photo by jackson voelkel
Battle of the Breweries
Eugene vs. Corvallis in a Civil War of Beer
Rivalries give us purpose, and purpose is to the mind what water is to the body. Most will agree, however, that if given the choice between water and beer, the latter supercedes the former " especially in Oregon, a state full of beer that is home to one of the greatest rivalries of all time: Ducks vs. Beavers, which translates to something like Eugene vs. Corvallis.
It would be no fun if the two towns couldn’t find yet one more forum in which to compete. Given that Oregon’s breweries crafted 1,085,000 barrels of beer from 91 brewing companies working from 121 brewing facilities in roughly 50 cities in the past year, beer seems a more than worthy medium.
So, we declare yet another war: a war to prove once and for all who runs the show here in our little valley of Beervana. In the following pages you will find a run down of the teams, the players and, of course, the beer!
Words By Dante Zu"iga-West • photos by Trask Bedortha
|Matt Van Wyk. Oakshire Brewery.
Touring Oakshire Brewing Company with Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk is like stumbling after a mad scientist in the lab. This isn’t too much of a stretch, as Van Wyk used to be a high school science teacher in the Chicago area. He cracks his favorite canned joke, how teaching teenagers drove him to brew beer. Then he states frankly, “You know, people laugh when I say this, but biology is beer, and fermentation is chemistry.”
Founded in 2006 by Jeff and Chris Althouse, Oakshire is a Eugene brewery you probably are somewhat familiar with. Year-round brews such as Watershed IPA, Amber Ale and Overcast Espresso Stout can be found pouring from the taps of most bars in town. Oakshire has grown 60 percent in the last two years, and just to give you an idea of how serious Van Wyk and company are, they have brewed 23 unique beers in the last 24 weeks. This is due in part to the Brewmaster’s precise experimentation and in part to the hard work of the Oakshire staff " which manages not only the brewery, but a well-proportioned organic garden and chicken coop as well. This addendum is a unique feature that makes Oakshire seem more like a family than a brewery. The staff takes shifts doing chores, as well as working their asses off brewing damn good beer.
“These are our values, and it’s little things like this that make Eugene’s beer industry unique,” Van Wyk says before leading the way into a separate facility across the street.
“This is my little playground,” the scientist says, clambering up a heap of neatly stacked barrels, beer glasses in hand.
Tucked away in this warehouse, adjacent to the main brewery, is the Oakshire beer bunker. Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and Pinot wine barrels filled with Van Wyk’s concoctions are packed away here and left to age. He examines his projects and pours tiny samples, attempting to remember which one of the beer-filled barrels in front of him is soaking about 2 pounds of apricots. He is proud of his work, and rightfully so.
Van Wyk is elusive when asked about the release dates of his barrel-aged brews, which can take from six months to three years to mature. “Not ‘till they’re good,” he says, peering into his half-full glass as if it were a beaker.
|Trevor Howard. Hop Valley.
Hop Valley Brewmaster Trevor Howard earned his spurs in Corvallis at OSU in the school’s fermentation program " but we won’t hold that against him. After all, Howard was born and raised in Eugene, as was his father and his father’s father.
Though Howard’s demeanor is lax, you can tell he is a hard-working man by his large, rough hands, fingers with Band-Aids wrapped around them; he’s got that I-will-outwork-you vibe about him, in a humble sort of way.
Hop Valley is a newer brewery in town. It is officially located in Springfield, but hey, that’s more Eugene than Corvallis. Founded two years ago by Ron Howard, Trevor Howard, Chuck Hare and Jonas Kungry, Hop Valley runs 10 standard beers and two seasonals at all times, and the brewery is a rising force to be reckoned with. Inhabiting what used to be Ninkasi’s brew house (which Ninkasi rented from the restaurant known as Sophia’s), Hop Valley also boasts a full kitchen and nice-looking eatery.
Heavy on the history, Hop Valley pays homage to the hop farmers of Oregon’s past with stoic black-and-white photographs hung throughout their tap house depicting the laborers in the fields. Howard pays tribute to Oregon with his professional opinion of the state’s beer industry. “I haven’t seen any beers out there that beat Oregon,” he says. Keep in mind that Howard is a brewmaster with more than 40 national and international beer-tasting competition medals to his credit.
Having been embedded in the Willamette Valley his entire life, Howard provides what is perhaps the most genuine insider perspective on Oregon’s beer scene. The beer industry “has completely exploded here over the last couple of years. And we (Oregonians) enjoy our bigger hoppy beers; IPAs from the Midwest are like pale ales to us.”
