By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
When Alesong Brewing & Blending opened its 2,500-square-foot facility in an industrial area of west Eugene in 2016, it was just the beginning.
“The dream since we all came together to start Alesong has been to have a brewery in the country, somewhere we can brew beer that reflects this little piece of the Willamette Valley,” says Doug Coombs, who founded the brewery along with his brother Brian and former Oakshire brewmaster Matt Van Wyk. In its first year, Alesong has acquired accolades, including a 2016 Great American Beer Festival gold medal, and now distributes throughout Oregon and the San Francisco Bay Area.
In July, the founders’ dream became real. Alesong opened its newly constructed 3,500-square-foot hilltop tasting room and wild fermentation and aging facility, located on 5 acres next to King Estate Winery on Territorial Highway southwest of downtown Eugene. With eight taps, beer to go, and views of the surrounding valley — not to mention air filled with microbes influenced by the agricultural and winemaking areas surrounding Alesong — the new space serves both as the public face of Alesong, but also represents the brewery’s wild side.
At the core of Alesong’s brewing philosophy is a dedication to unique, limited-release beers — no flagships or regular offerings here. Focused on oak aging and Belgian-inspired techniques, Alesong brews both wild and non-wild beers, using locally grown fruits, herbs, special yeasts and other microbes. Since the brewery adopted techniques similar to those used by artisan winemakers and lambic blenders, the owners believe their products will appeal to wine lovers too.
“Our desire is to capture the terroir of our little piece of the world through a combination of local ingredients and microbes,” says Coombs. “We also believe in the parallels between what we're doing with barrel aging and blending and what our neighbors in the wine industry are doing. There's a good opportunity for crossover between customers, both those that love beer and those that may not yet love beer because they haven't been exposed to some of the more unique styles that we make that could be more approachable for someone who's more into wine than typical craft beer.”
Surrounding the tasting room are extensive grounds where Alesong plans to have lawn games, child activity areas, “nooks and crannies” for hanging out, and crop and orchard space to grow produce that will end up in Alesong beers. A patio with 10 picnic tables wraps around the front and one side of the building, with space at the back for a small stage for live music. Food carts and in-house small plates are available, but picnics are welcome too. Inside, a large, bright common area houses comfy chairs and a couch. Alesong also is planning on holding onsite educational sessions for the public, plus special events for people on the brewery’s mailing list.
Currently Alesong brews wort at Block 15 Brewing in Corvallis, then brings it to the Eugene location on Conger Street for fermentation and aging. Now the wort’s final destination will depend on whether it’s going clean or wild. Throughout the rest of 2017, Alesong is moving some of its fermentation tanks, barrels and other equipment to the new Territorial Highway location, which will serve as the wild fermentation counterpoint to the “clean” facility that Alesong retains at Conger Street. (Future plans may include an onsite brewhouse at the Conger Street site for access to municipal water and wastewater infrastructure.)
Beers bound for spirits barrels will be fermented, aged and blended at Conger Street. The goal, says Coombs, is to prevent exposure to “wild bugs” such as Brettanomyces. “The new facility will look a lot like the current in-town facility, with stainless fermenters and blending tanks, an open-top fermenter for some more wild experiments. The barrels and packaging equipment for our ‘wild’ beers will move out there as well,” explains Coombs. “Having the separate facilities helps us focus on and control our wild and sour program better, and the distance gives us peace of mind that our ‘clean’ beers won’t get contaminated.”
While Alesong says they haven’t had any cross-contamination issues so far, Coombs notes, “There's always a little more stress than we'd like that comes along with doing testing on all of our clean blends.”
After a fast-paced year that involved a lot of founder-aided construction, painting and other work related to getting the tasting room up and running, the team’s collaborative roles are solidifying. Each founder is blending his own expertise with the brewery’s operations. “Matt and Brian work pretty closely together to manage production, with Matt leading the charge on the hot side and Brian claiming responsibility for the cellar,” explains Coombs. “I’m the point on most of the sales, marketing and admin, but those are all team efforts as well.”
Two new employees manage the tasting room. However, Coombs says that he, Brian and Matt will be there regularly, “bartending, bussing and just hanging out and chatting with people. We love being out there and love sharing our process and story. It's a big part of why we're all doing this to begin with.”
With construction finished, Alesong is refocusing on what matters most: the beer. “We're looking forward to more experimentation with spontaneous fermentations,” says Coombs. “The native microbes out in the country are a lot more exciting than what we might've been able to pick up on West 11th [Avenue].”
