brian yaeger

Death Rides a Pale Horse Brewing

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If I were standing on the roof of Pale Horse Brewing in Salem, I could easily throw a Frisbee and hit Vagabond Brewing. That proximity is the closest thing they have in common. That and they’re both owned by Marines. While they all saw military action, the latter’s brewing activity is just about to begin while the former’s has officially ceased. If you see any Pale Horse Hopyard Dog on the shelves, it’s your last chance to try it (possibly for the first time).


Pale Horse opened in 2008 as Salem’s first production brewery. Only McMenamins Thompson Brewery, established 1990, predates it. Dennis Clark and his brother Sid opened the 7-bbl brewery as second careers. Dennis was an award-winning homebrewer and Sid worked in the electrical field and very early days of computers. But that’s not a BlueTooth ear piece he now wears; it’s a hearing aid. He may have been ahead of his time in terms of computer technology and the Salem brewing scene, but the state capital is turning into a progressive hotbed and it’s no country for old men.



One problem is that Pale Horse signed with a lousy distributor. And entering into a contract with a beer distributor is like entering a parking lot with those tire spikes; you can’t back out. I think they sell more Hillbilly Blonde in Alabama than they do in Oregon.

Pale Horse is a production brewery only. No pub. Not even food carts. That’s because there’s no tasting room. No reason to visit at all besides the fact that they offer mostly just four beers—that blonde, an amber, an IPA, and a stout.


As for the newer breweries in town, Santiam has 9 co-owners and they’re the new, relatively-old farts. Many have kids. But they run a killer tap room with ten taps as well as four cask engines and select from global styles. Gilgamesh’s closest thing to a flagship, Mamba, is a gruit brewed with black tea and tangerine zest and completely devoid of hops even in this climate. They even get in on the terroir game with Filbert Lager made with local hazelnuts. Salem Ale Works (SAW) is not even a month old! Founded by college buddies, they do pretty straightforward beers on the 4-bbl system but the honey-basil beer is great and designed for food pairing and there’s even a Mexican Stout up brewer Justin Ego’s sleeve.


Then there’s Vagabond. They say they’ll be open before the calendar strikes 2014, but I’m not 100% sure. The “brewery” at this moment is a 3,000 square foot warehouse and some chalk outlines for tanks, the bar, and drains. But the guys, all in their late 20’s except the grandpa in his 30s, are ambitious and savvy and I have no doubt they’ll work hard to make Salem’s star shine brighter on the beer map.


Funny thing about that map. There’s one on Vagabond’s office wall. An actual US map showing where American breweries are situated. I mean, there are over 2,500 and the map maybe lists two or three hundred but it’s freshly printed. It shows Gigantic and Occidental and points out Two Kilts in Sherwood, but it leaves off some 50 of Portland Metro’s breweries! And in the Willamette Valley it still thinks Pale Horse represents Salem.
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As a footnote, Pale Horse is currently listed with a broker. Vagabond and SAW tried to buy their keg washer, but it’s being sold kit and caboodle, not piecemeal. Sid expressed hope that a brewery in planning near Los Angeles is making an offer. It’s got a good beer scene going not a single brewery there has yet to survive as long as Pale Horse did.

Brian Yaeger

Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer and writes for All About Beer, Draft Magazine, CraftBeer.com, Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, and more. He earned a Master in Professional Writing (with a thesis on beer). Other than GABF, his favorite, can’t-miss event is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest where he’s drawn to any band with a tuba. Along with his wife, Half Pint, he runs Inn Beervana Bed & Beer in Portland where he also lives with his baby boy I.P.Yae, and German Shorthair Pointer, Dunkel. 

10 Comments

  1. rhymeswithough

    September 19, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    So, other than signing on with a bad distributor, what were some of the reasons that Pale Horse is going out of business? I feel bad for them.

  2. Jared

    September 19, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I was still blogging when Pale Horse opened and had a chance to spend some time with Dennis, as well as experience reactions from craft beer fans at f/stop concerning their beers. The reality was they were just not into the craft beer thing. Their blond wasn’t horrid, but none of their beers were developed to appeal to craft beer fans, and Dennis admitted it. Besides that Dennis’ initial goal wasn’t to get tap handles alongside other crafts in trendy bars, it was to get tap handles in dive bars alongside BMC. If you had tried Pale Horse along side other comparable brand you’d understand why they didn’t make it. Why pay full craft beer price for something that didn’t stand up to other craft beers.

    Another note, Santiam and Pale Horse both had/have award wining homebrewers involved. People don’t seem to realize there is a big difference between home brewing and commercial production in terms of end results. The guys from Santiam have really developed their beers, their fan base, and their brand. That’s why they will last whereas Pale Horse, for many of us that watched them hatch and grow, was a non starter.