Hop Valley’s Alphadelic IPA, a finished product born of Howard’s recipe, is a sour 7-percent ass kicker that may be the best IPA this side of the Mississippi, maybe in the country. The Natty Red Imperial Red ale is a malty, hopped-out, 8-percent slugger that is not be passed up either.
|Ted Fagan. Steelhead Brewery.
Brewmaster Ted Fagan of Steelhead Brewery is a natural. He has been brewing beer since the age of 12. “My mom explained alcohol fermentation and I just went with it,” he says.
Fagan in his preteens hid his home brewing operation in the closet, so as not to alert his parents to what would one day become his livelihood. He has been described by coworkers as the “Rain Man of beer brewing” for his shoot-from-the-hip expert recipes he is known to whip up on the fly in, like, 10 minutes.
“I rarely ever try to formulate a recipe using math,” he says. “I could make it (brewing) rocket science, but then it’d be no fun.” That he is good enough to say this, and still bust out beer that is better than most you will ever taste, is nothing short of phenomenal; then again, Fagan has been doing it since before he knew how to drive a car or went out on a date.
Steelhead Brewery is one of the older breweries in town. Founded in 1991 by a quintet of businessmen from diverse trades, the brew house is a two-man show when it comes to the actual brewing part. Though Steelhead has a tap house and a restaurant, the two worlds remain somewhat separate, with brewers working behind a glass panel in plain view of the patrons while restaurant staff runs the floor out front. Co-brewer Jake Foose is a bear of a man whose work ethic and enthusiasm help the operation flourish. “I’ll take a hard work day here any day,” Foose says with satisfaction on his breath.
These two brewers are chummy in their rapport. Transparent in regard to their process, they joke about minor mishaps that can occur throughout the brewing procedures. They laugh about taking accidental beer showers or getting chemically scalded by the sodium hydroxide in their cleaning products.
Fagan and Foose keep their workspace immaculate; cleanliness is a huge part of their process. Foose estimates that they spend 80 percent of their time cleaning the facilities. They are very serious about their beer despite the fun they are having. Sitting down with them to sample beers is like a personal tour through a museum with the curator.
Both the brewmaster and his peer are fond of Steelhead’s Hopasaurus Rex, an all-business, 10-percent slammer that can take someone away from their day if generously applied. “That’s a dangerous beer,” Fagan says. The brewmaster happens to be in love with one of his newer creations, the Twisted Meniscus IPA, a Red Ale that is arguably the best thing on tap at Steelhead right now.
The mixture of chill but damn-good-at-what-they-do vibe makes Steelhead a unique and well-rounded brewery. When asked what their favorite part of the job is, both brewers concede that watching through the glass panel as customers show their friends new beers (and love them) makes the hard work worth every drop of sweat and beer.
words by Andy Valentine • photos by Jackson Voelkel
Oregon Trail Brewing Company
|Sean Martin. Oregon Trail Brewing Company.
Oregon Trail, founded in 1987, is the oldest brewery in the Willamette Valley and the fourth oldest in Oregon. The copper kettle that houses pounds upon pounds of ingredients each year attests to this fact " it used to belong to Pyramid Breweries, which is now a corporately run giant out of Seattle. Beyond being long established, though, Oregon Trail has an antiquity to it that serves more to intrigue than to impress. With a limited number of beers on tap at the brewery itself, the true excitement in a tour here starts with the gravity-based system they use.
Each story has a hole in the floor and a hole in the ceiling (with the exception of the third and highest story) through which the ingredients for every beer must pass before reaching their final destination in the miniscule, packed-like-sardines fermentation room.
“Brewing is, not even on purpose, a very green industry,” says Sean Martin, self-proclaimed “everything man” and brewmaster of Oregon Trail. His explanation of the green gravity system makes it appear exceptionally fertile, and it’s clear that he enjoys it. Martin gets a workout each day from climbing the steps, and for a low-personnel project such as this, the small amount of beer they have ready to go is really quite awesome.
“My favorite beer depends on my mood and the weather,” Martin says, giving a nod to the Oregon heat of late. “I’ve been drinking a ton of Wit, but in the winter nothing beats our Ginseng Porter.” With summer in the air, the temperature has been rising in Oregon, and the Oregon Trail Wit is perfect for shaking off the swelter " light in texture and taste but surprisingly dark in color, it could have you back on your feet (or sitting on your ass) in no time.
