Bend Ale Trail / Byron Roe Photography
Bend, Oregon, doesn’t have Uber yet. Maybe they never will. They don’t have Lyft, either. That means visitors get around the city by calling (calling!) local cab companies with names like Coiled Cab, GreenCab, and X Cab. You could always walk, too -- the whole city is only 33-square miles, almost exactly the size of Manhattan. Of course, while Manhattan is the land of Uber and Lyft, McDonald’s and Shake Shack, Olive Garden and Macy’s and Best Buy and the M&M’s store and American Girl and fucking Build-A-Bear, Bend is almost completely bereft of national businesses. That is, except for two brewpubs in particular that can clue us into the past and future of beer in this country.
Bend may be obsessed with beer, but upon landing at the airport, one immediately smells gin. Roberts Field, the nearest airport in Redmond, Oregon, is surrounded by -- not just the central portion of the Cascade Range, but -- forests of juniper trees. Arriving there on a press trip paid for by 10 Barrel Brewing Co., I deplane onto the tarmac, and instantly walk into the wall of perfumey, evergreen notes wafting in the air.
A friendly older man in a sharp vest drives The Oxford Hotel’s shuttle and grabs me at baggage claim for the 20-minute drive into the heart of Bend. Upon introduction, I don’t assume he’s the type of person who could speak familiarly about the current state of beer in America -- yet we’re quickly discussing the pros and cons of New England-style IPAs. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever before been to a city like this one, where literally everyone knows everything about beer. Including my airplane seatmate, a seventy-something retiree returning home from Vegas, who closes his Christian inspirational book (They Speak with Other Tongues) to expound on Crux Fermentation Project. And the Latina woman who checks me into my room and tells me she likes those “chocolatey” stouts. And the baby-faced valet standing in front of The Oxford who looks like he’s earning pizza money after a long day at high school. When I ask him for walking directions to Boneyard Brewing, he not only offers thorough ones, but advises me to “be sure to get Notorious. It should be on right now.”
Notorious, a limited release triple IPA, is the seven-year-old brewery’s most acclaimed beer, and yes, it’s still on when I arrive at the tasting room, located in a former auto body shop. I’m stunned by how small the space is: about as big as my bedroom -- and I rent in Brooklyn. With nowhere to sit, customers stand at the small bar ordering pints, four-ounce tasters, or if you’re feeling particularly bold (and have three friends with you), a shotski. I drink my way through the full lineup and grab a Crowler of Notorious on the way out the door. Maybe I’ll give it to the valet after checking his ID.
As nightfall approaches, I head to The Ale Apothecary, located in a warehouse park in the southwest corner of town. It’s not yet open to the public, but owner/brewmaster/one-of-two-employees Paul Arney has generously offered a quick tour after finishing dinner with his family. If you want to know the history of the brewery, forget Wikipedia -- you need only read the modern-day fairy tale sketched onto the white glass front door. It tells of Arney, his wife, and two buddies opening a cabin in the woods (literally, Deschutes National Forest) in 2011. There, in a garage next to the family home, Arney began brewing beers that quickly began receiving notice thanks to —according to the front door fairy tale—“wild & open fermentation,” “saccharomyces magic,” “brettanomyces mystery,” “long-term barrel-aging,” and, most importantly, “chance.”
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That cabin in the woods—exactly ten miles from this more accessible spot—could only be seen by special appointment, something few folks ever received. I feel lucky to check out Arney’s new spot: not huge, but he’s using this “cellar joint” to house most of his mixed-fermentation barrels as they age. Descending from three generations of apothecarists, Arney believes in strictly bottling beers from single barrels. He never blends, never kegs, nor does he merely brew one base beer and then adulturate it. Arney brews specifically for the barrel, whether it previously contained local wine, or spirits like gin, brandy, or whiskey. His dream is to one day snag a rare Taruzake sake cedar barrel.
I’m stunned by how elegant, how refined, how freakin’ tasty Arney’s self-dubbed “elixirs” are. He’s also so damned humble, he acts surprised by my compliments as I fawn over the brandy barrel-aged El Cuatro, one of the richest, multi-tiered wild ales I’ve ever tasted. I marvel at the wine-like intensity and complexity of Minotaur, a blackberry sour. Even if his small, gorgeously-appointed tasting room is not ready yet (no lighting, so we drink in the dark) I still manage to spend $120 on beer before leaving. His Square system is fully operational -- that’s for sure.
Arney had gotten his start as a brewer at Deschutes at the top of the millennium, while Boneyard founder Tony Lawrence had gotten his start more humbly, as a dishwasher at the brewpub. In fact, Deschutes’ family tree shoots branches into each and every brewery in town. At Boneyard, a friendly welder who had formerly worked at Deschutes, and at Boneyard since it’s inception, told me, “You won’t go to a brewery this week that hasn’t been touched by Deschutes.”
credits:"Bend Ale Trail / James Jaggard"
Visiting Deschutes Brewery’s original “public house” on NW Bond Street is like entering a time warp. So many hallmarks of ’90s-era “microbrewing” still remain intact: the merch-slinging hostess stand, the murals of copper brew kettles, the carpeted dining rooms, the large pizza-sized pleather bar stools, the picture windows into the brewhouse that make laymen exclaim, “Gosh, they really do brew beer here!” Even the middle-aged clientele, who look like they first started drinking at Deschutes as college freshmen. Still, I can’t deny that the beer is still quite good, if not exactly state of the art.
On the day I visit, available are two versions of The Abyss, their famed imperial stout that Arney had once helped engineer—one aged in cognac barrels; another, a cask version infused with ginger. Despite the somewhat stale aesthetic, the brewpub was packed at 4 PM. Yes, the quality of the beer remains one reason this Bend brand is still locally adored even as it’s become a national behemoth.
