A Heady Success

A Heady Success header image
OSU's fermentation science comes of age as Oregon bubbles to the top of the microbrew industry.

It took German beer crafters the better part of 600 years to combine barley, hops, yeasts, and water into the classic definition of modern beer. But Oregon has bubbled to the top of the microbrewing industry in just over 20 years.

Now, with 72 microbreweries across the state, Oregon not only has the most microbrews per capita, Portland is reputed to have the most microbreweries and brew pubs of any city, anywhere in the world.

That’s pretty good for an industry that’s barely drinking age.

It all began in the early 1980s with a pioneer band of microbrewing brothers and friends, many of them with strong personal and professional ties to their alma mater, Oregon State University. They noticed that Oregon shared some important characteristics with Germany, including a similar latitude, climate, annual rainfall, and access to some of the world’s premium hops. And although you won’t find OSU research listed on the ingredients of most beers, many aspects of Oregon’s microbrews — from barley and hops to fermentation and marketing — benefit from the research conducted at OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Take, for example, Cascade hops, developed by USDA hop breeders in Corvallis. There are 14 varieties of hops grown in the Willamette Valley; the Cascade hop is ranked among the finest in the world. The Deschutes Brewing Company of Bend, for instance, lists Cascade hops among the ingredients on every bottle of its India Pale Ale, and an embossed garland of hops encircles the neck of each bottle.“I produced Cascade in 1971,” Haunold said matter-of-factly. Cascade may be ideal to meet the demand for aromatic hops used for small-batch craft brewing, but to the big national beermakers, another Oregon-bred variety known has Nugget proved to be pure gold. When crushed, it produced a rich hop oil that was easier and cheaper to ship and had a stable shelf life.

“It saved the hop industry in Oregon,” Haunold said.

Hops harvest hops drying

Late summer light bathes hops harvest at Goschie Farms near Silverton. When the oil-laden hop flowers are at their most fragrant, harvesting and drying will proceed day and night. Photo: Lynn Ketchum


Hop flowers, separated from the vines, are laid out in heated drying sheds where the fragrant oils are sealed into the papery, cone-shaped blossoms. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Hop bales barley

Armando Mesa bales dried hops from Goschie Farms for use by brewers across the country. Photo: Lynn Ketchum


Grain was used to brew beer before it was used to bake bread. Now researchers are working to develop an Oregon-grown malting barley. Photo: Jack Dykinga, USDA

The barley industry in Oregon is another story, said Pat Hayes, barley breeder at OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science. Right now, Oregon’s barley is savored by livestock, not beer drinkers.

Malting barley, used to brew beer, contains the sugars necessary to get the fermentation process bubbling. Depending on how the barley is roasted, it can impart anything from the pale gold of a lager to the chocolaty brown of a stout.

The American Barley Malt Association has the final say over which barleys can get the job done. Their rule: two-row barley is the only way to go. Thus, Oregon microbrewers now use a two-row spring barley that is grown primarily in the Midwest and Washington. But naturally local microbrewers would like to have access to a hardy, locally grown barley for malting; Hayes would like to see a Columbia Basin barley variety break into that market.

It’s still experimental, but Hayes said there’s significant potential in a winter-grown six-row barley he has in development. It is a genetic twin, a “designer imposter” of two-row spring barley.

“They like the six-row barley, at least until they find out it’s not two-row barley,” he said. “We’re getting there. It’s a perception of what’s good.”

Knowing what’s good — and how to produce it — is what’s made Oregon microbreweries such a success. Oregon microbrews won four gold medals for quality and taste at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival national beer competition in Denver: Rogue Ales’s Shakespeare stout, Alameda Brewhouse’s Black Bear Stout, Deschutes Brewery’s Pine Mountain Pilsner, and the Kiwanda Cream Ale from the Pelican Pub and Brewery of Pacific City (which also took home top national honors as best small brewpub).

The fact is, you can toast the sunset with a locally produced craft beer in just about any Oregon city these days. According to the Brewers Association, the chief professional association of the craft beer industry, Oregon microbrews are among the fastest growing in the nation.

The number-one microbrewery in Oregon, Widmer Brothers, began in 1984 when OSU graduate Rob Widmer, his brother Kurt, and their father Raymond founded their first brewery in Portland in a beer-hostile atmosphere. A nationwide fitness trend and tougher laws against drunk drivers meant more people were having fewer beers.

“In that case,” Kurt Widmer said, “those beers should be great.” That was the guiding principle behind many ventures that followed, both for the Widmers and other microbrewers.

The following year, OSU graduates Mike and Brian McMenamin convinced the Oregon Legislature that allowing brewing of beer in a restaurant was no more harmful than allowing wine-tasting at a vineyard. That cleared the way for the phenomenal growth of Oregon’s brew pub industry, including the 40-something brewpubs now owned by the McMenamins in Oregon and Washington.

