Tuesday, January 1, 2008

First Look: Southern Oregon Brewing Company

From Medford, Oregon

For this year's holiday season my wife and I traveled five hours north to my hometown of Medford, Oregon to spend time with family. It's been a great week, with minor bouts with the persistent snow and pre-occupied drivers on cell phones, sipping lattes. Southern Oregon is nothing short of relaxing, life seems to move a few miles-per-hour slower and living life in the fast lane is something most people here simply don't have any concern for.

Tracy and I found our way out to the Rogue Valley's newest brewery this week, Southern Oregon Brewing Company, for a tour with the owner and the brewers there. Anders Johansen is the head brewer, an unassuming fellow with years of brewing experience, including stints at Pyramid and Deschutes as well as a start-up brewery in the Eugen area. Tom Hammond is SOB's founder/president and has spent most of his time working as a doctor in the valley. Together they form a unique team of varied talents and connections, and while it's too early to tell how they'll do in the long run, it appears they have a recipe for success.

The Brewery

Located behind a bowling alley (and back a couple blocks), Southern Oregon Brewing's building looks industrial, with sheet-metal sidings and a small parking lot. The only real sign telling you you've arrived is the grain silo with their logo, standing just outside the front doors. As you walk in the place transforms, with a slick bar area available for those looking for a fresh pint or sampler platter. There isn't a pub feel here, no food save for the nuts and chex mix on the counter. While the place is comfortable, the only appeal is for those out to sample their beers.

We toured the premises, which previously held a squirt gun manufacturing facility, and were struck by the openness of it all, there was a lot of room for growth. Upstairs holds the grain mill and storage area for all specialty malts (base malt stored in silo outdoors). From the upstairs balcony we enjoyed the view of the brewery, all shiny new and atop a flooring I'd never seen before (more on that later).

The brewery is brand new, made this year by AAA somewhere in the northern area of Oregon. Apparently, Anders has worked with this company before and was able to get the brewery built to his specification. It pretty much works like a brewery should, with a HLT, Mash Tun, Kettle and Whirlpool (with a large hop-back as well). What stood out was the little things designed and built by experience: the brewers deck was 'floating', affixed to the tanks/kettles, and without posts that go to the floor (making it very easy to clean); the non-slip coating on the deck and stairs; good lighting.

The tanks and brewery all stand on a floor that is made of some sort of epoxy/resin material, without seems, making it easy to clean and non-slippery while wet. It is a beautiful brewery with a massive amount of space for growth. There are very few breweries that can boast this kind of space and potential, these guys are clearly banking on success.

The Beer

SOB had four beers on tap this weekend; Pale; Gold; Porter; Winter Seasonal. The Pale is their 'training wheel' beer of sorts, a light lager that is just full of flavor. Not quite a pilsner, the beer is effervescent, clean and easy to drink. Their Gold beer looks like a pale ale and drinks a bit like one too, even though it is also made with a lager yeast. Of the three standard beers, the Gold seemed to be the most 'plain' of them all. SOB's Porter was an absolute beauty! The aroma showing intense bittersweet chocolate notes and coffee undertones is inviting, to say the least.

Their seasonal offering was a unique one, to be certain; a spiced beer. Now, I know that spiced beers this time of year aren't necessarily 'unique', but this used star anise, showing off a massive licorice aroma that somewhat betrayed the taste, which was subtle and in no way palate wrecking.

Final Thoughts

In all, we walked away from SOB impressed with their facility and their beer, but we can't help but wonder if that's enough. Without a tasting room open during the week and without packaged product on the local shelves, we worried that their ambitions to get tap handles throughout southern Oregon is a bit too much. I've seen it done on smaller scales, with a fair measure of success, but this is a big facility with a lot more overhead costs than most new breweries. That said, I would be more than delighted to go to a nice restaurant in the area and find their porter on the menu. In fact, my only sadness walking away was that their growlers weren't in yet, so I wasn't able to bring any home to share with friends and family.

If you're planning on visiting southern Oregon any time soon, make sure you stop by. I imagine if you called ahead you could probably schedule a time for a tour and tasting even.

| View All Photos |

A Few Corrections

From Tom - the Owner:
In the section on beers, I think you have the Gold and the Pale interchanged. The Gold is the entry level beer, lighter beer. The Pale is the beer that looks like a pale and drinks like one too. [He's right, I did get those mixed up - Rick]

I know I can’t change your impressions of our brewery, but I don’t think we talked much about our ambitions. We will certainly build our base in Southern Oregon but we have aspirations of state wide distributing of our draft products by the end of the year. Because of Anders statewide connections and experience, we have already shown our beers to several locations in Eugene and Portland and should see our products land in limited locations in those markets in the near future. The size and quality of our production facility gives a favorable economy of scale over most startups. This makes us attractive to distributors and should facilitate our growth as well.