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
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
“I always wanted a water tower.”
“You ever climb up there and hang out and drink some beers at the top?”
“Matter of fact that would be correct. Yes.”
That’s how my conversation with Craig Coleman began while touring the concrete remains of homes nearly swallowed by tall, yellow grass in an Eastern Oregon town that’s nearly gone but not quite forgotten. Ordnance, which is a mere 7 miles from a Walmart parking lot teeming with people in Hermiston, feels like its hundreds of miles away from civilization. But just several hundred feet from an exit off I-84 sits the ruins of a place that’s had several lives — first, as a home for men who worked at the Umatilla Army Depot and their families; second, as a farm where pigs were raised; and now, it’s become a ghost town where Coleman sometimes drinks beer from the prominent perch of a water tower that also serves as the logo for his brewery.
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard of Ordnance Brewing, which is named after the fallen down town just east of Boardman. And that’s an accomplishment on its own given that the business has only been open to the public for a year and the facility is located in a city most Oregonians never visit. Boardman is probably best known for the sprawling farm of perfectly aligned rows of poplar trees you whiz by on the freeway on your way to another destination. But as one of the managing partners who helped launch the brewery, Coleman has now given people a reason to stop.
In its first year of business, Ordnance has been defined by aggressive growth, despite its distance from the more populated side of the state. Already the brewery boasts a sales and marketing team of five people, a partnership with General Distributors and an upgrade from a 7-barrel to a 50-barrel system, which was scheduled to go into production in July. So how, exactly, has a modest onion shed on the edge of town become a major beer factory at such an accelerated pace? Turns out, it simply takes Coleman’s knowledge of cultivation that he’s applied to his farms for decades as well as the creativity and brewing experience of Logan Mayfield.
“Logan’s got a way with flavors that I don’t understand. I think it’s an intuitive thing. I’m not that guy. But he seems to make stuff that people don’t absolutely despise,” Coleman laughed.
And Mayfield certainly has to be mindful of the fact that he’s making beer for a variety of consumers based on region — a factor many Willamette Valley brewers don’t have to worry about. While Oregonians on the western side of the state might embrace hop bombs or funky sours, those types of beers aren’t necessarily what locals would immediately order when sitting at a table made of a repurposed wooden spool in the Ordnance taproom just feet away from where Mayfield works.
“We’re definitely a little behind compared to the Eugene-Portland area. But at the same time, not as behind as I expected when I got here,” Mayfield explained. “There’s probably the majority of people here are used to drinking Coors Light, Keystone Light, Bud. When I got here, I started making beers that would appeal to them.”
And that strategy has made his kolsch and honey golden ale best sellers in Boardman. The styles are so popular, he admits they’re hard to keep on tap. Easing reluctant drinkers into craft with lighter beers has proven effective. Customers take delight in sharing with Mayfield that the FMJ IPA is the first IPA they’ve ever tried and then finished. The head brewer believes it’s because he leans toward English styles, so his IPAs aren’t the IBU boundary-pushers that have dominated the taps in recent years.
Perhaps the person you’d least expect to be knocking back domestic, light lagers — the Saltine of beers — would be Ordnance’s co-founder. But even after Coleman helped open the Hermiston taphouse Neighbor Dudes in 2013, he said he and his friend/business partner Mark McLeod would order Keystone Light and Coors Light even though an array of other beers sat just a tap handle away. He’s not sure how his tastes eventually shifted, but figured “it was just time for something new.”
Change is certainly part of Coleman’s professional life. While a farmer by trade, he’s started a variety of different businesses, including the small chain of Neighbor Dudes taphouses. The conversation about opening the first shop began when the two actual neighbors, Coleman and McLeod, “had just enough beer to think this is a good idea,” which is a phrase that ended up on one of the business’s T-shirts. After starting the Hermiston Neighbor Dudes in the building with the cheapest rent they could find, the party expanded to Silverton and Wilsonville. And while Coleman never set out with the goal of founding a brewery, it eventually seemed like a natural next step.
“And it’s one of those things where we figured, ‘Well, heck. If we can sell beer, why don’t we just make beer?’ And it just kind of went from there. You know, you try something new and we just kind of followed the path of least resistance and ended up with a brewery,” Coleman said. After seeing what they could do with a 7-barrel system he “decided, ‘Heck, if we can do a little bit, let’s do a whole bunch.’ And that’s kind of right now, we’re in the ramp-up stage of that.”
Ordnance also got off the ground thanks to a unique partnership with the Port of Morrow. Coleman knew general manager Gary Neal through his agriculture operations and when the brewery planning was underway, the Port offered assistance. A partnership formed and that’s where some of the brewery’s financing came from. Coleman said the Port continues to support Ordnance by encouraging visitors to stop by.
