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
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