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Eastern promises: The beer of Oregon’s east side

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While Portland and the rest of Oregon’s left-hand side continue their reign over West Coast beer, the state’s other half is quietly catching up.

By Brian Kevin

As favorite son William Kittredge once wrote, eastern Oregon is “a backlands enclave even in the American West,” a high and lonesome country in the rain shadow of the Cascades, separated from the state’s populous left-hand side by a hundred-mile sagebrush desert and a thousand-mile cultural gap. When I moved last summer to the vacation village of Joseph, most friends from Portland, Eugene and Bend had never heard of the small, northeast Oregon town. A few were dimly aware of the 600-square-mile Wallowa Mountain range surrounding it, but not a hophead among them could refer me to a decent nearby microbrewery.

Which is understandable. From the coast to the Columbia Gorge to the bazillion breweries along the Portland-Eugene axis, western Oregon has historically been responsible for the state’s reputation as the national seat of craft brewing. But all is not quiet on the eastern front. It turns out that Oregon’s allegedly empty, red-state rangeland is in the middle of an honest-to-God beer boom, with a half-dozen ambitious brewpubs and microbreweries beckoning to weekend road-trippers in the Rockies and Pacific Northwest.

I noticed the trend when I moved in across the street from one. The beer garden at Joseph’s Mutiny Brewing Company offers dramatic views of both snowcapped Wallowa peaks and the alley behind my doublewide. Owner and brewer Kari Gjerdingen tapped her first barrels last May. With a four-barrel system, a bar that seats just seven, and two house brews on tap at a time, “micro” is an apt prefix for the cozy bistro-pub. Locals come in for pints of Sssswheat, a citrusy hefe that outsold a number of prominent Portland beers at Joseph’s recent brew fest. Two semesters of hitherto-useless college Latin helped me translate the inscription behind the bar: Non semper erit aestas—“it will not always be summer.” Kind of a buzzkill, until you remember all the badass backcountry skiing that awaits in the Wallowas each winter.

Gjerdingen cut her teeth six miles up the road in similarly tiny Enterprise, where Terminal Gravity Brewing has released some of the state’s best brews for 13 years.  Behind timber products and Tea Party rhetoric, Terminal Gravity IPA is one of eastern Oregon’s most recognizable exports. It’s not the biggest or most complex beer, but the grapefruit nose and slightly bitter finish have made it a true Oregon classic. The company started bottling in 2004, supplementing its original five-barrel brewhouse with a spanking-new 18-barrel facility. Still, Terminal Gravity’s heart is in the adjacent bungalow turned pub, where kids scamper through an aspen grove out front as their parents sip pints on the porch. The unassuming loft upstairs feels like your buddy’s college apartment, and fans of the brewery’s bottled offerings will dig a few taps found only there, including a Cascadian dark ale that’s a paragon of the emerging style.

Both Mutiny and Terminal Gravity are nestled in the scenic Wallowa Valley, where proximity to outdoor-rec hotspots like the Eagle Cap Wilderness bestows a sort of mountain-town vibe. But beer culture is thriving even in traditional mining and ranching outposts. A hundred miles west, Pendleton is a straight-up cowboy town, known mostly for its century-old rodeo and a brothel district that thrived well into the 1960s.

These days, it’s harder to find a hooker in Pendleton, but easier to find a hefeweizen since April, when partners Brian Harder and Tim and Jenny Guenther opened The Prodigal Son Brewery and Pub. Harder put in time at Rogue and Chicago’s Siebel Institute before returning to his hometown to brew, among others, a dangerously drinkable hefe and A Beer Named Sue, a bright, dry-hopped summer ale. The pub is a cavernous former Studebaker showroom, with comfy couches and happy-hour-friendly nooks surrounding a casual dining space. Chef Matthew Barnes ferments his own sauerkraut, and the house Reuben pairs unexpectedly well with a pint of brawny Bruce/Lee Porter.

Farther east, Jerry Grant opened downtown La Grande’s Mt. Emily Ale House in February 2009, after quitting his job as a fisheries biologist to attend the Master Brewers Program at UC-Davis. The former bank attracts both local college students and families who drop in for the excellent pizza. The standout brew is “The Big,” a generously hopped session ale with a nice caramel finish. Since Grant keeps his own half-acre hop farm outside town, he’s fond of noting that “each batch has a bit of my backyard in it.”

Another 45 miles up the road is Oregon’s best-kept beer secret: Barley Brown’s in Baker City, where owner Tyler Brown and ninja brewmaster Shawn Kelso have been quietly blowing minds for over a decade. The pub has a simple, supper-club ambience, with half the walls displaying historic photos of the city’s mining-era heyday. The other half is covered with medals from the North American Beer Awards, the Great American Beer Festival and, most recently, the 2010 World Beer Cup, where Shredders Wheat took gold. Still, Barley Brown’s is a small-scale producer, with beers available only at the pub, the local ski hill and occasional events in Portland. When Maxim picked the brewery’s Tumble-Off Pale Ale as one of the 25 best beers in America, Brown and Kelso had to hastily bottle a case and invent a label for the photo shoot. The brewery’s been serving Cascadian dark ale since before it was cool, tapping a barrel of then-unheard-of India Dark Ale way back in 2004. Open for just four hours a night, Barley Brown’s is worth planning a trip around.

On the Oregon-Idaho border, Ontario’s Beer Valley Brewing Company is the state’s last bastion of craft brewing. The ag-centric town reeks of onions, a smell thankfully overpowered by hops and malt at Pete Ricks’ production brewery. With more than 100 IBUs, Ricks’ Leafer Madness is a mighty hoppy Imperial IPA that sells well back in Portland, along with the equally hefty, 11%-ABV Black Flag Imperial Stout. The brewery itself is only open for growlers and case sales, but you can find drafts at Brewsky’s downtown. Since Beer Valley also goes nuts with seasonal fresh-hop brews, late fall is a fine time to hit up eastern Oregon and see how the other half drinks. •

THE BEST OF EAST OREGON BEER COUNTRY:

Mutiny Brewing Co.

This quaint brewpub offers inventive daily food specials (think baked

gator bites) and growlers to go. 600 N. Main St., Joseph, Ore., mutinybrewing.blogspot.com

Terminal Gravity Brewing

The brewery now bottles its fruity, peppery ESB, but you’ll have to go to the source for its chocolaty Bar X Stout. 803 S.E. School St., Enterprise, Ore., terminalgravitybrewing.com

The Prodigal Son Brewery and Pub

This small-town brewpub/restaurant pours three taps at a time alongside mind-boggling desserts by pastry chef Jamie Kile. 230 S.E. Court Ave., Pendleton, Ore., prodigalsonbrewery.com

Mt. Emily Ale House

Try a five-beer sampler for just $4—and don’t skip the hop-crammed double IPA.

1202 Adams Ave., La Grande, Ore., mtemilyalehouse.com

Barley Brown’s

Tour the IPAs that make this spot famous: WFO, a standard IPA; Tank Slapper, a double; and Chaos and Turmoil, two black versions. 2190 Main St., Baker City, Ore., barleybrowns.com

Beer Valley Brewing Co.

Visit this retail-only location with regulars (including the heavy-duty Black Flag imperial stout and 9%-ABV Leafer Madness) and seasonals on offer. 937 S.E. 12th Ave., Ontario, Ore., beervalleybrewing.com


[Photos, top two: Leon Werdinger]

 

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