About 20 miles south of one of the world’s beer capitals sits a quiet brewery, ready to become a little louder.
Sunriver Brewing Company, founded in 2012, has been largely living in the shadows of Bend since its opening. But with a couple of staff changes, signing with a distributor, and rebranding, the brewery is making moves to become one of the elite.
“We’ve had to overcome some obstacles,” said Brett Thomas, head brewer at Sunriver. “We’re battling one person at a time to change where we came from.”
It wasn’t an easy path for Thomas, who went to Sunriver from Silver Moon Brewing. Starting as an accomplished homebrewer, he was brought in to Silver Moon as an assistant brewer. After realizing he was in over his head for a production brewery, he received a Falconer Scholarship to attend the American Brewers Guild and came back to Silver Moon to work as a head brewer.
“It was a career change at 36,” Thomas said. “The past five years have been pure career building.”
While Thomas was building a brewing career, Sunriver brewing was just getting started. It wasn’t a surprise—Bend beer was booming in 2012 and Sunriver’s tourism success brought a captive audience. But, they had one thing missing—a brewery.
Initially contract-brewed through the now defunct Phat Matt’s Brewing Company, the beer’s quality was far below Central Oregon’s standards. Once sales started to dwindle in 2013 (and, coincidentally, Phat Matt’s stopped brewing), Sunriver Brewing invested in an off-site brewing facility and hired Thomas to man the uphill battle.
“People didn’t make the connection between beer quality, and where or how it was being brewed.” Thomas said. “Phat Matt’s was destined to implode at some point. Now, I’m taking care of these beers like they are my children.”
Thomas uses the 15-barrel brewhouse to pump out anywhere from 200-300 barrels a month (until expansion in mid-June), mostly brewing year-round flagships Fuzztail Hefeweizen and Vicious Mosquito IPA. Now that Thomas has solidified a couple of consistent offerings, he is starting to brew seasonal beers Shred Head Winter Ale and S.U.P. Summer Ale. With huge success at the KLCC Brewfest in Eugene—taking home both the sponsor and people’s choice with Cocoa Cow Chocolate Milk Stout—it’s been near breakneck speed moving beer through the system.
“The brewery needs to carry our own weight,” said Thomas. “The restaurant is outstanding for 7 months out of the year, but the other months it’s idle. Our brewery is built for production and we are going to act like it.”
Since singing with Bigfoot Distributing and bottling in late 2014, Thomas said they are pushing near as much beer as they can out of the door. IPA, Hefeweizen, and the seasonals are in bottles, and the two year-rounds will be in cans, pending TTB label approval and more capacity.
“Sales are growing exponentially,” Thomas said. “The beer in the kettle is sold already. We’ve got awesome stuff on the horizon.”
Sunriver Brewing won the “lottery” and will be included in Oregon Brewers Festival in July 2015, brewing a Mandarin Orange White IPA for the event. The brewery has also released a collaboration with Crosby Hop Farms, a double IPA tribute to Glen Falconer (whom the scholarship Thomas received is named after), and a party is being planned for the brewery’s 3rd anniversary at Platypus Pub in Bend.
“I hoped this would result,” Thomas said. “I’m a very realistic person, and getting a brewery up and running is a huge undertaking. Everyone has to work twice as hard to keep things moving, and so far we’re still moving.”
Thomas said Sunriver Brewing will likely see projected year three numbers in year two, which could create problems with inventory—more specifically, hop contracting. Expansion is imminent, with a 45-barrel hot liquor tank and a 15-barrel whirlpool vessel on their way, adding to the chaos. But, Thomas fully believes in the system he has going forward.
“It’s tough, going from a brewery that is well-established and wins awards to 20 miles south where you’re starting at a more difficult spot,” Thomas said. “I’m still a viable brewer down here. Just because I don’t have a brewery on Bond Street doesn’t mean I don’t make some of the state’s best beers.”