An ear-handled, dark-glass 64-ounce beer growler sweats in the first real sun of an otherwise dreary, overcast summer. A torn label taped over the cap reads: MAMBA.
Orange in color as it pours, there’s little head in the glass. It emits a distinct citrus aroma. And at eight percent alcohol by volume, it packs a serious bite.
It’s the beer that won the People’s Choice award at the 2010 Oregon Garden Brewfest, and it’s a warm welcome – long overdue – to summer.
It’s one of the flagship beers of Gilgamesh Brewing, located in Turner.
Mamba is a crossover, according to Lani Radtke, marketing director and one of the brewery’s eight family founding members. Brewed with tea leaves instead of hops, and tangerine zest, it’s a little like a barley wine in nature. It’s a beer with a flavor that appeals to wine drinkers, she said, which helps Gilgamesh expand to more people.
In its complexity, Mamba is a symbol of the realities of a crowded marketplace that Salem-area brewers like Gilgamesh and others face as they try new and different things to broaden their appeal, and to reach new, sometimes skeptical drinkers.
To “stand out in a world of really good beer,” Radtke said.
Within the clouds of this murky brew there may also be a formula for success that gives them more than a fighting chance to make it.
“If you can make a really good product, and have the energy to really put into it what you need to,” she said, “anybody can do it.”
For more than one brewery, the formula for success begins with local ingredients.
A helicopter ride over Silverton reveals the mid-Willamette Valley region in a breathtaking view, beads of rain streaking across the cockpit bubble. The aerial tour is part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the Seven Brides Taproom on the outskirts of Silverton. The ground below is a patchwork quilt of vineyards and fields, some of the most fertile soil in the world.
As the helicopter banks left, a hop field comes into view directly underneath. From roughly 1,800 feet above, a tiny backhoe can be seen scratching a trench perpendicular to acres-wide rows of the seed cones.
In 2009, Oregon produced nearly 12 million pounds of hops, the key ingredient in brewing beer. The yield was over 12 percent of all hops grown nationwide, at over $43 million in value, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We live in the heart of some of the best hop country in the world,” said Jeff DeSantis, sales manager and one of the founders of Seven Brides Brewing, based in Silverton.
Seven Brides builds beers around flavor profiles that are particularly dependent on local hops, he said.
“It just makes sense” to use local ingredients, he said, including the water.
“Silverton water – you can’t beat it,” he said. “It’s the best water in the state.”
It’s a huge advantage to brew Gilgamesh in an area where ingredients are so readily available, Radtke said.
The region’s rich agricultural diversity also inspires brewers to try new things. For example, with so much mint around, Gilgamesh was inspired to create a Chocolate Mint Stout, which because of popular demand is now no longer just a seasonal offering. Gilgamesh is also at work developing a mint kolsch. And at Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, Salem-area cherries are used to create the new Anthem Cherry Cider.
Going local is an obligation to the community that local breweries feel.
All five founders of Seven Brides Brewing grew up in Silverton; three brothers and two wives of Gilgamesh’s founders graduated from Sprague High School.
“We’ve been in the Valley a long time, so it’s important for us to give back,” Radtke said.
“We ask the local folks to purchase our products,” DeSantis said. “So, in turn, it only makes sense that we support our local economy.”
Of course, obligation will only sell so much beer.
Good things come to those who work
At a tasting room at Willamette Valley Vineyards, Lani Radtke works the crowd while her father-in-law Lee works the taps. There were supposed to be flyers printed with upcoming appearances, but there just wasn’t any time.
A civil engineer by day, she spends roughly 30 hours a week after hours and on weekends managing and promoting Gilgamesh. The brewery just went public last January after licensing and set-up. The amount of work involved selling beer is endless. And although there are official job titles, all the family members wear different hats depending on need.
Off in a corner, a guitarist plays instrumental pop hits in an easy-listening style. The event is primarily for wine, but there’s enough crossover interest, Radtke said, to justify their presence.
Gilgamesh promotes its beers on Facebook and Twitter, which have yielded quite a bit of success, she said. And in addition to festivals and tastings, Gilgamesh gets into the rotation at places like Venti’s Café and Brown’s Towne Lounge. Rotating taps are a great way to get a foot in the door, she said, but make it difficult to build a following, as beer brands get rotated out as quickly as they are rotated in.
At a tasting room at Wandering Aengus Ciderworks’ Bethel Heights orchard, James Kohn has a different problem – selling cider, something so unique that there isn’t a clearly defined market.
“There’s no one else in the country that’s doing what we’re doing,” he said.
Inside the tasting room, several couples and loyal cider drinkers have come to sample the Wanderlust, the Oaked Dry and the Anthem ciders before purchasing their cases. Outside past the orchard, the entire Valley unfolds. The marketing director for the cider maker points to a spot several miles away.
“At night, you can see the lights of Salem down there,” he said.
