By Sam Wheeler
For the Oregon Beer Growler
There is a first time for everything, and for craft beer lovers in Lebanon that time is now. A little more than nine months ago, Conversion Brewing opened as the town’s first-ever commercial brewery and it remains the only one to date.
Right on the main drag, in a back room that’s probably smaller than your bedroom, Conversion co-owner and brewmaster Matt Cowart pumps out some of the finest beer in the Pacific Northwest.
Cue eye roll — but this is no joke. Cowart’s Belgian-style tripel, the Belfry Belgian Tripel, is an award-worthy concoction. It goes down like water after wind sprints, and it’s not even the brewery’s flagship. That honor goes to Conversion’s Mission Stout, said Cowart, and he can crank out a clean, crisp IPA with the best of them — try the Amen. Not to mention the single-hopped Meridian Pale Ale or his English-style barleywine Fervent, or Conversion’s sodas, which Cowart’s 13-year-old son helps him develop.
If you’re looking for unique, Conversion has you covered. How does Strawberry Celebration Ale sound? It was brewed with 42 pounds of locally grown strawberries and served as a part of the city’s 107th Lebanon Strawberry Festival at the beginning of June. The only thing it’s missing, said Cowart, is “more strawberries to accentuate the flavor a little more.” Don’t miss the 108th get-together if you want to taste how many more berries he can squeeze into that beer.
Like so many of the others who have come to shape the Northwest’s prolific craft beer scene, Cowart’s passion for brewing began 12 years ago with a homebrew kit.
“I would read about all these different styles of beer and I’d think ‘OK, how do I get my hands on these?’ You couldn’t find them anywhere — I couldn’t anyway — so I decided to make them,” said Cowart, a Lebanon native.
He and co-owner Scott Bruslind began delving into the possibility of opening a brewery in Lebanon about two years ago, Cowart said. At that time, Cowart was running his construction and landscaping contracting business full time, and Bruslind, as he continues to do, was heading up operations at his company Analysis Laboratory. It’s a role where Bruslind has served breweries and the food and beverage industry as a whole for the last 18 years with quality control testing and analysis.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever we did would really set us apart, and it’s worked well for us so far,” Cowart said.
Conversion runs off a 3-barrel system and brewing every other week produces about nine barrels of beer a month. Aside from their brewpub, located at 833 S. Main St., you can find Conversion’s beers across the street at Growler Café, and Schmizza Public House in Lebanon.
Conversion’s brewpub has a family-style, laid-back atmosphere. Local historic photographs hang on the walls, there’s a stack of split oak lining the hallway to the restrooms and brewery, and Cowart used nicely grained rough-cut recycled timbers in his extensive remodel of the former retail space.
Behind the bar, you’ll find 16 taps to choose from, about a dozen dedicated to Conversion beers, a pair of rotating Northwest-born ciders and a few sodas. On the restaurant side, Conversion specializes in wood-fired pizza — that’s what the split oak is for.
“It’s authentic pizza and people love it. They say it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had,” said head cook Bruce Hamar.
The Chicken Mediterranean seems to be the most popular choice. Aside from the pizza, actually, everything on the menu (except the salads) is wood-fired, said Cowart, plugging the nachos as another crowd-pleasing dish.
One might raise an eyebrow at the thought of running a successful brewery in little, rural Lebanon, but Cowart and Bruslind wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The reason I am so enamored of brewpubs is they create community,” said Bruslind. “It’s my hope that every town like Lebanon has a brewpub.”
It’s that same sense of community that has kept Cowart rooted in his hometown, and you can watch it unfold from behind Conversion’s bar. People pull tables together, laugh together, say “Cheers!” to each other and swap stories — and that’s what it’s all about.
The founders, as of now, don’t aspire to become a large production brewery. They just want to be a part of revitalizing a once-busy Main Street, be something people in Lebanon can brag about, brew great beer and burn your pizza just right.
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