I was already halfway done with the first draft of this story when the news broke that AB-InBev, the brewing conglomerate that makes Budweiser, sold off 10 Barrel Brewing, less than a decade after buying the Bend-based brewery. The deal included a slate of craft brewery acquisitions including Portland's Widmer Bros. Brewing (after just three years of ownership). Nothing's shocking.
One thing the early August update confirmed is that, years after Oregon earned the nickname Beervana by boasting more breweries per capita than those other 49 states (a humble-brag that Bend also held for years at the city level), the state of Oregon beer isn't remotely insulated from the rest of the industry. Don't let that stop us from looking under the hood of Bend beer and running some diagnostics. Herein, we'll analyze if there's anything that distinguishes Bend beer from Anywhere Else beer.
GoodLife Brewing owner Ty Barnett, who grew up in Bend as "a Deschutes Mirror Pond kid" says, "We're at a good point in the biz now. It's summertime. Concerts are booming. Bend is thriving."
GoodLife opened as the county's ninth brewery in 2011, at the tail end of the recession and the front end of the last brewery boom. Not counting additional production facilities or taprooms, Deschutes County is home to 27 brewing companies. Barnett clearly has demonstrated good vision and is optimistic about the future. GoodLife is currently distributed throughout Oregon and in three other states with more territories to be announced soon. "We feel the industry is going in this direction." When asked how many breweries he thinks will exist in Central Oregon in 2030, he guessed 32.
Silver Moon Brewing co-owner James Watts points out that in the past couple months alone, Portland saw six of its smallest breweries shutter. Silver Moon recently turned over its Redmond production brewery (where it brewed and packaged its own beer as well as others, including when it used to brew all of Boss Rambler's beer) to Avid Cider (itself acquired last year by Michigan's Blake's Hard Cider). Thereafter, Silver Moon revealed that instead of being a contract brewery for other brands it will begin contracting beer at Portland-based Migration Brewing. Silver Moon continues to brew draft beer at its downtown location.
"The days of simply serving a nice cold pint are fading," says Watts. "We are, to a certain extent, saturated. As big as our beer tourism audience is, and the local audience, the crowd gets thinned out with a number of options. We probably have 30 pizza places but (can we support) 30 Thai restaurants? The dollar gets thinned out when you have multiples doing the same thing."
I'd say the primary takeaway about the current state of Bend beer is that we're seeing—and will continue to see—beer makers not do the same thing.
"The world wants more," adds Watts. "Beer (alone) won't do it. And everybody's fighting like hell for shelf space and distribution." Silver Moon will continue to distribute canned beer in Oregon and four other states. When asked how many breweries he thinks will exist in Central Oregon in 2030, he guessed 18.
The industry, according to Watts, is "prone to a bit of shrinkage or growth. If you wanna see sustained growth, you're growing out of your backyard. No longer being local can potentially stunt any brand's growth at some point. As any of us in Bend move outward it's a balance of affinity for (the place and idea of) Bend versus (affinity for one's) local brewery...This is my proselytizing. The future of beer, like other industries, will come from strategic partnerships and relationships beyond the distributor. It's like 'Survivor.' A whole bunch of people on the island all fighting for survival and naturally you kind of align with likeminded thinkers as to what success looks like." Hence, Silver Moon's strategic partnership with Migration.
Then there are the brewpubs. Yes, GoodLife operates a small kitchen and also hosts at least one food truck, and Silver Moon is home to The Office, a popular pod of carts.
The Monkless Brasserie is Monkless Belgian Ales' primary focus, although it also distributes its Belgian ales in four other states. Co-owner Robin Clement cuts to the chase: "The labor crisis is not over. It's very real." She points to Oregon's recent minimum wage increase as yet another hurdle restaurants face — not that higher wages make it easy to find prep cooks, dishwashers, etcetera, especially now during Bend's busiest tourist season. "We have one pace in winter. Not everyone can adapt to the summer pace. That naturally weeds some people out, which creates holes, which is one more problem." Still, Clement is optimistic about the state of Bend beer. Her guess for the future number of breweries is 31 and doesn't believe it will take until 2030 to reach that.
Here We Go with the Supply Chain
The pandemic brought to the fore all manner of supply chain nightmares. Remember, a stuck cargo ship in the Suez Canal hit everyone. The beer industry was hit by some doozies, from the Great Aluminum Can Shortage of 2020 (that's not only not over, but industry experts don't expect it to end any year soon) to, if you can believe it, the CO2 shortage of 2022 (despite producing CO2). Brewpubs were doubly hit. Remember when eggs were so expensive you thought yolks were made of gold? And before that when demand for chicken wings outpaced supply? Monkless, with its upscale bistro menu, also has to contend with the Great Orzo Shortage of 2023 affecting its orzo salad. Yup, an orzo shortage! "It's crazy the things that you cannot get week to week," says Clement.
Adds Barnett, "We're still in the COVID slow-down because things cost more money now." Don't we all know it! "There are still disruptions and they come in waves. But almost everything is 20-30% more than they were two or three years ago."
As Boss Rambler Beer Club co-owner Matt Molletta says, "The costs of everything—ingredients, fuel, shipping, labor — keeps rising, but the willingness to pay more by the end consumer isn't. It's a bit of a dagger."
This brings up the biggest challenge in the beer world on a national and local level: distribution and shelf space. Oh, it's been the biggest hurdle since beer became a business, but the squeeze has gotten tighter. "That fight for competitively priced beer on the shelf, if you want volume," clarifies Molletta.
