By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When Scott McConnell was researching his business plan for a brewery in La Grande, he made a jarring discovery. The Eastern Oregon city was one of the largest in the state that didn’t also have a business that made beer. McConnell found that most towns with a population of more than 7,000 people — from the Coast to the Idaho border — are home to a brewpub.
“It was kind of an incredible statistic,” he said. “And so that was one of my big pitches to investors.”
While that swath of land represents some of Oregon’s most rugged and sparsely populated areas — free-range cattle can outnumber people at times — there are still plenty of breweries. La Grande just happened to sit along a dry, lonely stretch of Interstate 84 with Baker City and Barley Brown’s to the southeast and Prodigal Son in Pendleton to the northwest. Terminal Gravity is a winding, scenic drive on the way to Wallowa Lake. So it was about time to fill in the gap.
“You see holes in your community and you’re like, ‘Man, it would be really nice to have a brewpub here,’” described McConnell. “I recognized the need and how this would be successful if we pulled it off.”
Building Side A Brewing wasn’t a solo endeavor, though. The mission to bring brewing back to La Grande (Mt. Emily Ale House closed several years ago) actually reunited McConnell with his two childhood friends from Michigan and helped make a piece of the town’s history more accessible to the public.
It was probably no mistake that McConnell, an economics professor at Eastern Oregon University, ended up on the rural side of the state after an earlier stint in Portland. He and his business partners — Nick Fairbanks, head brewer, and Travis Hansen, head chef — were raised in Alpena, Mich. The town is nestled between a state forest and a bay on Lake Huron near the fingertips of the oven mitt-shaped state. The three all lived about five miles apart from each other on wide-open land where labor was an early part of their upbringing. Those ethics and a shared experience are what they believe led to a solid foundation for Side A.
“I think we all grew up working hard,” McConnell explained. “In a small, rural community, you work your whole life. That’s just the way it is. And we all grew up in blue-collar families watching our parents work hard and I think it just becomes a way of life.”
“We rarely don’t see things the same way and I think it’s helpful to come from the same background,” Fairbanks added.
They also bring considerable experience to the project. McConnell, who ran the population numbers early on to lure investors, brings business and front-of-the-house knowledge. If Hansen’s name and face aren’t familiar, that’s because he’s normally confined to a kitchen — sizzling, simmering or seasoning. But his food has undoubtedly landed on a plate in front of you at Widmer Brothers Brewing, where he spent a decade. And Fairbanks has been mashing in and overseeing maintenance at breweries across the country for years — most recently at Short’s Brewing Company in northwest Michigan. There he experienced massive growth. The business went from a production capacity of around 4,000 barrels per year to close to 70,000.
The sensibility of the Midwest is infused in Fairbanks’ brew at Side A. There’s also a certain spirited stubbornness — do not, for instance, ask Fairbanks if you can share your idea for an IPA. He’s probably already heard it. And dank hop bombs aren’t a personal favorite. Instead, Fairbanks prefers balance, which is why you’ll find that the Award Winning IPA tiptoes up to the 60 IBU mark, but won’t cross it.
“I’m adamant that IPAs are overdone, and it’s just not my particular philosophy to have six IPAs on tap because there’s so much else out there,” Fairbanks said.
And that includes an early lineup of classics: a hard-to-find-elsewhere altbier, a flavorful toasty oatmeal brown with a slight hop kick and a pale called Copper & Gold that honors his roots with Michigan Copper hops blended with Northwest-grown malts to recognize his home now. While the beers might sound a bit conservative compared to some breweries, Fairbanks is already anticipating the benefits of autonomy in the brewhouse. He’ll begin experimenting with traditional styles in the future.
A restrained approach might make sense in Eastern Oregon where the will to embrace change moves about as quickly as a herd of cows milling around one of the region’s isolated roads. In beer terms, that used to mean prying the Bud Light out of their cold, dead hands. But the Side A crew has found that the resistance to try something new is waning. McConnell credits the shift to those breweries that came before them — Terminal Gravity, Barley Brown’s and Prodigal Son — and the effort it took to get people to take a chance on something new.
