Our state’s capitol, Salem, has never been much of a beer mecca. In fact, until recently it was more of a beer wasteland, but with a new wave of breweries like Salem Ale Works, Vagabond Brewing, and slightly more established Santiam Brewing, that is all changing. I recently had the chance to stop for a brief visit to Santiam and Vagabond, and here is what I found.
(standing view of the small bar at Santiam Brewing’s tasting room)
Celebrating its 2nd anniversary on July 12th, Santiam Brewing started as a tiny 3.5 bbl brewhouse with a makeshift tasting room. Now 2 years later, it is expanding to a 10bbl brewhouse and is already planning on moving into neighboring spaces in its building. The small tasting room is on the outskirts of Salem, near the highway in a building full of warehouse offices, and has a food cart that provides burgers and BBQ. Santiam has an impressive 20 or so beers on tap, ranging from lagers to a rum barrel-aged coconut stout, and a great selection of cask beers. It’s certainly worth checking out.
Though I had tried Santiam Brewing’s beers before and knew it to be a solid local spot, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the operation at the newly opened Vagabond Brewing. Located in a similar but larger industrial park on the north side of town, the brewery refers to itself as an “Events Brewery,” since it has that kind of space. The large concrete block of a space echoes the eclectic options of such large sports bars at Blitz and Spirit of ’77 in Portland.
The four friends that are owners have done their best to decorate and warm the space with wood paneling and a raised level with couches and coffee tables to hang out in an atmosphere you might expect at someone’s home or a coffee shop. The bar itself is rather small compared to the size of the overall space, and only seats about 8 people. Spread out across the room, there is an outdoor seating area, stage, an entire playing field of dart boards, a pool table, a shuffleboard table, and plenty of bench seating all behind big warehouse roll-up doors with a ride-up indoor bike parking area.
Though Vagabond Brewing has a good amount of space for brewery operations, with a walk-in and a handful of larger fermentation tanks, you might think it is a larger operation than it currently is. The brewery is only working on a 4-bbl system, but the brewers are able to put a double batch into tanks. There is tons of room to expand here, not only with more tanks but a lot larger ones at that.
Perhaps the small batch system has given this only 4 month old brewery room to play and the ability to fill 11 taps of housemade different and fun beers with one cider as a guest tap. I sampled through all eleven of them, from Belgian Pale Ales and IPAs to the very American “Hoppy Wayfaring Wheat” and “All Rye, All Rye, All Rye,” a hoppy rye brewed for the recent Rye Beer Fest in Portland. Some of the more unique beers included a Smoked Cascadian Dark Ale and Barleywine and Belgian strong Ales aged in Pinot barrels. A lot of these beers laked refinement–and sometimes body and subtlety as well–but made for a great tour-de-force of a rainbow of beer flavors that all were reaching for something and with time may get there.
Santiam Brewing, Vagabond Brewing, Salem Ale Works, and local beer bar Venti’s Cafe are going a long way into rejuvenating the Salem beer scene.