  3. Jim Fick

    September 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    “Lousy distributor”? The beers were placed, stocked, priced correctly, rotated, and merchandised. If the customer doesn’t buy it, and the beers get discontinued by a grocery store, is that the fault of the distributor who has done their job?? Creating demand for a product is primarily the job of the brewery, with a secondary support role from the distributor. As a brewery you have to build your brand and work the market with hours spent in the trade doing tastings and meet-the-brewer nights. Think Jamie Floyd.

    You said it yourself above, “No pub. Not even food carts. That’s because there’s no tasting room. No reason to visit at all besides the fact that they offer mostly just four beers—that blonde, an amber, an IPA, and a stout.” i.e. no buzz, no trial opportunity, no brand building by the brewery. Don’t blame the distributor!

  4. Chris

    September 19, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    There are numerous sucessful breweries signed on to the same company that Pale Horse used, so I don’t know that it’s fair to place the blame on them. Their problems, as I saw it:

    ~All of their labels looked different, which makes it impossible to build a shelf presence. With more and more labels fighting for attention, it’s more important than ever to have a cohesive branding across your packages.

    ~Their prices were just a bit too high for the quality of beer they were putting out. The beer was OK, but who’s going to spend $4.50-5 per 22oz bottle for Hopyard Dog when you can get Ninkasi Total Domination, Breakside IPA, Hop Valley Alpha Centauri, Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, or a dozen other better IPAs for $3.99

    ~In their 5 years of operation they only released one seasonal beer outside of the core four, and that was a “Winter Scotch” ale that hit the shelves at over $6/bottle. Scotch Ales aren’t in particularly high demand, regardless of who brews them, and when you could purchase 2 bottles of Orkney Skullsplitter for the same price (or a 4 pack of Fearless pint cans for a couple bucks more), there was very little reason to pick up the Pale Horse.

    ~I don’t recall them producing any draft-only beers or other one offs, which are helpful to generate buzz and drive sales of your bottled offerings.

    ~Last but not least, they had absolutely no physical presence in Portland, which by all measures should have been their largest market. The breweries that succeed in this town are those with an active sales person (or team) who visits bars, holds tastings, etc, in order to keep the brand fresh in people’s minds. Unless you’re a household name (at least among beer geeks) brewery like Russian River or Dogfish Head, your beer isn’t going to sell itself.

  5. Brian Yaeger

    September 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I tried to record the interview, but if you’ve talked to Sid, you know he speaks softly. Coupled with background noise (not brewing noise), it was impossible to record. I should’ve attributed that remark as his sentiment, which is understandable from his perspective.

    I think I clearly painted the picture that they are from an older generation and were always unable to compete in a young folks market that is clearly driven by Millennials. But I have a soft spot for seniors so while it’s clear that this brewing company wasn’t set up to succeed, I see no point in, well, beating a dead horse.

  6. Dean Howes

    September 19, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Vagabond Brewing would like to formally invite Mr. Yaeger to attend our 2013 grand opening whereupon he will valiantly attempt to hit our brew house from the roof of Pale Horse Brewing with a Frisbee.

  7. Brian Yaeger

    September 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    You provide the ladder! I’ll make it happen! If it lands on your roof, I’m not responsible for fetching it.

  8. Anonymous

    September 19, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Ram Brewery was the second brewery in Salem if I’m not mistaken with Thompson being the first.

  9. Anonymous

    September 20, 2013 at 3:24 am

    A true sign of failure is when one blames all the parties involved and sees no fault of their own. In this case you have consumers, retailers, restaurateurs, distributors & the producer who were involved with this joint venture. Perhaps they had no marketing plan or a marketing agent, perhaps the market share for craft beers has become more competitive, perhaps the Nieslen Ratings said everything……No one likes to hear of a business not achieving their goals & dreams, but placing blame on their Distributor Partner says a lot about the Supplier Partner……

  10. Pete Dunlop

    September 20, 2013 at 4:52 am

    You can’t just push four beers out into the marketplace and expect them to automatically sell. The craft beer market today is more mature than ever, but gorilla marketing efforts have always been a huge key to sales and growth. This goes all the way back to the earliest days of craft brewing here, when the guys from Widmer, Bridgeport, McMenamins and Portland Brewing worked all day and did tastings in the evenings. This is a reality for breweries. Distributors can support it, but they can’t drive it. It honestly sounds like Pale Horse just wasn’t plugged into that thinking. This isn’t an age thing, by the way. I’m not a Millennial and I understand it completely. These guys just didn’t want to be bothered. It wasn’t what they wanted to be doing. Now they’re done.

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