5 Questions for Dan Russo of Oakshire Brewing

Oakshire’s Dan Russo pulls a sample from the barrels

Founded in Eugene, Oregon in 2006, Oakshire Brewing has put together an impressive track record that continues to this day with Dan Russo at the helm. This Saturday, Oakshire Brewing celebrates the grand opening of their new Portland Beer Hall, a showcase for some of the great small batch beers Russo has been producing since he took over brewing operations in late 2016.

Dan Russo is a native of New Jersey that found his way to Virginia and moved to Oregon in 2011. His first gig was as mobile assistant pub manager for Rogue Ales in Newport. There, he began homebrewing off-hours with some of the brewery staff.

From early on I had access to resources that a lot of other homebrewers don’t have when they start,” says Russo. “I had access to ingredients and yeast and more importantly knowledge of people in the industry.”

Russo was transferred to Eugene, OR to become the general manager of the (now closed) Rogue Tracktown Ales brewpub. From there he graduated to homebrewing on the 20-gallon pub pilot system.

“I think the most home about it was that I took it home to my kegerator,” recalls Russo. “Some of those super small batches that turned out good even went on draft in the bar which was at the time was like WOAH!”

When head brewer Christina Canto broke her leg, Russo was able to help out making full size batches of her beer; his first taste of professional brewing. All in all, Russo was at Rogue for less than 2 years before deciding to stick in town and take a job with Oakshire Brewing in October of 2012 as the public house manager.

“I cleaned up the old homebrew rig and would come in on Fridays when the brewery team was finishing up, or the weekends and have access to everything at our brewery to make beer,” says Russo; the professional brewing bug had officially bit. “The entire brewing staff was super supportive and would answer any and all questions no matter how annoying I probably was. They were the ones that gave me the confidence (and letters of recommendation) to apply for the Falconer Scholarship.”

In 2013, Dan Russo was one of the recipients of the annual Glen Hay Falconer brewing scholarship, set up to honor the legacy of legendary Eugene brewer Glen Falconer who led the Wild Duck Brewery. The prestigious honor of winning that award has sent a select handful of brewers to the American Brewers Guild and subsequent successful careers.

Oakshire Brewing was known for hoppy and barrel-aged beers since early on, before Russo’s time with the brewery. Luckily, his interests have always been in line; some of his first loves included Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. He later discovered complex sours and wood aging. New Belgium’s Flanders-style foeder beer La Folie was among the first beers Russo discovered after moving to the Pacific Northwest.

“That had me diving into every book and online resource I could find to understand and learn about wild and sour beers, which inevitably helps you learn about a ton of other beer styles,” Russo passionately recalls. “Adam From The Wood circa 2012 blew my mind apart and sent me down a deep hole of barrel-aged and strong beer that I still live in today.”

soaking vanilla beans in bourbon

Oakshire’s Hellshire VIII is perhaps Russo’s favorite beer he has been involved with brewing. Hellshire VIII was a Bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout with cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, coffee, cinnamon and a dried pepper blend.

“That beer was a culmination of nearly 4 years of tinkering and reworking the recipe from an un-barrel-aged Imperial Stout to singles kegs of barrel-aged beer to single barrels, a double barrel version to finally a full scale release across our whole distribution network,” says Russo. On the hoppier side of the equation, Oakshire and Russo’s new Dinosaurs Will Die (Experimental hazy hoppy series) has been a great highlight.

“It’s been great to explore hopping rates, varieties, mash bills and water profiles in consecutive beers for the last 9 months or so. Keeping similar style, but changing the variables has helped to continually and rapidly make changes to the beer back to back for continued improvement in our process.”

This is chapter sixteen in a monthly-ish series in which we check in with brewers on what they are drinking, eating, enjoying and what’s currently bubbling away in their fermenters.

Dan Russo (center) at the Oakshire Brewing booth at the Great American Beer Festival

Q: What are some of your favorite beers or ciders right now (Oakshire and others) ?

Dan Russo: We released a smoked helles (Smoke’N Hell) with spruce tips for OBF. it’s very lightly smoked and the spruce adds a great citrus note that makes it an awesome summertime drinker. I’m pretty jazzed on two recently released imperial stouts that are inspired by Mounds and Almond Joy. The flavors in both are spot on to the candy! We also just tapped a Belgian-style Wit (Whit Bier) that is perfect for these hot days we are having.

Around the state I have to say that I’m beyond jazzed on the beer that the homies at Ruse are creating over every style they make. Sunriver is still kicking out some of the most beautifully executed hoppy beer in the NW; but you really can’t go wrong with anything they put out. So solid and so consistent.  Wayfinder Hell followed by the rest of their lagers. Always a must stop when I am in town. And Alesong for sure. The couple quarterly releases have been killer!

Going out of state; Colorado’s Weldwerks blew my mind at GABF last year and I have drawn a lot of inspiration in the last 10 months from stuff I tasted at their booth. Funk Factory from Wisconsin, Rowley Farmhouse Ales from New Mexico and Chicago’s Off Color are all making killer mixed-culture beer. St. Louis’s Narrow Gauge puts some heavy hitters across a multitude of styles. There are definitely more, but i don’t need to rant any further. 