At this point, I feel it’s only right to mention the Bourbon Barrel Porter. When you crack the wax-sealed cap on a bottle of this beer, you better be ready to smell whiskey and taste barbeque " in short, it’s fucking dank. At 10-percent ABV (alcohol by volume) it’ll play with your head pretty hard. I’d recommend eating before trying this.
Speaking of ABV, the Corvallis beer scene must be full of wasted people. Seriously, the beers up there average 8 to 10-percent a lot of the time, and most of them are deceptively light. This is a fact easily discovered at Corvallis’ youngest brewery, Flat Tail.
Flat Tail Brewing
|Dave Marliave. Flat Tail Brewing.
The vibe at Flat Tail Brewing is chilled out. With five-year brewer Dave Marliave manning their seven-barrel system at all times, there’s rarely a complaint to be heard " that is, unless you don’t like beer. Marliave got his degree at OSU’s School of Fermentation Sciences " a trend that would appear to grip the entire Corvallis beer scene by the balls " and since graduating at the beginning of last summer, he’s set to work finely tuning his art.
“Brewing is like any art form,” says Marliave. “It has layers.” And sure, most of his beers have a bunch of separate layers " each of them as delicious as the last " but what happens when they’re mixed together? This, it would seem, is a process of trial and error, because it’s all too easy to end up with solid separate layers that don’t mesh well, “It’s like a peanut butter, jelly and bacon smoothie,” Marliave explains. “The ingredients are great on their own, but not always together.”
Overall, the beer at Flat Tail is incredible. Dare I say it? They’ve stumbled upon a double IPA recipe that blows Ninkasi’s “Tricerahops” out of the water " at 10-percent ABV, “Some Like it Hop” is one of the strongest and most enjoyable beers around, and when placed hand-in-hand with the wine-like delicacy of Flat Tail’s English ESB, it creates a beautiful contrast that you can’t help but enjoy.
Block 15 Brew Pub
|Matt Williams. Block 15 Brew Pub.
Unfortunately, Block 15’s owner and founding brewmaster, Nick Arzner, was unavailable for comment due to a case of Widespread Panic, but that meant Matt Williams was given a chance to spit some game. Though still young, Matt has been on the scene for a good six years, and he’s gained barrels of experience along the way.
“Every day I end up learning something new,” says Williams, remarking that Arzner has shown him techniques he never could have learned in school.
The Block 15 Brew Pub is small and lively; they have an insane assortment of beers " including a house brew designed as a stand in for the domestic bullshit they got tired of serving " and the food is awesome. They plan to expand next door with a “European-style beer café,” and that’s probably for the best, considering that they need the space.
Literally every single barrel, bag of grain and piece of equipment in Block 15’s labyrinthine cellar was carried down by hand. This includes, of course, the custom-designed fermentation tanks that weigh in at something to the tune of 800 pounds each.
“(Some of) our fermenters were designed specially so that they would fit down the stairs,” Williams says. Honestly, it’s miraculous how much stuff they’ve got down there " and it’s probably a safe bet that none of it’s ever coming back up.
Of the 14 beers on tap at Block 15, the flight you’re looking at should probably include the following: Aboriginale, King Caspian, Wandelpad and Alpha IPA. The rest is up to you, but those four are freakin’ magical. Unfortunately, the “Millennium Falcon” IPA that Williams deems his personal favorite currently is not in production. As he says, though: “The Millennium Falcon will be back, I’m sure.”
War No More
Wars that pit brother against brother, sister against sister and brewer against brewer are never pretty. Though rivalry is a source of great inspiration, the greatness of the competitors themselves can oftentimes get lost in the shuffle. Having taken a close look at the brewers of Eugene and Corvallis, one thing is very clear " we make better beer here than anywhere else in the country.
And indeed, it is truly awesome that Oregon has so much good beer to go around. Who brews more, who brews better, who brews weirder " it really doesn’t matter. It is said no one wins in war, but that just isn’t true. And in this case, the real winners are the drinkers, who demand more of their beers as the ante keeps getting upped.
And it’s okay to demand more. It’s okay to drink one more pint, it’s okay to hit the hops after a hard day of work. It’s okay to stay out all night pounding beer at the brewery until they close down (after all, most of them don’t have bouncers that will throw you out). It’s even okay to start brewing at home to add more to our valley of plenty " or to lessen the lifespan of your liver. As is not the case with beer’s evil twin, hard liquor, it’s okay to go all-out more often, and with beer this good all around, why not?
As the old Czech proverb says, “A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it is best to be thoroughly sure.”
Go be sure.
" Dante Zu"iga-West
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