By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The space formerly occupied by Rat Hole Brew Pub is now home to North Rim Brewing. The new location for Rat Hole is in Sunriver. The backstory is somewhat complicated with beer being the common denominator — along with family.
We’ll begin with North Rim because it’s the newcomer. The brewery, started in northeast Bend in 2014, had just lost both its beer maker and reputation when Chris Hudson took over as head brewer last October. He immediately started turning things around. When he first met with the owner and looked over the 10-barrel brewhouse, he was stunned at the lack of standard operating procedures and equipment. Hudson said, “After I cleaned everything up, I revamped it. All the recipes are my own.”
Hudson brings more than eight years of experience and skill to North Rim, where he is not only the head brewer, but also the only full-time employee.
“I started brewing on a fluke,” he said. Back home in Joseph, he was 23 years old and broke after his third season of commercial crab fishing. Looking for something different, he went to Terminal Gravity Brewing in nearby Enterprise where owner Steve Carper hired him as a keg washer. Two days after he started, two of their four brewers quit. That allowed Hudson to bypass keg washing and immediately begin learning to brew with Carper. “I got into it and really liked it,” he said.
Five years later, he had moved up to assistant brewer when Widmer hired him. He followed that with a short brewing stint at Three Creeks Brewing Company in Sisters. “I prefer the artistry of brewing, changing things up and trying new recipes,” he said. “I was looking for that perfect place.”
On a whim, he went to a festival and met the North Rim rep, who told him their brewer was quitting. He liked the challenge and saw the opportunity to do things his way.
“My most prized beer is the South Slope Saison. It’s in production right now. Personally, I don’t drink IPAs and IRAs. My dream and goal with brewing is to create beers in the 4-6 percent ABV range that are drinkable, the kind where you can enjoy three or four in one sitting.”
Around the same time Hudson took over at North Rim, the Rat Hole Brew Pub in Bend was finding itself in a bind for beer. Les Keele, retired teacher and principal, owns the pub with marketing director Ken Deuser, his brother-in-law. They’re not the only people with important roles at the brewery. Al Toepfer makes all of Rat Hole’s beer. And last October when he and his wife Susan Toepfer, Keele’s sister, opened a second Rat Hole site in Sunriver. There wasn’t enough beer to sustain both places.
“Even when we were the only outlet, we frequently ran out of some beers,” said Keele. “We could go through four kegs in a week.”
The Rat Hole team met with Hudson, tasted his beer and felt it would be a great fit at the brewery’s Bend location. Deuser said, “His style of beer matched up with our original beer intent.”
Keele is planning on holding Meet the Brewer events on Sunday afternoons this summer. “Chris is very personable and knowledgeable. People will enjoy talking with him and getting to know him.” He also plans on hosting outside block parties featuring North Rim beers. North Rim may have a tasting room in the distant future, but the former Rat Hole pub with its Old Mill District location, comfortable deck and established menu with a Southwestern flair is a great fit.
Rat Hole’s Inception and Evolution
Al Toepfer got into brewing one Christmas years ago when Susan gave him a Mr. Beer kit and his first batch turned out great. He took to brewing right away and expanded his home operation from their kitchen table to the bathtub to their backyard and started winning awards for his creations. “He’s very creative and comes up with unique ideas that everyone likes,” said Susan Toepfer.
While his beers were getting better and better, his full time job as an auto technician in Seattle was becoming more and more challenging because of back issues. That’s when Susan Toepfer’s brother invited the Toepfers to come to Central Oregon, a place they loved, and set up a brewery in the aging 700-square-foot outbuilding on his ranch in southeast Bend.
Cleaning up the “rat hole” of a shed was a full-time project that took the help of family and friends. While processing the paperwork was a years-long process, the 2-5 barrel nano-brewery finally became operational in 2010.
“Everybody loved the beer,” said Deuser. “We were hand-bottling 22s as fast as we could.”
Keele said, “Eventually we realized we needed a tasting room. Because of the agricultural zoning, we couldn’t have one at the barn, so we began to look for a place.”
Fortunately, a space opened in the Old Mill District when a brewery moved to a larger spot. Rat Hole Brew Pub took over the lease and opened in 2013. Like many new businesses, there were ups and downs. Still, the beer was popular and the quality was always high, with Al Toepfer taking home awards, including a silver and bronze at the Denver International Beer Competition in 2013.
The Toepfers moved to the Sunriver area and started thinking about opening a larger brewery, preferably a 7-barrel one. They also wanted a new location, knowing their “rat hole” brewery was short-lived since Keele was selling the ranch. They found an interesting combination of warehouse and restaurant space on the same lot, more than 6,000 square feet in all, and opened up Rat Hole Brewing in Sunriver last October. The Toepfers did most of the remodeling and refurbishing of the bar and restaurant. They recruited David Cohen, a creative chef who had just sold his half of Rockin’ Dave’s Bagel Bistro in Bend. “The menu is not typical pub fare,” said Susan Toepfer. Some favorite dishes include Dungeness crab cakes, a chile buttermilk-marinated roasted chicken and a Monte Cristo sandwich — all made with fresh ingredients. They also now serve breakfast.
The 2.5-barrel brewing system is installed in the warehouse attached to the restaurant. Susan Toepfer said, “We’re in the process of getting approval from the county to open the brewery. Once we do, we’ll be able to brew seven days a week because we’re so close.” When it’s up and running, she plans to seek funding for a 7-barrel system. In the meantime, they have 21 guest taps and a small amount of Rat Hole beer flowing.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.