Oregon Trail Brewery: History

Oregon Trail Brewery -- Creative Problem-Solving Revives a Brewery

by Glenn Tinseth
Republished from BrewingTechniques' January/February 1996 issue.

An Oregon brewery survives failure to produce award-winning beers. The Oregon Trail Brewery in Corvallis, Oregon, is in its second incarnation. The original brewery started brewing in 1987, but by 1992 a string of problems had forced its closure. New owners took over in 1993. With their new energy, a few modifications to the brewery, and some good recipes and a sound business plan, today's Oregon Trail Brewery has met success and seems poised for even further growth and recognition in coming years.

Much of what Oregon Trail has become is the result of the dedication and direction of two men: Dave Wills and Jerry Bockmore. Dave Wills is already a familiar name in the brewing industry; he's the owner of Freshops, home brewers' original mail-order source for fresh whole hops and one of home brewers' only suppliers of organic hops. Bockmore has been involved with craft brewing since 1989, first as a brewer for Hart Brewing (Seattle, Washington), then as a consultant for Star Brewing (Portland, Oregon).

This article presents the history of both the failed brewery and its more fortunate successor, which has earned awards at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) for two years running.

The First Incarnation

The original brewery was the idea of Jerry Shadomy, an award-winning home brewer from Corvallis, Oregon. Although he had no previous professional brewing experience, Shadomy was able to raise over $80,000 from investors and secure a $30,000 loan for operations. He arranged a five-year, rent-free lease with Ted Cox, the owner of a picturesque downtown Corvallis building. The Old World Deli, a popular restaurant and homebrew supply store (also owned by Cox), shares the same space as the brewery; the brewery operates in plain view of the patrons in the deli's dining area. It's no wonder the deli was the brewery's first draft account.

Shadomy was lucky enough to purchase the original 7-bbl brewhouse from Hart Brewing, which had expanded into a new building with a new 20-bbl system.

After finishing the remodeling, which included moving bathrooms and reinforcing the second floor to support the new fermentors, Shadomy started brewing in early 1987. Wills helped Shadomy remodel the brewery space and, through Freshops, supplied the hops for the brewery. In exchange, Wills received a 1% share in the brewery, but had little effect on its operation.

The only other microbreweries in Oregon at the time were Widmer, Full Sail, and Bridgeport; the general public's education inm specialty beers had just begun, and selling microbrewed beer was a struggle. Distributors weren't very excited about micros, and battles had to be fought over every new tap handle.

Initially, Oregon Trail beers were consistently good, and the company's growth was also consistent, if a bit slow. Shadomy got good exposure at various festivals, including the then-fledgling Oregon Brewers Festival. Oregon Trail's brown ale was awarded a Beer of the Year award in 1989 by Fred Eckhardt, who at that time was the beer columnist for The Oregonian newspaper (Portland). Things looked good, and the brewery seemed poised to make the jump from 300-400 bbl/year to 1000-1200 bbl/year.

Then disaster struck. Shadomy was hit by personal problems, and the beer quality started to slide. Worse yet, a recurring bacterial infection made its souring presence known. Hard-won tap handles began to disappear. Eventually, the brewery's only account was the Old World Deli, an ironic and unfortunate full circle in the brewery's development.

Finally, cash flow dried up, and the bank loan and many other bills went unpaid for months. By mid-1992, the bank was ready to foreclose and had locked the brewery doors.

The Revival

Oregon Trail Brewery president and hopmeister Dave Wills (left) and brewmaster Jerry Bockmore (right).

Enter Dave Wills. He felt that too much energy and effort had gone into building the brewery for it to die such an unattended death. Though he had Freshops and other businesses demanding his time, he had helped build this little brewery with his own hands -- how could he just let it go? He also couldn't ignore the nagging voice in the back of his head that said, "There's some real potential here."

Wills started by meeting with the bankers who, as it turned out, were much happier to see their loan repaid than to go inton default. They gave him a month to regroup and come up with a plan. Wills knew that such a plan had to have two immediate objectives: find money to get the brewery started again, and find a brewer/partner who could provide the expertise necessary to take over in the brewhouse.

When Bockmore came into the picture -- a talented brewer and an enthusiastic partner -- Wills was able to raise $43,000 in new capital by selling new shares, adding to the 14 original investors. He also demonstrated his commitment by making $40,000 of his own money available to the brewery. By January 1993, this dynamic duo was ready to begin the arduous task of bringing the Oregon Trail Brewery back to life.

Surveying the Damage

Malt begins its journey through the brewing process at the top of the gravity ladder in this holding bin on the third floor, in a space that doubles as office and milling room. Here, Mel Greiser prepares the graduated grain bin to receive the malt. Hash marks inside the bin instantly translate volume to weight for ease of measurement.

