By Beau Eastes • The Bulletin

Steens Mountain Brewery

Where: 150 W. Washington, Burns

Web: Steens Mountain Brewery, Facebook page

Where to buy

Taps handles: Pine Room Restaurant and Lounge in Burns, Big Bear Lodge in Hines, Figaro’s Pizza in Burns

Bottles: Rhojo’s in Burns

BURNS — Rick Roy always kept the hops in the back of his mind.

An avid hunter and fisherman — and a bit of a beer connoisseur — Roy occasionally found wild patches of the plant, a key flavoring ingredient for many beers, in remote parts of Harney County after he and his family moved to Burns 16 years ago when he took a job with the Bureau of Land Management.

“In my travels, I’d run into hops growing out there at these old homesteads,” says Roy, 54, who spent several years brewing his own beer when he lived in Colorado. “I kept those locations in the back of my mind, just in case.”

Lovers of good beer should be glad he did.

Roy’s Steens Mountain Brewing Company, the smallest brewery in the state according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s latest numbers, is up and running in Burns, a rural ranching community of approximately 2,800 people 130 miles east of Bend. Working on a half-barrel system, Roy sold .55 barrels of beer — about 17 gallons — mainly in October of last year, his first month of selling, according to the OLCC’s most recent report. For comparison, Deschutes Brewery, the largest brewery in the state behind the Red Hook/Widmer/Kona/Omission alliance, produced and sold about 77,000 barrels in Oregon during that same period.

“When I brew, I brew a half-barrel at a time, every Saturday,” says Roy, whose nanobrewery — a brewery that uses a 3-barrel or smaller system — is run out of a 900-square-foot, 112-year-old house he and his wife own just two blocks west of downtown Burns.

Roy, with the help of his wife and 10 children, brews and bottles all of Steens Mountain Brewing’s beer in the two-bedroom house with equipment, for the most part, he made himself.

Steens Mountain isn’t equipped to do tastings or growler fills at the brewery, but visitors will eventually be able to buy bottles.

“People call me up and ask if I do tours!” Roy laughs.

The brewery, named for the massive fault-block mountain southeast of Burns, pays tribute to the culture and history of Harney County in as many ways as possible. All of Roy’s beers have a local connection. Harney Valley Pale Ale references not just the large basin Burns sits in, but also a long-forgotten brewery in the area that went out of business more than 100 years ago (Roy likes to tell folks Steens Mountain Brewery is actually the third brewing operation to open in Burns; it’s just that the last one before his closed in 1912.) Robert Burns Wee Heavy Scottish Ale celebrates the town of Burns’ namesake, and Petroglyph Porter highlights the area’s Native American history.

“We have the most amazing public land here,” says Chelsea Harrison, the executive director of the Harney County Chamber of Commerce. “And Steens Mountain Brewing has chosen to focus on those features. … It’s super exciting. I’ve been so impressed with Rick’s vision and economic awareness as an entrepreneur.”

Roy, who grew up in New Hampshire and came out west when he went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, also makes sure to have a bit of fun with his brews, all of which when bottled have a short story on the back label explaining the name. His Carp Drewl Brown Ale, a play on Big Sky’s popular Moose Drool, brings attention to the carp infestation problem at Malheur Lake. He also brews Whorehouse Meadows American Wheat, his version of a Hefeweizen, named after a scandalous meadow located within the Steens Mountain Recreation Area.

“Talking with a lot of different folks that have nanobreweries, they all said you’ve got to have a theme,” says Roy, who already has his beers on tap in three different Burns-area restaurants and sells his bottles in another. “Well, you couldn’t use a pirate theme in Burns. But we’ve got a lot of history here.”

Harney County’s influence goes beyond just the beer names of Steens Mountain Brewing, though. Roy crafted a Scottish ale specifically because of Burns’ Scottish heritage and he is working on an amber ale that is similar in style to what Basque brewers in Spain are currently producing.

Roy’s daughter Carley designs the art specific to each beer — Steens Mountain has eight different brews in bottles now and is adding three more — and a local print shop manufactures the labels. Tap handles are carved from wood found in the area.

And of course there’s the hops. Roy uses his secret stash of wild Harney County hops in as many of his beers as possible. After a story ran in the Burns paper about his brewery and his desire to use local produce, people started calling Roy and telling him about even more hops.

“Now I’ve got about five, six, seven different places, all in Harney County where I go get hops,” says Roy, who has also started a hop garden adjacent to Steens Mountain Brewing. “What variety (the wild hops) are, I have no idea. I talked to some of the guys at the hop farms and they told me not to waste my time figuring out what they are. Just call them whatever you want and see what works.”

While Roy just started selling beer last year, he had been playing with the idea of a local Burns brewery for almost a decade. Six or seven years ago he and some other community leaders discussed turning one of the vacant historic buildings downtown into a brewpub, but Roy wasn’t sure it would fly. It wasn’t until fall 2013 that he became convinced a small brewery could make it in his adopted hometown.

“Cycle Oregon came through here and one night they had a huge block party,” recalls Roy, who as the high school lacrosse coach was with his team helping unload the cyclists’ gear when they came to town. “There was 2,500 people here. They closed downtown, had a block party and a dance. And Deschutes (Brewing) came. Well, after all our volunteer work was done, I came down with my wife and watched locals drink Deschutes.

“After that it was, ‘Oh, yeah!’” he adds, noting the moment he knew Harney County could support its own brewery. “The next day I put up a Facebook page for Steens Mountain Brewing.”

Roy started brewing that December before spending the first part of 2014 setting up the rest of the business. Steens Mountain Brewing helped kick off the inaugural Burns Brewfest in September — its McCoy Creek Scottish Ale was named best beer — and officially opened in October.

“The first keg of his I had, it lasted three days and then it was gone,” says Bill Andersen, who owns and operates the Pine Room restaurant. “It’s been like that ever since. And the summer is going to be nuts.”

With Burns located between Yellowstone and Crater Lake national parks, Andersen says he sees a high volume of tourists in the summer months, people from all over the world.

“Usually the first thing they ask is what do I have on tap and what’s local,” notes Andersen, who carries an array of West Coast microbrews. “The first keg he brought me, he uses a different kind of tap system, so I had to cut one of my originals off. I told him it better be good!”

By all indications it is. Roy sold out of bottles over Christmas and has started doing custom beers for weddings and special functions. But if you want a Lone Pine American Ale — you do, trust me — or Outhouse Oatmeal Stout, you have to come to Burns to get it. Roy has no immediate plans of expanding outside of Harney County and hopes beer tourists who make the trek to Burns will provide a jolt to the local economy.

“My first goal is to get in every place here in Harney County,” says Roy, who adds that any expansion into outside markets probably would have to wait until he retires from the BLM, which could be as soon as 2019. “We’ll see where all this goes.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0305, .