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.