By Kirby Neumann-Rea
For the Oregon Beer Growler
At Thunder Island Brewery in Cascade Locks, you cannot improve on the view, but the folks behind this strikingly scenic brewpub are gearing up to improve on the beer.
Thunder Island owner Dave Lipps and marketing and operations manager Caroline Park installed three new insulated fermentation tanks in October, marking one of two major changes in the last half of 2015 in the former storage building leased from the Port of Cascade Locks.
After first making a mere 6 barrels after starting up in 2013, then upping production to 27 barrels in 2014, this brewery beside the Columbia River is about to boom — eightfold within a year or so.
“We will have more and better beer,” Park said.
The brewery’s changes happen largely thanks to the able hands of Brian Perkey, hired as head brewer in June. He installed the tanks while taking time to fix the dishwasher, too in September and October.
After getting a new employee, Thunder Island marked its second anniversary Oct. 17 with a party that poured over into the next day thanks to the town hosting 1,000 competitors in race three of the River City Bicycles Cross Crusade series. The brewery’s association with biking and hiking groups and events, including the Pacific Crest Trail Days every summer, have helped define Thunder Island’s distinctive place in the Northwest brewery map. Easily visible from the brewery are the namesake Thunder Island and Washington’s Table Mountain, Greenleaf Peak along with other gorgeous crags. The pub has seating for 20 inside at white pine tables made by Lipps and double that many on the patio. Long-term, Park and Lipps are looking at building on WaNaPa Street, the main drag in Cascade Locks.
The brewery will find broader distribution but remains oriented to place. If you’ve never been, go to Marine Park just east of downtown, carefully proceed under the rail trestle and take an immediate left and go all the way past the campground, until you get to the end of the road. The spot was mostly a working yard and storage facility until two years ago when Thunder Island moved in. The founders squeezed in a small brewing system — one with modified Navy soup cauldrons and the third brewery to use them. Besides that, there wasn’t much else: a two-top table and four-barstool pub. But that was enough to start creating tasty beers. The patio came later along with a roll-up door and expanded indoor seating.
In the back of the brewery sit a tall, gleaming brite tank and fermenters, which can double as brites. They’re supported by a glycol cooling system installed by Perkey. He and Lipps brewed the last batches in the old two-fermenter system in mid-October and switched over on Oct. 21.
“It’s been hard work, but we only had a short break in production,” Lipps said Oct. 15, noting the chalkboard featured just three beers at the time, down from the typical five or six.
The expansion amounts to an extra 10-15 kegs a week, while also achieving Perkey’s goal of keeping the beer in tanks for three weeks instead of what had been 10-14 days.
“In terms of volume with these tanks, just trying to keep up with our summer demand, we were pushing beers out way too early,” Perkey said.
“Hiring Brian is a game changer for us," Park said. “From a small business standpoint, the best thing is he kind of 'figures it out.' And from a growth perspective, he brings this creativity and energy and ideas that's really exciting for us as we're installing this system and we're kind of mapping out the next couple of years,” Park said. Perkey started at BridgePort Brewery in 1992, worked at Full Sail, Wyeast Laboratories, Gordon Biersch in San Diego and is co-founder of Hood Valley Hard Cider.
Perkey said, “To take 25 years of doing this and parlay it into this growth opportunity that's going on here — plus working for these two, who are super-cool, I come to work every morning and it's like falling in love all over again.
“What's in the tanks, it's alive,” Perkey continued. “It lives and breathes just like you or me. It has a rhythm to its life cycle — from sweet wort off the grain to fermentation to the keg, there's a cycle. There's a flow. It's a beautiful thing to be a part of."
Perkey plans no new beers for a while but will focus on freshening the library of ales, including Flower Power IPA, Scotch Porter and others. With the new system in place, Thunder Island will reach 300 barrels by December and 1,000 or so by summer 2016 — with more to come. The goal is to adequately serve pub customers as well as meet the needs of existing tap clients, located mostly in the Gorge. Lipps said the expansion will give Thunder Island far better potential for tap handle presence “beyond just our one-offs.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.