Boss Rambler isn't one of Bend's biggest breweries, but it is one of the fastest-growing. Remember how its beer was being brewed by Silver Moon in Redmond? Last year it bought the defunct Riverbend Brewing Co. on NE Division and practically doubled its production from 700 barrels to 1,300 last year. This year it's on track to do 2,000 barrels. It still operates the tasting room on NW Galveston and its owners would love nothing more than to open an on-site tasting room, and/or possibly another location.
Unsurprisingly, two of Boss Rambler's best-sellers are its Stokes Light and Bajaveza lagers. Despite craft beer (formerly known as "microbrew") emerging as the antithesis of mass-produced ("macro brew") lagers, these companies know that consumers who want to support independent breweries are feeling the pinch. Beers like Stokes Light are dollars cheaper per six-pack than, say, Boss Rambler's Alohaze hazy IPA and Pacificali West Coast IPA. Same for GoodLife's High Altitude premium American lager, which is why 12-packs of it are found in grocers' budget beer section next to, say, Montucky Cold Snacks instead of GoodLife's own Sweet As Pacific Ale (winner of Central Oregon's "best light beer").
But that issue, while of delight to frugal, beer-drinking locals, is more about selling beer outside our breweries' hometown market. Bend breweries are, naturally, competing against one another—against 26 others at that.
Competitive Community or Communal Competition?
Molletta says something echoed to me by every brewer I've ever spoken with. (It's industry etiquette that when your brewing brethren need help—sourcing ingredients like hops or yeast; borrowing hardware like kegs, or a keg washer, or aluminum cans; understanding the finer points of fresh hopping techniques or glycol systems for cooling—you offer it.) He said, "There's a camaraderie between brewers that's generally very supportive of each other even though everyone is technically competing." He added of his fellow comrades/competitors, "The bigger deal is keeping Bend talked about as the best beer town."
One major factor among beer slingers is what is flowing from the taps. After examining the "competitive landscape in the distribution world," Molletta points to the "growth of non-beer" options in examining the competitive landscape in the immediate world around us. He's referring to Boss Rambler's increasingly popular offerings like hard seltzer and, oh yes, frosé.
"That's the fun part of a taproom," continues Molletta. "We can do our own slushies and hard seltzer cocktails. In the world of distribution, outside the taproom, it's harder to compete with the big boys because they've got the distro footprint and low cost you can't compete with." That said, Bend is ushering in a spate of "new wine and cocktail bars, but not more taprooms."
Molletta called it non-beer, but Barnett uses the term, "Beyond beer." And I recall Watts telling me about his idea for an event a couple years ago — not a beer festival the likes of which every brewery everywhere has staged, but a "beyond beer" festival. Silver Moon finally launched it earlier this summer as Bend Bev Fest.
Bev Fest specifically served as a tasting event for the breadth of what it dubbed, "liquid goodness." There was the obligatory beer, but there was also wine, kombucha, hard kombucha, cold brewed coffee, cider, seltzer, CBD elixirs, and yummy Palmy's hard Arnold Palmer (contract made at Silver Moon).
We, the people, are demanding diversity in the same way the microbrew world arose from a nation of consumers who'd been deprived of variety in beer flavors. The "beyond beer" category isn't a reaction to consumers turning their backs on beer — just an extension of exploring a new world of possible flavors (when offered).
There are all manner of obstacles in selling enough beer to stay afloat, and ideally do better than just that. Running any business is tough and naturally that's made tougher when there are 26 others right in your backyard doing something similar. So what gets Watts out of bed each morning?
"The challenge. Make new beers," says Watts. "Innovation is king."
Innovation and, as operators are keenly aware, pleasing palates and doing so in inviting ways. For Silver Moon's part, that includes keeping its beer brands fresh (recipe wise and packaging wise), keeping The Office stocked with fresh carts, and offering various stages occupied by musicians of various genres or being platforms for collaborative art shows.
"Curt and I were roommates and homebrewers. The original system is over the bar still," reflects Barnett of GoodLife, in reference to (and reverence of ) his late friend and co-founder, Curtis Plants. "We wanted to get back to Bend as it was crumbling. The worst economy in 30 years. When we opened it was the worst time to open a business! (But compare that to) the spring of '22. We were all feeling it in the brewing industry."
Furthermore, though it sounds anathema to a region known for locavore beer, Barnett adds, "It's even harder in the Northwest to sell beer because (beer sales are) weather influenced. When the weather sucks, people don't buy a lot of beer. Though it's summer so we're crazy busy again. Our pub is up for the year and we had our biggest day ever on 4th of July."
"Are we forecasting growth? Probably not. Are we OK with flat? For now, we have to be...By 2016 everybody was on high hopes. It was a crazy bubble, but I think there's room for growth still."
It's worth remembering that the year GoodLife opened (2011), Bend had a population of just under 80,000. That means that in the following dozen years, the population grew by around 25,000 or just over 30%. Bend is projected to reach 130,000 by 2030, meaning another 25,000 people. If you lose your locals, you're out of business. If you lose tourists, you're out of business.
"That's the critical balance for Bend. The beer tourist that comes to Bend seeks out Deschutes, but is also looking to see (what's happening at the other breweries). It makes Bend an exciting destination." Many visitors are beer drinkers. All drink of some sort of beverage! And Bend's 18, or 27, or 32 breweries will be slaking all of those thirsts.