By Alethea Smartt LaRowe
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Midway between Clackamas and Estacada, and less than a half mile from the banks of the Clackamas River, you can find some excellent beer served out of a bright red barn near the back of a residential property. Nestled among bucolic pasture land and Christmas tree farms, Bent Shovel Brewing may require a little effort to reach, but you will be rewarded with a solid lineup of at least eight (and up to 11) different brewed-on-premises beers, along with a guest cider tap.
Rick Strauss, an IT professional by day, is the brewer, and his wife Shelly handles other aspects of the business. Their barn was originally a repository for “too much stuff,” but it eventually morphed into Rick’s man cave where he has homebrewed for nine years. After entering his brews in some local competitions, Rick cultivated a peer group that acted as a sounding board and helped him refine recipes and processes.
In 2011, Rick won Best in Show at the Cheers to Belgian Beers homebrew competition and was awarded an opportunity to scale up and brew his recipe as a guest at Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis. While brewing at Block 15, as Rick was shoveling out the mash, Nick Arzner, the owner of the Corvallis brewery, said “Hey, we’ve never put that much grain in the mash tun before” and Rick replied, “I guess I’m going to bend your shovel.” The idea stuck and the resulting beer was released by Block 15 as Bent Shovel Belgian Dark Strong.
Beyond that experience, Rick also gives a lot of credit to the Green Dragon Brew Crew, with whom he brewed for a couple of years — the organization ultimately serving as a launch pad for his brewery. “That’s where I got my first taste of bringing a product to market and I am thankful that Rogue pays for the program and supports the homebrewing community. That experience helped me get to where I am today.”
Rick is like many homebrewers who have gotten lots of positive feedback on their beers. “You say ‘What if I started my own brewery?’ I figured I wasn’t getting any younger. It’s pretty physical work. And if I’m going to do this, let’s do it now because you only live once.” When the decision was finalized in May 2014, Rick instantly knew what he wanted to name his new brewery. With Nick Arzner’s blessing, Bent Shovel Brewing was born.
Officially open since Labor Day weekend in 2015, the brewery consists of a 5-barrel brewhouse. Rick can have 20 barrels of beer in production at one time and he typically brews in 10-barrel batches. “At this point I’m brewing what interests me,” Rick says. “That’s the great thing about beer consumers in this area. They’re adventurous and they’ll drive across the county to find this little place. Our focus is to always put our best beer in front of the consumer!”
Many of Bent Shovel’s beers are “classic styles, exceptionally well-executed.” Their pilsner has been really well-received as has their Schwarzbier, which should be on tap again this summer. Other favorites are the Clashing Plaids Irish Red and CiPinON IPA, which was originally released last December. Made with orange peel with a hint of piney bitterness, the beer is light and refreshing, making it the perfect summer IPA.
Currently Rick is self-distributing kegs to about 20 accounts. The majority of his sales are in Sandy, Gresham, the Clackamas/Sunnyside corridor and Sherwood, but you can usually find a Bent Shovel beer at The Civic Taproom & Bottle Shop in Southwest Portland. Rick does not have any imminent plans to bottle or can, but definitely intends to bottle in the future.
Now Rick’s early successes in brewing have come full circle. At the dart throw for this year’s Cheers to Belgian Beers, the result was once again dark and strong. Rick decided to brew the same beer he made in 2011, but with the current yeast strain (58 Lioness). The stainless steel-fermented beer called Namesake is a limited release — the festival received one keg, several more kegs were delivered to a couple of key accounts and some was reserved for a tap at the brewery. The remainder is being put away until this fall and will be re-released along with a whiskey barrel-aged version.
The unique setting is only part of the charm of Bent Shovel. Drinking beer served directly by the owners/brewers is a “great opportunity to get acquainted with our customers,” says Rick. “People wouldn’t think twice about going out to a rural area for a glass of wine, especially a rare vintage that’s only available at the winery. We just happen to be a brewery that has a similar vibe.”
Bent Shovel Brewing has expanded its hours for the summer. You’re welcome to bring outside food to enjoy with your beers, as this is the perfect spot for a picnic.
Bent Shovel Brewing
[a] 21678 S. Latourette Road, Oregon City
[h] Fridays 3-8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays Noon to 8 p.m.
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Bryce Morrow was sliding easily into his brewery project.
In five years he, his father and father-in-law went from stovetop brewers to having the first legal brewery in a home garage in Oregon.
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau smiled benevolently on what Bryce was doing. His luck continued when, one day while the garage door was open, a dog-walking neighbor happened by and caught a whiff of brewing beer. The neighbor owns a barbecue joint and offered to carry some of Bryce’s beer.
Soon, Bryce and his father Craig -- both Oregon City boys — went shopping for a brewery location. They found it in an old auto showroom at the corner of 14th and Washington Streets.
While father-in-law Rajiam Pursifull was experimenting with brews -- a marionberry beer, a chocolate pale ale, a sour and, of course, the Oregon-requisite IPA — Bryce and Craig outfitted their new space for a 3-barrel brewing system and taproom. Oregon City Brewing Company opened Nov. 15, 2014.