When Bockmore and Wills first unlocked the doors to the brewery, they saw a fairly well-designed system, one taking up very little floor space. The layout of the brewery was very similar to a traditional vertical design; three levels, taking up a total of 1800 square feet. The brewery's greatest strength is that it was set up to take full advantage of gravity at almost every stage. Malt starts on the third floor, delivered there by hose from the grain truck (two-row malt) or manually, bag by bag (specialty grains). From there, though, it's all downhill, except for the transfer of wort to the fermentors.

Malt begins its journey through the brewing process at the top of the gravity ladder in this holding bin on the third floor, in a space that doubles as office and milling room. Here, Mel Greiser prepares the graduated grain bin to receive the malt. Hash marks inside the bin instantly translate volume to weight for ease of measurement.

On the top level was the grain storage area and office. The grain mill was in the floor of that level (the third level), with a chute leading from the mill to the mash tun on the second floor.

The design allowed for spent grains to be shoveled from the mash tun directly into a chute in the outer wall, which fed into storage bins outside. The second level was used for secondary fermentation and conditioning only. (Now it is a temperature-controlled fermentation room that contains four 7-bbl dish-bottomed fermentors, two 14-bbl unitanks, and two 7-bbl bright tanks.)

On the first floor was the 7-bbl gas-fired brew kettle and the brewery's two 7-bbl open primary fermentors, located less than 5 feet from the keg-washing station (not exactly a sanitary arrangement). The keg cold room was also on the first floor, within easy reach of the rear door. Aside from the location of the primary fermentors, it was a well thought out brewery.

Bockmore's first act was to get rid of the two poorly located open fermentors, thus eliminating the brewery's biggest infection risk. Other equipment changes included the addition of glycol temperature control for all the fermentation tanks and the purchase of Zahm & Nagel (Buffalo, New York) CO2 and air testing equipment. Kegs were changed over from Golden Gate to Sankey to better match what the rest of the industry was using. A thorough cleaning of the entire brewery was all that was left before serious brewing could begin.

The Line-Up of Beers

Once it is filled with the proper measure of malt, the grain bin is rolled into position over the mill's hopper. A drain in the bottom of the bin feeds the malt directly into the mill, which is sunk into the floor; the crushed malt feeds directly into the mash tun beneath. Papers hang on the wall (behind the bin) in front of the desk in this space that doubles as the brewery's office.

Both Wills and Bockmore agreed that the Oregon Trail flagship beer should be something light and approachable, but they also wanted it to be distinctive. Bockmore came up with an American interpretation of the Belgian wit style. Although early test batches used a Belgian yeast, it didn't seem to add enough to the beer to make it worth the added work of maintaining more than one yeast strain. The final production recipe uses domestic barley and wheat malt (avoiding the extra mash rests that raw wheat requires) and a neutral ale yeast. It is flavored with orange peel and coriander.

Once it is filled with the proper measure of malt, the grain bin is rolled into position over the mill's hopper. A drain in the bottom of the bin feeds the malt directly into the mill, which is sunk into the floor; the crushed malt feeds directly into the mash tun beneath. Papers hang on the wall (behind the bin) in front of the desk in this space that doubles as the brewery's office.

Specialty grains are weighed out on this scale, which appears to be the appropriate age for a brewery called Oregon Trail.

With the refreshing and slightly cloudy Oregon Trail White Ale (18 BUs, 3.5% alcohol [w/w]), Wills and Bockmore began the hard work of winning back tap handles in the tight Oregon craft brew market. Like a lot of other small brewery start-ups, Wills and Bockmore began self-distributing, visiting pubs and taverns all over Oregon, Party Pig in tow.

Marketing the white ale was not easy, especially with industry giant Widmer's American-style Hefeweizen competing for the same taps. An additional hurdle was the task of convincing those pub owners with long memories that the new Oregon Trail had solved all its inconsistency and sanitation problems. Even when the brewery won a tap, it was often a "rotating" tap, one that featured a different beer each week or month. Growth was slow.

Eventually, Oregon Trail found distributors to represent them in most of Oregon's bigger markets. Although this certainly wasn't a quick cure for their slow growth, it did help the brewery gain more name recognition throughout Oregon. It also cut into cash flow, however; a keg sold directly to an account brings in $90, whereas a keg sold to the distributor typically raises less than $70.

It was late 1993 when Bockmore brought the brewery's second beer on-line. Oregon Trail Brown Ale (35 BUs, 3.8% alcohol [w/w]) is fruity and malty, with a firm hop bitterness that provides a good foundation for the beer.

Specialty grains are weighed out on this scale, which appears to be the appropriate age for a brewery called Oregon Trail.

