I frequently interview brewers and occasionally socialize with them. But those conversations tend to revolve around a new beer release or festival or trends. So one day I thought, let's get to know brewers (or winemakers, distillers, bakers, chefs, or anyone who makes our lives tastier) more holistically. To do this, I invite someone out for beers—just not the ones he or she makes, because this isn't about plugs—and get to know them over a pint. Let's start with Crux Fermentation Project's head brewer, Cam O'Connor.
O'Connor, who resembles a younger Stanley Tucci down to the dome and specs, is not the guy who kicks open the door and announces his presence. His beers reflect that lack of hubris in that he knows his job is to make beers that people want to drink, and not foisting affectatious beers on customers. Crux has a well-deserved reputation for day-in, day-out drinkable beers.
O'Connor has only briefly lived out of state, such as when he played college baseball in Wisconsin and completing the Master Brewer's Program at the University of California-Davis—one of the premier brewing programs. He immediately parlayed that into his first professional brewing job at Sierra Nevada Brewing, then landed at Deschutes Brewery in 2004. Over the course of the following decade, he worked his way up to brewmaster when Larry Sidor vacated that position to launch Crux. His legacy at Deschutes lives on in the likes of Fresh Squeezed IPA (which, considering it's heavily hopped with Citra and supported by Mosaic, shows how O'Connor set the stage for today's "juicy" beers back in '09).
After a full decade, he wound up following Sidor. But that's not where I met up with O'Connor. He'd chosen Bevel Brewing, which, until the premiere of Van Henion Brewing this month, was Bend's newest brewery, having tapped its first beer in 2019. We chatted over a pint of Par Save Pale Ale for him and a pint of Funday IPA for me. Funday (4.8% ABV) is billed as a "session IPA" where the word session in beer parlance tends to refer to any beer under 5% alcohol. Theoretically, you can drink several of them in a drinking session without landing on your keister.
Immediately, O'Connor lamented the retirement of Crux's sessionable hoppy ale, Off Leash, which clocked in at 4.5% ABV. Despite its demise years back, it probably ranks as the Crux beer I drank the most of by volume. I asked if Off Leash might come out of retirement. He shook his head. That said, he has a deep admiration for yeast-forward Belgian styles, which have largely disappeared from the landscape, but he did tip me off that an O.G. Crux beer, Doublecross, the 11% Belgian dark strong ale, is slated for a return.
I also asked if he sees himself striking out on his own, seeing how common it is, but he smiled and noted he's got equity, making Crux his forever-home. That's both great and surprising to hear, and I hope that becomes more prevalent for brewers highly invested in their liquid masterpieces and for breweries highly invested in retaining talent.
Besides, Cam needs all that time for his family. As an avid outdoorsman, he enjoys introducing his elementary-school-age son and daughter to the activities he grew up doing: fishing, camping, hunting and crushing fresh pow. In that way, Central Oregon isn't just a haven for kids, but for parents, too. As we called our session to an end, he commented that it was time to go prep dinner for the fam. On the menu: wings. But just for his wife and him. As we discussed picky eating habits and I mentioned my own different takes on making wings at home. We brainstormed breading them in Rice Krispies or other cereals, but isn't that what some breweries do by making Count Chocula flavored stouts and Fruity Pebbles flavored sour ales? For Cam's part, he'll continue making beers that make sense while still appealing to a wide range of customers.