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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review: Prodigal Son Brewing

230 SE Court Avenue
Pendleton, OR 97801

Hours: Mon - Sat: 4 - 10pm, Fri: 11am - 11pm; Sun: noon - 9pm
Beers: A range of ales with an emphasis on local grains, especially wheat.
Other Notes: Kids okay; seasonal sidewalk seating available; on-street parking.

Pendleton, Oregon is an unassuming little town. As you approach it on Interstate 84, you see the copses of trees nestled down in pockets between scrubby hills that shroud all but a few buildings with the height to peek out. It's not an ostentatious spectacle, even along a stretch of road where the smallest landmark draws the eye. Yet while Pendleton may huddle low on the high desert, it stands tall in the imagination of the state. City leaders have chosen "the real west" as Pendleton's motto, a nod to the justifiably-famous Round Up and Woolen Mills that share its name. Yet it's also an allusion to a far darker, racier history that's more Deadwood than Dodge City.

Underneath Pendleton's sun-baked streets are a honeycomb of tunnels that for decades housed a shadow city. In that underground warren, cowboys visited opium dens, brothels (eighteen, purportedly), and of course, saloons--thirty two, if the legends are accurate. All of that "bounty" for a mere five thousand souls. It's amazing anyone ever crawled up to street level to see the light of day.

All of which makes the arrival of Prodigal Sun all the more noteworthy: if any city in Oregon needs a brewery, it's Pendleton. A group of locals who had been wandering the land decided it should be so; they returned to their hometown and are prodigal no more--and Pendleton has a brewery it can call its own.

The Pub
Thanks to Brewpublic's fine interview with the prodigal sons, I know now what I couldn't figure when I visited--that Prodigal Son occupies a former Packard dealership. Thus the main pub is the showroom floor, a large, saloon-like open area with a soaring two-story ceiling. Around the showroom--or pub--are what must have formerly been offices. Here they become private niches to entertain small groups, outfitted in a funky hodgepodge of different styles with thrift-store furniture. One of the rooms even has a movie screen and a scatter of couches in it--like a mini-Kennedy School. In fact, the vibe is actually not far from the McMenamins--a beautiful, restored historic space with lots of little nooks and crannies for exploration--but minus the hippie art. (This is Pendleton, after all.) It manages to capture a bit of old Pendleton, but if you teleported the whole place to 30th and Belmont in Portland, it would fit right in.

The Beer
The brewer, Brian Harder, got his start at Rogue following school at Siebel. He brews what would, to Portlanders, look like a pretty standard ale line-up. In Pendleton, which is uninterrupted Coors country, it might strike locals as more radical. Yet Portlanders would be mighty impressed with the execution--the range bears a distinctive voice; balanced, soft ales that are as approachable as they are accomplished. The softness is the tell, and I was surprised to find the beers this gentle--I figured Brian would have some fairly mineral-rich water to work with. Not so, apparently:
"It's surprisingly soft here. There is a substantial amount of permanent hardness but the temporary hardness varies depending on the time of year. The water department tells me that our city water is 25,000 years old. That is, from the time it rains to when it leaves the tap. I have water reports from the last 100 years and the water has remained relatively unchanged since then. In my opinion, it's good clean water and excellent for brewing.... Sometimes it is best to just let the beer make itself and not get overwhelmed with details like water hardness and pH."
Brian seems oriented in making beer as locally as possible. Pendleton is located in wheat country, and the brewery plans to use it as often as possible. One of their beers also uses rye to nice effect. And then there's this: "A friend of mine is growing hops in the valley and we'll use those for our wet-hop seasonal."

Below is a quick run-down of the beers on-tap the day I visited (excluding the IPA, which had blown).
  • A Beer Named Sue (4.8%, 18 IBUs). I suppose you'd call this is a golden, but that's misleading. Goldens are often throw-away beers, but this was one of the best on tap (and Sally's favorite). I originally mistook the name for "a bee named Sue," because of the sweet honey note that brightens and lightens the beer. It is well-balanced to catch both the bisuity malts and gentle, spicy hopping. A great beer, and probably would be even better on cask.
  • Wheatstock Hefeweizen (5.0%, 20 IBUs). This is the one dud in the bunch. It's well-made, but bland and characterless. Apparently it is the beer identified as the cross-over beer for wheat-appreciating Coors drinkers, but it's nothing to write home about.
  • Veloci-Rapture Rye (5.4%, 30 IBUs). The brewery actually calls this an amber, but I think "rye" is more apt. It is in the same vein as some of the lighter, summer rye ales I mentioned earlier, but has is darker and packs a bit more heft. The recipe uses Simcoe hops (along with Citra, Glacier, and Crystal), and they play on the rye to pull out a distinctive juniper note. Although it bears the softness of the other beers, it's drier, and this also accentuates the rye spiciness.
  • Spendor in the Glass (5.9%, 58 IBUs). An all-Citra beer that did a nice stand-in for the absent IPA. Soft, sunny, and lemony, but not particularly sharp. The listed IBUs seem high to me; rather, Splendor is an easy-drinking summer pale ale.
  • Bruce/Lee Porter (7.5%, 36 IBUs). This is the beer that kept coming back to me in the days after my visit. A robust beer that conceals its strength in velvety-soft folds of chocolate. Roast notes balance the beer, but they play a minor role. It was a hot summer day when we visited, and I could easily have downed an imperial pint of this dark nectar.
With the exception of the hefeweizen, I'd put all of these beers in the B+/A- range, with a possible A going to the porter. I'd like another pint or three to see.

The Food
Call the menu Pub fare 2.0. Like many more modern brewpubs, it has the usual pub grub--fish and chips, burger, sandwiches--and a few interesting additions. Sally had a tasty onion tart and salad and I had sausage and fries. My guess is that it's some of the better food available in Pendleton--but Portland foodies shouldn't expect to find anything ground-breaking.

Overall, a most impressive debut. Pendleton is lucky to have such a great place to hang out--and they're really lucky to have such good beer. Now, I have to figure out how to get Prodigal Son to ship their porter to the Rose City ...


  1. so, is it named after A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash?

  2. Actually that would be Shel Silverstein, not Johnny Cash.