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Ossie Bladine  |  obladine@newsregister.com

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Beer With a Side of Beef: Werner Opens in Tillamook

 

Werner Beef & Brew might be the classiest convenience store where you’ll ever buy a pepperoni stick. Sure, it has the usual shelves stocked with bags of chips and coolers filled with soda bottles, but in that same space you’ll also find tap handles, a meat case and a dining room with stylish accents like reclaimed wood paneling and subway tile that would fit in at just about any Portland Pearl District restaurant. But this is in Tillamook. On the edge of an industrial area. And this might be the only place in Oregon where you can order a beer at the bar and a rump roast to go. Which is all pretty weird for a mini mart.


“When you walk into this place as a consumer, you might not understand why there are all these factors here,” explained Cora Gibson, general manager. “But it really tells a story of the Werner family. You have these people who have basically built an empire on jerky, so it makes sense that they’d want to include that now they’ve added the brewing of beer. They just wanted to create a place to showcase that.”

 

 The Werner name should be familiar to anyone who eats dried meat. Twenty-four years ago, husband-and-wife team Ken and Karla Werner began making jerky in their garage and selling it out of the back of their car to local retailers. Like many longtime Tillamook residents, Ken Werner once relied on the area’s booming logging industry to make a living. But he saw signs that there would be a bleak outlook for jobs related to timber in the future. A successful sausage-making experiment at home gave him the confidence to abandon his career and set out to start a business. Today, Werner Gourmet Meat Snacks are sold in all 50 states and approximately 100 employees work in a 50,000-square-foot plant to make that distribution possible.


The other thing the Werners are known for, at least on the west side of the Coast Range, is their numbers. There are a lot of them. And they’ve been part of the community for at least a century.
“My great-grandpa was born and raised here,” said George Werner. “It was the early 1900s. He had 13 kids on the farm and they all stayed here, so there’s a huge Werner population in Tillamook.”


While many a Werner has joined the jerky dynasty since the mid-1990s, including George and his twin Daniel, the pair expanded the family brand by launching Werner Brewing Company.

 

Much like their dad, who started small as a mobile meat peddler, the brothers learned on homebrewing kits before upscaling to a 2 1/2-barrel system through plain and simple, hands-on trial and error. The equipment is housed in a converted shop on what is now George Werner’s property in a rural part of town, the same place the jerky business began before it got big. The brothers also plan to grow into a 7-barrel system in 12 to 18 months. If local demand keeps up, they shouldn’t have any trouble reaching that goal. Distribution was halted to other restaurants when Werner Beef & Brew opened in spring as part of an office expansion on the sprawling Meat Snacks industrial plot. They simply couldn’t keep up.

 

 “We’re selling about as much beer as we can make,” said George Werner.


Evenings and weekends are occupied by brewing to supply the taproom’s four handles because during the workweek they’re either taking orders at the counter or carving up whole loins for the butcher case — an addition that fulfills their father Ken Werner’s sausage-stuffed dream of running a meat market: grinding, stuffing and curing in house.


“Every single Werner who works here is involved in every single thing in this whole facility,” general manager Gibson said, noting you won’t find them tucked away all day in an office. “They truly care about quality and their employees and to do those things well, you have to be involved.”


While customers can order a ribeye or pound of chuck to have wrapped and take home, there’s no reason to bypass a kitchen that can prepare those cuts — some with Ken Werner’s secret rubs and sauces — for you. A number of menu items are actually fashioned after food the family would make for themselves. The perfect example of that is The Werner Burger, a two-handed, hefty sandwich that’s fit for any famished logger. Your first bite will hardly make a dent in the double stack. Two 1/3-pound Angus beef patties are glued together with pepper jack from the neighboring Tillamook Cheese Factory. To add to the burger’s height, they then pile on slabs of crispy bacon, wedges of creamy avocado, tomato, onions, pickles and jalapenos to give it the spice Gibson said the Werners are so fond of.


The brothers recommend their Coastal Brown to go with, which tends to be a commonly ignored style. Not exhibiting the flavors of a Newcastle that you might expect, the Werner brown has the roasted coffee and chocolate notes of a stout with a much lighter body — meaning it won’t be a gut bomb on top of the substantial sandwich.

 

 Of the nine burgers on the menu, the most unusual and enticing has to be the Bologna. A half-inch hunk of meat is lightly fried on both sides for that sweet caramelization before a slice of cheddar is melted on top. The traditional clove and banana in the Werner Hefe are a refreshing break from the rich cut of bologna.


“You can get thick, seared bologna sandwiches back East all day long. You don’t see that a lot here,” said Gibson. “And I think we’re the only business that I know of in town that’s doing it. I tasted that bologna of Ken’s and was like, ‘We gotta get this on the menu immediately.’”


George Werner certainly knows his audience of beer drinkers, which is why they go through so much of their Back Road Blonde. It makes up 43 percent of taproom sales. Having once been a guzzler of Coors Light, Werner wanted something for locals less willing to veer beyond the borders of their beer rut. It’s a frothy offering that goes down easy, not unlike the domestics you likely drank before you knew better. That makes it a perfect partner to the closest thing on the menu to an oversized, warm pepperoni stick — the kind you might grab at the gas station to keep your mouth occupied on a road trip. The Cheesy Polish Dog is oozing Tillamook medium cheddar from its pores when you bite down. A little heat from the pork/beef mix creeps up on you. A slight sweetness from the Blonde cools the tongue and contrasts well with the tangy yellow dipping mustard.

 

An IPA normally cleanses the palate, but the Werners’ version doesn’t wipe away the slow-roasted peppery flavor of the restaurant’s Tri Tip Sandwich — and you don’t want it to. The buttery meat is sliced thin and loaded on a hoagie roll with smoky-sweet onions from a grill. Barbecue sauce echoes the upbeat tropical citrusy IPA without overwhelming because the bitterness bites back.


If you embrace food that makes you sweat, then you could drink the spice-intensifying IPA with the Sweet Hot Chicken Wings. Meaty morsels of lightly breaded poultry glisten with a generous coating of sauce flecked with chili flakes. There’s a funky blue cheese on the side for relief or there’s always that pint of Blonde.


When new brewers open in a state lucky enough to have an abundance of good beer and stellar settings to drink it in, they often struggle to answer the question “What will set this place apart?” But Werner already has several distinguishing characteristics: that shiny butcher block and founders deeply rooted in the community.

 
“I want to keep building our family name up. I don’t want to be complacent with where we are,” said George Werner. “I want to continue with furthering the Werner name and doing good. •

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