By Michael Kew
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Reedsport wasn’t Jed Smith’s cup of tea. Or pint of beer, had the frontiersman visited today.
In 1946, 118 years after his nearby fiasco, a 3,600-square-foot mercantile was raised on Route 38, aka Fir Avenue, today Old Town Reedsport. Newly etched into its heart is Defeat River Brewery, where, one bright Sunday morn in this burg of 4,000, I meet two age-thirtysomething co-owners/co-brewers/brothers-in-law: Levi Allen, previously a realtor/house cleaner, and Trevor Frazier, previously a medic. (Defeat is also co-owned by Herb Hedges, not here today.)
Frazier, arms crossed, leaning against the rustic copper bar: “I thought, sure, I can be a full-time paramedic and Levi can be a full-time dad and business owner, and we’ll just brew when we feel like it and we’ll make it work. No, you can’t do that!” he laughs. “If you’re going to do something, do it 100 percent. Don’t half-ass two things. Full-ass one thing.”
The room radiates grit. Iron, sawdust, fresh cement. Most of its industrial/Wild West aesthetic, including large quantities of repurposed metal and old wood, came from the sweat and toil of the three owners, plus close friends and family, to make a beautifully meticulous, personalized, 10-barrel brewhouse.
“This space is 70 years old,” Allen says, “but everything in it is brand new. It’s everything we’ve wanted to see in a brewery.”
But, Levi — where’s the Defeat River?
In July 1828, Jedediah Smith and his merry band of fur trappers slogged upcoast from California. They camped at the end of what’s now called the Smith River, a 90-mile tributary of the Umpqua.
“There was a dispute over something ridiculous, like a stolen ax,” Allen says. “Smith’s men ended up whipping one of the natives, which created some tension.”
The Indians ambushed, killing 15 of Smith’s 19 men. He and the remaining few fled. Three months later, he revisited the site to retrieve beaver pelts. His friends were there, rotting on the sand. Smith named the river Defeat, and it was posthumously renamed for him, draining as it does into the great Umpqua estuary, a half mile from this pub.
“The most interesting part of the story is those skeletons are still buried over there,” Allen says. (That’s 188 years of tide and sand and river movement.)
In 2012, the brothers-in-law had traded their valley and high-desert lives for coast. And, as in-laws are wont to do, and like Smith vs. the Indians, there came disputes — but no massacres — along the brewers’ slow, rutted road to publicly pouring their beer.
“It’s not been easy to make this happen,” Frazier tells me, looking around the room, up at the ceilings, at the custom light fixtures, down at the concrete floor. “We’ve worked hard and had a lot of stubborn arguments to ensure this place is as cool as it is.”
How did you guys get here?
Allen: “I was a realtor, homebrewing in Albany. I met Trevor and got him into it. My free time started shrinking as he was getting deep into brewing and the science of it, and soon it became a case of the student teaching the teacher. So the majority of our recipes are his.”
Both brewers are wed to Reedsport-born-and-bred sisters who work at Highland Elementary, the same school the women attended in the 1990s.
“We wanted to move because our in-laws and aunts and uncles and cousins are here,” Frazier says.
“They (the Allens) moved first because his wife got a job as a teacher here, in her hometown,” Frazier says. “My wife moved to get a job at the same school. I was trying to get a job as a paramedic. Ended up getting one in Coos Bay, so I moved from Bend, and that’s when the brewery plan really took off — when Levi and I resumed homebrewing together.
“Growing up in Bend and being able to drink fresh beer in a craft brewery was something I missed when I moved here. It was hard because I was used to heading down to the pub for a few local pints. Wasn’t happening here. Something had to be done.”
At a 2013 homebrewing contest in Bend, Allen’s hybrid pale ale won a blue ribbon.
“It’s every homebrewer’s dream to go pro and do a legit brewery,” he says. “Generally, if you talk to a homebrewer and they say their goal is not to brew professionally, they’d be lying. Before we moved, we considered the steps to build a brewery. We knew there had never been one in Reedsport. And Old Town was attractive because rent was relatively cheap and—”
“—there was nothing here,” Frazier adds.
“Yeah,” Allen says. “We thought a brewery could be a foundation or an anchor for something really cool—part of a movement, maybe.”
A year ago, the surrounding storefronts were vacant. Now they include an arcade, a dog-groomer, an antique shop, an art gallery, a beauty salon.
Frazier: “Reedsport was given a Main Street-improvement grant, which helped a few people improve the facades of their businesses. And folks knew our brewery was coming, so that got them thinking about a new era. This was a busy district before fishing and logging died. Lots of people left. But if you visited, say, Bend in 1985, there was nothing there. Now look at it. I don’t think (Reedsport) can have quite the same sort of boom; we’d like people to see the potential of this area as a destination. Not just our place — everywhere on this street. And beyond.”
Initial 2016 summer rollout of Defeat’s core styles include Thor Cascadian dark ale, The Bravest Pale Ale, and 1.21 Jigahops IPA. Born in steam-fired Stout Tanks and Kettles equipment from Portland, the beers are pure Oregon — Crosby hops from Woodburn, Wyeast from Odell, and floor-malted Mecca Grade barley, estate-grown in Madras, a stone’s toss from the Deschutes River. Defeat is the first draught-producing brewery to use Full Pint, Mecca’s proprietary malt.
“Some people had brewed with it, but it’s mostly been used for whiskey,” Frazier says. “Last year I contacted Seth (of Mecca) because I wanted to get a bag of malt to homebrew with. When he learned we were starting a brewery, he got excited.”
The two aim to get all their malt from Mecca, including planned specialties via estate expansion. Defeat’s goal is to have 12 rotating taps — core, seasonal and specialty — supplying the bar, plus regional wines and guest beers. Food trucks are likely.
Allen believes a town can reinvent itself. Even tiny Reedsport — 20 minutes from Florence, 20 minutes from Coos Bay, 90 minutes from Eugene. “Business-wise,” he says, “much of what we’ve done is plan for the worst and hope for the best. It’s a seasonal economy here. Places close in October and they don’t reopen until April or May. We wanted to make our pub attractive for people to come and drink beer year-round.”
“It’s not just about finally being able to pour our beer for people,” Frazier says, “which we’re very proud of. Or that it’s taken considerable effort getting this place going. It’s not just about the beer. It’s about the atmosphere we’ve created for you.”
Defeat River Brewery
[a] 473 Fir Ave., Reedsport
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.