By Ezra Johnson-Greenough
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In an industry full of fresh-faced brewers with their shiny kettles and polished mash tuns, the breweries that make into the double digits become the hard-nosed veterans. That means Lompoc Brewing’s 20th anniversary is nothing to shake a mash paddle at.
After 20 years in Portland, you’re practically an original. And that leaves some of Lompoc’s older pubs as icons in this city. Take, for instance, the Hedge House on the always-busy and trendy Southeast Division Street in a 1912 craftsman-style bungalow, the yard intact doing double duty as a patio. The spot feels like a throwback to a Portland of rough-edged comfort before gleaming condos and concrete storefronts began replacing all of the buildings with character.
The New Old Lompoc was one such Portland institution, a vestige of the old Northwest Portland 23rd Avenue before it became a destination for boutiques and cafes. The Lompoc story began there. Jerry Fechter was fresh out of college and returned from a post-graduation trip to Europe where he discovered beer. He decided to move to Portland.
“I had a real job for a year and I didn’t like it, so I started working for these two guys (Bob Rice and Pete Goforth) that owned a whole bunch of restaurants.” Fechter ended up at the Old Lompoc Tavern — then just a pub serving cheap drinks. “I started bartending for these guys, counting the money, being the errand boy and stuff and homebrewing at the same time” said Fechter.
At some point, Goforth and Rice decided they wanted to start a brewery at Old Lompoc Tavern, and Fechter knew a little about the business through friends who worked for McMenamins as well as his background in homebrewing. The year was 1994 and the brewing scene was in its infancy.
“BridgePort was around. McMenamins was around. The hot beer was Full Sail Amber and Golden.” After laying out plans to start a brewery, Fechter took the short course at Siebel Institute in Chicago and brewed the first Old Lompoc beer in 1996. It was a bitter Marzen.
“The theory was, let’s make an over-the-top malty beer and just bitter the shit out of it because we didn’t really know where the additions would be from the kettle. If it was too thin, we could call it something different. If it were too bitter ... we had options was the point.”
Fast forward to 2000. It’s a new millennium and the Old Lompoc is struggling as a tavern. They were brewing 300-350 barrels a year, but the place just wasn’t very busy. During a game of golf, Fechter offered to purchase the Old Lompoc from Goforth and Rice, even though there was only three years left on the lease. A few potential business partners fell through, but Fechter eventually connected with the late, great Don Younger, owner of Horse Brass Pub. They upgraded the menu and made the beers a little hoppier, eventually reopening the pub as “New Old Lompoc Tavern” in 2001. The addition of a patio to the space also proved to be a success.
Jerry opened the second outlet, Lompoc Hedge House, in 2003. Fifth Quadrant came in 2005 and the Oaks Bottom Public House a year later. “Opening each pub seemed like milestones. We wanted them to be ‘Lompoc,’ but also different.”
Lompoc’s current head brewer Bryan Keilty joined the brewery in 2006, which is when the production brewery on North Williams Avenue opened. A 10-year veteran, he has overseen the expansion of brands and the changing landscape in beer styles and diversity. He’s also experienced Lompoc’s growth from brewpub to distributing brewery.
“I inform every potential hire that you will see every aspect of the industry in a small craft brewery,” Keilty said. “We wear so many different hats! At Lompoc, we rotate brewing and cellaring duties — but we also work on the bottling line, perform tastings in the grocery store, deliver kegs, plan release parties, help with label design and social media. The list goes on.”
Keilty’s culinary background shows in his more balanced approached to beers. During his tenure, Lompoc has excelled at producing fruit beers, barrel-aged brews and farmhouse ales. He counts the year-round best seller Proletariat Red as a favorite, “I love the balance between the malt and the hops! Balance is an overlooked aspect in beer, especially in the Northwest.”
Sadly in 2012, the original Lompoc was razed for new condos and retail. Luckily, Fechter secured a spot in the same building to open what is now called simply the “Lompoc Tavern.” The building doesn’t have the same history. The beloved patio is gone. And modern cold, slick feel (an update forced by developer) is a marked departure from Old Lompoc. But there is a wide selection of Lompoc beers, top-of-the-line pub grub and big front windows that open to sidewalk seating.
“It's been 20 years of brewing and evolving and always trying make things better, not be complacent,” Fechter said. “I think our beer and food are the best they have ever been.”
Even so, Fechter went back to the well for Lompoc’s 20th anniversary beer “Zwanzig,” which means “twenty” in German. It’s a re-creation of his very first brew, a bitter Marzen. While Fechter doesn’t have the original recipe, Zwanzig was brewed like he remembers it — with a pale orange color and full malty body. The modern update included eight hop additions and it was tapped during anniversary celebrations in December.
Twenty years in, breweries like Lompoc cannot rest on their accomplishments. It’s more of a struggle than ever to stay relevant and keep pace in a crowded market of new and expanding breweries and experimental brewing styles. Consumers are always looking for something new, which means breweries must constantly get drinkers to return.
“You have to spend more time, money and effort just to remind people that you exist.” said Keilty.
When asked what it is they do differently than others to stand out and stay relevant, Fechter said he didn’t know. But the question sparked something.
“I was trying to figure out about what the next big thing would be. I think about it all the time. I thought it used to be IPAs, and in my mind, in Oregon it dwindled down about eight or nine years ago,” Fechter explained. “Then I thought it was Belgian beers. Sours have really been blowing it up.”
After pausing for a moment, he wondered, “Maybe the next style might be no style.”
The good news is that however saturated Portland becomes, there’s always the draw of a neighborhood pub. And that is where Lompoc excels.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.