“I would say we’re lucky because those breweries all did what they did over the last five to 10 years to 20 years, depending on which brewery you’re talking about,” said McConnell. “I always like to make sure that everyone knows that we are just following in the wake.”
Apart from bringing La Grande back into the brewing community, the Side A founders helped revitalize the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum while forming one of the more unique partnerships in the state when it comes to shared space. It’s actually easy to miss Side A if you’re not looking for the brewery because it’s housed in a building that looks like the fire department. In fact, the sign on the front says “La Grande Fire Dept.” in large red letters above two garage doors that appear as though fire trucks could come bursting out of at any moment, sirens wailing.
You’ll actually find a much calmer scene inside: diners digging into oversized burgers and heaps of dirty fries next to pints and tasters. The open pub is just one half of the structure. An exhibit composed of firefighting equipment and memorabilia comprises the rest of the interior and inspired the name “Side A,” which is how firefighters refer to the front of a building. The museum wasn’t in danger of shuttering, but until the brewery launched its hours were extremely limited.
“They were at a point where they couldn’t afford to have somebody here permanently so that people couldn’t just show up. They had to make an appointment,” said McConnell. “It was kind of cumbersome to visit the museum. Us being open all the time now, people can go see it anytime they want.”
La Grande’s Urban Renewal Agency gave the brewery-museum merge an assist in the form of $40,000. That money went to improvements like adaptations to sewer lines and the installation of ADA-compliant bathrooms.
“We got it for the business, but also the city kind of got it back in the sense that the building is now more functional,” McConnell said.
“It’s a win-win,” said Fairbanks. “We got what we needed; they got a building updated.”
While waiting for dinner, you can take a tour of firefighting through the ages. On display are several fire engines, including a model from 1925 that’s believed to be the only one on the National Historic Registry, an array of old extinguishers and the station’s pole that’s worn in areas where countless hands held on for the slide down.
“It’s a way to keep the historical value of the community,” Fairbanks said. “And there’s a great amount of people that actually come to see the museum outside of coming to have a beer.”
“We get a lot of firemen who worked in this building to come in and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredible!’” said McConnell. “And to be able to show off a piece of La Grande history — every little town loves to be able to show off its history, so it’s neat to be able to partner with that.”
Side A Brewing
1219 Washington Ave., La Grande
By Andi Prewitt
After Barley Brown’s Beer won five medals and Very Small Brewing Company of the year at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, a competition some liken to the Super Bowl, you’d expect beer geeks would be clamoring for a photo of owner Tyler Brown. But the same day Brown collected all that hardware, he found himself being asked to get out of a shot while pouring his gold medal Pallet Jack IPA in the Barley Brown’s booth. Apparently, he didn’t move far enough and once again received a request to take a few steps aside. It turns out the photographer wanted to snap a picture of two more famous brewers: Jeff Bagby, formerly of Pizza Port, and Fat Head’s Matt Cole. But what that beer fan failed to notice was why the men were at the booth to begin with. Brown pointed out, “yeah, they’re drinking our beer. If you want a beer I’m going to pour you a beer, otherwise get out of the way.”
That exchange summarizes the journey of Barley Brown’s, aka Baker City Brewing Co. Barley Brown’s seemed to fly under the radar of most drinkers in the state even though it has been operating since 1998 and winning awards at major competitions since 2006. Perhaps it’s the far-flung location, the brewery’s initial low-key presence in Portland, or Oregon’s metro-area myopia. Whatever factors might have contributed to Barley Brown’s muted profile seem to be diminishing now that the brewery has won a slew of medals, including the much- coveted gold in American-style IPA at GABF. Brown knows that Portland has started to notice because people tell him they think his brewery is new.
“Yeah, I hear that all the time,” Brown laughs. “‘Oh you guys just popped right in the middle of the scene!’ yeah, about 16 years ago!”
