Kimberly Bowker / The Bulletin

Deschutes Brewery celebrates a few milestones Friday — not only has it survived two decades, it has grown to a point where it ranks among the top craft brewers in the nation.

Gary Fish wasn’t sure what to expect when he opened the doors to his Deschutes Brewery & Public House in downtown Bend 20 years ago.

“We were overwhelmed by the volume that came in,” remembered Fish, president of Deschutes Brewery. “A lot of people came out there for the novelty aspect, I suppose, as much as anything else. (Craft beer) was a concept that was foreign to most people in town, and they couldn’t understand that we weren’t serving Budweiser.”

Little did he know then that a movement had been born when the doors opened at 4 p.m. on June 27, 1988. As the first brewery established in Central Oregon, Deschutes Brewery laid the foundation for a local craft brew industry that has emerged as a major employer, attraction and identifier for the region.

According to the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute, 5,029 jobs in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Central, Southern and Eastern Oregon, were directly or indirectly associated with the beer industry in 2007. It provided more than $151 million in wages and more than $500 million in economic contribution.

At Deschutes, it all began with three varieties of beers. They ranged from light to dark: Bachelor Bitter, Cascade Golden Ale and Black Butte Porter. Mirror Pond, the brewery’s largest seller, was established as a seasonal pub brew several months later and was bottled in 1996 as a year-round beer, Fish said.

Four breweries followed Deschutes in Central Oregon.

“Deschutes paved the way for everybody,” said Garrett Wales, a co-owner of Wildfire Brewing Company. “They came out with the microbrews early and made the transition from domestic to craft.”

Deschutes “created a beer culture in Bend and has allowed all the other breweries to come to town and do the same thing and be successful at it,” Wales said. Those other breweries are Cascades Lakes Brewing Company, of Redmond, which launched in 1994; Bend Brewing Company, in 1995; Silver Moon Brewing, of Bend, in 2000; and Wildfire Brewing Company, which started brewing in Bend last year.

A beer renaissance

Fish was 31 when he opened Deschutes Brewery. He had worked in the restaurant industry and was a partner in a Salt Lake City restaurant before moving to Bend in fall 1987.

There were many craft beer skeptics in Central Oregon at the time.

“‘What is this guy talking about? Who does he think he is?’ I got a lot of that,” Fish said.

Fish’s father was involved in the California wine business, acting as a contract grower of grapes during the 1960s and ’70s. Fish refers to that time as the California wine renaissance. Fish and his father recognized that a beer renaissance was probably not far behind.

After searching for a location to open a brewery in Northern California, Fish discovered Central Oregon.

“We came to Bend and, for all the wrong answers we got everywhere else, we got all the right answers here,” Fish said.

For starters, there were no breweries in the region, and Fish was able to buy property instead of lease it.

“Downtown — and Bend, in general — was very different back then,” Fish said. “There wasn’t much anywhere.”

Deschutes, however, quickly won fans, and its production grew.

It brewed a little more than 300 barrels of beer in 1988. Last year, it produced 184,250 barrels.

“It’s an affirmation after 20 years that we did the right thing. We’ve been really happy with the way the (local beer industry) has developed,” Fish said.

A lot of beer ...

Deschutes Brewery has produced 1,671,457 barrels of beer from its opening through June 15 of this year, ranking it among the nation’s largest producing craft brewers. That’s equal to 91,930,135 six-packs, or 51,815,167 gallons.

In 2007, the Brewers Association ranked Deschutes the No. 7 craft brewing company in the United States by volume of sales. It was ranked No. 16 among all brewing companies.

The brewery started with 12 employees, culling them from 15 applicants. It currently employs 300.

Deschutes beer is offered in 13 states, recently adding Texas to its distribution lineup.

A new brewpub, located in Portland’s trendy Pearl District, opened early last month about a block behind one of the city’s biggest attractions: Powell’s City of Books.

“It’s going to be such a huge draw in Portland, around the state and around the country,” Brian Butenschoen, executive director of Oregon Brewers Guild, said of the Portland pub.

Part of Deschutes’ growth strategy, according to Fish, goes back to the consumer.

“The number one thing we have relied on since the very beginning is that the consumer is king,” Fish said. “We focus on quality, creativity, innovation and staying in touch with the consumer.”

Other breweries agree that good beer has been the basis of Deschutes’ success.

“They produce a very consistent and high-quality beer,” said Chris Cox, a co-owner of Wildfire Brewing Company.

Chris Justema, the president of Cascade Lakes Brewing, attributed Deschutes’ success to “the beer and the branding.”

“Gary Fish has assembled a great team at Deschutes that is passionate about what they do — both in making beer and marketing it,” Justema wrote in an e-mail.

The growth of his company can be related to a roller coaster ride, Fish said.

“Sometimes we grow fast, and sometimes we grow slow. We just want to keep growing,” he said.

The next 20 years

Deschutes Brewery has faced and surpassed various challenges over the years.

Recent difficulties include a changing financial and global marketplace, dramatic price increases for raw materials and the consolidation of other breweries on a manufacturing, wholesale and retail level, which changes the nature of competition, Fish said.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” he said. “Everybody who is successful has to work hard most of their lives. I can’t think of anything I would rather work hard on than this.”

All Central Oregon breweries face similar difficulties, although Cox, with Wildfire Brewing, admits that Deschutes is a different kind of player because it is larger than the others.

But, according to most local breweries, competition in the Central Oregon beer industry is supportive and respectful.

“The one thing about the brewery business is that it is a fairly relaxed and cordial competition and style of business,” Cox said.

He added that his brewers enjoy visiting other breweries to sample new brews and enjoy the quality of good beer.

“We developed into a pretty positive brewing community that we can all feel proud of,” Fish said. He also added that the local brewers can be proud “of growing the Central Oregon reputation for great craft beer.”

Fish wants to continue growing, possibly expanding distribution into other locations but also taking advantage of opportunities in existing states.

The current cost of fuel is making expansion to other territories challenging, he said. Deschutes has had requests to distribute around the world, but Fish said he is going to examine the opportunities one at a time as they present themselves.

“Right now, we’re trying to digest what we ate,” he said. “It’s hard to think it’s been 20 years. but it has. I’m looking forward to the next 20.”

Go celebrate

• Friday: 5 to 10 p.m. at Deschutes Brewery & Public House, 1044 N.W. Bond St. Music by Scott Fox. Locals’ night prices for beer and food.

• Saturday: Noon to 4 p.m. at the brewing facility, 901 S.W. Simpson Ave. Music by Moon Mountain Ramblers. Self-guided tours of the brewery, samples of 20th anniversary beers, free barbecue and discounts on Deschutes Brewery apparel.

• For information, call 541-385-8606 or visit www.deschutesbrewery.com .

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