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When Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery opened for business in 1988, their first beer released to the public was Black Butte Porter. At the time, it was considered a radical and terribly unwise move for a craft brewer to ask Joe Beerdrinker to buy something he couldn't see through. Brown beers weren’t (and still really aren’t) embraced by mainstream America.
Yet nearly 25 years later, Deschutes has emerged as the fifth largest craft brewer in the U.S. (behind Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Shiner), releasing some 222,000 barrels in 2011. (That’s about five times as much as Schlafly, and half again what they’re producing at Boulevard Brewing, in nearby Kansas City, MO, for those keeping score).
Deschutes’ portfolio of beers has expanded to include various ales, stouts, and limited-edition odds and ends. And though the average American is still digging Bud Light more than any other beer, the beer-o-philes are multiplying, and buying (and brewing) porters, stouts, hop-choked IPAs, kolsches, lambics, bocks, etc. more now than ever. Indeed, an estimated 5% of the domestic beer market is craft beer – a small but significant chunk.
And now, with St. Louis at the vanguard of the American craft beer revolution (as regular visitors to Mike Sweeney’s STL Hops blog or Evan Benn’s “Hip Hops” column can tell you), they’ve chosen our market as their next big point of expansion. This week is the official debut of Deschutes at Randall’s Wines & Spirits, Friar Tuck Wines, Spirits & Beverages, Local Harvest Grocery, HandleBar, Llywelyn’s Pub in Webster Groves, Brennan’s, Arena Liquor, select Schnucks locations, Cicero’s, Cork Wine Bar, The Good Pie, Olympia Kebob House & Taverna, the Wine & Cheese Place, iTap, Lukas Liquor Superstore, and other bars, restaurants, and shops.
If it sounds like an assault, to quote Kirsten Dunst and her cheerleader pals, “Bring it on!”
“Growth has been slow Nd steady,” said Deschutes Digital Marketing Manager Jason Randles. “We expand as fast as we can brew the beer. In fact, we were hoping to be in Missouri the second quarter of last year, but we just couldn’t brew as fast as the demand.”
The flagship beers, Black Butte Porter (below left) and Mirror Pond Pale Ale, will be first to invade the area (in big ol’ 22-oz. bottles, by the way). Craft-beer fanatics are nuts about the quality of these brews, and about Deschutes in general. In fact, Deschutes’ Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale was chosen the very best beer in the known universe at the 2010 World Beer Awards, and their ominously named The Abyss (below right) is considered one of the best Imperial Stouts.
“You can taste the licorice, the molasses, and the cherry bark from the barrel-aging of The Abyss,” said Deschutes Brewmaster Brian Faivre. “I’ve learned a lot from that beer. The first time we brewed it in ‘06 it was a total disaster. But now, it’s so robust and complex, and if you set some aside, it gets better with time. If you have a basement that’s fairly cool, I recommend waiting a year. And then you can do a vertical tasting of the different years, too. The Abyss and Black Butte XXIII are great examples of our darker specialty beers.”
"Hop Henge is a great example of where we're trying to emphasize the hops in our experimental beers," Faivre added. "Hop Henge has higher gravity, higher alcohol, good bitterness, and a floral aroma. We’re trying to dry it out and make it not too sweet and cloying. Every year we try to improve it.”
You can try Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, The Abyss, Hop Henge Experimental IPA, and that limited-edition Black Butte XXIII Porter at one of the kickoff events, at the International Tap House in Soulard (iTap) this Thursday night. Another event, tomorrow, will introduce various Deschutes beers to the 200 or so “students” who attend the free, popular Cicero’s Beer School. The latter requires no reservations; just show up in time to get a seat.
While the Deschutes dudes are here making converts, they’ll be having a friendly powwow with the gang at Schlafly, too. It may come as a surprise, but one of the hallmarks of the craft-brewing revolution is avid cooperation, even culminating occasionally in a jointly brewed beer.
“I know the guys over at Schlafly pretty well, and I usually stop by there once a year and talk to the brewers,” said Faivre. “It’s very much an open industry -- we’re very open about sharing successes and failures. Over the last ten years, I can’t believe how much the craft industry has developed. That’s because of the cool people, and the cooperation.”
Deschutes is famous for all those tasty beers, of course, but they’re famous for something else: “Woody” is a giant wooden keg pulled by a trailer that opens to reveal a group of bartenders pouring six different Deschutes beers. “Our guys have a lot of tales to tell of people following it, and honking at it, and pretending to drink out of the giant tap handle on the back,” said Randles.
Woody is perfect for festivals and inaugurations of any kind, but sadly, he won’t be making the trip to St. Louis this week. The Deschutes peeps are hoping he can cruise through St. Louis this summer, when the weather is more promising. In the meantime, follow Woody at his very own Facebook page and Twitter feed.
For an even better look at the Deschutes culture, and the Oregon/Northwest/youthful/post-hippie/bearded/tattooed/into-camping/flannel-wearing/laid-back “Brewhemian” ( copyright 2012, Relish Enterprises) who may be found sipping craft beers in the Western states, check out a fascinating, wordless four-minute commercial at the Deschutes website that feels like short film. "Landmarks” introduces a young, tattooed bohemian couple who have a sulky fight, until she capitulates and hops into his Westfalia van for a camping trip with hiking, skinny-dipping, and of course, much drinking of Deschutes beers, to an indie-rock soundtrack. (The many interludes where the gal draws in her journal with colored markers are particularly curious.)
“Central Oregon is part of our DNA. Most of our beers are named after Oregon landmarks, so we wanted to come up with a creative way to connect the beer to the places,” said Randles of the film short.
Camping, skinny-dipping in a lake, wearing lots of earth tones, forgoing shaving, and drinking porter sounds like a pretty decent lifestyle, actually.
Bring it on. ==
Deschutes beers are available at the shops, bars, and restaurants listed above; for a comprehensive list go here:
Cicero's Beer School, featuring Deschutes
5:30 and 7 p.m.
Wed., Jan. 18
Deschutes St. Louis Launch Party
7 p.m. - midnight
Thurs., Jan. 19
International Tap House
1711 S. 9th