Since the days when your choice was the silver can or the blue can, beer has gone artisan and upscale, and Bend, Oregon, is one of the most popular places to enjoy the revolution—and evolution—of beer tasting and brewing. This Central Oregon city of just over 80,000 has the most breweries and brewpubs per capita in the country and regularly makes lists of the top 10 beer destination in theU.S.
Bend and the rest of Central Oregon is a place of natural beauty and opportunity for outdoor adventure and activity. And with all my outdoor adventures on my last trip to the area, sampling beers is a welcome change.
Choice abounds on sampling Bend’s craft beers. You can, of course, explore on your own. Or you can pick up the official Bend Ale Trail passport from the Bend Visitor’s Center or other participating business. Visit a brewpub in the passport and obtain a sticker; collect them all and you’ll win bragging rights and a free beer glass. You can join a CyclePub guide and pedal your way on bikes that seat from 5 to 16 people. Or you can board the Beer Brew Bus with the good folks at Wanderlust Tours.
A Bus for Beer
My friend Clay and I chose this last option, joining our smiling designated driver and guide and a friendly group of folks. The four breweries we visit on this half-day, afternoon tour are all independently owned and each represent different aspects of today’s vibrant beer scene.
Our guide, Courtney, a transplant from upstate New York, picks us up our hotel and loads us into her four-bench passenger van. We’re joined by Buck and Susan from Memphis, John and Julie from Boise and Amy and Tom from Seattle. As Courtney drives, she shares a history of Northwest-style beer brewing. She’s fully immersed in the active and outdoorsy Bend lifestyle and is a home brewer herself.
Our first stop is Deschutes Brewery. The huge complex reminds me of PBR and Schlitz “factories” from Milwaukie—albeit cleaner and with better landscaping. Inside, the large tasting room is crowded and energetic. I’m a Black Butte Porter fan, but, on this day, Inversion IPA is my favorite.
The best known of Bend breweries is not a microbrewery. Established in 1988, just three years after Oregon law allowed local brew pubs to sell their own locally made beers, owner Gary Fish has recently celebrated his company’s 25th anniversary.
In his first year, Fish sold 310 barrels of beer; he’s grown steadily each year. In 2011, he expanded again, not just square footage and brewing capacity, but also in technology. New equipment includes a water reuse system that decreases waste and improves production stations.
Harry, our hyper-enthusiastic guide, belts out his spiel, leaving my head is spinning about grinding barley, separation of solids, liquids, sugars and flavorings, yeasts, the importance of water quality and temperature, the addition of hops at various stages of the brewing process, and “wort,” the liquid cereal from which beer is brewed. We move from station to station, an onslaught of visual and verbal information. In the employee break room where staff end their day with a free pint of beer, a flat-screen television reports production stats.
While Deschutes Brewery made the decision to grow, grow, grow, Wendi Day’s Bend Brewing Company (BBC) has been in business almost as long, but decided to stay small. Ninety percent of BBC’s beer is sold directly at the brewery. While Deschutes is currently brewing 200,000 barrels of beer a year, BBC brews 10,000 barrels. (There are 31 gallons in a barrel.) Inside, brewer Josh works alone, and our group makes his tight quarters even tighter. He shares the differences between lagers, ales, porters and pilsners, and the brewing methods and time required for each.
In the BBC brew pub, we debate whether we’d lead our company to grow or stay small and which owner is happiest. We have no answers, but agree they’ve both built great businesses and lifestyles.
Time to Eat
At the Old Mill Brew Werks, we enjoy the river view. Brew Werks is a newer entrée to the Bend brew scene. Don’t be put off by the strip mall like exterior. Inside the ambience is upscale and welcoming. We feast on plentiful appetizers Courtney has pre-ordered–beer-batter dipped onion rings; spicy, grown-up mac and cheese with provolone, cheddar and pepper jack cheeses and pico de gallo; polenta triangles baked with blue cheese and roasted red peppers topped with a basil white wine sauce; and a hummus plate with toasted pita, black olives and fresh vegetables. It’s all filling and delicious.
Our group raves about our favorite beers. Mine is Rabble-Rouser Red; others prefer Neurotic Blond, Irreverence IPA or Schizophrenic Stout.
Our final stop, Boneyard Beer, is in a former auto shop. At start-up the owners had a wealth of experience in the industry, but a shortage of cash. They pulled together the necessary equipment by bringing new life to old and unused “boneyard” parts gathered from other breweries. Devoid of all pretense and with the edgiest feel, Boneyard Beer is a great last tour stop.
Boneyard’s I Girl Beer is a tarty wheat ale. We also sample the Fuego Rojo, a red ale infused with habanero peppers. It’s got a hot kick that lingers. It’s fun to sample and shows off the creativity with which all these Bend brew masters are working. – by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Contributor
IF YOU GO:
Cycle Pub, www.cyclepub.com
Want to read more about beer in Bend?
Check out RFT Editor Brian story “Tackling Bend, Oregon’s Ale Trail.”