Once Coleman decided he wanted to make beer, he needed to find someone who could actually do that, so he turned to an online forum that’s sort of a digital classifieds space for brewers. Perhaps it was lucky for Mayfield that Coleman found the process of sifting through applicants rather dull because he decided to stop his search primarily out of fatigue once he got to the brewer who was located in Denver at the time.
“I got resumes and I phone interviewed probably four of ‘em and kinda got really bored with that,” Coleman described. “Logan just might’ve been the last guy on the list. I said, ‘Hey dude, come on out. If you’re not an absolute POS, you got a job.”
Mayfield sputtered into town in a beat-up Toyota on four different tires, as Coleman remembers it, along with a little U-Haul in tow. “And I don’t know how in the hell it got from Denver to here, but he made it. I figured, well I think he’s stuck here now because I don’t know if that thing would make it back,” said Coleman.
The move for Mayfield meant two things: he’s closer to family in his hometown of Ashland (“but far enough that I don’t have to go home for every holiday,” he laughed) and this is the most creative freedom he’s ever had in a brew house.
“You know, it’s actually kind of funny,” Mayfield said “because before I came here, I mean, I’d only brewed two of my own batches on other systems ever.”
“I’m not sure if you told me that or not…” Coleman responded.
“I don’t think I did!” Mayfield laughed.
Despite that little omission on the resume, experience at a number of Colorado breweries like Great Divide Brewing Company and Bull & Bush, which Mayfield said had the greatest influence on him because of its focus on English styles, prepared him for the role of head brewer at the new operation in Boardman. He found the experience a bit lonely at first since he was making beer solo in a cavernous building that wasn’t yet ready for customers. “But once we opened our doors I started to meet people and the community was pretty accepting,” Mayfield said. And you can see it in the taproom when he emerges from his shop in the back — customers are eager to shake his hand and praise his work. The brewery has also given the community a place to gather, celebrate and build an identity that isn’t just defined by the poplar farm, the Port or the bigger city next door.
As Mayfield prepared to transition to the 50-barrel system that came from Rogue in Newport, he was looking forward to improving his efficiencies as well as producing more beer. In early July, Ordnance was on track to surpass 630 barrels, which was the total amount that came out of the brewery last year. Mayfield wouldn’t be surprised if they brew 2,000 barrels in 2016 — possibly even more. Meanwhile, there are still plans for the 7-barrel equipment. Mayfield will use it to make sours and other specialty brews that will begin to fill a barrel-aging room that’s the size of an industrial kitchen. He’s working on his own version of a Flemish brown by brewing a batch every three months. The aged concoctions will then be blended together and released once or twice a year, if successful. Mayfield also acquired freshly dumped cabernet sauvignon barrels, which are currently filled with an imperial blonde ale infused with lemongrass. These collaborations will debut in bottles that are co-branded with the wineries.
While Ordnance has given its building in the Port of Morrow a new purpose, history is not scrubbed away. The walls inside actually serve as a historical record of the area. Colorfully labeled onion bags line a beam in the back, a reminder of the industry that used to occupy the space. In the taproom hang photos of the city of Ordnance that inspired the brewery’s name. One picture is simply of a patch of dirt covered with empty beer bottles. It’s a shot of the aftermath of workers at the Umatilla Army Depot celebrating a work milestone. A taproom server explained that the men were told they could have the drinks for free if they completed 100 storage mounds in one day. Turns out, the promise of beer was a powerful motivator.
I was lucky to get a tour of where these men would’ve lived during World War II by Ordnance’s only dignitary and mayor, Coleman. He knows where the old mercantile used to be and pointed out the building that was the schoolhouse. We walked through the gymnasium that also doubled as a movie theater, the doors long gone and windows broken out, and Coleman described how he once found an ancient reel of “The Wizard of Oz” there. Streets that used to be named after explosives and artillery are lined with slumping, skinny houses — many just foundations at this point — but one survived and actually has a renter. Deer, owls and too many pigeons to count have taken up residence in what’s left of the other structures. Coleman explained that after the war, Ordnance emptied out as people moved to other cities. Eventually, two brothers bought the whole place and turned it into a pig farm around 1960, removing some of the buildings’ walls to allow the animals to move around more freely. And those living near Ordnance were highly aware of the town’s new purpose. “If I say ‘hog farm,’ everybody knows what that was because it was not the most pleasant thing to drive by,” Coleman said.
Ordnance was largely abandoned again when the closest livestock slaughtering facility moved to a state that was inefficient and costly to ship to. About a decade after the brothers stopped raising pigs, Coleman made his dream of owning a water tower come true and bought the property for $1. Sometimes he’ll get visitors— people who grew up there looking for any sign of their past, searching for whatever might be left. That might not be much these days, but just down the road there is a brewery that’s keeping the ghost town’s history alive while reinvigorating another city you might not otherwise have bothered to visit.
[a] 405 N. Olson Road, Boardman
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