By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Rivertap started out as a small pub in The Dalles and was more of an afterthought — a way to make use of a narrow space between a restaurant and a computer store. Today, it’s a lively gathering place for the community and out-of-towners alike, growing to five times its original size while also now contracting with a neighboring brewery to create its own custom beers.
The story begins in 2009 when Tom Wood, an experienced restaurateur, took a chance on a space that stayed vacant in what was the first new building in the downtown area of The Dalles in 23 years. That was the height of the recession, so it wasn’t uncommon to find empty storefronts throughout the state. But Wood saw an opportunity to give locals something they were lacking.
“People in town said we needed a pub,” Wood explained. The downtown was sleepy with little traffic. “No one wanted to risk it back then, so I decided to open one.”
From the beginning, Rivertap featured a strong, regional beer selection.
“This town wasn’t engaged at the time with craft brews,” said Wood. “But they’ve come to love our IPAs and our diverse selection of unique microbrews and ciders.”
Manager Angela Carter is passionate about craft beer. She’s been at Rivertap for the past five years after moving with her husband from Indiana in search of a small mountain town with plenty of sunshine and natural beauty. In her role, she’s passionate about researching new brews to add to the lineup.
“You never know what you’ll get here,” she said. Since they only have 12 taps, they cycle through product regularly.
Those handles now pour Rivertap’s signature beers. While there’s no brewhouse on premises, the business has gotten assistance from one of its neighbors. Last January, Freebridge Brewing opened across the street in a historic U.S. Mint building. Rivertap contracts with them for a few custom creations.
Carter said, “We have two of our own beers now: Rivertap IPA and Rivertap Blonde Ale. We also have a fresh hop on now made with Cascade hops called Fresh Cascade.”
Rivertap also likes to engage its customers with everything from meet-the-brewer sessions to tap takeovers. About three years ago, Carter launched Battle of the Brews, a blind tasting pitting similarly styled beers against one another in a bracket-like system that can last for months.
The facility also received a makeover in 2012 when Wood closed his franchise restaurant that was sharing the same building in order to focus on the bustling Rivertap. “In the evenings we would get to the pub and it was packed in way too tight,” he said.
The restaurant space wraps around the corner of the building and both exterior glass walls are garage doors that open on sunny days. A patio seats approximately 50 and often is the stage for live music.
This fall, Wood and his staff completely revamped the menu, refining and streamlining dishes to facilitate kitchen preparation. “We kept all the products our customers love,” he said. “But with these changes, our chefs have more time to focus on fresh sheets.” A few of the house favorites are bacon-wrapped jalapeno Yukon golds, fish tacos and fish and chips made with halibut cloaked in the Rivertap Blonde Ale batter.
“We constantly source local foods,” said Wood. They get fresh Klickitat salmon from the other side of the Columbia. “It comes from a glacial-fed river that’s always cold. We buy it from a local native and get it in the morning, right after it’s been caught.” Salmon bisque, one of their regular house-made soups, makes use of their abundant salmon supply.
There are now more signs of life in what was a sleepy downtown. Just up the street from Rivertap stands the Sunshine Mill Winery, which opened its doors the same year as the pub. And in addition to Freebridge, Sedition Brewing brought beer making back to The Dalles in 2016. Together, the businesses seem to be strengthening tourism, and the community, in this section of the Columbia River Gorge.
703 E. Second Ave., The Dalles
By Kirby Neumann-Rea
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Commercial brewing is returning to The Dalles for the first time since pre-Prohibition.
Freebridge Brewing, 710 E. Second St., is about to open in the historic Columbia River Gorge city. Steve and Laurie Light took over the historic Mint building and plan to open Freebridge to the public on Jan. 15. The name originated with the first bridge over the Deschutes River, which was crossed by pioneers traveling along the Oregon Trail. Legend has it that the “Freebridge” was blown up by the Moodys, who ran a toll bridge near the mouth of the Deschutes.
Steve is taking five years of intensive homebrewing experience and turning it into a second career. He’s now making beer on a larger level after spending 20 years as a fly fishing guide on the Deschutes River, which meets the Columbia 17 miles east of The Dalles. Laurie has worked in retail and industry supply over the years. She was born and raised in the city to a family of multigenerational wheat farmers.
“This has been a long time coming,” Steve said. “People around here talk about how this town of 17,000 has had no brewery, while Hood River, a smaller community, has five. People here in The Dalles also want good, local beer.”
The Dalles has had several outlets for regional craft ale, including Clock Tower Ales, Rivertap Pub, and the new Route 30 Bottles & Brews downtown. Now, with Freebridge starting operations and Sedition Brewing Company opening a few blocks away, The Dalles gets two new breweries at virtually the same time. The last place beer was made in The Dalles was the old Columbia Brewing building near the Columbia River.
“People have said, ‘What took you so long?’” joked Steve.
After charging up the glycol system on Dec. 13, White and master brewer Mike Boler dropped their first beer shortly before Christmas. They will focus on traditional styles, including pales, stouts and lagers, starting with pub and keg sales and adding bottles later this year.
“There aren’t many lager makers around. They’re more expensive and take longer, but we know there is a real desire for this style of beer. We vetted the demographic, spending a lot of time in the brewpubs in the Gorge and elsewhere,” Steve said.
Freebridge also plans on producing a Belgian saison, a pilsner and a German wheat, using local grain when possible (The Dalles being wheat country, after all). The brewery’s glistening new 10-barrel system was designed by JV Northwest of Canby. Freebridge debuted at Main Street Uncorked in October, with an American pale ale and an IPA that the Lights made at home. The brought their beers to the public again at a Chamber of Commerce event in December at Sunshine Mill, the beautifully refurbished winery and artisan plaza. That time, in addition to the pale ale, consumers got to sample a dry, bourbon-aged Irish stout. Steve “dry hopped” pieces of bourbon barrel wood after initial fermentation. The steeping process gave the beer a “creamy, silky quality,” he said.
“That definitely helped build some hype, but we have to say that our reception has been great. The support of the community of The Dalles, and the entire Gorge, has been really gratifying,” Laurie said.
The brewery will employ the Lights, two brewers and four or more pub workers once the operation is up and running. The pub will offer 10 taps, reserving some for guests and for cider.
“The pub will start simply — pub fare including sandwiches and soups, and we’ll expand as we get busier,” Laurie said. Look for charcuterie and cheeses from Olympia Provisions and Ancient Heritage Dairy. New furniture and some interior tweaks are planned, but guests will recognize the relaxing vibe created by the previous inhabitant, Erin Glenn Vineyards.
“We want people to see it — to have that connection to the making of the beer,” Steve said.
He said he’s refined his skills during the past five years, but bringing Boler on board was essential to the success of the Freebridge beers.
“Mike is a real student of the craft. He has the knowledge and skills to ensure we are successful,” Steve said.
The Dalles’ Second Street is shaping up into a destination neighborhood for the fermented arts, between the Freebridge, Sunshine Mill and the forthcoming Sedition Brewery. Sedition is planning on a February 2016 opening. Owners Aaron and Kelly Lee started out as Defiance Brewing Company, but they decided last month to formally change the name to avoid a trademark dispute with a company back east. But if you’re familiar with their raised fist logo, that will remain the same. It will fill one of the walls inside the pub.
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