Big Brewer Thinking Small
With small batch brews, Deschutes Brewery stays planted in its creative roots.
At Deschutes Brewery’s main brewing facility in Bend, hundreds of thousands of barrels of craft beer are brewed each year and distributed to 28 states, the District of Columbia and around the world. As the sixth largest craft brewery in the nation and the second largest in Oregon, Deschutes makes a diverse lineup of award-winning craft beers on a very large scale. But at the flagship Deschutes pub on Bond Street in downtown Bend, where everything started in 1988 for this world-famous corporation, things are more like they used to be.
Veronica Vega is the assistant brewmaster at the Bond Street pub. She started with Deschutes Brewery as a tour guide seven years ago, became fascinated with the craft brew process, and went back to school to earn a diploma in brewing. Today Vega oversees the research and development of several small batches of experimental brews each year. Her work could be called the best of both worlds in modern brewing, where creativity meets possibility: Vega’s small, innovative projects exemplify the pioneering spirit at the heart of Deschutes’ beginnings, and yet some catch on like wildfire, making their way to the main brewery and then into bottles and out into the world. The small batch brews that Deschutes Brewery continues to nurture even after decades of success have become like mini-examples of the company itself — starting as a small, bold idea and growing into something enormously popular.
“I draw my inspiration from Black Butte Porter,” says Vega. Now considered one of Deschutes’ mainstay beers, the porter was a renegade when it was launched not long after Gary Fish founded the Bend brewery on the heels of Oregon brewing pioneers Widmer Brothers Brewing and BridgePort Brewing Company.
“Black Butte Porter was brewed when consumers only drank yellow fizzy beer,” says Vega. Today, 25 years later, beer drinkers — especially in the beer-crazy Pacific Northwest — are more educated about beer styles and thirsty for a wider range of flavor. This savvy client base, alongside a daring company philosophy, drives Vega’s creativity. “I try to stay ahead of them and provide a more adventurous experience,” she says.
Here’s how the small batch program works: At the Bond Street pub 12.5-barrel brewing facility and at the Deschutes Brewery pub in the Pearl District in Portland, five to 10 small-batch brew recipes are produced each year. This equates to a few thousand barrels of beer, compared to the 285,000 total that Deschutes creates. Most of those barrels go directly on tap at the pub in which they were brewed. This provides visitors with a unique opportunity to try a special beer only available at a certain place and time, but also offers Deschutes’ brewers with instant feedback. “The pub is a focus group,” explains Vega. “We can hear the buzz about certain brands from employees and guests, and actually watch the tank drop when something is popular.”
Some of these brews just have a fleeting day-in-the-pint-glass, so to speak, but others get a foothold and become Deschutes regulars. Pine Drops IPA began as a Bend pub beer two years ago; it will be released into distribution as part of the Bond Street Series, available in six-packs year-round this April. Inversion IPA was also originally a pub beer, as was Fresh Squeezed IPA; both are now distributed in the Deschutes network
A spirit of experimentation not only keeps Deschutes Brewery grounded in innovation, it has a ripple effect for others in the beer industry. Farmers, for instance, grow experimental hop strains that can be tested in these small batch brews. Before a hop is developed and released into mainstream use, it’s given a number. That was the case with Citra hops, a primary component of Fresh Squeezed IPA.
“It’s hard to believe because it’s used so widely now, but Citra started as a numbered hop,” says Vega. “Portland brewer Ben Kahs brewed a pub beer with this numbered hop from John I Haas Hop Breeding farm and said it smelled just like fresh-squeezed citrus.” The new beer, and a new hop, subsequently took off.
Also birthed from the small batch program is the Reserve series, a much-revered line of barrel-aged beers with names like The Dissident and The Abyss. These are packaged in 22-ounce bottles only and distributed on a limited basis. The newest reserve is The Specialist, an ESB aged in sherry, bourbon and pinot noir barrels, and revealed this winter with its own release party.
Deschutes Brewery has a brewing team of 20, and each brewer has the chance to work with Vega in Bend or Kahs in Portland. The R+D team meets weekly to hash out recipes and taste ongoing projects. “It’s a collaborative process with lots of feedback,” says Vega. One component of Deschutes Brewery’s commitment to the customer is that they won’t distribute a beer unless it can be produced in large volume and made widely available. Some of the small batch beers are harder to scale up than others, which forces the team to problem solve in ways that Vega believes drive the industry forward, sometimes meaning the incorporation of new and better equipment and systems at the main facility. “Our work here influences the large brewery,” says Vega. “I like being a part of that.”
Recently on tap at the Bend pub were an Imperial Porter brewed with coffee and chocolate called Thump Thump; a sour beer called Smoked Gose with flavors of smoke and salt; and a Belgian tripel brewed with Oregon pinot gris grapes described as “big and elegant.” Which will create the buzz at the pub, drain the tank the quickest and potentially find its way into a bottle available in 28 states? Stay tuned.
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