives up to its name in that it’s pitch black and explosively tasty. The beer with bourbon-soaked vanilla beans and cacao nibs (also getting the bourbon treatment) is a show-stopper from first chilled sip to last warmed drop that has the sweetness to not just pair with dessert but replace it, yet the bitterness and roastiness to enjoy snifter after snifter.
At the southern end of the coast in Brookings is Chetco Brewing Company. Michael Frederick and his wife Alex Carr-Frederick launched Chetco as a nanobrewery using their friend James Smith’s 1.5-barrel homebrewing system as their commercial setup. It’s how they make their super-small batch but mighty Block & Tackle. This stout achieves a unique viscosity after aging for six months, and the resulting notes of Baker’s chocolate achieve the right balance between a sweet and dry stout -- just ask the World Beer Cup judges who awarded it a silver medal.
Speaking of award-winning south coast breweries, the aforementioned James Smith is the brewer at Arch Rock Brewing Company in Gold Beach. Although he medaled at last year’s Great American Beer Festival for his lager, State of Jefferson Porter pours a chocolaty brown hinting at the deep chocolate flavor buried under the mocha aroma. Yes, there is a robust maltiness that suggests molasses and brown sugar, but it’s not syrupy on the tongue. The brew is rich from the roasted malts and holds up from first sip to last, then back to first.
In mid-Willamette Valley, two tiny breweries are making some of the most unique stouts in the state. Santiam Brewing is the passion project of nine buddies, only some of them homebrewers, who collectively formed the brewery and cozy tasting room in Salem. Pirate Stout is a rum-barrel aged “tropical export stout” (7.9% ABV) with a fudgy base of chocolate malt and de-bittered black malt that sails through the Bahamas in a dark rum barrel picking up a crew of toasted coconut flakes. Fans of Malibu Rum and Mounds bars are the obvious targets, but the allure of this rich, sweet, voluptuous stout is very easily enjoyed as the meal, not just dessert.
While farther down I-5 in brewery-happy Eugene, Viking is technically a brewery but I like to call it a braggotery since every brew they make has a large honey content. They make a bourbon-aged stout with Meadowfoam honey, which naturally tastes like toasted marshmallow giving it an overall s’more character. But they also make Winter Squash Porter featuring 150 pounds of delicata squash that is hand-roasted and given a honey backbone courtesy of turnip honey. The result is reminiscent of Big Black Jack Imperial Chocolate Pumpkin Porter from their neighbors at Oakshire Brewing but bottles are even rarer to find.
One last pick from a brewery truly off the beaten path is the Chocolate Stout from Dragon’s Gate Brewery in Milton-Freewater near the northeastern corner of the state. Le Morte D’Arthur is a milk stout with cocoa nibs that was once described as a “Fudgsicle, but beer” and has developed a local cult following. Therefore, if you’re heading to this farm-based brewery near Washington’s wine country, bring a growler to share this decadent treat with friends.
Finally, even in Portland there are rare jewels to be treasured. Ex Novo Brewing Company is the most altruistic brewery, donating 100% of its profits to local charities -- but their new Moonstriker is still pure hedonism. This stout is a collaboration with Moonstruck Chocolates and debuted at the Holiday Ale Festival. It features nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and, of course, Moonstruck cocoa along with a fiery kiss of habanero. The result is a creamy, dreamy Mexican hot chocolate stout.
Clearly, the force is strong on the dark side of Oregon’s less-heralded brews.
Oregon breweries in October claimed a total of 22 medals at the Great American Beer Festival, according to reports from the Brewers Association, which organizes the event in Denver each year.
Oregon Breweries brought home seven gold medals, eight silver medals and seven bronzes. As was the case last year, rural Oregon breweries won more medals than Portland metro brewers, who won seven medals. Breweries from Central Oregon won five medals, Eastern Oregon won four, coastal breweries won four, Columbia Gorge area breweries won one, as did Southern Oregon. About half of Oregon’s breweries are in the Portland area.
Winners were selected by an international panel of 222 beer experts from a field of 5,507 entries received from 1,309 U.S. breweries. For complete information, visit http://www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/the-competition/winners.
Of interest, Brian Butenschoen of the Oregon Brewers Guild noted:
· Four breweries tied for most medals at the GABF, with three medals each. Two of these breweries were from Oregon: 10 Barrel Brewing Company and Barley Brown's Brew Pub.
· The gold medal winner in the most-entered category for the second year in a row in the American-Style India Pale Ale category with 279 entries went to Breakside Brewery.
· It was the second year for the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category and for the second year in a row the gold medal went to an Oregon brewery. This year it went to Barley Brown's Brewpub for Fresh Hop Pallet Jack IPA, which won the bronze medal in this category in 2013.
Also of note:
Carrying the south coast brewing banner was Arch Rock of Gold Beach, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this year with a prized GABF gold medal. James Smith is Arch Rock’s brewer. Earlier this year, tiny Chetco Brewery, a few miles south of Arch Rock in Brookings, earned a World Beer Cup gold medal as it celebrated its first-year anniversary. Apparently, south coast breweries know how to hit the ground running.
And the north coast is no slouch: Open less than a year, Astoria’s Buoy Beer Co. won silver for its Dunkel.
After name-changing trials at the beginning of the year, Ground Breaker Brewing of Portland took home the gold medal for gluten-free beer.
“Dark Ale was the first beer to feature a new recipe including roasted lentils in place of oats,” said James Neumeister of Ground Breaker.
Following, in order of gold, silver and bronze, are Oregon’s 2014 medal winners at this year’s GABF.
2014 GABF Medal Winners Made by Oregon Breweries:
Field Beer - Cucumber Crush, 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Bend
Fresh or Wet Hop Ale - Fresh Hop Pallet Jack IPA, Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, Baker City
Indigenous/Regional Beer - Salmonberry Sour, Bend Brewing Co., Bend
Gluten-Free Beer - Dark Ale, Ground Breaker Brewing, Portland
Kellerbier or Zwickelbier - Gold Beach Lager, Arch Rock Brewing Co., Gold Beach
International-Style Pale Ale - Hand Truck Pale Ale, Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, Baker City
American-Style India Pale Ale - Breakside IPA, Breakside Brewery, Milwaukie
American-Style Wheat Beer With Yeast - Hefeweizen, Widmer Brothers Brewing Co., Portland
German-Style Wheat Ale - Weizenbock, 13 Virtues Brewing Co., Portland
American-Style Sour Ale - Myrtle, The Commons Brewery, Portland
American-Style Brett Beer - Peche ‘n Brett, Logsdon Organic Farm Brewery, Hood River
European-Style Dunkel -- Buoy Dunkel, Buoy Beer Co., Astoria
German-Style Kölsch - I’d Like to Buy the World a Kolsch, Old Town Brewing Co., Portland
Classic English-Style Pale Ale -- Caldera Ashland Amber, Caldera Brewing Co., Ashland
American-Style Stout -- Disorder, Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, Baker City
American-Style Strong Pale Ale -- Breakside Wanderlust IPA, Breakside Brewery, Milwaukie
American-Style Wheat Beer - Amber Waves, 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Bend
Belgian-Style Fruit Beer -- Poire du Pélican, Pelican Pub & Brewery, Pacific City
Indigenous/Regional Beer - Sage Fight IPA, Deschutes Brewery, Bend
English-Style Summer Ale - Surfer’s Summer Ale, Pelican Brewing Co., Tillamook
American-Style Black Ale - Turmoil, Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, Baker City
American-Style Stout - P2P, 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Bend
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.