Bend's Beer Boom

Can the region's brewery industry rival Portland's?

Jordan Novet / The Bulletin /

Published Aug 21, 2011 at 05:00AM

In August 2004, 20 brewers, including four from Bend, gathered at Les Schwab Amphitheater to offer tastings of 40 beers to the 1,500 to 2,000 people who showed up for the city's first Brewfest.

This year, 46 brewers, including most of Central Oregon's 12 active brewers, took to the grass at the amphitheater Thursday through Saturday.Event organizers were expecting 20,000 people would sample beers from local and state brewers to help boost the region's fast-growing beer industry. Last year, the event drew 14,000 attendees who tapped about 230 kegs.

Like Bend Brewfest, the region's beer industry has grown dramatically over the years from just a couple of breweries in the late 1990s to two dozen now in operation.

But both the event and the industry lag behind Portland's far bigger and more established brewing scene. For example, the annual Oregon Brewers Festival in that city drew an estimated 80,000 people in late July. The city boasts 40 breweries just within its city limits, more than any other city in the world, according to a news release from the Oregon Brewers Guild. The Brewers Association, the craft brewers' national trade group based in Boulder, Colo., estimates that Portland-based companies brewed 625,000 barrels of beer in 2010.

At their current production rates, Central Oregon breweries can put out more than 226,000 barrels a year, which means they can produce a little over a barrel and a quarter of beer for each of the just over 200,000 people who live in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. A barrel contains 31 gallons, according to the Brewers Association.

But the region's brewers and those industries that benefit from the growing industry — especially tourism — have high hopes that one day Central Oregon's beer scene will rival Portland's, which has been nicknamed BeerTown and Beervana.

The region's economic development officials like the brewery business because it means more manufacturing for the area, which can equate to stable jobs. That is supported by state trends for breweries, according to the state's brewers guild. In a release announcing retail sales and other statistics for Oregon's beer industry in 2010, it noted that “despite overall weak employment figures for the year in Oregon, the state's brewing companies added 200 jobs in 2010 and directly employed more than 4,900 people.” Oregon has 91 brewing companies operating 121 brewing facilities in 50 cities, according the release.

Bend tourism officials consider the growing brewery industry a positive because it adds to the city's reputation as a hot spot for beer, which can lure tourists outside the typical summer and winter tourism seasons. The city already promotes beer as a tourist event with the Bend Ale Trail. Local businesses have popped up to serve the beer tourism scene, including Cycle Pub tours, in which riders pedal and drink beer.

And local beers are beginning to get national recognition, with Deschutes Brewery's Mirror Pond Pale Ale getting a cameo appearance in the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” movie.

“From a marketing standpoint, the fact that we are getting more and more brewers here is a positive thing, because it becomes a branding point for the area,” said Steve Curley, who runs the economic gardening program, which promotes the concept of growing existing businesses in the region, at the Small Business Development Center at Central Oregon Community College. “People will come here as a destination to check out the breweries, just like they do in Portland.”

But to get to Portland's size and stature — or even come close — the region's brewers will have to overcome major challenges including Bend's infrastructure and a lack of a major interstate highway to make exporting beer easier.

The brewers also will have to find ways to boost demand for their beers outside the region as some people begin to question whether a region of just over 200,000 people, including cities such as Redmond and Sisters, can support more than a dozen breweries — some of which were created by former employees of the region's biggest brewer, Deschutes Brewery.

Paul Cook, a former Deschutes brewer, was involved in the start of Wildfire Brewing Co., which is now 10 Barrel Brewing Co. Earlier this year, Paul Arney, former Deschutes' assistant brewmaster, left to start a nanobrewery he calls The Ale Apothecary. Larry Sidor, brewmaster at Deschutes for the past eight years, has announced plans to leave and start a brewery of his own, probably in Bend. And Deschutes' senior brewer Jimmy Seifrit left to join 10 Barrel in January.

But all that friendly competition may be leading to a brewery bubble forming in Central Oregon, or so says Kirk Ermisch, owner of the Bend-based Southern Wine Group, which imports wines from South and Central America. Ermisch, a former home brewer and brewery employee, says he suspects the bubble is about to burst.

He believes the high rate of brewery starts in the past two years and what he perceives as a slowing of innovation could create a situation similar to the rise and eventual fall of wines such as shiraz and chardonnay. He also said it's possible that in the near future breweries here will be consolidated under bigger companies.

But even if the region's brewery industry has more room for growth, the region, especially the city of Bend, may not be able to support it with sewer and water infrastructure.

