Oregon Dreamer: Tonya Cornett

Lisa Morrison, Guest Author
Tyler Roemer,  Photographer
August 29, 2012 (Updated January 10, 2013)

Many professional brewers will tell you they got their start at home — the passion for beer fermenting with each batch until they finally decided to go pro. But Tonya Cornett says it was her very first home brew that inspired her now celebrated career in the Oregon beer world.

“I home brewed for all of a minute before I got a job in a brewery. I knew pretty much right away that this was something I could make a career of,” says the petite redhead, who now earns her living as research and development brewmaster at Bend’s 10 Barrel Brewing.

After that life-altering home brew, Cornett earned a Brewing Technology diploma through the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and landed a job at the then tiny Bend Brewing Company almost immediately.

She was a bit shy at first, brewing in the shadows of the esteemed Deschutes Brewing, which was Bend’s only other brewery at the time. But that shyness disappeared in 2008 when Cornett was given the Brewmaster Award (with Bend Brewing Co. taking the Champion Small Brewpub award) at the annual World Beer Cup competition — the only woman ever to have received this top honor.

The win launched Cornett into the stratosphere of celebrity brewers. Suddenly, her name was being mentioned alongside rock-star brewers with much larger companies. Cornett says beer fans started seeking out Bend Brewing to taste her beers — like the award-winning Outback X Old Ale and the Hop-Head Imperial IPA — instead of just stumbling upon the brewery after visiting Deschutes.

Cornett says the attention opened many doors. In 2009 she was one of only five brewers invited to participate in Wetherspoon’s International Real-Ale Festival, sponsored by a major English pub company. She recently moved to Bend’s 10 Barrel Brewing Company, which has received accolades from the North American Brewers Association, as well as the Great American Beer Festival. Cornett is now focused on designing new brews and seasonal beers for the quickly expanding brewery.

Despite living in the spotlight of Bend’s rapidly growing beer stage, Cornett has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her workday starts at 6:30 a.m. and will often find her milling up to 900 pounds of grain for the day — 50 pounds at a time.

“I love the smell of the mash. It sets the tone for the brew day,” says Cornett.

Cornett credits luck, timing and a few encouraging people for her start in craft brewing, and she looks forward to being able to champion future generations.

“I was in the right place at the right time, surrounded by people who were willing to give me a chance. Now part of my position at 10 Barrel Brewing Company is being a mentor for our junior brewers.”

And, like any creative brewer, Cornett already has her sights on her next milestone.

“I intend to produce my own line of high-end beer, hopefully within the next couple of years,” Cornett says, including more blending, barrel-aging and use of fruit. “10 Barrel is providing me with the equipment, the resources and, most of all, the time needed for projects that I’m interested in.”

It’s a sure bet thirsty beer fans will be interested as well.

(Editor’s note: If you like Oregon craft beer, you’ll love the Bend Ale Trail. Go to VisitBend.com for information about the trail, which includes nine unique destinations. You can also download the Bend Ale Trail app from itunes.)