could sense Mother Nature shift winds, winking over at the Goddesses of Beer and Weather Irony as we glided above the hazy, afternoon rain clouds of Long Beach California. My beer companion Jesse and I were on a plane, heading North. For most of my life, I anticipated precipitation to accompany the lush forests of the Northwest as they cascaded into view outside my cabin window. Today was different, for we descended into beautiful Beervana on a warm, dare I say, tropical breeze, and for the first time in over four years, I was back in my home state of the quirky, adventurous and remarkably green… Oregon.
The reasons for my return were bountiful. To this day, every Northwestern I meet either never left, or speaks of a nostalgic longing to go back. Feelings of familiarity flooded my system with nervous energy, but I knew I could count on Portland to provide opportunities to release my anxiousness. This is why I stopped to jam to a jazzy xylophone player on our way to ground transportation. Boy, did I miss this magical place. Honestly though? Though I was in the City of Roses for more than one reason, the part I was most excited for, the cherry in my reunion rye old fashioned… was the beer.
I love Oregon beer.
Now, my history with the Northwest beer scene goes back 20 years or so, but in the interest of skipping the awkward identity explosion that was my teens and early 20s, let’s leave it at this; I took the privilege of coming to drinking age in the suburbs of the microbrew capital of the world, and drowned it in upside-down beer bong guzzles of ice cold, yellow-watered, ignorance (also known as Bud Light). This weekend was primarily about reclaiming my beernity ( beer dignity). I was returning to pay the beer respect due to the eccentric city that tolerated my sad, naive, adolescent palate. At the very least, I would drink as much Portland beer as possible, without showing up to my 10 year High School Reunion as a drunken failure. It was a thin line, but I was ready to meander it.
Two days was a depressingly small amount of time to devour the plethora of brews awaiting me in the city. I guess there’s only one way to drink a oversized German Boot-Stein… one sip at a time. First on the menu? We’re headed to Base Camp Brewing in the Buckman neighborhood of Southeast Portland.
As we hopped out of Uber driver number three’s car (a refreshingly pleasant young man who I coincidentally graduated with but completely forget existed), the scent of summer wildflowers relaxed my thoughts. A quick survey of the area placed us on the edge of a newly energized industrial park. For 11am on a Friday, the streets sashayed with casually dressed men and women, not a business suit in sight. This was my kind of neighborhood.
Approaching the brewery, the first marvel to take in is the colorful blue and green painted mural outside their entrance doors. It’ll make any outdoorsman’s heart quicken with that familiar rush of adrenaline; tents, packs, skis, a bike tire… you get the picture (literally it should be right above this text). These guys were inspired by the endless adventures to partake in their beautiful state of Oregon. That kind of passion made me more revved up than ever to get inside and taste their beer!
Walking into the space you have an
option of going left, where you’d be met with their brewery, or right where you’d enter into a large, open tasting room with a long, granite bar top serving a couple early birds fresh beer… I vote we explore the fresh beer first.
Once in their tasting room, we explored the aesthetically designed space. Now I’m a simple, country cabin kind of person. I don’t have the most distinguished palate and when decorating, usually I stick to wood, stone and anything free my parents. If the Base Camp designers were trying to make us feel at home, they were crushing it (in a good way). Most of the tabletops were made of blocky rectangular cuts of wood, ranging in color, type and density. They had engineered some tables to be supported by medium-sized boulders instead of legs, and the chairs had woven designs made out of what appeared to be yarn.
My favorite piece in the room by far took me awhile to recognize. It was an epic old, rusted-blue canoe, hanging directly above their main bar. The weathered water vessel seemed to frame the space symmetrically and worked as a centerpiece for their theme of the great outdoorsmen. The chalk artwork on the beer menus, as well as the vibrant photography sprinkled across their south wall, celebrated man’s desire to live an adventurous life outdoors.
We were early for our meeting with Ross Putnam, one of the founding members of Base Camp Brewing, so we decided to do our most important research first and ponied up to the bar. The beertender was patient as I scanned a myriad of possibilities for my beer buds to enjoy. I finally settled on a little bit of everything and when I went to pay, I was told Ross had covered this flight. Shoot. Was it too early in the game to award Base Camp my favorite brewery award? Still taking suggestions on what that might be. We lifted a cheers to the bartender and to Ross and turned to find a better location for our beer review.
There were only a handful of patrons during the tasting room’s opening hour, so we had our pick of a large, taller table near the wall of attractive photography. If you didn’t get a chance to check out my video review of what we got to taste at Base Camp, here’s the highlight reel; my favorite brew turned out to be their flagship In-Tents IPL. Overall each beer, besides the S’mores Stout, had a uniquely lighter body to it than the Southern California IPAs and Pale Ales I’d grown accustomed to. After the tasting, I was pleasantly pleased we had begun our Beervana Adventure with a brewery specializing in lighter yet flavorful brews.
As I finished up the adorable little toasted marshmallow on my stout, Base Camp co-founder Ross appeared from a busy weekend schedule to tell us more about Base Camp’s history and beer culture. With medium length dirty blonde hair, pulled back in a low pony-tail, he greeted us warmly in a tie-dye shirt that illuminated his disarming personality. After pleasantries, we ordered a tour beer and heading into the brewery next door. Check out my podcast of our interview with Ross here (coming soon).