Though Deschutes was the only brewery in Bend when it opened in 1988, today it’s the 8th-largest craft brewery in America, now shipping to 28 states, plus Canada. In 2008, Deschutes was even able to expand the brewpub chain with a second location in Portland’s Pearl District. And in 2016, the brand broke ground on an east coast production facility in Roanoke, Virginia. Even if younger, hipper Bendites in their flat-billed caps aren’t hanging out at Deschutes, the brewery’s influence in the city remains undeniable—and Deschutes is still spoken of with great reverence amongst all locals.
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If I’ve now seen Bend beer’s past, it’s time to head toward the future. I start by squeezing in one-round stops at GoodLife Brewing and Crux. GoodLife’s “bierhall,” around the corner from The Ale Apothecary, is jam-packed with a young crowd, many of whom seem to be employees at other area breweries. Standing folks are schmoozing through happy hour, watching NCAA games on TV, dunking warm pretzels into beer cheese, and crushing Sweet As!, the “pacific ale” that is today the best-selling canned beer in town. Crux is a little more upscale with a wood-slatted bar, gorgeous copper brew kettles in plain site, community seating, and panoramic windows that offer views of the sunset over the Cascades. I sample a flight of barrel-aged beers, released under the [Banished] series, which I particularly enjoy.
And finally, it’s time to hit up 10 Barrel, which might just spell the future of beer in America. The brewpub, next to Namaspa Yoga, is packed when I arrived. Despite the brisk night, people party outside around a contained fire pit, while others talk to friends inside via an indoor/outdoor bar. I’m greeted by twin brothers Jeremy and Chris Cox, the founders. Maybe I’m a shitty journalist, or just a few too many beers deep, but for the rest of the night I will never know which brother I’m talking to. I’ll swear I told Jeremy something, and then Chris will later respond to that same point.
“But as much as anything, it would be the Cox brothers who would be the vanguard for the next big shift in the Bend craft brewing scene,” wrote Jon Abernathy in his book Bend Beer: A History of Brewing in Central Oregon. The brothers were unhappy in corporate gigs in Portland when they started looking for a new enterprise they could run themselves. They thought about selling driftwood boats (whatever those are?), and even thought about “something I’d rather not say,” one Cox tells me. Eventually, they settled on opening a bar. Quickly, JC’s Bar & Grille was a hit, with the brothers dividing responsibilities: one cooking in the back, the other slinging suds out front. By late 2006, they wanted to get into the brewing game themselves. Though, unlike most would-be brewery owners, they had never once homebrewed beer.
“It’s sort of scary, because nobody wants to take on Budweiser and Coors, which everyone drinks at the bar,” Jeremy Cox told a local paper around that time. “We’re trying to tap into the lager market in Bend.”
credits:"10 Barrel Brewing Co."
The Cox’s Wildfire Brewing would become the sixth brewery to open in Bend, launching with former Deschutes brewer Paul Cook as their first brewmaster, working on a used sake brewing system. They were collectively “the little guy,” -- but they didn’t necessarily want to be. Initially selling only to JC’s, they started garnering a loyal following and were soon distributing as far as Portland. When they were made aware of a trademark violation in 2008, they changed their name to 10 Barrel Brewing Company, after the size of the brewing system they had started with. In 2010, they opened the brewpub I sat in. They began winning awards. In 2011, they hired Jimmy Seifrit, then brewmaster at Deschutes, and Tonya Cornett, an award-winning brewer at Bend Brewing. Sales were doubling almost every year and further expansion began in earnest—a second brewpub opened in Boise, Idaho in 2013. Then came November 5, 2014.
In a homemade video, the Cox brothers casually announced that 10 Barrel had been acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev, makers of the Budweiser they had once derided. They were instantly bombarded with nasty messages and calls of “sell out!” on social media. One of the Coxes even tells me brewpub business was seriously debilitated for awhile. “Especially when customers started seeing the American eagle logo on the kegs,” displayed underneath what had then been a see-through glass bar.
It would be easy to be angry at the Coxes for being two guys who actually pulled off the ol’ get-rich-quick scheme. That is, if they weren’t so cool, so candid, and didn’t seem to actually like drinking beer so much. (They’re also incredibly generous with their praise, and drinking of, other Bend breweries’ beer.) Nowadays, Jeremy claims brewpub business has again picked up and, indeed, on a Monday night the room is packed. Meanwhile, expansion has continued with brewpubs in Denver, Portland, and San Diego soon enough. 10 Barrel seems to be offering a blueprint for what big breweries can become as we move deeper into the 21st century.
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I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 Barrel’s flagship lager, Pub Beer, become a national force, chilled cans in the hands of everyone from La-Z-Boy lounging old men to big city hipsters. Its minimally-designed, almost generic-foodstuff-style can—stark white with black lettering and only as much microscopic info as is government-mandated—evokes both micro and macro, craft and factory. You can even get cans from a vending machine if you visit the brewery. It’s damn delicious. As are their two canned kettle sours, Raspberry Crush and Cucumber Crush, the latter of which tastes like a sweet ‘n’ sour deli pickle. One could easily see 10 Barrel’s slickly-designed pubs doing well in nearly any major city in America.
So getting back to those days when the brothers were disillusioned and aimless, wondering what to do with their lives instead of those boring corporate gigs. What was that other “thing” they had considered pursuing? Come on, tell me!
Jeremy -- or is it Chris? -- laughs in remembrance.
“Honestly...we thought about buying a Subway franchise,” one Cox notes.
“Yeah. And it’s actually doing really well now!” claims the other, now also laughing.
So maybe Bend isn’t quite as local-obsessed as everyone thinks.
Note: 10 Barrel Brewing is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.