Surprisingly, in a market dominated by fruits and wheats, the brown really caught on. In fact, it became so popular that demand for it soon equaled that of the white. Evidently the tasting panel at the GABF agreed, awarding Oregon Trail Brown Ale a silver medal in the American Brown Ale category in both 1994 and 1995. In 1995, the bronze medal went to Pete's Wicked Ale, a beer that most consider the archetypal American brown (Golden Gate, by Golden Pacific Brewing, Emeryville California, took the gold in 1995). Needless to say, Wills and Bockmore were thrilled. Now they just had to figure out how to get the word out to their customers.

Close-up of the mill and power source, with the hopper positioned to receive malt from the bottom of the graduated grain bin.

But this low-budget brewery, selling kegs only, found publicity hard to come by. Even the national recognition that the awards brought didn't seem to help. News releases were buried in the "Living" section of the newspaper, and although word of mouth worked well among beer geeks, there are only so many beer geeks. Distributors wanted the brewery to provide a package of point-of-sale material which, although it probably would have been effective, proved much too costly for the brewery's meager advertising budget. It's hard to tell the world about a GABF medal when your only visual advertising material is a tap handle. Believe it or not, Wills estimates that the two silver medals may not have added even one tap handle to their list of accounts.

That's one of the big reasons why in 1994 the Oregon Trail Brewery started marketing their white ale in 22-oz screen-printed bottles. Shelf space proved a little easier to come by than draught accounts, and the bottle itself provides a built-in marketing opportunity. Wills made the point that it's important to provide opportunities for the consumer to see your beer in as many locations as possible. Festivals, homebrew club meetings, brewspapers, supermarket beer coolers, taprooms -- the more name recognition you gain, the more likely the consumer will pick your beer from the 20 or 30 other choices they face.

The Brewery Today

Assistant brewer Greg Herenchak installs the removable 4-in. PVC pipe that feeds the crushed malt from the mill above directly into the mash tun. Note the steep stairway that leads to the third floor.

When asked what it is that makes Oregon Trail beers special, both Wills and Bockmore agree that quality ingredients and flavorful recipes are the key. They use a total of 10 different malts -- Gambrinus two-row pale as their base malt and Hugh Baird specialty malts for extra color and flavor. They use only fresh whole hops (from Freshops, of course) -- five different varieties. Corvallis water is soft and clean, requiring only carbon filtration to remove chlorine and the addition of gypsum for the lighter beers. One ale yeast is used for all beers produced.

The mash tun relies on strike temperature to provide the correct mashing temperature in this single-infusion system. Fermentors can be seen in the background. To the left, immediately past the mash tun, are the stairs to the first floor.

The Oregon Trail brewing process is very simple. The grain is mashed using single-temperature infusion and is then sparged and drained into the direct-fired brew kettle. During the boil, kettle hops are added based on the particulars of each beer's recipe. Thirty minutes before strikeout, Irish moss is added to the kettle along with the finishing hops. The bitter wort is then drained into a hop strainer and pumped through a plate chiller into one of the fermentors. In-line wort oxygenation is accomplished en route to the fermentor.

After fermentation in the glycol-jacketed fermentors (7- or 14-bbl, depending on the recipe), some of the beers are filtered and all are packaged either using a counter-pressure keg filler or a small four-head, inline, manual bottling line for the 22-oz bottles (built by Dave Moorehead of Onalaska Brewing, Onalaska, Washington). Brown ale joined the white in bottles in January 1996. The label for the brown ale bottle displays its two silver medals, finally giving the brewery a reasonable opportunity to proudly advertise its successes.

View down the stairs to the kettle on the ground floor. After the boil, the bitter wort is drained into a hop strainer (not shown, beneath the stairs) and pumped through a plate chiller (mounted on wall at right) into one of the fermentors on the second floor. In the background you can see some of the tables of the Old World Deli's spacious seating area.

In addition to the white and the brown, Oregon Trail regularly brews a tasty stout (50 BUs, 4.3% alcohol [w/w]) and is considering making its two most popular seasonals -- the IPA (45 BUs, 4.5% alcohol [w/w]) and the Pacific Gem Porter (40 BUs, 4.5% alcohol [w/w]) -- part of the regular line-up as well.

Bockmore formulated all of the beers to be flavorful and interesting, without relying on a high original gravity. He told me, "You can brew really distinctive beers without loading up on the alcohol." The brown ale is certainly a testament to that.

Bockmore shares the brewing chores with Greg Herenchak, a two-year veteran of Oregon Trail Brewery. Also helping out, especially on the bottling line, is Mel Greiser. Greiser was the only Oregon Trail representative able to make it to the GABF this year and was delighted to be the one to accept the silver medal at the awards ceremony, sharing the stage with Pete Slosberg. Lee Smith, a local home brewer, famous for his Cajun deep-fried whole turkey, volunteers as head schlepper at festivals.

