Eastern Oregon craft breweries: Prodigal Son, Terminal Gravity, and More

Here’s an article I wrote for my real job about craft brewing in eastern Oregon. We got good beer here, too, which your intrepid reporter lady is real, real happy about.

It’s safe to say Oregon has built a reputation on craft beer. According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, in 2010 nearly 15 percent of all beer Oregonians drank was Oregonian-made.

When many people think of Oregon microbrews, it’s breweries from the western part of the state that get the most press. Portland, with approximately 30 breweries within city limits, certainly qualifies as a craft beer mecca.

But it seems that east of the Cascades, small-town breweries are building reputations within their communities, and sometimes winning big-time awards for their efforts.

“Honestly, I heard from everybody, from hop to malt suppliers, to equipment sellers … when I told them where I was opening this brewpub, they told me I was crazy,” says Tim Guenther, one of the owners of Pendleton’s first and only brewery, Prodigal Son. “They said it would never work because this town’s too small.”

Now they’re struggling to brew enough to keep up with demand. About 15 months after opening, Guenther and his co-owner and wife, Jennifer, already can boast that Prodigal Son is Beer West magazine’s “Best Brewery” of the year. When starting up, Guenther had to deal with occasionally condescending city beer snobs. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re from Pendleburg?’” he remembers. Now, they’re calling him.

Tim Guenther and his brewmaster Brian Harder sit at a wooden table near the sunny window of Prodigal Son Brewpub one morning as the first customers of the day drift in for lunch. Above them hangs a “Let ’er Buck” burlap pea sack and the ubiquitous Pendleton blankets.

Guenther and Harder both grew up in Pendleton, left, and discovered a passion for microbrews throughout their early 20s. When they opened Prodigal Son, they’ve been strategic about having accessible beers to engage crowds more used to Bud Lite, like the light and sweet Beer Named Sue golden ale, and about having some more adventurous beers on the menu, like the Splendor in the Glass hoppy, bitter pale ale.

“For all the people that have been other places, they immediately get it,” said Guenther.

But they’ve also had customers who’ve been unfamiliar with the proper presentation of craft beer, which can be just as complex as wine. Customers quickly notice that different styles of beers come in different serving glasses, and never at quite the frosty temperatures your Coors Light comes in. “Some people want frozen mugs, want to know why our beer isn’t colder,” says Guenther. Belgian ales, for instance, are served in snifters so the drinker will sip it more slowly and fully appreciate all the floral, citrusy flavors, said Harder.

Not everyone thinks hand-crafted beer is worth the fuss. Guenther remembers seeing letters to the editor in the East Oregonian complaining about Prodigal Son and the idea of paying $4 for a pint. “If you ask me, it should be $5,” he says.

The emphasis on proper serving sets Prodigal Son apart from many microbreweries, since it’s easier and cheaper to use generic pint glasses. “And those serving glasses cost a fortune and our servers break them all the time,” says Guenther, “but from the very beginning we wanted to focus on presentation.”

They’re not out to make an enormous amount of money. “If I wanted to cash in, we would’ve opened a Papa Murphys,” laughs Guenther.

Guenther isn’t the first craft brew fan to be called crazy for opening a brewery in Eastern Oregon. Prodigal Son is actually the newest of a handful of Eastern Oregon breweries, including Mutiny Brewing in Joseph, Terminal Gravity in Enterprise and Mt. Emily in La Grande.

A hundred miles south of Pendleton in Baker City, Tyler Brown has been running Barley Brown’s brewpub for about 13 years. Microbrews were more of a novelty in the late 90s, and he spent some time trying to educate the locals. He started by giving away a lot of free beer.

“When we first opened we had Bud and Miller on tap, but before someone could get a pint of those, they had to taste one of ours,” Brown said.

Since then, the small brewery has built a customer base and strong enough reputation to get pretty daring with its beers. Barley Brown’s more unique brews include the Hot Blonde, a spicy chili ale, and Turmoil, an India Pale Ale-style beer that’s actually black. “There was a symposium on whether an IPA could even be dark, because, you know, pale is in the name,” said Brown. Turmoil’s won international awards in competitions with much larger breweries. “They’re like, ‘those pesky guys from eastern Oregon beat us,’” he says with a laugh.

For the founders of eastern Oregon’s oldest, largest craft brewery, Terminal Gravity, which opened in 1997, the opposition wasn’t so much from local beer drinkers, but other businesses. Head brewer Steve Carper hadn’t anticipated the close-minded attitudes he met from other drinking establishments. “It was really surprising to me that when we had beer available, no one carried our beer at first,” he said. Only after Terminal Gravity proved its staying power in the region did regional bars and restaurants buy Terminal kegs to put on tap.

Terminal Gravity now sells about 12,000 kegs per year, though Portlanders drink most of that, said Carper. “We ship a lot of value-added Wallowa county water, if you want to call it that,” he said with a laugh.

More regionally produced beers might on the way, too. At Prodigal Son, Guenther said he hears rumors continually, and amateur brewers have come into the pub asking for advice. One local who’s particularly interested is Ted Betz, who has a family history with brewing. His great-grandfather Jacob once ran The Star Brewery in Walla Walla, which produced a signature Betz Beer around the early 1900s. Betz has dabbled in homebrewing himself and said he’s looking for the right partners to help him launch Betz beer again. “My feeling is there’s always room for more people,” he said. “Portland has how many breweries?”

For non-beer drinkers wondering why microbreweries matter, the state brewer’s guild provides numbers: craft breweries directly employ 4,900 people in the state, and added 200 jobs last year even in stressful economic straights. For the owners of many community breweries, those pints contribute to a small-town, family-friendly way of life. “We have two kids, we can take them here and not get a babysitter,” said Guenther. “We wanted to create the kind of place we would actually want to go to.”

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