Barley Brown’s cellerman Addison Collard says the recent notoriety “is like being a band that’s been together for years and you finally get that one hit album and they’re like, ‘Oh, these guys are good!’ Like, no. We’ve been struggling. Pounding the pavement for a long time.”
While it took time to draw the attention of the average beer consumer, bar and bottle shop owners have been in the know for about 10 years. Brown recalls Belmont Station’s Carl Singmaster making the 300-mile journey to Baker City just to get a few kegs he seat-belted in the back of his Subaru before returning to Portland. Brown would also take kegs to the city and target outlets that were choosy about which beers they offered, making them difficult to get into and often filled with sophisticated drinkers. He used these opportunities as tests to see how
his beer would stack up against some of the best. Brown is clearly a man who likes a challenge since his tests these days pit him against not just the top competitors in Portland, but some of the finest in the world.
Before Brown was turning out top-quality beer in his remote section of the state, he witnessed his parents experiment with various businesses in the building that would eventually house the brewpub. The couple ran a bakery out of the property after purchasing it in the 1970s and parked bread trucks where the current dining room is situated. In 1983, they remodeled the space and turned it into a restaurant. Despite changing the cuisine several times—pizza, breakfast, and what Brown describes as “pseudo-Mexican,” nothing would really stick. Meanwhile, Brown would use the building’s kitchen space to brew during slow nights.
The rise of the brewpub came with the collapse of the Mexican food joint. That business actually had some success since it was the only one in town at the time. But it was the beginning of the end when a Mexican family moved to Baker City and opened their own restaurant with authentic fare. Brown’s father told him he was done with the place and that he could now do whatever he wanted with it. So he did. Brown installed a four-barrel brewery that he had built for the tight quarters and didn’t look back. And the Mexican restaurant that helped push his family’s place out of business is still one of Brown’s favorites.
Baker City is one of those towns where the only strangers are those who make a pit stop
while traveling along bustling I-84. It’s no surprise, then, that Brown and his brewer Eli Dickison have longstanding ties. Dickison started as a prep cook at the pub, but decided it was time to go back to school after working odd jobs for seven or eight years. Leaving Baker City for college at Oregon State University caused a bit of a culture shock. But it wasn’t due to the larger population or urban living.
“I realized just how expensive and hard-to-find good beer is,” says Dickison. “So I started to play around with making some myself.”
Dickison was finally able to fuse his two favorite things, science and beer, into a career path. He joined OSU’s Fermentation Science program while continuing to homebrew. One of those beers made its way into Brown’s hand while Dickison visited Baker City on winter break. Instead of having to sip and politely smile while secretly choking down the homemade concoction, Brown was blown away. That night, he told his wife how excited he’d be if Dickison came to the brewery after graduating. About one year later, Dickison joined the brewing family he seemed destined for.
While Brown and Dickison continue to garner ecognition for their beers, they never set out to perfect any particular style. Brown says that’s a big difference between homebrewers and craft brewers. Rather than worrying about style guidelines, the Barley Brown team develops new brews by tossing around ideas. Sometimes a beer is born when an ingredient isn’t available and the brewers have to improvise. Dickison explains that’s one element that led to the making of Ratchet Strap IPA. The brewery lacked hops normally used in Pallet Jack IPA and Hand Truck Pale Ale. However, some new German Melon hops had recently arrived, so they decided to try something new. Brown says the Germans claimed that particular hop could never be used in an American-style IPA. Once again, he rose to the challenge and proved those doubters wrong.
“We have targets. We have an idea. And I guess it would be more of a style of brewing instead of brewing beer styles,” explains Brown. “We have favorite hops we use; techniques we use. So our process is more the Barley Brown style process rather than trying to create the perfect IPA. We want our IPA that we’re going to drink.”
