The chemistry behind the craft in Corvallis, Oregon

Story by Emily Hutto // Photography by Rebecca Hartness

Stories from the Old World Center, a small, European-esque shopping center in downtown Corvallis, Oregon date back to the early 1900s when the historic building used to be a hotel. Now the building is the production site for the Oregon Trail Brewery, founded in 1987 and the fourth microbrewery to open in Oregon after Prohibition. The Old World Deli, also in the Center, continues to serve their infamous chili bowls, more often than not with pints of the brewery’s Ginseng Porter. It seems strange that such innovative beer comes out of such an old-school setting, but as it turns out, that is usually the case in this town, where stark, early 20th century architecture reigns supreme.

With early roots in craft brewing, Corvallis has always been a beer town. But in the mid-90s, when Jim Bernau, current owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, came to town, Corvallis became a fermentation hot spot. In 1995, Bernau owned Portland-based Nor’wester Brewery (closed in 1997). He donated $500,000 of the brewery’s stock money, as well as equipment, to Oregon State University (OSU), and the fermentation science program was born. “He realized at the time that the growing craft industry needed a source of employees,” says Tom Shellhammer, the program’s current Nor’wester Professor of Fermentation Science (a position created by Bernau to lead the brewing science education and research program). “It was his foresight and gift that got everything started.”

Today, the OSU fermentation science program is the anchor of the Corvallis beer scene, and much of the craft beer industry outside of the city, too. “We’ve got students that work at all of the larger Oregon breweries—Deschutes, Widmer, Bridgeport, Full Sail, Rogue,” Shellhammer continues. “I have a student in charge of sensory at the Craft Brewer’s Alliance. I have another student who’s head of sensory research for Boston Beer. I have a student who is a hop chemist for Miller Coors.”

Today, many OSU students get their start with the beer recipe development program at Block 15 Brewery in downtown Corvallis. Opened in 2008, this brewpub looks like most dimly lit, family style eateries you’d find in a small town, except that the beer in most of these restaurants isn’t made by 20-somethings getting college degrees in fermentation.

Block 15 invites OSU brewing students to design recipes that, if chosen, go from grain to glass in one month. These recipes, which can include any combination of malts, hops, yeast, and adjuncts, are reviewed by brewery owner Nick Arzner and head brewer Steve Van Rossem, who then walk the students through the brewing process, from loading the mill, mashing in, and adding hops, to cleaning the mash tun, says Arzner. “They spend a full day in the cellar with our lead cellarman Matt Williams (an OSU fermentation graduate) racking and cleaning tanks, counting and pitching yeast, and cleaning kegs. Finally, they name the beer. At the end of the month their beer is released at our pub for all of their friends, family, professors, and the public to enjoy.”

Shellhammer says these student brews go fast, and when the keg of each beer is tapped, Block 15 donates $350 back to the fermentation science program.

“When we opened it was our hope that we would draw some attention to Corvallis as a beer destination and encourage craft beer education,” say Block 15 owners Arzner and his wife, Kristen. Their barrel-aging and wild ale program draws visitors from all over the West Coast, and they often have lines of patrons waiting to purchase their small batch, specialty bottle releases. Block 15 ages beer in more than 100 different barrels, including pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, port, and several bourbon barrels.

Les Caves, located in the building next door to Block 15 on Third Street, is Nick and Kristen’s new European-style gastropub, with more than 150 bottled beers and 16 draft selections. They solidified plans for this tavern during a trip to Belgium in 2010. Pictures of their trip hang on the magenta walls of the beer hall that was voted “Best Interior Renovation ” in 2011 by the Downtown Corvallis Association Design Awards Program. Tyson Brown of local Bison Heart Carpentry designed the bar made out of wine and whiskey barrels.

Since 2008, the Arzners have been hosting annual Belgian beer dinners with fellow Corvallis resident and fermentation expert, Joel Rea, who’s also the owner of Corvallis Homebrew Supply. The most recent dinner, held at Les Caves, featured the new restaurant’s menu, which, according to Nick, is Belgian-inspired but also infused with French, medieval, and seafood influences. They served marinated mussels, Flemish potato buttermilk soup, a Sirloin Tip Pastry Basket, and pomme frites with Cuvée de Ranke, Winterkoninkske Grand Cru, and ten other Belgian sours, tripels, and saisons, including Les Caves’ house saison, a French-style saison brewed with Portland-based Upright Brewing’s house yeast; its light, earthy flavor alone is worth the trip to Corvallis.

Another must-see is Rea’s homebrew shop, the Corvallis hub for beer, wine, cider, sake, mead, soda, and cheesemaking supplies. In a town where just about everyone does some sort of home fermenting, Rea is a local celebrity. He mentors and sources the fruit for six winemaking groups, plans events for Corvallis Beer Week in September, and sells some of the only commercial cheese-making supplies in Oregon. “I try to carry everything that anybody could ferment,” he says. “If somebody comes in and wants to make kimchi, we know how to do it.”

Rea buzzes around the shop. He’s pouring samples and showing customers new bottles he’s recently imported. He knows everyone by name, and by preferred type of fermentation. “I do kind of have a thumb on the pulse of what’s going on,” he says. “I hear rumblings of all sorts of people who want to start a [business].” He pulls a bottle out of a fridge and with a wide smile says, “This is one of my pride and joys. These guys weren’t even 21 when they started making beer at home as students at OSU. I’ve known them for a long, long time.”

He’s holding a bottle of Two Towns 50-Miler Cider, which is made entirely out of ingredients from within a 50-mile radius of Corvallis. Founders of the new cidery Lee Larsen, Aaron Sarnoff, and Dave Takush currently operate a small production facility and by summer 2012, the tasting room will be open for business. “We’ve had phenomenal success in Corvallis and Eugene, the two towns,” says “Cider Wranger” Sarnoff. “Our initial business plan had six, 25-gallon tanks. We hit capacity in the first month.”

The OSU fermentation science program has largely contributed to the success of Two Towns. It has provided apple varietals, root stalk, and knowledgeable interns. “The program has been so helpful,” says Sarnoff. “And Corvallis in general is one of the most knowledgeable places in the country, with a public that knows more about fermentation than any other place I’ve ever been.”

It’s true: Corvallis could school any other city when it comes to fermentation, besides maybe Davis, California (home to one of the only other fermentation science programs in the country). The students and professors at OSU redefine what it means to be a “beer geek.” “We do fundamental studies around dry hopping,” says Shellhammer. “We also have students trying to trace the origins of hop aroma in beer. Here, smell this.” He pulls out vials of liquid that smell like pine, lilac, pipe tobacco, garlic, and grapefruit. “All these compounds you’re smelling are different hop oil compounds. This project creates aroma standards and helps people identify hop signature.”

The program is also doing work regarding the sensory evaluation of sour beer, and they have another project looking at the water soluble components of hops. “We do a lot of work around hops,” says Shellhammer, alluding to the hop breeding and genetics program that’s also located on the OSU campus. Most of the American-bred hop varieties come out of Corvallis.

The scientific experimentation happening at OSU translates to some seriously elevated beermaking, both on and off campus. When you’re in Corvallis, treat yourself to a downtown walking tour, where Oregon Trail Brewery, Block 15, Les Caves, the Corvallis Homebrew Supply Shop, and the newest brewery on the block, Flat Tail, all reside within a five-block radius.

At first glance, Corvallis might seem like a sleepy college town, but that’s only because so many people are inside brewing, or at least fermenting, something. And while the architecture may seem outdated, step into any one of the humdrum downtown buildings and you’ll quickly realize that this town is much more cutting-edge than it looks.