By Jen Anderson
Larry and Marjie Brennan just wanted to make good beer in Southern Oregon. They never imagined they’d be making gold medal-worthy beer on a world stage.
But more than three years after opening, Arch Rock Brewing — a tiny 15-barrel brew house and tasting room in Gold Beach — has racked up five gold medals at prestigious national and international beer competitions.
Their pale ale, lager and porter have each won a gold at the Great American Beer Festival, North American Brewers Association Festival and the World Beer Cup. Most recently, the brewery was named World Beer Cup Champion in the “very small brewery” category (under 1,000 barrels per year). And Arch Rock's brewer, James Smith, took home the top brewmaster category in that division as well.
“It’s insane, just crazy,” says Larry, who runs Arch Rock with just three employees — Smith; Smith’s wife, Kristen, who does the books and helps with quality control; and a driver, Gabe Hornsby, who spends four days per week in a van, distributing their beer up the Oregon Coast to Florence as well as in Eugene, Roseburg and Ashland.
Arch Rock beer isn’t in cans or bottles, since the Brenners say it’s too costly and there isn’t enough room in their pocket-sized space. (They don’t have room to offer food either.) At the Arch Rock tasting room, they sell pints, growlers and kegs. Fans statewide can find Arch Rock on tap in bars and restaurants in Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Hood River and parts of Bend, thanks to a small distributor.
In a state with 234 breweries and counting, Arch Rock is actually bigger than most. Half of Oregon’s breweries do less than 500 barrels per year. About 40 breweries make less than 100 barrels per year. In contrast, the largest, Deschutes Brewery, produces a whopping 84,000 barrels per year.
Oregon Craft Beer Month, which is July, celebrates all of them. But how do the majority of small craft brewers make a name for themselves?
The Brenners say it’s all about the beer, and they give Smith total creative autonomy.
Having come from Grand Teton Brewing Company in Idaho a few years ago, Smith is a one-man operation, from brewing to cleaning kegs and doing maintenance. He also has a passion for barrel aging beers, and just wrapped up a collaboration with Immortal Spirits Distillery in Medford, using one of their wooden barrels used for absinthe. “We put our porter in it and aged it for six months,” Larry says. “It came out absolutely wonderful.”
So what’s next? Last year Arch Rock brought a third tank, which has allowed them to increase production by about 10 percent. This year they’re on track to do about 1,200 barrels but Larry says growth will be slow and strategic. Before distributing more statewide, he says, “we need to make sure we satisfy our customers here first.”
The Southern Oregon Coast has seen a lot of craft breweries cropping up lately, with more than half a dozen in Coos Bay, Gold Beach and mostly Brookings. Check out the full list of Oregon Craft Beer events.