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Oregon's long brewing history on tap

Beer ain’t what is used to be. It supposedly tasted quite different in the 1850s, when the first breweries started in Oregon, but we may never know for sure.

However, says beer historian Tiah Edmunson-Morton of Oregon State University, it can be treated like an archaeological mystery by digging up ancient recipes, brewing stuff the first settlers enjoyed and judging for ourselves.

The director of the Oregon Hops & Brewing Archive, Edmunson-Morton will share her tales at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, at the Ashland library. It’s free and public, but — sorry — includes no beer samples.

Edmunson-Morton worked with Portland home-brewer Tracy Hensley on an 1872 pale ale recipe, finding it “very different tasting, edgy, hoppy, but very good.” At the Portland State University Road Show, held every June by the Archaeology Department, people who tasted it reported it was delicious.

She will tell tales of that and other proto-beers, including a rice ale of 1842, made about when the floodgates of the Oregon Trail really opened up — and pioneers were understandably thirsty, as the last tavern they saw was in Missouri.

Edmunson-Morton says she expected the ale, concocted by Hop Works Urban Brewery in Portland, might be a bland yellow brewski, but it turned out to be delightful and unusual, “gentle as a soft summer lawn.” Both ancient beers had high IBU (International Bittering Units), she notes.

“My job is to find and research recipes and tell people how this research was done,” she says. Brewing is very different now, with vastly superior technology and control over ingredients, she adds, noting that the state’s 265 breweries (25 in Southern Oregon) have a close relationship with hops and barley farmers and therefore can give feedback and have greater control over what goes in their beer. In the old days, they just bought from suppliers.

Edmunson-Morton will explain "pompion" beer, which has pumpkin in it, and instantaneous beer, a nonalcoholic brew of ginger, lemon juice, sugar and bicarbonate, shaken hard until the cork blows out, then ready to guzzle.

Wahoo beer, from 1872, is a genteel zingy mix of sarsaparilla, Solomon seal, nettle root, sassafras, burdock, humphrey root, thyme, sweet fern, wintergreen, raw potato, molasses, yeast and slices of bread, fermented for 24 hours, then ready to drink.

It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s got alcohol and, with 14 ingredients, allows for lots of experimentation.

Edmunson-Morton can give a thumbnail sketch of the now-humongous beer industry, which, even more than coffee and wine, has been a mainstay of Oregon society, except during the 13 throat-parching years of Prohibition, which caused a serious dent in the state’s economy and jobs picture.

When politicians — no strangers to drinking — ended Prohibition in 1933, the big breweries, such as Henry Weinhard (started here in Oregon in 1862) exploded on the scene. Oregon legalized home-brewing in 1978, she says, but before then there was a network of Oregon Brew Crew clubs that passed along brewing secrets to each other, while hiding their output in basements and barns.

It’s only in the last 35 years, she notes, that micro and craft beer, along with growler stations and endless local breweries, have become a major part of Oregon’s economy. The industry employs more than 8,000 people. The biggest brewery in the state, Widmer, cranks out about half a million barrels a year.

The Oregon Brewers Festival in Portland is the largest gathering of independent craft brewers in the United States. The Gold Beach Brew & Art Festival is held the Saturday after Labor Day. It is the oldest brew festival in Southern Oregon and on the Oregon Coast.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Tiah Edmunson-Morton, director of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, samples a Pisgalicious beer at Agrarian Ales in Eugene. Photo by Ella Morton