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Friday, September 06, 2013

Arch Rock and the Lessons of No-Geek Craft Brewing

I spent last weekend in a tent by the Rogue River a few miles from where it empties into the Pacific at Gold Beach.  This is one of the most remote regions of Oregon--the kind of place where you can go to a gorgeous, rocky beach on a weekend during Labor Day and only see three other people.  You're more likely to spot a black bear than a signal on your AT&T phone (or at least black bear droppings).  In January, Curry County got its newest brewery, a little joint called Arch Rock located in an industrial shed outside of Gold Beach.  I stopped in on Saturday, met the owners, and learned a little bit about what craft brewing is like in the vast regions beyond the population of beer geeks.


Arch Rock
Larry and Marjie Brennan pursued backward-retirement.  They began by quitting the heat of Arizona to move to Southern Oregon (the traffic usually goes the other direction) and then skipped the retiring part to instead pursue the dream of opening their own brewery.  Neither one knows much about making beer, so they started by hiring a professional brewer.  They found James Smith in Idaho at Grand Teton and lured him west. 

The only myrtlewood
mashing fork in the world?
The Brennans found a nice building outside of town and outfitted it with a nice 15-barrel brewery with a 30-barrel conditioning tank.  They turned James loose and he developed a line of just three regular beers: a pale ale, a helles lager, and a porter.  This summer he brewed a wit, but one-offs are not really a part of the business model.  The Brennans, who self-distribute, are really trying to establish these three beers in the region.  They have accounts from Brookings in the south to Florence, 130 miles north, and are about to expand to Medford in the Rogue Valley. 

All three of the beers are excellent.  The porter seems to be everyone's favorite, and that makes sense in a chill, wet area.  It's light-bodied but warming, with a very approachable, chocolatey lining.  The pale ale has quite a bit of hop zing (though not bitterness), and the lager--predictably my favorite--is a rustic, slightly hazy beer more in the Czech tradition than German.  The Brennans act as ambassadors for the beer and nurture their accounts.  They take calls at all hours and if it's not incredibly awkward, are happy to run a keg out to a pub.  They greet people at the brewery and fill growlers most days of the week.  In what is surely a rare (though I doubt unique) practice, they maintain "growler cards" like coffee shops: buy ten, get one free.  While we chatted up the Brennans, a local came in with a couple of growlers and was crestfallen to learn that the porter had just blown.  (She did fill one of the growlers with lager--but took the other to a pub for porter.)



What, No Tangerine Gose?
Most of the chat about craft beer happens among beer geeks in cities where novelty and experimentation is prized.  Years and years ago, our old comrade Doc Wort would rail against any brewery that brewed up "boring" styles like porter and pale.  But in that remote stretch of southern coast, there are very few people with strong opinions about beer.  The lady who came in with growlers admitted that until she tried Arch Rock Porter, she was an avowed lite beer gal.  "Craft beer" didn't interest her. 

When all else fails, hit the shut-down button.
Because the porter was out at the brewery, we headed over to the local pizza parlor for pints.  An Oregon Ducks game was on television, and there were a couple tables of fans sipping beers and enjoying the slaughter (66-3 over lowly Nicholls State).  Soldiers occupied one table, and there was a sea of sparkly mass market lagers.  The other table were locals with kids and two in the group had porters--the other two were sipping domestics. 

As Gary Fish found when he launched Deschutes 25 years ago, porters are about the perfect crossover beer.  They are sessionable, approachable, and, with their chocolatey smoothness, vaguely familiar.  And they taste nothing like lite beer.  Arch Rock is repeating the experiment in a county with just 22,000 people (a population density roughly equivalent to South Dakota's).  These are not the kind of beer drinkers who want saison or sours--or even IPAs.  (Yet.) 

But that doesn't actually mean they're out of the mainstream.  Most of the country--and much of the state--doesn't pine for wild ale.  Even though the best-selling brands are fighting to maintain market share, the styles of beer that remain popular do not run to the exotic. IPAs are about as crazy as things are likely to get in the mainstream, and I wouldn't be surprised if Arch Rock didn't brew one soon.  But it may be some time before James Smith decides to experiment with brettanomyces.

In the meantime, Gold Beachers will have his very tasty troika to slake their thirsts.  They seem happy enough about that.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe Hopworks and Laurelwood both still do buy 10 get 1 for $1 growler cards.

KeAloha said...

Do they sell a lot or just not brew as often with a 15bbl system?

Samurai Artist said...

yeah, a 15 bbl system is pretty large for a small town brewery doing only self distribution.

Jeff Alworth said...

Yeah, it is pretty huge and at the moment they're nowhere near brewing to capacity. Larry said they were selling about 50 barrels a month right now. Medford has about three times as many people in it as all of Curry County, though, so if they could start to get some decent accounts there, they could boost sales substantially.

Larry did buy a used system that had been reworked from Wisconsin dairy equipment, so he probably saved a little money on the front end.

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