Base Camp began with brewmaster Justin Fay’s vision of creating a brewery with a group of childhood friends from Klamath Falls, Oregon. Included in that group were Paul Thurston (Head Brewer), Joey Dallas, Andrew Sparks, Krister Balme and Ross himself. Before reconnecting over a project that would take five years to come to fruition, each had gone their separate ways in life. Fay and Thurston chose to expand their passion for brewing early. Justin graduated from Oregon State’s acclaimed Fermentation Science program while working at the Klamath Basin Brewing Company, while Paul attended the World Brewing Academy in Chicago and upon moving back west, worked for one of Portland’s original microbreweries, Bridgeport Brewing Company, along with the well-known and loved Rogue. Ross was busy being a Wildland Firefighter, which are firefighters that work at a federal or state level to combat larger forest wild fires. Or pretty much just a more badass version of an already badass firefighter. When his buddies invited him to join the project, he recalls it being a rather easy decision; continue risking his life, sleeping in the dirt, or mix it up and jump into the beer game? It was pretty cool to recognize that no matter where your passions began in life, they could always lead you into the world of beer. That kind of diversity is what makes the beer industry so appealing to me.
Walking through Base Camp’s original brewhouse, consisting of a four tier, gravity fed system, Ross shared with us the company’s accelerated growth since opening their doors on November 2nd, 2012. “We have scaled up our mash and whirlpool,” Ross says. “So when the time comes, we can replace our kettle, put in a 40 barrel house and be able to instantly jump up our production. We’re really trying to look into the future and see where we want to go and try to invest now.”
Though they are currently producing 25 barrels, the time to expand production is approaching faster than they anticipated. There are many reasons for Base Camp’s appeal amongst local and visiting beer drinkers. One main one that was apparent on our tour with Ross was their emphasis on craft brewing education.
“Down here below we have our pilot system,” Ross informed us. “So we can knock out about 25 gallons on that. We use it for a lot of our recipe development and educational opportunities for our staff. We want to have everybody in tune with what’s going on in different departments. Education is huge. Just learning about the process, even if you’re never going to brew beer professionally, the folks serving the beer, the better the understanding they have of it, the better it’s going to be when they go to talk about it someone else.”
That kind of dedication to the details of brewing are what make for excellent beer makers. As we finished our tour at the Base Camp bottling line, Ross explained another key characteristic of today’s best craft breweries; their outreach programs. It takes one or two google searches to discover how Base Camp’s collaborations with fellow brewers and local community organizations are inspiring others to make a positive change in our world. Pair that with their environmentally conscious bottle packaging and no wonder their bre
wing culture is contagious. Ross had time to tell us about their current collaboration with the local Forest Park Conservatory.
“Forest Park is a park here,” he says. “I think it’s the biggest urban green space in the nation. The idea is we’re going to find a place that we all know and love or maybe even a place that we don’t know, but we want to go and learn about. So we do a little research and we find a non-profit that we work with. Then everybody gets together, we go on a trip, learn about the area and use it as an educational piece, through beer, to inform people about these certain areas that need a little attention. We brew up the beer, package it and give a portion of the proceeds back to the non-profit as a thank you for doing such good work. It’s really cool because we get to work with really great people. It gives us an opportunity to make some beers we probably would have never thought of.”
Forest Park’s Heritage Tree IPL is the fifth beer they’ve brewed within their Location Based Series. Ross is excited for the future of the program, which includes an upcoming collaboration with Oregon Wild, raising natural habitat awareness through a local famous wolf residing in the Crater Lake Wilderness called OR7.
We were sad to say goodbye to Ross. His easygoing demean
or and wealth of knowledge had relaxed and intrigued us past the point when we should have left for our next appointment. We said our goodbyes, but not without Ross offering up a bevy of Base Camp brews to share with our Cheersnation fans. Walking down the street to Cascade Barrel House, I let my overall impression of our first brewery sink in.
Base Camp’s brews, especially with their focus on India Pale Lagers (similar malt profile to IPAs but with a lighter yeast strain), are pioneering examples that demonstrate sessionable beers can still have just as much complexity in flavor and tasting experience as heavier bodied brews. The trend of today’s beer drinker choosing light-bodied beers over heavy, reveals additional benefits that echo Base Camp’s target consumer. Simply put, when you’re consuming less ABV, you can do more things! Like catch a fish! Or finish your bike ride back to camp. Celebrate your summit of a bucket list mountain or add value to a conversation without slurring at a backyard BBQ.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a thick, strongly brewed 10% + stout as much as the next beer geek. But I couldn’t help imagining myself sipping from one of Base Camp’s distinctively designed aluminum cans after a long hike through the Sierra Nevada backcountry. They had completely sold me on needing a refreshing, lighter splash of flavor and intensity in a moment like that. Out in nature, you long to be apart of it, ready to spring into action, not too hung-over to relish the anticipation of active possibilities around you. Base Camp makes me want to drink like an adult for once. That sounds like a boring thing, but it’s not. It’s proof their brewing philosophy is one with immense staying power.
So go get inspired, grab a Base Camp six pack, load up the tent and camping gear and I’ll see you on the river! I’ll be the one in the blue canoe.