By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
A small city, a little off the beaten path, in a beautiful region, known for its outdoor activities and increasingly renowned for its craft beer. It might sound like Bend — but it can also describe Bend-based Deschutes Brewing’s recently announced new East Coast home: Roanoke, Va.
To be clear, this isn’t the mysterious vanishing colony you learned about in school (that’s Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina). Nicknamed “Star City of the South” for the 88.5-foot neon star atop Mill Mountain near downtown, Roanoke has been many things. Originally established in 1852 as Big Lick (it was the site of a large salt lick known for attracting wildlife), the city officially became known as Roanoke in 1882. The city of 98,465 has been a popular train stop and manufacturing town, and today is a scenic city to visit when driving I-81 or the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 469-mile scenic National Parkway and All-American Road that runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.
There’s a mix of Southern charm and an emerging New South. Like many other small American cities, Roanoke has been redefining itself with small, artisanal businesses in travel, food, art, the outdoors, wine — and craft beer.
“It’s similar to Bend 15 years ago,” says Michael LaLonde, president of Deschutes Brewing. “In Central Oregon there’s nearly 30 breweries, and most of those have developed in the past five to 10 years. Within Roanoke and a little outside, there’s a half-dozen breweries now.” Those breweries have also been welcoming neighbors. “They have been so gracious,” says LaLonde. “Every one of those brewers came to the announcement and sat down with us. There’s a similar ethos of getting along and working together that we see in Bend.” The brewing industry has other support too, with a brewing program at nearby Virginia Tech as well as programs at the local community college.
Founded in 1988, today Deschutes now distributes to 28 states and the District of Columbia. But as a brewery distributes farther from its base of operations, transportation and environmental costs increase — as does the risk of quality control problems. Like Full Sail, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, Deschutes decided to set up a new production and distribution facility east of the Mississippi — or, as LaLonde explains, east of Omaha, Neb., the midpoint between Bend and Roanoke.
The two-year search took Deschutes to hundreds of locations, and the decision could have gone a different way. Except that Roanokers launched a social campaign, #Deschutes2Rke, to persuade the company that a small valley city was a better fit than those bigger East Coast places who, as Southern charm dictates, will remain nameless.
“It was amazing,” says LaLonde. “They sent me Louisville Slugger bats engraved with #Deschutes2Rke. Local breweries sent T-shirts. One guy even wrote and recorded a song, sent us the lyrics and CD. They welcomed us with open arms and the hospitality was amazing.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the municipal water supply is similar to Bend’s, and that Deschutes found a slab-ready location (complete with access to a bicycle greenway and a creek). With site construction expected to begin in 2019, by 2021 Deschutes plans to have more than 100 personnel on site and be shipping beer throughout the region. With initial production of approximately 150,000 barrels, LaLonde expects the Roanoke facility to eventually become bigger than the Bend brewery. East Coast beers will include Deschutes’ three most popular flagship beers and four seasonal beers. Regional beers will also be produced and distributed more broadly if they prove popular in the market.
Although opening day is years away, Deschutes is already on the ground, speaking at engagements and sponsoring events. On Aug. 27, Deschutes will host a one-day setup of its 40-tap Street Pub. The family-friendly event will feature live music and cooking demonstrations, with proceeds going to a local charity.
“We were looking for a place similar to Bend where there was lots of outdoor activities that our employees could participate in,” says LaLonde. “We have people who love to trail ride, mountain bike, fly fish. Someone who was in Bend could move to Roanoke and feel comfortable.” LaLonde estimates 15-30 Bend personnel will relocate to Virginia, and there’s plenty of excitement — one person has already bought a house there.
Things to See and Do in Roanoke, Va.:
—See the city and surrounding Roanoke Valley from Mill Mountain Star, the world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star
—Traveling with kids? Ride the Zoo Choo at Mill Mountain Zoo
—Drive or bike the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway
—Tour the Virginia Museum of Transportation, Center in the Square and Science Museum of Western Virginia
—Hike part of the Appalachian Trail
—Go swimming in or boating on Smith Mountain Lake
Visit Area Breweries
--Big Lick Brewing Company
--Chaos Mountain Brewing
--Flying Mouse Brewery
--Foggy Ridge Cider
--Hammer & Forge Brewing Company
--Parkway Brewing Company
--Sunken City Brewing Company
--Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers
--Twin Creeks Brewing Company
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.