We’re standing in the rain on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest looking at a 10-foot section of a spruce trunk that’s been halved and hollowed. With handles on one end and a small wheel on the other, it looks like a strange and skinny wheelbarrow.
“It’s a lauter tun,” says Paul Arney, owner of Ale Apothecary, a boutique brewery tucked away in the woods on the outskirts of Bend. “Its job is to separate the grains from the wort.” Arney recently felled the spruce on his property, hollowed it out and layered it with spruce boughs to infuse an ale called Sahati.
Arney’s approach might sound unusual, but it’s typical for Bend. Since the founding of Deschutes Brewery in 1988, Central Oregon has enjoyed a serious tradition of craft beer making. The industry now counts 11 breweries in Bend proper, five under development and half a dozen in nearby towns (including Prineville’s Ochoco Brewing and Smith Rock Brewing in Redmond). With Bend’s population at just 84,000, that’s a lot of suds. Yet the beer economy continues to grow, fueled by the creative curiosity of Bend’s brewers.
Little ale house in the big woods
I’ve come to town with my husband, Brendan, to check out the Bend Ale Trail — a collection of 16 craft breweries promoted as the “largest beer trail in the West.” John Flannery, former owner of GETIT Shuttle (now Bend Tour Company) and unofficial ambassador of Bend, has happily agreed to show us the official trail and then some. The tall, gregarious New Jersey transplant is an unabashed beer lover. “I have no time for bad beer. Craft beer is something I have supported forever,” he says as we head toward Ale Apothecary.
Arney founded the Ale Apothecary in 2011 after 15 years at Deschutes Brewery. Standing in his 500-square-foot operation, which feels and smells more like a tiny pub than the converted garage that it is, Arney explains that his techniques — using open fermentation, oak barrels and as few ingredients as possible — means he never knows quite what to expect. His intention is “to make process an ingredient,” he says.
He brews one barrel at a time and ages each for three to 18 months. Arney has brewed five ales to date, which are available through an ale club and a few local bottle shops, and Ale Apothecary can be visited by appointment. The Sahalie, which we’re trying, is mixed-fermentation ale with Champagne-like qualities, a lemony taste and 10.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). This is a special-occasion beer, one to be sipped and enjoyed with a crusty baguette and triple-cream cheese — Arney’s suggestion. And suddenly I’m starving.
Second stop at Broken Top
Back on the road, Flannery treats us to part of what he calls his “Art Safari” (in addition to beer tours, he does tours of Bend’s roundabout art installations, wineries and chicken coops, as well as family adventures). “I call it Man versus Nature,” he says as we pass “Migration,” a metal sculpture of birds taking flight. “Because if you look back, they are flying into the power lines.”
Our second stop is Broken Top Bottle Shop and Ale Café. With 250 bottled beers from around the world, Broken Top’s beer angle is international rather than regional. On this early afternoon, families and couples enjoy a late lunch in the sunny café space. Co-owner Andy Polancheck — a 33-year-old Johnny Depp look-alike with hair to his chin, a black baseball cap and thick-framed glasses — offers a tour of the beer case. Here’s Central Oregon, wider Oregon, Alaska, Utah and California, and there’s Germany, Belgium, Austria and Norway. When asked how he picks the beers to carry, he grins. “Whatever is hot right now. The unusual beers.”
Seated at the bar, we choose tasters from 12 taps. Polancheck says the offerings change every day. “People like variety,” he says. “You can’t limit yourself.” Among our choices: Tieton Cider Works Apricot Cider, Double D Blonde from Hop Valley Brewing Company, a Seizoen from Logsdon Farmhouse Ales and Boneyard Beer’s Aleias. With two stops to go, I settle on Pliny the Elder (8 percent ABV) from Russian River Brewing Company. I feel a little guilty with a swath of undrunk Oregon pours to go, but I leave them to Brendan.
Crux of the afternoon
Flannery zips back to our van en route to stop number three so we can dodge a parking ticket. When he learns that our elderly dog is napping while we tour, he insists on bringing her along. Our next stop, Crux Fermentation Project, loves four-leggeds, too. We park our Dizzy next to a bowl of water on the sunny patio, and Flannery points to the back of the property, where the brewery plans to have an off-leash area.
Located in an old AAMCO transmission shop, Crux has a warm, industrial feel. Four long common tables, hewn from a single piece of ponderosa pine, border one end of the tasting room, and the gleaming apparatus of the brewing operation is visible just beyond. Weathered siding, salvaged from an 1810 house in Terrebonne, lines one wall. Copper pendulum lights hang over the concrete bar. Original garage doors roll up in warmer weather for an unparalleled view of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top and Three Sisters.
Crux is a working brewery with a “tasting room smack-dab in the middle of our operation,” says co-owner Dave Wilson. When the brewer opens the door to the hop room, a spicy aroma fills the air. “It turns heads,” he says.
Under brewmaster Larry Sidor, Crux experiments with methods like open fermentation, oak barrel aging, wild yeast strains and experimental hops. It has created 17 beers to date and is aiming for 20.
We tried a range — Saison, Hefe, Outcast IPA, Flanders Red, Belgian and Nitro Stout. The chocolaty Nitro wins my vote. With one more stop ahead, we have a hearty snack, too: a beer pretzel and the pork quesadilla, with porter BBQ braised pork shoulder, Belgian ale cream mustard, cheese, tomato and ale-caramelized onions.
Sailing on to Silver Moon
With a nano-brewery, a bottle shop and an open brewery checked off our list, we head to Silver Moon Brewing. It got its start as a brewing supply shop, started doing tastings and eventually evolved into a brewpub with a mellow feel. “I always think this place feels like you’re hanging out in someone’s living room,” Flannery says. Taking in the decor from our vinyl booth — a disco ball, 1970s-era chandeliers, wall mural and scattered tables and chairs — I have to agree.
Head brewer Brett Thomas, bearded and in jeans and a T-shirt, looks like a man who’s been working hard all day. He smiles and mentions a tussle with a broken water line. Perched on a stool with a pint in his grip, Thomas is soft-spoken and serious when he talks about his focus on drinkable, European-style ales. “We go after technical beer styles that a lot of brewers don’t chase. More common these days are hoppy, high-alcohol beers that hit you like a fist.”
Thomas describes the feel of Silver Moon as “relaxed and eclectic,” a description that extends to the varied regulars — the after-work crowd, the partiers, young families and midday sippers. It’s also an apt description for the tasting tray we’ve ordered, which includes Pumpkin Ale, Hopnob IPA, Snake Bite Porter and Batch 1000 (made to commemorate the brewery’s 1,000th batch of beer). I’m caught between the pumpkin and porter when Thomas drains his glass and leaves us with this to think about: “The culture of craft beer is ingrained in the lifestyle here in Bend. It’s woven into our daily lives.” I’ll drink to that.
Eat and sleep
The Sparrow Bakery: Postage stamp-size bakery turns out enormous tastes — rich pastries, cookies, pies and éclairs, as well as fresh breads and delightful breakfasts.
5 Fusion & Sushi Bar: Creative cocktails, like the Angry Mango and Basil Collins, are just the beginning. The sushi bar delights, and an entrée menu blends Northwest and Asian flavors with an emphasis on fresh fish, unexpected twists and gorgeous presentation.
The Oxford Hotel: Spend the night at this green boutique hotel and you’ll want to stay forever. The clean, modern design has a distinctly Northwest feel. We loved the deep bathtub, the French press coffee in the rooms and the view out onto Minnesota Avenue. Stop in at 10 Below Restaurant & Lounge for a leisurely cocktail or intimate dinner.