On a concrete pad outside the taproom, below a tricky sign that seems, at first glance, to promise FREE BEER*, Bryce invited a rotating roster of food trucks to park and dish up. “People loved it,” Bryce and Craig agree. “We contacted the best food trucks that we liked in Portland. They did really well and the people, all of our customers, really love it.” Bryce wants the food for another reason. The OLCC allows parents to bring in underage children when the food trucks are on site and Bryce believes family business is key to success.
But then came the first bump in Bryce’s plans. He received a couple of cease-and-desist letters from Oregon City officials and found out why there aren’t any food trucks in Oregon City. A few years back, the city banned them from downtown.
The city will allow food trucks on the old Blue Heron mill site on the Willamette River if it is developed as is hoped. Also, the community development director has said he thinks city ordinances can be revamped to allow trucks elsewhere, but things are moving slowly. Bryce says he understands. “They’re busy and they’ve got a lot of things going. I don’t expect them to drop everything else they’re doing and take up this initiative.”
This is where good business and politics come together. Besides beer, Bryce also sells shoes. He is the CEO and co-founder of Solestruck, an online shoe company with just one brick-and-mortar store in Portland’s Pearl District. With a history, then, of giving people what they want, Bryce decided to ask Oregon City what it wants. He says an informal survey in the taproom garnered about 2,500 pro-food truck signatures in three weeks. Of course, some of the great political movements in history have begun over a beer or two and since Oregonians love to vote on things, the successful survey convinced Bryce: “We’re going to pursue putting it on the ballot in November, so it would be a voter initiative.”
Getting products, beer or shoes, to customers is what drives Bryce. After being open for just over six months, he says, “We’re going to eventually increase our capacity and we’ll upgrade our warehouse. But we want to make sure when we do that it is the right thing for us.”
Ahead of that, the brewery will soon be offering Crowlers. Bryce, smiling like a kid with a new toy, says “We have something unique coming that I’ve just ordered from Oskar Blues (a Colorado brewery), a Crowler system.” It uses a special machine to draft fill and seal a 32-ounce can in about two seconds. It keeps the beer fresh until you pull the tab and pour it out.
The Oregon City Brewing Company taproom offers more than OCB beer. Hop on a stool at the bar, look above the turntable and the shelves of vinyl records and you’ll see four big LCD screens. They are digital menus announcing 44 selections from other breweries, cider makers, wineries and even some root beer. All of it is aimed at helping people meet and fall in love with the best beer.
*And about that sign at the corner of 14th and Washington Streets -- it does say “FREE BEER” in large letters, but look closely. In smaller letters you’ll see the word “Wi-Fi” below “FREE” and the word “Great” above “BEER.”
Oregon City Brewing
[a] 1401 Washington St., Oregon City
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It took 20 years, but Tim Hohl was finally living a homebrewer’s dream. He had a world-class brewer cornered and was going to make him taste his latest, made-it-in-the-garage creation.
Hohl is the news director at Portland’s KPAM radio and hosts the weekly “First Edition Beer Geek” program. “I had met Dave Fleming as part of an interview,” Hohl explains. “He was at Lompoc as their head brewer. I knew he was sort of beer royalty when it came to brewers in Portland.”
Hohl had made a batch of Cascadian dark ale and, while he had Fleming in studio, asked him to try it. Fleming remembers, “I get a lot of home brews given to me. Ninety percent of it is just OK. But Tim’s beer was quite good.” In fact, Hohl says, it was so impressive they brewed a 7-barrel batch of it at the New Old Lompoc brewery in Northwest Portland. “We called it ‘Black Hole’ and it was gone within two weeks,” says Fleming.
A similar meeting between two like-minded men also happened in Oregon about 170 years ago. It would, eventually, give name to what Hohl is about to open.
But first, back to the obvious question you ask a new brewery owner: Why beer? Before talking beer, or about using a kit to make his first batch, Hohl admits, “it’s less about a love of beer and more about a fascination with the people in the industry. It’s such a creative, collaborative environment. It’s more about people.”
Being about people is why Hohl chose an Oregon City location for his brewery. “It’s a beer drinking town.” And it’s his love of what people do — make history — that gave him an idea for a beer program. “We want to brew a regular line of heritage ales, beers based on historical recipes. Our second flagship beer will be what we are calling ‘George’s Honest Ale.’ It’s based on a recipe that is in one of George Washington’s journals.” Hohl says the beer is made with a lot of molasses, since that was the primary fermentable in Washington’s day. Hohl and Fleming did a test batch and say it got good feedback.
It’s also the newsman’s sense of history which prompted the name for Hohl’s brewery. Had he been around in 1845, Hohl might have reported: “It was at a dinner party in Oregon City’s Ermatinger House where two bearded men were squabbling about what to name a 640-acre clearing along the Willamette River. Someone suggested a coin toss and dug a copper penny out of a pocket. Asa Lovejoy, from Boston, called tails. Francis Pettygrove, from Portland, Maine, called heads. The shiny coin was flipped in the air. The light of kerosene lamps caught the image of Lady Liberty on one side of the spinning coin and the words ‘one cent’ on the other. Three times the coin was launched toward the ceiling. Twice it landed heads up. The city of Portland had a name." And, 170 years later, so does Hohl’s brewery — it’s "Coin Toss."