Q: Are you excited about the Oakshire PDX Beer Hall and why?

DR: I am super excited. First, because watching the entire process from the first time we (Oakshire’s Leadership Team) toured the building last September through this grand opening and beyond; it’s amazing to see the project come to fruition. The second is the opportunity to serve beer in Portland like we never have before. One of the biggest things I hear from travelers that come to our pub in Eugene is that they had no idea that we make so many different beers across so many styles. Shit, I think some industry people in the state don’t know that. This gives a direct outlet to Portland for not only the beers everyone knows, but all the beers that people don’t. I now have over 20 taps at each location to showcase our Pilot and Vintage beer. And with the Beer Hall we’ll be able to do even more of these one-off pilot and barrel-aged releases. Now I just need to find tank space.

Q: What is currently in your tanks, fermenters or in planning?

We just brewed a Festbier for late September which I am really excited about as well as a late summer California Common. We’re going to be releasing a beer that we call Rainbow Sherbet Smoothie IPA in cans for the first time in about two weeks. It tastes just like your childhood except with hops. We did a MikkellerSD collab after Hellshire this year that will be hitting package in a couple weeks. There are two versions, both a riff on Beer Geek (and we are even allowed to use the name); one a big coffee imperial stout and the other a Samoa cookie inspired version. Both will be in cans. Also just made an American Stout which is a style I love and am excited to share! We’ve got a few wild projects that will finish conditioning in the next couple months that I am super excited for and a couple spirit barrel projects that are about to come to head to stainless for packaging.

Q: What are your favorite places to eat and drink in the Eugene area?

The go-to is probably Izakaya Meiji. Killer food and fantastic cocktails with a stellar whiskey selection. Margaritas at Tacovore have become pretty much a weekly must. Music and a cold PBR or cocktail at Sam Bond’s Garage late night is a must. Black Wolf Supper Club does banging Cajun inspired food and great drinks. They ran the rad fried chicken cart at our pub called Buck Buck before it exploded (yes literally) in February. Now it’s the only place to get it!

Q: What do you think are the best and the worst things happening in the craft beer industry right now?

Best- Brewer creativity. Whether it is making perfectly to style representations of classic beer or making a culinary IPA or pastry stout or throwing vanilla into mixed culture beer or whatever; I think brewers are all expanding themselves into their own personal uncharted territory, which proving to be fruitful to the entire industry. It is making for more unique drinking experiences for consumers; which is making this era of craft arguably the best ever for drinking beer. The caveat being that there is a lot of really terrible beer being made by people horribly under qualified to even attempt some of these styles, let alone stand on a brew deck. I think it is one of the reasons that styles like hazy IPA or Brut IPA  are so polarizing. So many people tried it and so many people have failed at doing it properly. At some point you have enough bad representations and you never want to drink or even hear about them again.  The flip side being that when they are that good they can make brewer and drinker alike rethink the way beer is made and consumed. 

Worst- The thought by industry veterans that new trends are “ruining” craft beer. The same people that revolutionized craft beer in the 80’s and 90’s through making and writing; now years later sit in their high castles complaining about ever facet of the industry. The same people that literally invented styles of beer are now writing diatribes for the internet about how putting fruit and vanilla into an IPA is wrong and it no longer constitutes as beer. If you don’t want to make milkshake IPA or pastry stouts or overly fruited sour beer and instead want to focus on perfect German Lagerbier, that is great. I want to drink it as much as I want to make it. But those things are not ruining craft beer. And at the end of the day what do you really care that some brewer in Florida is putting beer into a slushie machine. Let’s instead work on educating on quality and consistency and improvement in brewery production processes. Those things will carry this industry far further than the blue raspberry Berliner that you saw on some Instagram page and want to be pissed about. 

Ohh, and brewers making hard seltzer. You are cannibalizing yourself and the craft segment as a whole. Just stop. You are not going to beat White Claw or Truly. Just don’t bother.

find rare Oakshire barrel-aged and funky beers available at the new PDX Beer Hall

Celebrate the Grand Opening of the Oakshire PDX Beer Hall this Saturday, August 17th, details here.

Check out our past Q & A’s with Whitney Burnside (10 Barrel),Brett Thomas (Sunriver)Ben and Rik of Baerlic BrewingAusten Conn of Buoy BeerMichael Kora of Montavilla Brew WorksScott Sieber of Falling Sky BrewingCoren Tradd of Pelican Brewing Cannon BeachSarah Resnick of Freebridge BrewingTyler West of GoodLife BrewingNatalie Baldwin of Breakside BreweryJustin Leigh of Dwinell Country AlesChetco Brewing’s Mike Frederick , pFriem’s Gavin Lord,Ex Novo’s Ryan Buxton, Coin Toss Brewing and NW Coffee Beer Invitational’s Dave Fleming and Lisa Allen of Heater Allen Brewing.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com