By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The Ridgewalker Brewing taproom in Forest Grove is in an old building that has, among other things, been a church. You’ll catch the aroma of barbecue coming from a deck on one side of the building. And, as you trot up the steps to the door, you’ll pass a hand-drawn paper sign telling you the place is “Now Open.”
None of this prepares you for what’s to come once inside. Jeff Farrar, the taproom manager, says “It’s nice when you see the door open and you see those eyes, like ‘Wow.’”
The tall room is bright and airy. A 700-pound table made of a single piece of big leaf oak runs down the center of the room. Tables of the same heavily burled wood line the walls on either side. Industrial-style lamps hang from the ceiling. The bar, at the back of the room, is as clean and sleek looking as anything you’d find a 45-minute drive east in downtown Portland.
“This taproom wasn’t the original plan.” Justin Marble is seated next to Storm Brown; the brewery was their idea. “We had to deviate from that plan. We wanted to go big into production, but that was probably naive.”
This story has a couple of deviations actually; so let’s back up to a time when Storm was 5 years old. His father, an economics professor, made beer and let Storm mill the grain for him. A few years later, Storm and Justin met when they went head-to-head in the fifth grade for a Forest Grove School District spelling bee. Storm won, but a friendship had been seeded.
Jumping ahead, Storm says “it was after college, Justin and I moved in with Jason Cirlincione, another partner, and we started homebrewing pretty regularly. So, we always talked about starting our own brewery. Every homebrewer does.”
Life gets in the way here. Justin and Jason started businesses; Justin is an arborist and Jason is in construction. Storm was a bit unsettled. He spent seven years in the Army, including one year in Iraq.
After the military, Storm decided to walk. As a teen, he and friends spent time hiking Oregon’s Coast Range, as well as the Cascades. So, a through-hike of the Pacific Coast Trail, from Mexico to Canada, seemed like a good idea. But when he came off the trail, he still wasn’t sure what to do. Jason reminded him of the daydream of starting a brewery and also suggested the name Ridgewalker, which evoked Storm’s passion for hiking.
The three friends started on a 1-barrel system — the same one they’re brewing on today — and simply developed recipes for styles they liked. “We are fans of American-style beers. Big, clean American ales. Justin is much more a fan of English styles, so we sort of go back and forth. Also other European styles — pilsner, lagers.” (Try their Wickiup Wheat. It’s a refreshing, slightly citrusy hefeweizen.)
As the beer got better, the team did some tap takeovers and got into some businesses in Beaverton and Hillsboro. But they wanted to stay closer to home.
Storm says they all have ties to Forest Grove. The town has helped get their business started and “we’re realizing if we want to be part of Forest Grove, and all of us are from Forest Grove, then having a storefront here is really something that is going to get our name out there.”
Storm, Justin, Jason and Jason’s brother Chris, are jugglers right now. They have jobs away from the brewery and Justin is married with a child. He says they are all, essentially, volunteers in their own business but “once you get into something, you have to stick with it.”
They also have a roadmap for the years ahead. It’s based on a consistently high-quality product, which will allow them to grow to a 4- or 5-barrel system, get into more pubs and perhaps can their beer.
For now, they are building their base as a family-friendly taproom. They serve food, including that barbecue. Business picks up at about 5 p.m. each day as downtown folks get off work and classes at nearby Pacific University end for the day.
The four friends want to give their hometown what it has given them — a place to meet, be comfortable and share some good times.
1921 21st Ave., Forest Grove
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.