BEND, Ore. – Gary Fish likes to think that if you’re not a beer drinker, if you’d go so far as to say you can’t even stand the taste of the stuff, you just haven’t found the right one – and he’s convinced he can convert you.
Thirty years ago, had he made that same proclamation, people probably would have responded by rolling their eyes. Back then Fish was just a "young-ish" guy with the wild idea of opening the first brew pub in Bend, a vacation city in Central Oregon. Now, he runs Deschutes Brewery, a company widely credited with helping pioneer one of the most important pieces of the food and drink world: craft beer.
Craft brew might be a thriving industry now – the Bureau of Labor estimated last year that there were 70,000 brewery employees across the United States, a stat that has almost tripled over the past decade – but in 1988, it was barely alive.
The same could be said of Bend, Oregon. A community that now boasts 90,000-plus residents with a booming tourism scene – 20,000 people a day visit in the summer – was depressed in the late 1980s, trying to recover from the timber industry crash. The economy, and the town, needed a boost.
Enter Fish, then 32, who had a background in restaurant management but didn’t know anything about brewing beer. He figured he could learn.
Fish’s father worked in the wine industry, so Fish knew the arduous process of wine-making. But that world didn’t appeal to him.
“There’s a minimum of five years before any profit because it takes so long to grow and harvest grapes,” Fish said. “But with a brew pub, you cut out the middle man, so within about 30 days your product is on shelves.”
As Fish struggled to get initial financing, he kept hearing the same line from supportive Bend residents: “If you really do open, I’ll be your first customer!”
That finally happened on June 27, 1988. It wasn’t exactly a packed house its first night – or a lot of nights after that.
Oran Teater, a former Bend mayor and longtime City Council member, laughed when recalling Deschutes’ opening.
“We thought he was crazy,” Teater said of Fish. “Innovative, but crazy. It was not on anybody’s radar that you would open a brew pub in Bend, Oregon. And I remember after the first couple beers I drank, I didn’t think it would work.”
Fish figured Deschutes could capitalize on Bend’s growing tourism industry, and set a goal to get Deschutes beers on tap at local resorts. That strategy kept the brewery afloat while the pub found its footing.
“There were a lot of nights no one was in the pub and I was thinking to myself, ‘What did I get us into?’” Fish said.
But Deschutes has done more than survive. The business has grown exponentially; when it started in 1988, Fish had just 5,000 square feet downtown, which included both the brewery and restaurant. Now they’ve expanded to more than 200,000 square feet, including the downtown Bend pub, a Portland pub, plus the actual brewery in Bend. There are plans to open a pub in Roanoke, Virginia, in the next few years (Deschutes already has a tasting room there). The business employs 550 people nationwide, with 335 based in Bend.
Though Deschutes' craft brew empire has major national reach – its beer is distributed in 30 states – Fish takes pride in maintaining a small community feel. Employees own roughly 8 percent of the company, and Deschutes regularly partners with Northwest residents for various projects. Every fall they commission a local artist to make the label for Jubelale, their annual holiday brew. A tour of the brewery's upstairs hallway doubles as a local art show, with previous years' labels displayed on the walls.
Deschutes is a trendsetter, too, having played a direct role in Bend’s rebranding as a fun, funky city where people come to drink. What's more, Deschutes helped change the perception of beer drinkers: What was once an activity done behind closed doors now became a family affair. As the craft beer industry erased the stigma of drinking beer in public, other businesses popped up. Bend is now a brew pub hot spot, with 20 breweries located in the city.
“We would not have the brewery industry that we have without Deschutes,” said Roger Lee, CEO of the Economic Development for Central Oregon office. “That’s the cache of Bend – it’s a beer town, a cool place to come. Deschutes helped give Bend an identity it historically did not have.”
Damon Runberg, an economist with the Oregon Employment Department, said there are just under 1,200 people in Bend employed in the brewery industry, which totals 2.5 percent of private sector jobs. That number is a bit deceiving though. It might sound small, but when you compare it to Portland – considered another brewery capital of the West – where just 0.2 percent of private sector jobs are in breweries, you get a better idea of how big the industry is in Bend.
Deschutes has also become a jumping off point for many brewers around the West who came to Bend to learn or perfect the craft before venturing out on their own.
John Harris worked at Deschutes as the main brewer from 1988-1992. He created Mirror Pond Ale, one of their best-selling brews, and was there for the birth of Black Butte Porter, a dark pour with notes of chocolate and coffee that’s considered Deschutes’ signature beer.
“Thirty years ago, people were afraid of different beer,” Harris said. “Back then, someone drinking a sour beer, yeah right, that never would have happened. They were afraid to taste what you were making – you can’t imagine that now.”
Harris isn’t exaggerating when he said employees are encouraged to think outside the box. Deschutes brewers have come up with some wacky flavors over 30 years, including a beer that mimicked a gin and tonic and one that tasted like dill pickles.
After more than two decades brewing, Harris opened his own Portland pub, Ecliptic Brewing, which will celebrate its five-year anniversary Oct. 20. He credits Fish and Deschutes with being on the cutting edge of craft brew, but also with fostering a spirit of community among early brewers. He described Fish as "instrumental" in making sure craft brewers had a voice in the state Legislature back when craft brew was new, and pointed to Fish's time as chair of the national Brewer's Association as proof that he's widely respected among his peers.
“Back when Deschutes started, IPA wasn’t a thing,” Harris said. “Now it’s king. Through the years, Deschutes has seen where the market is going and gone with it. Gary has always kept them moving forward and made sure they were early to react to trends, where other breweries had a tendency to drag their feet.”
It’s come with headaches and missteps, of course.
When Deschutes expanded its brew house and brought in new, bigger German-built barrels – as opposed to their smaller barreling system, which had been built in Oregon – it took four years to flavor match Black Butte Porter. Other breweries might have decided the different taste was going to be the new taste, but Fish insisted on sticking with the original. (He joked that whenever Deschutes hires a new brewer, locals can often tell based on how Bachelor Bitter, one of their original taps, tastes. If it’s off in the slightest, he’ll hear about it.)
One moment Fish is particularly proud of involves the Great Recession. While companies across the country laid off workers and families scrambled to pay bills, Deschutes didn’t have to downsize. It was especially interesting, Fish said, because craft beer became an “affordable luxury." Nine dollars for a 6-pack was easier to justify than a $50 bottle of Cabernet. He likes to think that in that time, Deschutes provided some level of comfort, and normalcy, for people all over the U.S.
Fish isn’t sure what’s next. At 62, he’s supposed to be nearing retirement age, but can’t imagine skipping out on the weekly meeting where employees taste the newest concoctions. He still can’t pick a favorite Deschutes brew. And he is working to get his beer distributed in every state.
Maybe most important, he’s still got some people to convert to the beer-loving life.