Note: This article is a companion piece to episode two of PINTS: Stories Behind the Beer. PINTS is a video series about iconic and influential craft breweries, focusing on the people and places that make these breweries special. In episode two, Flagship on the River, we – three Portland filmmakers and a writer – dive into the origins and growth of Central Oregon’s own Deschutes Brewery and examine how the brewery navigates the changing face of today’s craft beer market.
Craft beer enthusiasts know about Deschutes Brewery. We knew some too, but were still curious when we left Portland, eastbound. The brewery has established itself as a cornerstone in the craft market and experienced mostly steady growth for about 30 years — a rare, sustained success that, over time, seemed to parallel Bend‘s increasing outdoor renown. We wondered: Was one responsible for the other? And how does Deschutes define itself today with so many other craft breweries in the mix? So we made our way over the mountain, not entirely sure of the story waiting for us in the high desert.
Central Oregon looks like a scene from prehistory, a place where much of the Cascade Range can be seen in a single, sweeping panorama. The serrated peaks give way to impressive lava fields, their ragged flows halted only by crashing water and tall Ponderosa pines. In fact, were it not for these pines, the area may have gone on unnoticed — or, at least, undeveloped — little more than a convenient place to cross a bend in the Deschutes River.
But by the 20th century, the river crossing had become a de facto timber town. We sat with a longtime Bend resident and former journalist and, with a clear view out his balcony over the famous evergreens, he told us how just two mills in town once produced more pine lumber than anywhere else in the world. The industry employed much of the area’s population, but over the next few decades, unsustainable logging practices forced mill closures and mass layoffs. By the time Deschutes founder Gary Fish arrived in the 1980s, the timber industry, and Bend, were in decline. The last giant fell in 1994 when the Brooks-Scanlon mill shut down.
In what seems fated, however, Deschutes and Bend’s growing reputation as an outdoor destination seemed to fill the clear-cut hole left by the defunct mills. Local legends admitted that most folks thought opening a craft brewpub was a fool’s errand in a town that mostly drank Budweiser and Coors. But Fish and Deschutes didn’t try to compete with the domestic lagers, instead encouraging customers to try its new dark beer, Black Butte Porter. The porter’s winning flavor, combined with the Fish’s dogged work ethic and commitment to quality and consistency, helped the Deschutes pub achieve early success. And tourism helped too.
The relationship between Deschutes and Bend as an outdoor destination is undeniable. Fish told us that Mt. Bachelor Ski Area was the first place outside the pub to have Deschutes on tap, giving visiting skiers and snowboarders their first taste of new brews like Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond Pale Ale. They’d come down from the mountain and head to the pub wanting more, eventually traveling back to where they came from with a newfound taste for first-rate beers brewed from the cold waters of the Deschutes.
Deschutes has since become a craft brewing pioneer and, like forty-niners, more and more breweries have opened on the heels of its success, hoping to find their own treasure. At least 30 breweries now make beer in Deschutes county, a good chunk of the nearly 300 that call Oregon home. This marked growth in the craft industry has led to more, and better, beer. But because of the industry’s success, the challenges Deschutes faces in 2019 look a lot different than those it faced in 1988.
As we heard more about the town from folks we interviewed, I couldn’t help but see in my mind the divergent paths of Bend’s logging past and craft beer present and their respective effects on the area — one taking from, the other adding to. Deschutes employees are proud to tell how the brewery supports local charities and commits to sustainable practices. And, despite its growth, Deschutes still emphasizes Pacific Northwest products. In this era of nano and hyperlocal brewing, it’s easy to be charmed by the newest and closest and just as easy to forget about established operations like Deschutes. But folks at the brewery, from brewers to marketers, value their community as fiercely as anyone at your local farmers market. Even today, nearly everyone we sat down with talked about Deschutes and life in Bend in the same breath. Folks from California to Florida are drawn to it, spellbound. For good reason.
Central Oregon is stunning — captivating, even — possessed of alpine views, desert solitude, still lakes and restless whitewater. The place itself seemed to plot to keep us there, like a benign Circe, occasionally bewitching the GPS on our phones or the drone camera, confusing them, perhaps encouraging us to look up and around and to stay — even a little while longer. And we did, visiting landmarks like Pilot Butte and Lava Butte. Their appeal is striking. They rise sentinel-like in and near Bend, like bantam Kilimanjaros, dramatic and defiant. But for all their bluster, the panoramic views from their summits add to the enchantment of a still-wild place.
As one key industry figure told us, however, it’s no longer the Wild West for craft brewing. The gold rush is over. That is, making craft beer — even really good craft beer — just isn’t enough. Fish told us frankly that success meant unexpected obstacles. The craft-centric beer market Deschutes helped create has resulted in limited shelf space, limiting Deschutes’ growth somewhat and ultimately forcing it to modify its planned expansion.
Instead, the future is innovation. And Deschutes is keen to explore that future. Its brewers aim to continue to serve their base by maintaining their core line of beers, but adapt to new trends as well by creating experimental brews like the Reserve Series in their pilot brewery.
Bend and its surrounding mountains, buttes, rivers and lakes define the people and product at Deschutes — it’s no wonder the beers are named after such iconic Central Oregon landmarks. Similarly, the brewery is now an enduring part of Bend’s legacy. They’re entwined, each complementing the other. Craft beer made by dedicated people in a beautiful place — no longer just a crossing at a bend in the river. Today, the folks at the brewery talk about their work and their hometown in the same breath. And so too do visitors — like the skiers and snowboarders 30 years ago who visited Bend for the outdoors, but left with a taste for great beer.
Places to visit around Bend
- Deschutes Brewery – Craft beer icon. Bend icon.
- Pilot Butte – Best view of Bend. Full stop. Hike it. Bike it. Drive it. (No judgment.)
- Newberry National Volcanic Monument – Home to Lava Butte, underground caves and so much more.
- Old Mill District – Once home to the massive Brooks-Scanlon sawmill, now a walkable district with local shops, restaurants and riverside trails.
- Mt. Bachelor – Largest ski area in Oregon with more than 450 inches of annual snowfall and 3,300 feet of lift-accessed terrain. Downhill mountain biking in the summer.
- Mirror Pond – Glassy lake at the heart of Bend, the result of damming part of the Deschutes River. Surrounded by charming urban parks.
- Tumulo Falls – Stunning waterfall set among a cirque of sheer cliffs with views just minutes from the trailhead.
- Deschutes Historical Museum – Home to the Deschutes County Historical Society, helping preserve the history of Central Oregon.
- Tower Theatre – Restored, nearly 80-year-old theater in the heart of Bend hosting performing arts, films and live music.
- Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area – Protected wilderness area home to thousand-year-old juniper trees and impressive volcanic formations.
- Three Sisters Wilderness Area – Second largest wilderness area in Oregon with glaciers, alpine meadows, lava tubes and 40 miles of the famed Pacific Crest Trail. Hike. Camp. Climb. Fish. Get wild.