Those lights are part of the reason Nick Gunn and Mimi Casteel opened Wandering Aengus on their parents’ orchard in 2004. Salem is a relatively cheap place to live, and they were close to friends and family who could help with the business.
“Nick’s out there driving the tractor,” Kohn said.
“It’s our own labor.”
For traditional-style ciders, it’s all about the apples. Distinct blends of different varieties of apples create different flavors; the bittersweet apples from the orchard will go into the Oaked Dry. Apples are picked at various ripening times and gathered in cold storage until pressed at one time around November; then they undergo a roughly two-month cold, slow fermentation process. It makes life a little difficult for their sales – a majority of cider is consumed during the fall, right during production time, according to Kohn.
Mass-market companies avoid such issues, he said, by adding wine and sugars, concentrates and waters, and artificial flavors to create a uniform taste in every bottle, year-round. The result is more like a wine cooler.
“They’re not necessarily an expression of the land,” he said.
Cider as a product is still in its infant stage, Kohn said, where craft brewing was ten years ago. It’s stuck in a netherworld, marketing-wise. Whereas wines are considered a higher-end luxury item, with a pedigree and a craftsmanship that justify a higher price, and beers are cheaper and traditionally for more everyday consumption, the stereotypical cider falls in between – not worthy of wine snobs, yet too fancy for after work.
The cider maker has had to adjust. Originally marketed with wines in Roth’s and LifeSource Natural Foods, cider sales were disappointing. Faced with an economic downturn, Wandering Aengus has worked to repackage its ciders as a lower, mid-tier beverage, and rebottled it in individual beer-size bottles to reduce their price point. After smoothing out governmental regulatory “standards of fill” issues with their varying alcohol content, they were able to release their bottles for sale in October of last year. They are still sold at LifeSource, as well as the various natural foods markets and other distributors all along the West Coast and as far away as Pennsylvania and Tennessee, Kohn said. And the cider maker is building an online sales business.
Now with their new Anthem lines of ciders, which are only available on draft, things are rolling. In its first two months, Anthem has sold about 300 kegs already. And in the past year Wandering Aengus has sold 12,000 cases of its ciders, up dramatically from 2,000 cases sold two years earlier.
“People are discovering it,” he said, “and it’s starting to get some momentum.”
That includes the locals, he said.
“People are proud we’re here in Salem, that we’re doing this, and they’re more than happy to have us as part of their businesses.”
Thank you for drinking
At least two local bars are making the effort. To Gary Brown, owner of Brown’s Towne Lounge, it is important to tap locally. The Wandering Aengus Anthem Pear is a current favorite with his patrons.
“I’m going to probably carry that all through summer,” he said.
His rotating taps include Seven Brides as well as Anthem. For him, business is personal with local brewers.
“A lot of the brewers, I know personally, so a lot of times I call them; they call me, let me know what beers are available.”
Venti’s Café bar manager Nick Lopez knows the Radtkes personally.
”I think they’re doing fantastic things,” he said. He moves a lot of Gilgamesh. He also has Seven Brides’ Oatmeal Ellie and Wandering Aengus Anthem Pear in rotation. Lopez spends a lot of time researching and tasting, to ensure only the best, most unique beers appear at Venti’s.
“There’s nobody in Salem that’s touching our beer selection right now,” he said.
But while supporting local business matters, ultimately for Lopez and others, it’s about offering a diverse array, and keeping sales up, even if it means beer from anywhere in Oregon or beyond.
“It’s really important for me to support local breweries, but at the same time it’s really important to maintain certain standards,” he said.
“It would be silly of us to not take advantage of all of these offerings from around the state that we can get our hands on.”
Things are looking up for local craft brewing. Seven Brides is on track to move over 1,000 barrels this year, compared to 50 barrels just two years ago. And since its Memorial Day weekend opening, business is booming at Seven Brides’ new taproom, according to DeSantis. He estimates about 3,000 people showed up over the five-day event; the Taproom sold over 2,000 plates of food and nearly 2,900 pints of beer.
Among those pints was Gilgamesh IPA, on guest tap. It’s only fitting since Lee Radtke, an experienced woodworker by trade, built the taproom’s main bar. There is a lot of collaboration among brewers. When Seven Brides upgraded its brewing system, it gave their old system to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh also set up the taps for Wandering Aengus for its Memorial Day tasting, and companies interact regularly at festivals and events.
It’s part of a loyalty brewers feel for each other, he said.
“If any other breweries in Oregon call, everybody without a doubt drops what they’re doing and helps everybody out,” DeSantis said.
That loyalty will help everyone out in the long run.
“If I convince someone to try our Lauren Pale Ale and they enjoy it, their entire horizon of craft beer is widened, and they’re suddenly more willing to try a Gilgamesh or Alameda or Ram brew, and vice versa,” he said.
Perhaps it’s something about brewing beer in general that inspires such camaraderie, but DeSantis can’t say for sure.
“It’s fun, and when things go well, we like to share it with people we care about,” he said.