McMenamins recently reached a milestone by producing 1 million kegs in July. The Pacific Northwest institution is well-loved because of its unique properties. You can visit all 53 in Oregon and Washington, including seven historic hotels and eight theater pubs, during your travels. Photo by AJ McGarry
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
On July 2, McMenamins began Oregon Craft Beer Month with a unique milestone: one million kegs. The millionth keg, the raspberry ale Ruby, was racked at 11:39 a.m. at the McMenamins Queen Anne pub in Seattle.
“It is an interesting milestone for us, this whole ‘Keg Million’ business,” says John Richen, Chief Brewery Administrator for McMenamins. “It was crazy. It was daunting. And ultimately, just a huge amount of fun.” But he keeps perspective: “It is a symbolic milestone. There isn’t anything substantially different about keg one million from keg nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand, other than the gravitas of what it stands for to folks inside our brewing ranks.”
The Oregon and Washington chain of more than 50 pubs, breweries and hotels began brewing in 1985, initially releasing 5.5 kegs of Hillsdale Ale at the Hillsdale Brewery & Public House in Southwest Portland. The first year of production reached 83 barrels, or 165 kegs. Five years later in 1990, production had leaped to 12,813 barrels (25,625 kegs). By the turn of the century, McMenamins produced 173,427 barrels in 2000, or 346,853 kegs — more than 30 percent toward one million.
Five years ago, in 2010, production was more than 75 percent of the way: 395,692 barrels, or 791,385 kegs. Now, as of July 15, McMenamins has officially brewed 1,001,806 kegs. While 24 percent of that was produced at the Edgefield Brewery in Troutdale, 76 percent was brewed at “small house” breweries, such as High Street in Eugene, Lighthouse in Lincoln City and Spar in Olympia, Wash.
Of the one million kegs, 89 percent were kegged in Oregon and 11 percent were kegged in Washington. But not one used “kegging robots, automated golden gate fillers, racking line programmed replicants or Amazon drones,” says Richen. “We filled them all ‘the hard way.’”
Early Experiments, Today’s Favorites & Yesterday’s Disasters
Hillsdale Ale gave rise to other standard McMenamins beers enjoyed today, such as Terminator Stout, Hammerhead and Ruby. Originally brewed as extract-based recipes, the ales were switched to all-grain malt bills starting in March 1987. Early experimentation set a precedent that continues — but the brewers are glad that there have been equipment improvements.
“McMenamins pioneer brewers were a rugged breed,” explains Richen. “The brewers’ day started by driving to F.H. Steinbart to pick up their bags of malt. They would then drive to the Barley Mill Pub to crush the grain through the functional malt mill, which serves as the pub’s namesake. After cleaning up the mess and loading the resulting grist back into their vehicles, they would return to the Hillsdale to begin the brewing process. There was great rejoicing when a simple plate mill was purchased and installed in the brewery.”
In 1985 McMenamins released their first fruit beer, named simply Batch No. 2 and made with blackberries growing in the parking lot. The first Terminator Stout (Brew No. 12) was brewed Nov. 19, 1985 and the first Hammerhead (Brew No. 37) was brewed Jan. 25, 1986.
While first year production focused on original standards — Hillsdale Ale, Terminator Stout, Crystal Ale, Hammerhead and Barley Mill Ale — by November 1986 the fledgling brew operation had produced 40 batches of fruit beers between the Hillsdale, Cornelius Pass and Lighthouse breweries. Early fruit batches also included Brew No. 67, a raspberry ale brewed on March 21, 1986.
Today we know it as Ruby.
Despite the regional popularity of bitter beers such as IPAs, Ruby and Hammerhead remain two of the company’s most popular beers, with Ruby alone comprising 21 percent of total output.
Not every experiment has paid off, though.
“We’ve had great success with incorporating fruit, coffee and spices into styles both traditional and untraditional,” says Richen. “Forays into the worlds of garlic, Mars Bars, Cherry Garcia Ice Cream and wormwood were not as successful, which, to be honest, is a tremendous understatement. They were unmitigated disasters.”
With 24 breweries in two states producing more than 70 batches of beer each week, it’s no small challenge to balance brand consistency with freedom to experiment.
“There is so much that has been learned, much of it the hard way,” says Rob Vallance, general manager of McMenamins Breweries. “Most importantly is the big-picture concept of how every facet of the process affects the beer that goes into every glass. You have to be ever-vigilant.”
However, Vallance notes that McMenamins brewers have an “unprecedented amount of freedom with recipe formulation.” Instead of locking down specifications across all the breweries, some beers — such as a standard McMenamins IPA — actually have no official standard recipe.
“Brewers have different philosophies and skill sets in our system,” he explains. “With the standard and seasonal recipes, it is very difficult to create consistency across so many breweries across such long distances with so many hands on so many paddles.”
This creative freedom also reflects simple practicality. “Water tables can be so different,” says Vallance. “Each brewery is its own unique ecosystem. These are neighborhood breweries. We have to accept that our methods will breed some inconsistencies, and it has always been, and always will be, our most daunting challenge to try and minimize those inconsistencies. The goal is always production of a quality end product with a nod to the stamps the various regional factors place on a beer.”
Creative license, though, does have limits. “We’ll let our brewers try pretty much anything,” says Vallance. “Once anyway.”
The Path to 2 Million
“Having worked in this craft beer business since 1987,” says Richen, “I was unexpectedly moved seeing the listing of the 195 names of folks who put the beer into those million kegs since 1985, many of them in batches with a number of kegs you could count with the fingers on two hands. I pictured faces of people I hadn’t seen or even thought of in years.”
Now as they look ahead, Vallance and Richen wonder what the path to 2 million kegs looks like.
“It certainly won’t take us 30 more years,” says Vallance. “Probably between 15 and 20.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.