But starting a new brewery is anything but a simple coin toss for Hohl. “I’m really focused on doing it right. How do you make it something you love but also a viable business model? We decided it’s going to be 10 barrels, which is a lot, but then let’s figure out how to make this a business we can get off the ground and build.” Fleming gave Hohl his “face reality” speech by explaining, “There’s no money in this.” But he then jumped in with some advice for attracting customers: “Let’s make Oregon City ale that’s a lighter beer that will get people in the door to check us out.” Fleming calls that matriculation ale. It teaches customers what you can do and makes it more likely that they’ll try more flavorful brews.
Hohl thinks he could be at the front door of a beer boom in Oregon’s first incorporated city (Editor's Note: Astoria was Oregon's first settlement). He sees the possibility for a handful of new breweries to arise in Oregon City in the next year or so. If he’s right, maybe folks will forget that other coin toss and just enjoy the one at 14214 Fir St. in Oregon City. It opens this summer.
Special thanks to Colin Preston, owner of Practical Fusion in Portland. He is making the brewhouse for Coin Toss, just as he has for dozens of other breweries around the U.S. He sat in as I talked beer with Tim Hohl and Dave Fleming.
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The bottom blew out of the carboy the first time Brandon and Greg Neldner made beer. When Brandon got home from work, the doomed brew was dripping through the dining room floor and coming close to splashing into a fish tank in the basement. After mopping up, Brandon’s understanding wife Brandie agreed to let them try again.
It’s a couple of years later and now the Neldners have picked up some partners and are laying out plans to open a brewery housed in a small walled-in carport in the backyard of their Oregon City home.
“Honestly, it kinda started as almost a gag,” is the way Brandon starts to explain how this brewery got started. “For Christmas, Greg got a Mr. Beer kit. And we’re like, we both like beer; let’s go ahead and make the beer. We made it. We tried it. We said, this is really bad. We can do better than this.” They used Craigslist to find used carboys and borrowed a pot. “We did liquid malt with the help of local homebrew shops helping us with recipes. From there we very quickly moved on to partial mash,” Greg says.
Deciding how good those first, and subsequent, batches were was a task that fell to the tongue of Ryan Jeske. Sitting next to Brandon at the dining room table, Ryan is wearing a tight-lipped grin and a comfortable T-shirt labeled “John Beere.” He nods his head when someone describes him as a beer sommelier. He works for an HVAC company with Greg and Brandon and helped the brothers build a 50-square-foot walk-in cooler in the basement.
Casey Elstab is sitting next to Ryan. Brandon and Greg call him the yeast wrangler. Brandon met Casey when he was on a service call at Casey’s home. Brandon noticed some carboys and began talking fermentation with the transplanted Texan. “Yeast is what you have to perfect,” Casey says. “I got a lot of lab equipment and set up a little lab and started culturing yeast — pitching very precise yeast counts with every batch of beer.”
Casey’s precision will be tested in the next several months. Brandon is filing the federal and state paperwork to open a brewery. Growth will follow. Greg says that means “moving up to a 1-barrel system. We’ve got to convert all our recipes because going from a sixth barrel to a full barrel, you don’t just get to multiply by six. It’s not that easy. Recipes don’t perfectly ratio out that way. You have to tweak it out.”
Those recipes should be interesting. “We like IPAs but right now we’re tending a little toward the German-malty beers,” Greg says before Brandon adds, “We’ve got some pretty off-the-wall recipes that I think fit right in with the Oregon atmosphere.”
One beer he says he can tell us about was brewed with Oregon-grown strawberries and rhubarbs. An independent sipping confirms it tastes like a sour ale. They will also have a berry twist on a honey beer and a third beer they will only identify after asking for a vow of secrecy. (I can only tell you it has a nice smoky flavor.)
When the brewery first opens, they plan to brew twice a week on Saturdays and Sundays. They want to concentrate on keg sales initially. Having a bottling line might overtax a tight budget. But the partners think they will be able to grow a client base and show a bank a bottom line that will earn them a loan.
If you go to the Oregon Secretary of State’s corporation files, you’ll find this brewery listed as “Shattered Oak Brewing.” Brandon begins to tell the tale behind the name: “We do a lot of hunting and one night there was a big storm and the next day we were walking out and saw a big tree…”
“Lightning had hit and destroyed it. It broke off the top of it and left branches scattered all over,” Brandie Neldner continues.
Thinking back to that first batch when Brandon recalls how the airlock got stuck and the bottom of the carboy blew out, I ask whether he ever wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about what could go wrong.
“No. There’s been some definite thought of, ‘Are we capable of doing this?’ And then it’s you just gotta talk to each other and have the support in each other. Obviously, if you’re gonna be partners you’d better.”
Shattered Oak wants to be legal and selling beer by the end of the year.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.