By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
A Chinook helicopter looks like a giant pickle, held in the air by enormous blades fore and aft. The rotor wash from the machine can knock a person off their feet. It kicks up so much debris it earned a colorful, slightly obscene, nickname. (Check Google.)
So, Maj. Stephen Bomar, director of public affairs for the Oregon Military Department, says envision “the unit Bravo 1-168 Aviation” flying the latest Chinooks, the CH-47 Delta, “in Kuwait for one year and doing operations in Iraq.” The heat is unbearable. You’re eating dirt and being sandblasted whenever the beasts take off and land.
At the end of each of those 365 days, National Guard members from Oregon and Washington probably wanted nothing more than some air conditioning and a cold beer. The A/C was easier to get overseas than the beer — it’s outlawed in those countries.
But these troops could daydream about what they would get when they got home, besides hugs, kisses and marching bands. Bomar knows “one free beer should do it.”
The “free beer” is a unique, somewhat-secret bottling Rogue Brewery has been doing for nearly 20 years.
In his Salem office, surrounded by bottles of Rogue beer to be donated to the Oregon Military Museum after its renovated, Bomar explains what might be called “Operation Rogue.” It started post-9/11 when Oregon began deploying units to combat zones. “Rogue began recognizing a unit for their service.”
The idea, actually, goes back to the founding of Rogue Brewery in the late 1980s. To “integrate ourselves into the community” was one of the original company goals.
When Rogue moved to Newport, it became part of the Coast Guard community. The “Coasties” were early customers honored with one of the first memorial labels. Company president Brett Joyce says, “the most fun things we do just tend to happen, naturally, because we are there and we’re listening and are open to new things.”
It would’ve been easy for Rogue to bottle some beer, make up a label and hand it out at coming home ceremonies. Instead, Bomar says, the units to be honored work directly with Rogue through the nonprofit Oregon National Guard Association in designing the label and verifying the facts on the bottle. For instance, the label for Sky Daddy Ale — handed out at the Oct. 22 demobilization ceremony for Company B, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment -- featured an airborne Chinook with details about its operations, the 1,000 hours of combat flight time and the million pounds of cargo it airlifted.
Rogue stands off to the side during the official ceremonies but has, President Joyce says, “become a fun part of what we call a souvenir service — a service they really look forward to because it has become a tradition for them. So we get emails from people who say — ‘Hey, I couldn’t make the ceremony, can I get a bottle?’ It’s an honor to be able to help those who do serve.”
Bomar agrees and remembers the biggest bottling Rogue did. “When the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team had its largest mobilization since World War II — it involved multiple states — there were more than 3,500 soldiers. Rogue still did the welcome home.”
Mike Johnson was part of that 2010 ceremony. He was coming back from his second tour. Johnson now works for Rogue, but remembers being impressed “that we have a brewery in Oregon taking time out of their regular course of business to work with the unit to do something really special, to remind them of where they came from and to give back.”
Brett Joyce is slouched in the chair behind the desk in his cluttered Southeast Portland office as he thinks, again, about how this fits Rogue’s community integration goal. “It’s kind of an unwritten agreement — you guys served and we’re happy to serve you up with a bottle of Rogue beer.”
But, after all these years, why not let the world know? Why has it been something of a secret?
“For this project, that is not really the point. People on the inside of it — the families, the friends, the people who serve — enough people know. We don’t do it to run a press release, we don’t blast it on our website. We just do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
The public cannot buy these special bottles. But unit members can pay only $20 if they want a full case.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.