City engineers met with some Bend brewers Monday to explain that because of the current state of city's sewer system it won't be easy for them to approve a site for a new brewery within city limits anytime soon. Breweries create a lot of wastewater for sewer systems. Dean Wise, who runs southwest Bend-based Below Grade Brewing, said he has read that it takes between three and 10 barrels of water to make one barrel of beer.

City Engineer Tom Hickman said downtown, the west side, the south side and the north side all have major limitations for sewer usage, although the situation could be different in a few years.

The city is working on adding interceptors that could improve wastewater flow.

Meanwhile, the city has been in talks with a consultant to determine a more equitable way to charge commercial users, instead of only charging an extra-strength fee to the top 15 commercial users. The additional charge could affect many of Bend's breweries. Currently Deschutes Brewery is the only brewery that pays the extra-strength fee, because it's the only one that produces more than the amount of wastewater set by the city.

To encourage brewery-friendly policy-making, the region's breweries could join together in a local branch of the Oregon Brewers Guild, a nonprofit that promotes member breweries and the brewing industry in the state. Eric Strobel, business development manager at Economic Development for Central Oregon, said grant money, possibly from the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, could become available to support the creation of a Central Oregon Brewers Guild. Such a group could come up with solutions to infrastructure problems and other issues, Strobel said.

David Love, co-owner of the Old Mill Brew Wërks brewpub in southwest Bend, said the lack of interstate highways and the presence of mountain passes near Central Oregon also pose a challenge to people looking for a good spot to mass-produce beer and then ship it out of the region.

Even if brewers focus solely on selling to locals, infrastructure — of a different sort — remains a problem. Bars and brewpubs have only so many taps handles to feature local brews, meaning that not every brewery can be guaranteed a spot. Generally a bar or brewpub will have six or perhaps 12 handles.

The proliferation of breweries in Central Oregon has made rotation of tap handles more popular in recent years, said Chris Justema, a partner in Redmond-based Cascade Lakes Brewing Co. “It's not your handle; it's your turn,” Justema said.

But despite these issues, demand for beer in Bend still appears to be enough to support the existing industry — and possibly more.

“Everybody I talk to is out of beer for the most part,” said Seifrit, now 10 Barrel's brewmaster, who said he had thought Bend reached a point of saturation for breweries about two years ago.

But more breweries have opened since then. Seifrit said 10 Barrel isn't able to meet demand and he has heard that others, including Cascade Lakes, are having the same issue.

The situation shows perhaps the region could handle another brewery, or two.

Michael “Curly” White, head brewer at the McMenamin's Old St. Francis School in downtown Bend, said he thinks there's still room for more breweries to appear in the region.

“I wouldn't be surprised if one day Terrebonne has one, or maybe Tumalo even,” White said.

White acknowledges that opening a brewery can take a lot of effort. Still, he said, “as long as you're passionate about your brew or your business itself, you know, you can make anything happen.”

The breweries also could consider export options that don't depend on them being responsible for the distribution. Right now, some but not all of the breweries in the region distribute in other states. Deschutes stands out for having the widest distribution in 18 states.

Lee Bretoi, of Bend, a former sushi bar owner and nonprofit operator, is working to establish the Golden Boat Trading Co., a Bend-based exporter for Oregon beer and wine that would operate at the Port of Portland. She said a buyer from Australia told her that demand for wine is falling, and interest in American beer is picking up.

“I think for breweries, especially if they're small and they want to expand and see if their product is good overseas, they don't have to spend any of their money — they just go through me,” Bretoi said. “I think it's a great opportunity for brewers to get their name out there.”

She is working with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to secure a wholesale malt beverage and wine license to move forward with her venture.

Ermisch said he thinks it's possible for a beer exporting business to succeed and prove helpful for breweries, although because beer is more perishable than wine, it makes beer exporting more difficult.

Love, of Old Mill Brew Wërks, said he thinks Central Oregon could be home to many more small, quality-oriented breweries, even if the region could handle more large-scale breweries. He said he thinks the region would be better off aiming for quality, not quantity. The company currently uses the Silver Moon Brewing brewery and will set up its own production facility in 10 Barrel's current space in northeast Bend. Construction has started on a bigger building for a new production facility for 10 Barrel, about a block away from the current one.

“I don't know if Bend wants to be like Portland,” he said. “And I think Bend should hold on to being that high-end craft beer community. And I think Boneyard (Beer) and Silver Moon (Brewing) and Three Creeks (Brewing Co.) and hopefully Brew Wërks, when we get it going, are going to keep that alive.”