Last year, Oregon Trail Brewery produced 519 bbl of beer, 90% draft with the remaining 10% as 22-oz bottles of the white ale (hand bottled at the brewery). Wills and Bockmore expect to hit full capacity (1200 bbl) in early 1996. This event will be the next major transition for Oregon Trail Brewery.

Creative Plans for Expansion

Glycol jackets and a basic freon cooling system keep the fermentors at the specified temperature set via digital thermostat.

At 1200 bbl/year, Oregon Trail Brewery will be at full capacity, with absolutely no room to add more fermentors. What next? That's exactly what I asked Wills and Bockmore. I thought the obvious answer would be to raise capital to build a new, much bigger brewery somewhere else, keeping the 7-bbl system where it is as a pilot/backup brewhouse. I guessed wrong -- these two had a much more creative plan up their sleeves.

Glycol jackets and a basic freon cooling system keep the fermentors at the specified temperature set via digital thermostat.

Greiser and Herenchak at the bottling line on the first floor. Throughput is about 120 bottles/hour.

Bockmore is also one of the principals in a new brewery, Yamhill Brewing Company, in Portland. With his partners, Steve Woolard (festival promoter), Tim Glenn (formerly of Tugboat Brewing, Portland), and Rick Rivera (an ex-police officer), Bockmore is building an 8-bbl (soon to be 30-bbl) brewhouse in a 10,000 sq ft building in downtown Portland. The brewery will feature a lot of excess fermentation capability and a 12-valve bottling line as well as plenty of room for storage and expansion.

Yamhill Brewing Company plans to offer contract brewing services, including brewing of house brews for restaurants and brewing and bottling for breweries with limited capacity -- like Oregon Trail Brewery. It will also be brewing its own line of beers within a year. Greiser and Herenchak at the bottling line on the first floor. Throughput is about 120 bottles/hour.

Sharing the building, and some of the equipment, with Yamhill is another new company called Teapilz, makers of Oocha Brew and Oocha Berry. Oocha Brew is a fermented carbonated health drink made from a sugar and tea mixture inoculated with a Kombucha culture (sometimes called a mushroom). The sugar ferments out, and the wild yeast and acetic bacteria culture combine to produce a very tart nonalcoholic drink (the yeast produce alcohol which the bacteria then consume). Because of the chance of cross-infections, beer brewing and oocha brewing are carried out in separate closed areas. Oocha Brew is available on tap and in 12-oz bottles, but only in Portland at this time.

Oregon Trail Brewery will be Yamhill's first contract customer, although others are on the waiting list. The situation raises an interesting question for the philosophically inclined: With Bockmore still the brewer, is it still contract brewing? You be the judge.

Oregon Trail's White Ale in its 22-oz package, which includes one of the brewery's mottos, "Good at Either End of the Trail." This particular bottle is from the trailhead itself -- note the "Bottling No. 1" above the main portion of the label.

Oregon Trail's White Ale in its 22-oz package, which includes one of the brewery's mottos, "Good at Either End of the Trail." This particular bottle is from the trailhead itself -- note the "Bottling No. 1" above the main portion of the label.

This unique arrangement frees Oregon Trail from the huge costs of capitalizing a new brewery and allows expansion to be funded through cash flow; a situation most companies can only dream of. It also allows Oregon Trail to enter the six-pack market without ever worrying about the headaches of running and maintaining a complex, automated bottling line. Of course, the profit margin is reduced, with Yamhill getting a cut on each barrel produced, but Wills feels that with a 10-15% margin, Oregon Trail can do just fine.

With the added capacity that Yamhill provides, Wills and Bockmore feel that Oregon Trail can hit their goal of 3000 bbl within a year after contract brewing begins. In addition, the Yamhill bottling line will help them move toward their eventual target of 75% bottled sales and 25% keg sales. It also allows them to break into other regional markets with six packs, as so many other Pacific Northwest brewers have done in the past two years.

It's certainly not your normal solution to the problems that growth brings, but Oregon Trail's Dave Wills and Jerry Bockmore are not your average craft-brewing entrepreneurs. As befits the name, Oregon Trail has a lot of history behind it, and -- also in keeping with a state known for its pioneering spirit -- a few more chapters remainingto be written.

No End of the trail in Sight

In rebuilding the Oregon Trail Brewery, Wills and Bockmore have taken it from the locked doors of an imminent bank foreclosure to the GABF awards ceremony. What's next? However it ends up, it will surely prove to be another interesting story in the evolution of craft brewing.