Until a few weeks ago, when I was planning the Portland to Salt Lake City leg of a round-about trip from Edmonton to Albuquerque, NM, I had never heard of Baker City, Oregon. But, it seemd like a good stopping point after a three hundred mile plus drive across Oregon.

Then, a few days later, I found another reason for stopping in Baker City. The easterm Oregon town of 10,000 people, which had been an important stop on the Oregon Trail and had become a boom town during the gold rush of the later 19th century, was the home of “Barley Browns,” a brewpub that had won four medals at this year’s Great American Beer Festival.

Tyler Brown opened the brewpub in 1996, in what had been a restaurant started by his parents. “My parents were from the east and liked good beer. As a kid, I’d like to ‘borrow’ the occasional beer from the bar. But I couldn’t take a Bud, because the distributor had a bottle count. So I’d grab an Anchor Steam Beer or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which didn’t have bottle counts. I cut my teeth on the good stuff. At 20 I bought a home brew kit and started brewing on a slow night at the restaurant. When I got better at it, I’d offer some to our customers and they liked it.” The next step was turning the restaurant into a brewpub and naming it “Barley Browns.”

After he’d finished his first professional brew, Tyler stuck a piece of blue tape with the beer style and the date on the brewery wall. He’s been doing it ever since and, when I visited, there were 840 pieces covering all of one wall and most of another.

However, not all of them were brewed by Tyler. As the restaurant grew busier, he hired someone else to take over the brewing duties. The new brewer, Shawn Kelso, was responsible for another tradition relating to putting things on the wall –but not pieces of blue tape. On the wall at the back of the dining room are displayed the medals — nearly 50 — that Barley Browns beers have won at the Great American Beer Festival, North American Beer Awards, and Word Cup of Beer. Given the fact the brewpub only produces 325 barrels a year, “we must have highest ratio of anyone for the number of medals won per barrels of beer produced.”

What is amazing is the number of styles for which the brewpub has won medals. browns, wheats, stouts, esbs, spiced beers, scottish, winter ale, IPAs, black IPAs, Whiskey Malt ales and others. “We have a small system,” current brewer Marks Lanham notes, “but we keg our beers as soon as they are conditioned. We have a dozen taps, so we can offer a great variety.” That variety includes 11 of Barley Browns own brews and one tap for Budweiser. “We have a couple of regulars who refuse to drink anything else.”

Early in 2012, Kelso departed for a brewing job elsewhere. His replacements were Marks Lanham, a Texan who had worked in Idaho, Texas, and Bend, Oreon, and Eli Dickison, a hometown boy, who had worked in the restaurant’s kitchen before going to Oregon State, where he majored in fermentation studies. “It’s exciting just to be around them,” Tyler Brown said. “They love to brew. Sometimes when I come in, they’re busy talking about what to brew next, what new styles to try, how to tweek the recipes they’ve already developed.”

It didn’t take long for Marks and Eli to establish their skills. Of, the three silver Great American Beer Festivals they won, two were beers that had won in earlier years: Turmoil, an American Dark Ale (sometimes known as Black India Pale Ale), and Shredders Wheat, an American style wheat. But the third, Pallet Jack IPA, was for a beer Marks had developed just after his arrival. It is a delicious, fresh hopped drink.

During my visit, I sampled several of their beers, including three of the medal winners (the fourth, Twisted Whisker Scotch Ale, was so popular that they couldn’t brew it fast enough). I also tried two quite different ales: Hot Blonde, which uses five pounds of chopped jalepeno peppers in each batch (spicy but not overwhelming) and Maple Fall Ale (which thank goodness didn’t taste like pancakes that had been over doused with syrup — the hint, the suggestion of maple in the beer was much more intriguing) If I’d come through a few weeks later, I could hae tried Sled Wreck, a winte warmer which they expected to give coffee or mint chocolate notes.

Until three weeks ago, I hadn’t driven through eastern Oregon for over  40 years. I won’t be around in another 40 years. So, I’ve already started planning to get back to Baker City and Barley Browns as soon as I can. It will add a lot of miles to the trip from Edmonton to Albuquerque. But it sure will be worth it.

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