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Is Beer Really All About People? One Oregon Brewery Thinks So.



Last year, Erik Frank went to his company’s Christmas party—once a small gathering that had since blossomed into one of the biggest annual affairs in Bend, Oregon, boasting some 550 employees/co-owners of Deschutes Brewery and their families. There, Frank ran into the company’s founder and majority shareholder, Gary Fish, who had opened a little brewpub in 1988—when no one was talking about craft beer—and never looked back.

“Oh my gosh,” Frank says, looking at the hundreds of people gathered. “This is amazing.”

Fish looked at him and smiled. “This is all about the people,” he replied.

Deschutes has been that like that since Frank, now a marketing manager, came to work at the brewpub fifteen years ago as a part-time host. He was immediately offered health benefits—something, needless to say, that is not terribly common in the restaurant industry, especially for part-timers.

Back then, Deschutes was a much smaller company, having only begun to sell its products outside the Bend brewpub in the early nineties. But as the craft-beer craze took off and as Deschutes’s beers gained national acclaim, the company began expanding.

Earlier this year, North Carolina became the twenty-ninth state in which Deschutes sold its products. It’s a natural fit for the brand, Frank explains, in that Deschutes shares values with so many North Carolina breweries: a commitment to quality, to its employees, to its community, and to sustainability. There’s also something of a similar history: when Deschutes started, Bend was a small town reeling from the collapse of the timber industry. North Carolina lost much of its traditional industry with the outsourcing of textiles and the decline of tobacco. In both places, breweries emerged out of that economic landscape.

In Oregon, “we have a lot of breweries,” Frank says. “We are into beer just like North Carolina is. We view North Carolina as a sister state in that regard. And if you look at the things that the people of Oregon like to do, the wonderland they have available to them, we see some of those same things in North Carolina. People like to play outside. Playing outside is a part of that quality of life. Finally, we see a tremendous diversity of opinion. In Oregon, you see a lot of that as well. I think that’s good for craft beer and building communities. That was the premise Deschutes was founded on—bringing community together over a pint.”

When Deschutes first began selling in North Carolina in June, the company partnered with the Cape Fear Riverkeeper and Catawba Riverkeeper organizations to host charitable events in Asheville, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and Charlotte. Back home, it donates $1 for every barrel the company produces to charities that help protect the brewery’s namesake Deschutes River. Last year, that amount totaled $374,000. The company has a full-time position dedicated to sustainability and reducing the brewery’s water usage, and another tasked with community engagement.

“Those are all concepts that are part of our DNA and a big part of how we live our lives at the brewery,” Frank says.

And those concepts also are reflected in the product itself.

“Quality is what sets us apart,” says Jeff Johnson, one of Deschutes’s roughly thirty brewers. “We’re just very diligent make sure a product comes out tasting the way we want it to.” Deschutes is probably best known for its flagship Black Butte Porter, a beer that is distinct in its floral hop profile—cascade, bravo, and tettnang hops balancing the chocolate and coffee notes that can overwhelm in so many other porters. But that’s just the beginning. The Fresh-Squeezed IPA, filled to the brim with citra and mosaic hops, tastes of juicy grapefruit and citrus. The Hopezeit Autumn IPA, out now, uses German hops to lend herbal and spice notes. Down the line of Deschutes’s beers, there’s never disappointment: they are innovative but approachable, complex but quaffable.

“We get up on a daily basis working toward making the finest beers in the world,” Frank says. “That’s an everyday goal. While we are out to wow people, we also want to make beers that are balanced and drinkable. A beer you can have more than one of.”

In that, they have succeeded.

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