The mid-Willamette Valley’s craft brewing scene is getting more competitive and facing pressure from another recreational substance (legal marijuana), but the beer industry isn’t oversaturated yet in Linn and Benton counties, experts said.
Craft breweries also can survive in places off the beaten path, and don’t need to be in downtown areas of Corvallis or Albany, experts said.
“These can become the hub of a small community. Sometimes the small towns really embrace something like that in ways that larger places may not,” said Jeff Tobin, owner of Mazama Brewing Co., which is headquartered in Corvallis.
With that context, craft brewing experts were optimistic about the future of Long Timber Brewing Co., which is set to open this summer in Monroe, population 680. No firm date has been set for Long Timber’s opening to the public. (See the related story on page one.)
“They’re going into a market hungry for development,” said Joel Rea, owner of Corvallis Brewing Supply.
A crowded market
Craft brewing in Oregon has expanded exponentially, both in the number of breweries and production, and that’s especially true in the mid-Willamette Valley, said Tony Roberts, co-executive director of the Oregon Brewers Guild, the nonprofit trade association for the state's independent breweries.
About 10 years ago, Linn and Benton counties only had four craft breweries. Today, there are 13, according to Oregon Brewers Guild data. Taprooms and growler refill stations also have emerged as viable business options.
“It’s going to be harder, with as much beer as there is, to do a startup brewery,” Rea said.
In the same time period, the mid-valley scene has added 2 Towns Cider, which also produces hard seltzer, along with Nectar Creek, which makes mead, in addition to several distillers and a wine scene that continues to grow in south Benton County and the Kings Valley area.
And all this expansion occurred, both with beer and other beverages, in a time when recreational marijuana became legal in Oregon.
“There are a lot more offerings for people, and not everyone is into beer,” Rea said.
Still, there’s more room for good drinks, and mid-valley brewers have been able to differentiate their products, said Phillip Lorenz, general manager and co-founder of Nectar Creek.
“The most important thing for craft beverage producers to succeed, in my opinion, is making and consistently putting out high-quality product in everything you do, from the liquid to the customer service to the plates of food,” Lorenz said.
With craft brewers that are operating as a part of an eatery, great food can be a major draw in and of itself. That leads to more beer sales, which are generally the real money-maker for such establishments.
“(Beer production) actually makes it a little more viable as a restaurant,” Tobin said.
“Margins are quite good on beer and that can give you a buffer. If you’re not doing as well on the restaurant side, you can still stay afloat,” he added.
The distribution side of the craft brewing market, and trying to get space for bottles and cans for new brands on supermarket shelves, is much more competitive, Tobin and Lorenz said.
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“The distribution capacity is maybe not adequate to support all these breweries,” Tobin added. But there does seem to be ample space for the friendly neighborhood brewpub, he and Lorenz said.
Of course, both Mazama and Nectar Creek have bottles and cans of their products in stores for sale, but their own retail outlets and restaurants are important parts of their success stories.
After operating a brewpub with limited food options, Tobin, his wife and an Oregon State University professor purchased Big River, a popular downtown Corvallis restaurant, about a year ago. That serves as a flagship location for Mazama sales.
Things are going well at Big River, Tobin said, and Mazama’s second retail outlet and restaurant, in Orenco Station in Hillsboro, opened up about five weeks ago.
Satellite locations for microbreweries is becoming a trend in Oregon, and these help companies feel more local to consumers in the Portland metropolitan area or elsewhere, Roberts said.
“I’ve seen a lot of smaller brewers opening up a second location. Or a third. Or a fourth,” he added.
“What’s crazy about the industry right now is that it isn’t the only model for success. There are people doing it very differently and still continuing to grow,” he added.
Small town magic
Just like there’s no single model for success, craft brewers also can succeed in a wide variety of locales — including a small town like Monroe, which sits about halfway between Corvallis and Eugene on Highway 99W.
Several sources mentioned Nectar Creek in Philomath as a possible parallel for Long Timber, though the businesses have different products.
Rea thought that Nectar Creek was taking a huge risk by moving opening its tasting room and restaurant out of the way on the west end of Philomath in January 2018.
“That now seems like it’s the right move,” Rea said, adding that the meadery is busy and draws in traffic from people going to and from the coast, hiking in the Coast Range, or engaging in wine tastings or other activities that take them through Philomath.
“If something is really, really good, and you’re going to drive right past it, you’re probably going to stop,” he added.
Lorenz stressed that catering to locals, and making sure they feel welcome and comfortable coming back, was just as important as the through traffic.
Philomath residents, like those in Monroe, didn’t have the wider array of options for food and drink that exist in bigger towns such as Corvallis and Albany, Rea said.
Roberts said that breweries in small towns or other “brew pub deserts” can become gathering places. “Geography can play a big part in it. A lot of it has to do with maybe being the only game in town,” he added.
Tobin said that destination breweries can operate in a similar manner to how vineyards have been operating in Oregon. “People drive up to restaurants in wine country for dinner, and if you have great food, you can also draw people from outside the region,” he added.
And beer tourism, with people visiting breweries in certain areas from elsewhere in the state, or across the country, is a real phenomenon, Roberts said.
With Long Timber’s location, people could logically go there after touring mid-valley breweries or beer destinations in the Eugene area, Roberts added.