Alesong Brewing & Blending
80848 Territorial Hwy, Eugene
Dogs, minors and picnics welcome
Ron Gansberg (right), brewmaster for Cascade Brewing Barrel House, says the biggest challenge when creating spiced beer is having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how to use each one. Kevin Martin, lead blender, agrees that time is a huge ingredient. Photo by Emma Browne
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The holidays wouldn't be the same without spices — they infuse the air with warm, welcoming aromas and contribute distinct flavors to food and drink — bringing to mind memories of gatherings filled with family, friends and cheer.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House, led by Ron Gansberg, is a brewery that fully embraces the use of spices in their beers. While they offer spice beers year-round, many people tend to associate fall with the flavorful variety as we begin to turn to seasonal food that works well with spices, like pumpkins and apples, which are also in abundance. One of many spiced beers Cascade turns out is called Pumpkin Smash, which is made with local, organic Cinderella pumpkins from Sauvie Island that are then roasted in-house. The Northwest-style sour ale is barrel aged for 11 months and still highly drinkable at 11.4 percent ABV due to a combination of spices that bring to mind pumpkin pie.
The use of spices is not new, having been a mainstay in beer making since the beginning, but in recent history their presence has been overshadowed by other ingredients — primarily hops. Ron’s work continues to buck that trend and it’s an ongoing project to master Cascade’s spiced beer game. When asked what the biggest challenge is when creating spiced beer, his answer was having enough time to spend with the spice in raw form to obtain the most complete understanding of how and when to use each one. Some spices are more stable than others, retaining consistency throughout the life of the beer; others might be more prominent early on only to eventually fade, quickly or slowly, as the beer matures. That factor is particularly important at Cascade since so many of their beers spend time aging in barrels. Kevin Martin, lead blender at Cascade, explains that when making spiced beer, it must be understood that "time is a huge ingredient."
Just as hops can be added during the boil, during aging or even right before serving by using a Randall, spices may also be introduced at different points throughout the beer-making process. Cascade's spice regimen includes kettle spicing, barrel spicing and spicing at blending, all of which have been developed over time with the help of detailed notes that track how the spices are expressed in the beer. The careful note taking allows Cascade to refine its processes.
Kettle spicing happens during brewing and builds a good base layer of flavor. When added at this point, the flavors have the opportunity to not only be more integrated, but they may also be transformed at the molecular level during fermentation. Barrel spicing doesn't provide the level of integration that kettle spicing does, but just as an application of salt and pepper enhances a dish before it’s served, adding the element as the beer ages is an important step in creating the final product. Both methods are important, each providing their own flavor contribution to the beer. Then comes the "eleventh hour correction," or spicing at blending. This is the blender's last hurrah with the beer in an effort to make it the perfect concoction.
Vlad the Imp Aler, a sour ale that is a blend of blonde quads, tripels and blondes that have been aged more than 18 months in bourbon and wine barrels, was the first spiced beer that Ron made at Cascade. When asked why he first decided to make a spiced beer, Ron said it was because he felt that the spicing complemented where the beer was going and also helped define and frame the brew. As for the how — his process and way of doing things — that’s something he’s intentionally developed through trial and error without turning to other breweries’ methods as a model. While one might think it would be useful to learn from what others are doing, his view is that if he learned other breweries' processes, essentially he'd just be making their beers instead of making his own. That's a pretty enlightened view, even if it has meant that he's had to work harder to figure it out on his own rather than learning from others.
Ron’s independence isn’t the only element that makes Cascade’s beers so unique. The brewery’s extensive blending program also sets it apart. Vlad the Imp Aler is a prime example, drawing from multiple styles and likely multiple vintages each time it's created. And blending is not for the faint of heart. While with brewing you can experiment with test batches, blending cannot feasibly be done small-scale. As Ron explained it, blending is something he’s just had to go forward with despite any fear of the outcome. Were he to have proceeded with caution, giving into uncertainty and concern, Cascade would be light-years behind where they are today. Thankfully, Ron forged ahead.
One of his newest creations is Mulled Apple Sour. Just as Pumpkin Smash was made with spices you’d associate with pumpkin pie, this beer is reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie due to the spices, vanilla and honey. Presented for the first time this year, as the chill was just starting to creep into the air, it's a strong opening act to Glueh Kriek. Cradling the glass of warm liquid is as comforting as being handed a plate of fresh-from-the-oven pie that was almost cut too soon, allowing the warm goodness to ooze out.
Glueh Kriek, a mulled beer some may have enjoyed last year, is both sweeter and more acidic than the Mulled Apple Sour, with an intense cherry flavor and undeniable presence of cinnamon and clove. Deep red in color, served with a clove-spiked orange slice, breathing in its aroma is like breathing in the best of the holidays. It’s a beer that fully embodies the depth and breadth of Cascade’s spicing and blending program.
So what's next for Cascade? There's no clear answer, but Ron is continually bringing in new spices and experimenting with them to determine which express themselves well and which do not. Those in the former group will get further attention to figure out how and when to apply each spice to bring them to their fullest potential. Then there are some that fall in between, such as cardamom, which are much more challenging to apply. Not one to shy away from the challenge, it's more a matter of when, not if, Ron will unlock the key to using it. Whatever the result, it's sure to be a unique creation — the result of the dedication to the craft of brewing, spicing and blending that Cascade is known for.
Cascade Brewing Barrel House
[a] 939 SE Belmont St., Portland
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