In 1996, OSU graduate Jim Bernau,
who founded Willamette Valley Vineyards south of Salem, gave Oregon microbrewers a big gift by establishing what’s believed to be the nation’s first endowed professorship in fermentation science, the Nor’Wester, at OSU’s
Department of Food Science and Technology. In addition to the $1 million in stock and money from a state matching program, his loan of a two-barrel brew house located at Wiegand Hall on the OSU campus tapped a source of talent and research that has yielded a free-flowing rainbow of new beer varieties.

Sebastian Pastore, the vice president of brewing operations at Widmer, said OSU’s brewery enables his company to run test batches of prospective new beers without taking their own production facilities off-line.

Even more valuable to Widmer, Pastore said, are the graduates of OSU’s fermentation science program. Expert testers can evaluate a beer to identify undesirable attributes — such as “skunkiness” or “cat box” aromas — long before a beer goes into production. The program also provides microbreweries with another valuable resource — trained, expert employees.

“We have an OSU grad who is working as our quality assurance tester right now,” Pastore said.

Demand for such expertise far exceeds the supply, said Tom Shellhammer, the current holder of the Nor’Wester endowed professorship. OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences now has about 60 students specializing in its fermentation sciences program, with wineries, breweries, and manufacturers of distilled spirits competing to offer them high-paying jobs.

adding hops to brew student tasting beer

Jeff Clawson adds dry hops to an experimental batch of beer in OSU's pilot brew house. Photo: Tom Gentle


Students in OSU's fermentation science program, such as Patricia Aron, are trained in the vocabulary of taste and aroma. Their expertise is in high demand in the growing business of beer and wine making. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Jokes about how much fun it must be to taste the goods all day fall flat with Jeff Clawson, who manages the pilot brewery. Prerequisites for the program include advanced chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, and successful brewing. And, Clawson added, no microbrew from OSU ends up at parties, because taste testing involves a lot of sipping, swirling, and spitting out.

“We end up pouring a whole lot of good beer down the drain,” Clawson said. But the testing assures that a lot of good beer can pour out of the tap. And a whole lot of expertise is going to pour out of OSU, he said. As one of only two universities with a fermentation sciences degree program, (U.C. Davis is the other), OSU is likely to continue to grow as a force in shaping the quality and development of distinctive Northwest microbrews.

“We have a lot of potential for growth, and a lot of interest by both students and industry,” said Shellhammer.


Oregon was tops in hops

1943 hops harvest

Mexican "Bracero" agricultural workers pick hops in Polk County fields in 1943. More than 15,000 Mexican men worked on farms throughout Oregon during the war years of World War II (courtesy of the OSU Archives).

From the 1890s to the 1940s, Independence, Oregon was the “Hop Capitol of the World.” Hops were first introduced into the rich bottomland soils of Polk County in the 1860s. By 1935, Oregon’s hop acreage swelled to 26,000 acres, about two-thirds of the total U.S. acreage. Workers picked hops by hand, transferring their harvest from basket to burlap bags before sending it to be dried.

By the 1950s, demand for hops dropped—new brewing technologies required fewer hops, and competition from foreign markets intervened. Today, with a little over 5,000 acres in production, Oregon is the second largest hop producer in the United States, after Washington. The United States still leads the world in hop production, followed by Germany, China, and the Czech Republic.

To your health

mug of beer

Oregon State University scientists are not saying that. But they have uncovered growing evidence to suggest that compounds found in hops might help prevent many types of cancer.

Hops give beer its distinctive flavor. A team of OSU researchers began studying the cancer-fighting properties of hops about 10 years ago, focusing on a flavonoid compound called xanthohumol. Since then scientists in programs around the world have examined hops flavonoids for everything from hormone replacement therapy for women to combating prostate, breast, and colon cancer.

“Xanthohumol is one of the more significant compounds for cancer prevention that we have studied,” said Fred Stevens, a researcher with OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute and the College of Pharmacy.

Xanthohumol also appears to be an antioxidant even more powerful than vitamin E and can reduce the oxidation of LDL, or bad cholesterol, according to Donald Buhler, a biochemical toxicologist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and part of the OSU team studying the hops flavonoid.

The lager and pilsner beers common among American domestic brews have fairly low levels of these disease-fighting compounds, but some porter, stout, and ale brews have much higher levels. But don’t expect to drink your way to good health.

“I wouldn’t encourage people to drink more,” Buhler said. “Obviously there’s a down side to drinking.”

Besides, Stevens added, “most beers have low levels of this compound, and its absorption in the body is limited. But if ways can be developed to significantly increase the levels of xanthohumol or use it as a nutritional supplement — that might be different.”

Already a “health beer” with enhanced levels of xanthohumol is being developed in Germany and efforts are under way to isolate and market the flavonoid as a food supplement.

Meanwhile studies continue at OSU to better understand all that lies inside that little flower that makes beer taste so good.

Published in: Food Systems, Economics