There are no special competition beers either. The beers that will be judged by experts have already been reviewed by customers at the brewpub or nearby taproom. It has become a Barley Brown tradition to pull those kegs and use them to fill bottles that are shipped to events like GABF. Although the locals taste the beer first, Brown says they won’t pay much attention to the fancy titles or shiny awards that adorn the taproom wall. But you might chalk that up to a rural Oregon mindset of not making a fuss about things. Brown points out that’s why some famous retired pro baseball players choose to call Baker City home. They can sit at the bar without being bothered.
These days you can get Barley Brown’s beer on tap just about anywhere in Baker City, including the VFW. yes—a VFW that in almost any other town would offer up Budweiser or Coors for $2.50 a pint gives patrons the option of a craft beer for the same price. But 16 years ago when the brewery started, Brown says his best-selling beer was Bud Light. He worked to prime palates by having servers offer craft beer samples to customers at the door before they even had a chance to sit down and order a mass-produced lager. It took two to three years for his beer to catch on, but now regulars never veer from some of their early favorites, like Coyote Peak Wheat and Tumble Off Pale Ale. In fact, the brewers say it can be challenging to get them to try new brews.
“I think it’s more of a local beer culture than a craft beer culture,” says Brown. “They know us and they know where it’s made and they like it, so they drink it. But they’ve probably never heard of most of the breweries in Portland.”
There is still a tap dedicated to Bud Light at the brewpub and it speaks to Brown’s nature. He’s loyal to enduring relationships and quite giving. The tap exists because of one devoted customer and a likable beer salesman. If they weren’t there, the Bud Light would probably get taken out of the restaurant. you could say that Brown is saving Baker City from bad beverages in general. Last summer, the city was under a boil order because of a cryptosporidium scare. The brewpub was able to keep operating because of the brewing equipment. Water was boiled in the hot liquor tank and cooled in a fermenter. When the nearby Powder River Correctional Facility found it had no way to easily prepare enough water for inmates and staff, Brown didn’t hesitate to help. The brewery cut back on production a bit and processed about 1000 gallons of water for the prison every other day. But while Baker City worried about water, others who heard about the boil order were concerned about Barley Brown’s beer.
“It was so frustrating hearing phone calls from some people in Portland,” says Dickison. “‘Is the beer safe to drink?’ It’s like going back in time 100 years. The beer is good.”
“The beer is the only thing that’s good,” added Brown.
While Barley Brown’s gears up for another year of competitions, additional medals could be on the horizon. The awards do carry significant meaning— to a point.
“With something like World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival you get to put your beers up against other beers, double-blind, and your peers judge it. And so when you get a medal, it’s pretty cool,” says Brown.
Sometimes the brewery even picks up memorable nicknames with victories—like the time a San Diego brewer said he knew Barley Brown’s as the “Wookey Slayer” for beating Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack at the World Beer Cup. Ultimately, winning medals and the respect of fellow brewers is rewarding. But Brown says it’s generally not going to help sell anymore beer. The one exception, he notes, is placing first in the IPA category. What matters most, though, are the consumers whose feedback can be just as meaningful.
Brown and Dickison recently got a little surprise from a satisfied drinker. The two were unloading bags of malt and milling when Brown noticed a broad smile spread across Dickison’s face. He’d found a piece of candy—a Nut Goodie—tucked in the load from Brewers Supply Group in Vancouver, Wash. The treats come with almost every delivery. Dickison figures it’s because they know it’s going to brewers who need some sustenance to balance out all of the beer. But this time, the Nut Goodie had a note that read “Hand Truck Pale is my fav!” It wasn’t flashy. It didn’t come with national recognition. And it certainly won’t make headlines. But somehow it was a little bit sweeter than that stuff.
“You get a medal and you hang it there, but it’s not personal. But somebody had to stick that sticker on there, write it, and know those pallets were going to Barley Brown’s. Aw, that makes you feel good. A Nut Goodie,” Brown says with a smile.
CAPTION: In Ascending order, Tyler Brown, owner; Eli Dickison, brewer, and Addison Collard, cellerman, make up the core of Barley Brown’s winning brewery team .
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