By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s been a wild year for Ben Dobler. After 20 years at Widmer, he took over as head brewer at Mt. Tabor Brewing in February. Soon after they opened their doors in late September, Dobler left — unhappy with the direction of the business. Shortly thereafter, he became head brewer at Laurelwood.
“We’re super excited to have Ben on board,” said Mike De Kalb, Laurelwood owner and founder. “He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. His role will be to maintain and enhance quality and consistency, and to bring increased innovation to our brewing program.”
Don’t expect the classic Laurelwood recipes to change much, if at all. Beers like Workhorse, Free Range Red and Red Elephant are well established and well loved. Dobler has no plans to disturb the continuity, though he does have a few ideas.
“I look forward to maintaining and building on what my predecessors accomplished here,” Dobler says. “Laurelwood has had some fantastic brewers and produced a variety of great beers in its 15-year history. I hope to delicately add my fingerprints to that tradition.”
Some of the beers will receive subtle tweaking to smooth out the edges, he expects. Another priority is to develop a line of lower-alcohol beers. Laurelwood is a family-focused business and the beer menu could be more accommodating to folks who don’t want to drink more than a pint of 7.5% Workhorse.
“We realize mom and dad aren’t going to throw back multiple pints of Workhorse,” Dobler says. “Well, they shouldn’t. I’ll put some effort into producing flavorful, low-ABV beers. That’s been a big part of my mantra because I like to drink beer, which means I like to have more than one.”
The innovation angle is important and it applies to the beers brewed at the Sandy headquarters and Hood River’s Full Sail, where Laurelwood has a production brewing arrangement. Dobler worked in new product development at the Craft Brew Alliance (CBA) for 10 years and seems nicely suited to freshening up Laurelwood’s beer palate.
“We’ve had pretty much the same pub lineup except for seasonal beers for the last 15 years,” De Kalb said. “We’re looking to Ben for innovation that will enhance the beers available to our pub customers. IPA may be king, but our patrons and fans are always seeking alternatives.”
Dobler has a similar view of the opportunities.
“I see a definite need to enhance the experience of pub patrons,” he said. “The beers served there should always be somewhat different than what is sold in stores. I’d like to use that theme as a catalyst that brings people into the pub and also generates excitement outside it in the retail channels.”
Dobler’s biggest challenge will almost certainly be managing the relationship out in Hood River, where Laurelwood brews the bulk of its packaged lineup. That includes Workhorse, Free Range Red and seasonal six-packs. Experience acquired on his watch at Widmer/CBA will be handy.
“My job is to make sure the beers made in Hood River match the ones made here,” he says. “During my time at the CBA, I learned a lot about scaling production from 10 to 250 barrels and how to execute that successfully. I think my exposure to larger-scale brewing operations is a big part of why I’m here.”
For now, Dobler is working to get a handle on what the Full Sail relationship looks like, short-term and long-term. It’s an evolving relationship involving changes in strategy and tactics on both ends. His goal is to maximize what Laurelwood is getting out of it.
“Packaged product is an important part of our business and the processes need ongoing attention” Dobler says. “A significant amount of my time will be spent managing how we do things in Hood River.”
Dobler succeeds Shane Watterson as Laurelwood head brewer. Watterson is joining Geoff Phillips of Bailey’s Taproom and Jason Barbee, formerly of Ex Novo, in Level Beer, a new brewery in planning. Rodney Stryker, formerly of Heathen Brewing in Vancouver, Wash., has taken over for Dobler at Mt. Tabor.
Laurelwood beers are currently sold in Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia, Idaho and Alaska. In addition, a small amount of their beer is exported.
[a] 5115 NE Sandy Blvd.
[a] 6716 SE Milwaukie Ave.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.