Central Oregon breweries are mostly famous by association; when it comes down to it, if you open a brewery in Bend and your beer is palatable, your brewery will instantly be thrown into a state-wide frenzy just by having “Bend, OR” on your label. But, what happens if you’re attached to an Oregon brewing institution that was long ago framed as “corporate”? What if you’re producing solid beers that are instantly filed away with “McMenamins”?
5 of the colorful fermenters in the basement of the Old St. Francis School brewery
Mike “Curly” White has been brewing in Central Oregon since 2005, when he took over brewing operations at the McMenamins Old St. Francis School on Bond Street in downtown Bend. While other breweries in the area have gained state- and nation-wide fame, he has been sitting quietly in his basement brewery, producing quality beer for all those who take the time to visit. Everything from pre-Prohibition lagers to experimental pale ales, kolsches to Vienna lagers have made their way through the colorful 7-barrel brewery below ground and into the glasses of Bendites and tourists alike.
“I love not having to be stagnant,” White said. “I brew the McMenamins classics (Terminator Stout, Ruby Ale, Hammerhead Pale Ale), but most of the time I get to experiment and brew what I want.”
White is originally from Southern California and moved up to Oregon in 1994 to attend Willamette University. Around that time, one of his friends handed him a couple of mason-style jars and told him to go get them filled up at the local McMenamins pub in Salem.
Mike “Curly” White, talking about the unique beers he gets to brew on the 7-barrel system.
“I started at him blankly,” White said. “I felt ridiculous going up to the brewery with a couple mason jars saying, ‘Hey, so can you fill these up?’ The craft scene was very different in ’94.”
Sure enough, they filled up the jars and sent him on his way. Three years later, White moved up to Portland and worked for the McMenamins crew, helping out in the brewery here and there. He got his full time brewing offer in 2004, when the McMenamins Fulton brewery in Portland had an opening. An interested homebrewer at a the time, he jumped at the opportunity to brew full time. After a year there, McMenamins had an opening at the new Bend location, the Old St. Francis School. White had only been brewing for 7 to 8 months at this time, so he wasn’t ready to take full brewing operations. About a year later, he was ready to move and take over.
At the time, the St. Francis School was Central Oregon’s 5th brewery after Deschutes, Cascade Lakes (7th St. Brew House), Bend Brewing Company, and Silver Moon.
Despite bringing an Oregon brewing institution to Bend, White remembers the locals being less than receptive.
“They thought we were trying to come in here and take over the beer scene—run everyone out of town,” he said. “I saw it a lot more like we were brothers in arms.”
Since 2005, White has seen brewers and breweries come and go. He remembers Tyler West at Silver Moon, who left to become head brewer at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene. He collaborated on grain orders with Bend Brewing Company’s Tonya Cornett, who became a world famous sour brewer and went to 10 Barrel Brewing in 2011. Brett Thomas, brewmaster at Sunriver Brewing Company, grew out of Silver Moon in 2013 and helped Sunriver Brewing grow into a new Bend westside pub. He watched Larry Sidor and Paul Arney create award-winning beers at Deschutes, only to leave and start their own successful ventures at Crux Fermentation Project and The Ale Apothecary, respectively.
“There’s been so many changes since I’ve been here,” White said. “I’ve seen a lot of these people move up and out.”
But not White; while he says “anything can happen,” he’s turned down a couple of offers to bring him out of the basement brewery on Bond.
One of the unique fermenters in the Old St. Francis brewery, with typical McMenamins Flair.
“We have enough space to play around with,” White said, nodding at his six 7-barrel fermenters. “I get to make the beers that I want, and have the customers say, ‘I didn’t know you could do that,’ when they taste some of the beers that come out of here.”
Today, White and the Old St. Francis School host the 3rd annual McMenamins High Gravity Extravaganza. Over the years, the fest has grown to rival the Central Oregon Winter Beer Fest, which takes place annually in December.
“We wanted big beers in the snow,” White said. “We wanted people to put their beers down on the table, cover the glass with snow, and warm up hands by the fire.”
While the weather hasn’t been cooperating—the first year it was 50-ish degrees and sunny, while last year it was raining—there was hope that this year’s huge snowfall would bring the perfect atmosphere. Sadly, the temperature is just barely too warm and light rain is falling again.
White and McMenamins are prepared, though. By using the theater, most of the breweries will be pouring indoors away from the soggy weather. Despite the perception of the fest, White urges breweries to make beers of all styles rather than tasting 10 different iterations of a Russian Imperial Stout. In fact, the Old St. Francis School brewery is pouring an Imperial CDA that clocks in at 7.1-percent ABV and features all the bright hops trendy in IPAs today.
“The motto of the fest is ‘Go Big or Go Home,'” he said. “That doesn’t mean every beer there needs to be over 10 percent (ABV), but just big bold flavors.”
This year will also feature ciders for the first time, bringing a palate cleanser to the table and something for the gluten-free crowd. And, while it is a Central Oregon-dominant beer fest, the other McMenamins breweries from around the state send their submissions for tastings, serving beers that Bendites wouldn’t be able to try unless they visit other areas.
“We get looked over a lot,” White said. “But we have a lot of seasoned brewers now. McMenamins is starting to get a great following for its pub-exclusive beers because of the brewers around the state.”
Third Annual High Gravity Extravaganza
“Go Big or Go Home”
Saturday, Jan 16 from 1-10 p.m.
Free admission, taster punchcard=$15 for 10 punches
All ages welcome, 21+ to consume alcohol
Live Music Begins at 3 p.m.
Ruby Red and Hammerhead IPA were changed to Ruby Ale and Hammerhead Pale Ale, per the brewer’s request. Also, White had been brewing at Fulton for 7 to 8 months when the Old St. Francis brewery opened,but had not been offered the brewing job at that time. The author regrets the mistakes.