Is Central Oregon the Napa Valley of beer? The high desert around Bend makes a good case. The city is home to 21 craft beer makers and almost three times as many breweries per capita as Portland. Nearly half of its tourists visit a beer maker.
It’s sunny and scenic, an adventure sport base where microbrews are poured in Mount Bachelor’s ski lodges. In Bend chatter about hops and IBUs rivals talk of the weather (predictably sunny, even when it snows), and the local Chevron has four gas pumps and 30 taps pouring local beer and cider.
Named for a sharp hook in the Deschutes River, Bend wasn’t always so crafty; decades ago it was a bump on the state highway between golf resorts Black Butte Ranch and Sunriver. The town leaned on two of the world’s largest timber mills until they closed in 1994.
Then in the mid-’90s, Bend underwent a housing boom—and an image boom. Suddenly twice-a-week skiing wasn’t just for ski bums, and mountain biking wasn’t just for teenage boys. The rise of telecommuting meant that tech-savvy workers could relocate to a place where kayaks outnumbered suits and ties.
Gary Fish claims that when he moved into Bend in 1988, he could shoot a cannon down Bend’s main street without causing any carnage. The oddball in a winemaking family from the real Napa Valley, Fish started the Deschutes Brew Pub on that very deserted downtown street. He was a pioneer in an industry he hadn’t yet heard of: craft beer.
Today Deschutes is the sixth biggest craft brewer in the U.S., employing more than 400 people. It ships its signature Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter as far afield as Texas and Pennsylvania. The noisy pub now anchors a downtown with more boutiques than parking. Production moved to a brewery—next to an upscale shopping mall that occupies the old lumber mills—that hosts free tours, sells cycle jerseys, and bakes beer-byproduct breads.
Fish isn’t surprised at how many beer makers have followed him here. “The craft beer business is really a lifestyle business,” he says. “There are a lot of people that want to live in Bend and a lot of people that want to work in the craft beer industry.”
The company’s nationwide distribution bolsters its profile, but one Deschutes favorite is only available here: Bachelor Bitter, a smooth, deep red ale that Fish himself ranks as a favorite. Wildly popular with locals and especially bartenders, it tanked on supermarket shelves because consumers are wary of bitter beers not called IPAs. Except in Bend.
Deschutes remains the biggest fish in the Mirror Pond, so to speak, but the town has sprouted enough upstart breweries to fill a walkable, 14-stop Bend Ale Trail.
Ten Barrel Brewing Company’s brewpub is the town’s liveliest meet market, anchored by wood-burning fires in outdoor cages. Generic-looking “Pub Beer” cans go for $3 each but can’t outpace the draft Apocalypse IPA. Sample overheard dialogue: “You won’t believe how many times I went boarding last year!” (While at Deschutes, the most common phrase is cask-conditioned brew fans asking, “What’s on the hand pump?”)
At Boneyard Beer, the business began with “the most creative finances you can imagine,” says cofounder Melodee Storey. Brewmaster Tony Lawrence offered to take discarded equipment off the hands of 13 breweries across the country, giving Boneyard its name. Today its RPM IPA is so popular that the company twice bought and sold a canning line without using it. “We never have enough beer left to can,” says Storey.
Paul Arney did research and development at Deschutes before opening the Ale Apothecary in his garage. Ten miles west through the ponderosa pine from the ale trail, he welcomes visitors only when they’ve texted him first to see if he’s home.
Rather than mimic the stainless-steel consistency of his former employer, Arney embraces the variety that comes from brewing beer in porous wood barrels. Microorganisms, the weather, and wild yeasts make every small batch slightly unique, answering Arney’s quest: “What would beer taste like if it was discovered here?”
Bend doesn’t just produce pilsners and porters; it drinks. At the aforementioned Chevron, the same clerk who rings up Slim Jims will pour pints and fill growlers. Downtown, Crow’s Feet Commons sits right on the Deschutes River, a coffee shop–cum–bike store–cum–taproom circled by picnic tables.
The tasters of Napa Valley are labeled connoisseurs, aficionados, maybe even wine snobs. The equivalent in Bend is so common it doesn’t have a name. Everyone in town is a beer nerd, knows a brewer, or carries an empty growler in the back seat just in case. Just how beery is Bend? More than a dozen spots sell Dawg Grog — dog beer, albeit nonalcoholic and made from Boneyard’s brewers wort. In Bend, beer is for everyone.