Although Portland has a reputation as a laid-back beatnik liberal paradise, much of Oregon is sparsely populated, Republican and rural. Pendleton, eastern Oregon’s commercial center, counts fewer than 17,000 residents. The brewers that start their businesses in what locals have begun to dub “Beervana East” are hardy souls, motivated by the same pioneer spirit that brought their forebears here to farm and ranch more than a century ago. They’re finding inspiration in the wild beauty of their landscapes or seeking a higher quality of life and lower rents; or in some cases, just coming home.
That was the case with The Prodigal Son Brewery and Pub, the resident brewery in Pendleton, a town that is home of the Round-Up, a world-class rodeo in an old-time cow town with a wide main street fronted by two-story, brick-fronted saddleries and steakhouses. It’s the kind of place where you swing saloon doors open, spurs jingling. With his wife, Jennifer, Tim Guenther opened The Prodigal Son here in 2010, serving sweet, mild golden ales and stouts that are perfect as a beer back for a shot of whiskey. “Not everyone likes Belgians and sours,” Tim says. “We don’t try and overthink it. We just have beers that I’d like to have every day.”
Pendleton is also the home of the Pendleton Woolen Mills, whose vibrantly patterned trading blankets were created with the input of the local Native American population and have since found their way into high fashion and pop culture. The valleys east of Pendleton and along the Wallowa River used to be the home range of the Nez Perce, led by the legendary rebel Chief Joseph. Now it’s a series of small family farms and ranches, cradled on three sides by the peaks of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
State Highway 82 follows the Wallowa River through a series of plains and canyons and arrives in Enterprise, a town of about 2,000 that is the home of one of Oregon’s landmark breweries. Founded by Steve Carper and his in-laws, the Duquettes, Terminal Gravity Brewing uses glacial runoff to produce full-bodied, malt-heavy beers. The IPA is a classic, a golden color with that distinctive citrus-and-pine Northwestern hop aroma and a big bitter aftertaste. Carper claims it’s the first IPA brewed true to style in Oregon. “Our company mission statement is: No fruit, no honey, no wheat and no damn marketing department,” he says.
For a beer that seems so prevalent—Carper estimates that nearly 80 percent of his barrelage is distributed rather than sold in the pub—the brewing operations seem humbly modest. Enterprise is a typical small Western town, with gas stations and diners lining a main street that cuts straight through its center. Terminal Gravity is located just off the main street, on a cul-de-sac, and the pub is a small renovated Craftsman bungalow strung up with Christmas lights. Order a buffalo burger and it comes with kettle chips and a pickle on a paper plate; with the locals lounging on the sofa and the television going, the pub feels more like a friend’s Super Bowl party than a restaurant or bar.
Joseph, OR, is mere minutes south, a little town of 1,000 with dazzling vistas, the peaks of Eagle Cap Wilderness framing the still, blue waters of Wallowa Lake. It’s the ideal resting place for Chief Joseph, whose tombstone is located in a small Native American cemetery on the north shore. A short drive away on the south shore, you can enter the tall pines and hills of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Rapidly rebounding wolf populations are a cause for concern for many ranchers here, but not, apparently, for deer; all along the snowshoe trails, big-eyed does and bucks stare at hikers, completely unafraid.
Back in town, Mutiny Brewing and Stein Distillery cater to the hundreds of backpackers, climbers, boaters and campers who descend on the town every year. Mutiny brewer Kari Gjerdingen makes beer in a brewpub that gleams all over in honey-colored wood, and the outdoor patio features stunning views of the mountains that lean over Joseph on every side.
And Stein Distillery, while not a brewery, is a can’t-miss stop as well. For generations, the Stein family members have raised wheat, barley and rye on their nearby family farm. The natural next step was producing smooth barrel-aged whiskeys, along with rum, vodka and fruit cordials, on their custom-built imported still.
Returning to I-84 (via 82) from Joseph feels like coming back to civilization, though in this part of the state that would be a largely relative term. Baker City is the seat of Baker County, bordered by the Wallowa Mountains on each side. While the snow in western Oregon is popularly known as “Cascade cement” for its heavy, sodden quality, the snow in eastern Oregon more closely resembles the fine, dry powder of neighboring Idaho. The only difference is that while Sun Valley is littered with movie stars and tech magnates, no one except the locals seems to know about the high piles of freshies at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort—which also features Nordic backcountry skiing along with lifts from the highest base elevation in Oregon.
Baker City’s historic downtown has streets wide enough to turn around a Conestoga wagon and features landmarks like the Geiser Grand, a hotel with a somewhat Gothic exterior and high stained-glass ceiling that was built in 1899 to bring a bit of big-city glamour out West. Off the main street, Bull Ridge Brew Pub is somewhat more modern. The floors are carpeted and the wall is a bright white, and all in all the pub feels as if your dad’s hunting cabin and your dentist’s office married and had a baby. Brewer Johnny Brose’s hefeweizen won a gold at the Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend this year, but perhaps the most striking feature about the place is Hamilton, the large stuffed deer that greets visitors just inside the front door.
Just across the street from Bull Ridge and off the main drag is Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, whose beers, service and atmosphere would be outstanding in a much larger city. The brewery was already doing quite well long before current brewer Eli Dickison arrived. Owner Tyler Brown and brewer Shawn Kelso had already presided over a long string of award-winning brews served at a hugely popular local pub off Baker City’s main drag.
Dickison is a Baker City native and worked at the pub while in college; he joined Brown and brewer Marks Lanham after graduating from Oregon State’s fermentation science program. Since Lanham left, Dickison has overseen Barley Brown’s expansion across the street into a new brewery and taphouse, and overseen their latest string of awards. Standouts include the chili beer Hot Blonde—whose latest incarnation, Joan, adds a bit of ginger to take off the oily jalapeño finish and add a refreshing aftertaste—and Pallet Jack IPA, whose sweetness, smoothness and complex, grapefruit-and-floral tinted fragrance belies its IBUs.
At this point, eastern Oregon has a mere fraction of the visitors that its sister cities to the west can claim. For example, Bend is only a few hours away—with Mount Bachelor, mountain biking and over a dozen prominent Oregon breweries like Deschutes, Crux, 10 Barrel and Boneyard. It’s a region ripe for explorers and pioneers, for people as adventurous as the ones who came out here to brew and serve their beer in the first place. You can leave the spurs at home.