Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley is the often-ignored region of the state’s beer scene. Travelers tend to think of Portland, Bend and perhaps Eugene as Oregon’s best beer havens. When Portland Monthly magazine compiled a list of the state’s 50 best beers in 2013, it included only two beers from the southern part of the state.
Medford and sister city Ashland, which is located 10 miles from the California border, make up the state’s fourth-largest metropolitan area. Attractions such as the nationally recognized Oregon Shakespeare Festival, increasingly popular wineries and copious opportunities for outdoor adventure make it a well-known tourist destination. So why is the Rogue Valley’s beer scene still so unknown to outsiders?
Until recently, there simply weren’t enough breweries to make southern Oregon a destination, says Jim Mills with Caldera Brewing Co. in Ashland. His business, nearby Standing Stone Brewing Co. and Medford’s Walkabout Brewing Co. all opened in 1997. As for the remaining six breweries currently operating in the Rogue Valley, “a lot of them were built in the last two years.”
There’s been a big push to market southern Oregon’s wineries of late, says Mike Dimon, who owns Medford’s Portal Brewing Co. “The marketing for the beer hasn’t been what it could be.”
The fact that southern Oregon is so geographically isolated and doesn’t have a big-name microbrewery doesn’t help, says Brian Butenschoen with the Oregon Brewers Guild. Without a company akin to Portland’s BridgePort Brewing, Bend’s Deschutes Brewery and Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing, many people simply don’t know anything is happening in the region.
But anyone who visits will want to put a glass slipper on this Cinderella of a region. The beers are well-made. The people are genuinely friendly. And what the brewers lack in marketing they make up for in innovation.
“People tell us they like the beer down here better than what they’ve had anywhere else,” Dimon says. “It’s as good as anything you’ll find in Portland or Bend.” Local homebrewers who stop by Portal Brewing to talk shop with him swear by Downtown Jackie Brown Ale, which is as rich and complex as its namesake movie. A couple of out-of-town visitors enjoying a flight the day I visited chose the Lifeline Coffee Vanilla Porter and Passage to India IPA as their favorites.
Drop into the tiny warehouse that’s home to Medford’s Opposition Brewing, the beautiful tasting room at Southern Oregon Brewing, or the recently expanded BricktownE Brewing Co., and friendly locals immediately start chatting you up. At Opposition, regulars can bring their dogs while they (the people, not the pooches) sample apocalypse-themed brews like The Sixth Seal, a simple but refreshing Northwest pale ale, and Fallow Fields, an American brown ale.
Four men who visit Southern Oregon Brewing every Saturday afternoon come for beverages as varied as Na Zdraví Czech Style Pilsner, Black Heart Imperial Stout and the well-executed Nice Rack IPA (it’s not what you think. … There’s a deer on the label).
Inside BricktownE’s brick walls, you’re likely to run into strangers who offer you samples of their beverages or open doors for you. Regular offerings like Blue Collar Cream Ale and a super-smooth Darth Kreigers Russian Imperial Stout are excellent. So are seasonal selections like a well-balanced Scotch Ale and a light, springy beer featuring chamomile and ginger.
Besides being one of the area’s original breweries, Mills says, Caldera is a regional leader. It claims to be the first microbrewery on the West Coast to can its beers. Between a new restaurant and its downtown taphouse, the brewery has 40 of its own brews available at any given time. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but the fine floral and citrus notes in Dry Hop Orange, the sour-candy-reminiscent Mother Pucker tart ale and the pleasantly bitter Mogli Chocolate Imperial Porter are fine choices.
Standing Stone Brewing is among the most environmentally sustainable breweries in the state. The owners raise their own beef and lamb for the restaurant, compost all food scraps on the farm and offer employees the chance to earn a bicycle for commuting to work. Even the fact that they don’t transport beers like I Heart Oregon Ale (made with Oregon barley and hops) and Noble Stout (which features organic, locally roasted coffee) any farther than their taphouse reflects their desire to maintain a low carbon footprint.
“Instead of people coming in with big money and starting breweries, like they did in Bend, a lot of our local businesses started as home brewers and grew,” says events and social media coordinator Rachel Koning, noting that Standing Stone followed the same pattern. “There’s some value there. There’s passion. There’s a home-grown, grassroots feel to it.”