Interview with Phil Busse, author of Southern Oregon Beer: A Pioneering History

Rast Brewery (Roseburg), circa 1890s, courtesy of OSU

You think it’s tough opening up a brewery in Portland these days? Imagine trying to open a brewery, get the equipment, get the materials and resources like hops and barley, and have it all shipped to Jacksonville, Oregon…in the 1850s.

“Resources were so scarce and Jacksonville was so isolated that it cost one dollar to mail a letter and to buy a pound of flour (about twenty-six dollars in current value). To construct a brewery was nothing short of building a space station on the moon,” says Phil Busse in the intro to his new book, “Southern Oregon Beer: A Pioneering History.”

If you’ve been in Portland for any length of time, you might remember Busse as the founding Managing Editor for the Portland Mercury who ran for mayor as a spinoff from his political column in the 2004 Portland mayoral elections. His new book squarely focuses on Southern Oregon with nary a mention of Portland. And rightly so. Southern Oregon has its own scene (Caldera is the king) but for the most part, the beer scene tends to stay there. 

“That isolation is part of what shaped Southern Oregon and made it interesting in some regards,” Busse said. “At a time when railroads were coming and bringing Budweiser, and when people like Weinhard were starting to expand their empire and buy up smaller breweries, Southern Oregon was left untouched.” 

Veit Schutz’s City Brewery in Jacksonville, operational from 1856-1892. The second floor held a gymnasium. Southern Oregon Historical Society #02937 

Jacksonville led the way, at first. Started as a gold rush town, two German immigrants, Veit Schutz and Joseph Wetterer, showed up in the mid-1800s, and so did the beer and breweries. 

“These two men really believed that it was going to be more,” Busse said. “It was going to be something significant. And they misread the tea leaves ultimately. I mean by the 20th century, Jacksonville was a forgotten town. But at a time, it was a boom town.” 

Early breweries were built for the public good as well. Beer gardens were the norm (enjoy the outdoors!), while Schutz’s City Brewery was a three-story building, with a gymnasium, dance hall, and a rumored roller rink. 

“It  wasn’t just about the beer. They really felt that they were building a new city or new utopia,” said Busse. 

Jacksonville chugged along as a very successful town and when the railroads came, town boosters assumed the rail lines would go through town. 

Well, they didn’t. 

The railroad owners had different ideas and basically drew a straight line: Grants Pass to Ashland, then created a new town: Medford. It was only five miles to the east of Jacksonville, but it spelled the end of Jacksonville as a bustling city and certainly as a brewery capital. 

Not surprisingly, breweries popped up in Grants Pass and Ashland and Medford. Some successful, some not. 

Marie Kienlen, early 1900s, Oregon’s first woman brewer?, Grants Pass Brewery, courtesy of Josephine County Historical Society 

The most famous brewer out of these towns might have been in Grants Pass. Marie Kienlen was possibly one of Oregon’s first woman brewers, who ran a bustling brewery and built the brick building for her brewery (which now houses Climate City Brewery; the brewmaster there is a woman, too). In addition to being known as a brewer she also walked the streets with parrots on her shoulders. In fact, Busse says in his book, in the later nineteenth century, nearly half of the breweries in Southern Oregon were owned by women. 

Southern Oregon had fits and starts with breweries, some coming, some going. And, despite the railroads coming in, it was still difficult opening one up. 

One theme Busse saw when writing his book was the abundant optimism. Unlike opening a saloon, when entrepreneurs could just show up, pop up a tent and start serving whiskey or already-made beer, it took commitment to open a brewery. 

“To make a brewery, you really had to believe that the town was going to exist for another year or five or ten years,” said Busse. 

That optimism still reigns in Southern Oregon.

“There’s definitely a spirit that ‘we’re just here to make beer for our neighborhood,’ and there’s not a huge plan for distribution for most of the breweries, aside from Caldera,” said Busse. 

Caldera in a sense was a pioneer, too, helping to push craft beer in a can. “Caldera is a big player, but at the same time its first generation, Jim Mills is the founder and he’s still there, designing all the cans himself,” he adds. 

And, of course, let’s not forget Rogue, which got its start in Ashland—and served as a starting point for brewpubs across Southern Oregon—before heading to Newport Beach. Rogue was, according to the book, the first new brewery in Southern Oregon since Chrystal Brewery in Medford closed in 1947, making it yet another modern Southern Oregon beer pioneer.

John Chilson
John Chilson

John Chilson writes about Portland history and architecture at Lost Oregon. He's also written for Neighborhood Notes, Travel Oregon, Portland Architecture, Askmen.org, San Diego Reader, and Portland Food and Drink. Follow him on twitter at @LostOregon for local history nerdism; for beer tweets he's at @Hopfrenzy. Shoot him an email at hopfrenzy@gmail.com if you want to get in touch.

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