By Brian Yaeger
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Northeastern Oregon is Big Sky Country where towns retain their Old West vibe. Tumbleweeds and elk saunter down roads like bicyclists in Portland at dawn, and in a state with just under four million people, this corner is home to just over 100,000 people and eight breweries. It IS still Oregon after all.
The Eastern Oregon Visitors Association is rolling out the Brews Byways. The gist: visit participating breweries and collect a free T-shirt. Not bad to have some threads to show off your travels, but the real reward comes in having tasted the great beers of our easterly brothers and sisters.
Starting from the southernmost and moving northwest, Beer Valley hails from Ontario, which feels more like more Idaho than Oregon. It’s even on Mountain Time. For over five years, Pete Ricks has brewed the big beers they’re famous for such as Leafer Madness (this imperial pale ale calculates over 200 IBUs) and the Ore-Ida-friendly Owyhee Amber. Pete’s developing Harvest Series includes a fresh hop version of Leafer, Jackalope Imperial Pumpkin Porter using only fresh gourds, and possibly soon an onion beer honoring Ontario’s most prevalent crop.
An hour drive up I-84 leads to Baker City, now home to two brewpubs. Barley Brown’s won four straight Great American Beer Fest silver medals for Shredder’s Wheat but it was the gold in the premier of the American-style India Black Ale category—CDA, s’il vous plaît—in 2010 for Turmoil that really put them on the map. Current brewing team Marks Lanham and Eli Dickison garnered four medals last GABF including for Turmoil again. Try their eleven beers on tap and order the Death Burger (double cheeseburger topped with ham and onion rings) to keep from falling off your barstool.
Bull Ridge Brewpub
Directly around the corner, guests are greeted by Hamilton the stuffed elk at Julie and Micah Blank’s new Bull Ridge Brewpub. Though Walter Bourque still brews on his ten-gallon system, the shiny new seven-barrel one is en route. I enjoyed his Reddy McTeddy Irish Red Ale but Walter has playful ideas designed in tandem with head chef, Andy, incorporating produce from the farmer’s market or anything he can get his hands on. Playing off Barley Brown’s Hot Blonde jalapeno ale, Bourque takes inspiration from his Southern roots for a Cascabel Stout using one of Texas’s staple chilies.
Mt. Emily Alehouse
Up in La Grande, Mt. Emily Ale House reveals a big corner brewpub where the beer list takes an anything-goes approach; it seems chili beers (Ragin’ Cajun) just might be Eastern Oregon’s IPA. Then again, the Double IPA keeps them in line with modern brewpubs.
Travel along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway that leads directly to Terminal Gravity in Enterprise. Plunked down on a little idyllic spot, this place teems during the summer where the beer line could easily take an hour, so the owners opened a kiosk for extra taps in the front beer garden. Terminal Gravity has grown from five to 18 barrels, hence their bottled offerings like IPA and ESG (Extra Special Golden) are easy to find in Portland.
Five minutes down the road is Mutiny, brewer-owner Kari Gjerdingen’s brewpub in Joseph. After brewing at Terminal Gravity, she stayed in the area for the year-round natural playground. Her “Ssswheat” American-meets-Belgian-style wheat beer is the ideal sipper for days on or near Lake Wallowa.
Trek over the Blue Mountains to Milton-Freewater in the wine-rich Walla Walla Valley and you’ll arrive at the gates of the newest brewery, Dragon’s Gate. Adam Gregory and his wife Jennifer helm this King Arthur-inspired nanobrewery that plays to the RenFair crowd but visit their 10-acre farm and you’ll see they grow their own hops at this true farmhouse brewery. Try all four (and counting) house beers including a Belgian Tripel masquerading as an IPA.
The Prodigal Son
Back to I-84 in Pendleton, home to the Pendleton Round-up Rodeo, The Prodigal Son is a brewpub built into a massive space (formerly an auto dealership) for families and community gatherings. The theatre (yes, there’s a built-in theatre) hosts everything from football parties to Bible study, and everyone gets in on the amazing beer action ranging from A Beer Named Sue (light, golden ale) to Max Powers DIPA.
Since you can’t tackle the whole Brews Byway in a day, rest your beer-soaked head at the historic Geiser Grand in Baker—one block from both brewpubs—where the 1889 Café offers many Eastern Oregon beers on tap and/or go the B&B route and come home to the Enterprise House where proprietors Jack and Judy’s omelets have restorative powers needed for the short walk to Terminal Gravity.