An Interview With Ben Kehs and Jake Harper As Both Take On New Positions At Deschutes Brewery

Ben Kehs and Jake Harper of Deschutes Brewery. (photo by Ryan Spencer)
Jake Harper (left) and Ben Kehs of Deschutes Brewery have each taken on new roles at one of Oregon’s oldest breweries. (photo by Ryan Spencer)

With so many changes in the Oregon beer scene, it’s easy to forget some of breweries that built the foundation of the industry. This December, Assistant Brewmaster Ben Kehs of the Deschutes Brewery Portland Public House will leave his position as Pub Brewmaster for a position as Assistant Brewmaster of the brewery’s Wood Aged program in Bend, Oregon. The current Wood Aged lead brewer, Jake Harper, a long time employee of Deschutes, will replace Ben here in Portland. Last week Brewpublic had the opportunity to sit down with each of them to discuss the transition and learn what lies ahead at Deschutes Brewery.

What were some of the driving factors to move from your current positions to your new positions?

Ben Kehs: For me for the oak program has always been a passion for me, it’s something I’ve wanted to get involved with more. The oak aged beers that we brew have always been some of my favorite beers that we produce. Once I was presented with that opportunity it was something that I couldn’t really say no to.

Jake Harper: I’ve been a production brewer for over 10 years, I’ve been with Deschutes Brewery for 15 years. A lot of those years I was in charge of the wood aged program, so I guess I can put a check by that box. I’ve done a lot of production brewing but pub brewing is what I’m most passionate about. I’ve been out of the game a bit as far as recipe development goes, so I’m excited to have the opportunity to get back into it. The barrel aged program was a little disconnected from actual brewing. I get the chance to brew on different systems in Bend, but that really only happens a few times a year.

Interesting, so you guys are basically swapping positions?

BK: Sort of, the oak program has been under the umbrella of the Assistant Brewmaster in charge of new projects. Since the position’s creation and now, the company has grown substantially and the oak program has grown exponentially. It’s exciting that our senior team has recognized that a position like this needs to be created and also the importance of dedicating more man power to the wood program. We should be able to bring more diversity to the program, especially on the sour side of things. More labor equals more projects.

What were your experiences prior to working at Deschutes?

BK: Prior to working at Deschutes I worked at Berkshire Brewing Company in Western Massachusetts. I then went on to the Master Brewers program at UC Davis. After that I got a job at Deschutes where I’ve been for the past ten years.

JH: I’ve always worked at Deschutes, this has pretty much been my only brewing job. I did a couple stints in college at a small brewery in Colorado. Since then I’ve been with the company for a little over fifteen years now.

It sounds like we’re in good hands here in Portland. With so much experience within the company, what do you hope to achieve in your new positions?

BK: First I plan to focus on understanding what’s been put in place already over the years, and then attempt to improve on some of those practices. Focus on quicker turns, preventing empty oak; figure out timing, working with purchasing to acquire the best barrels we can. A lot of this stuff is already being performed at a high level, but I just want to continue that and hopefully improve it down the road. Continuing to explore mixed culture fermentations will be exciting. I’d like to continue to research specific organisms and hopefully begin to build a portfolio of strains that we like, and organisms that are specifically “Deschutes”. We have the ability at Deschutes to really dig in and analyze what we are doing. It would be nice to share some of that with the industry as a whole.

JH: My goal is to continue to challenge myself as I enter a new creative outlet. Switching from barrel aging beers to recipe creation and creation of new beers. I have a handful of experience with that but not a ton. Plus I’ve never lived in the city, I’m excited to work with a different demographic of beer drinkers. I’m excited to check out all of the breweries in Portland, this city is really the heart of where Oregon beer began. While we have a brewing community in Bend, a lot of the brewers came through Deschutes at one time. It’ll be nice to be around brewers with more diverse backgrounds.

BK: Our pilot plant is scheduled to arrive and come online during the first quarter of next year. Up until now we’ve used the pubs primarily for driving R&D processes. While the pubs will still be involved, a portion of that development process will be shifted over to the pilot plant. Once the pilot plant is up and running it should free up both pubs to focus more on brewers creations rather than slightly tweak a recipe over and over. That type of fine-tuning will be done at the pilot plant. This will allow the pubs to operate, as they should, focused on brewer’s creations and a diverse tap list which will ultimately be better for the business all together.

So with this new ability to increase the amount of brewer’s creations, how would you summarize the styles that we’ve seen come out of the pub thus far? And what kinds of styles can we expect to see in the future?

BK: Once we’ve satisfied all of the R&D stuff and everything that we’re required to brew, I pretty much enjoy every beer style. So far I’ve kind of brewed all over the place, but if I was looking for a common thread I would say I value balance and sessionability/drinkability. I love Belgian beers, I love German beers, since our house yeast is an English strain it’s fun to do English styles as well. Really I like to brew anything I can get my hands on.

JH: I feel pretty much the same way, I really value diversity. There’s always going to be IPAs, hop forward beers, I like to explore some of the more malty beer styles. The ability to explore lagers a little more is exciting to me. We plan to just run the whole gambit as far as styles go. With the pilot plant up and running it should free us up a lot. Whereas right now we run a lot of hop trials on experimental varietals at the pubs, this should move over to the pilot plant.

What do you guys view as challenges going into your new positions?

BK: With the barrel program the most important thing for me going down there is acclimating to new territory. The most important thing for me is keeping the ship moving in the direction that its moving and making sure releases are set in place. Building the experience I need to get up and running and familiar with the position will be one of the biggest challenges. I’m going to come into this position and hit the ground running, it’ll be crucial to remember to stop and pay attention to what I’m doing.

JH: It’s going to be similar to me, getting used to day to day operations. The brewing side should come naturally, scheduling brew days, figuring out how I’m supposed to spend my time. It shouldn’t be too bad but I think it’ll just take some time.

In terms of Deschutes as a company, do you guys have anything happening in the near future that you’re excited about?

BK: The next Black Butte Anniversary beer will be coming out soon, the next Abyss will be coming out even sooner. The specialty Abyss releases for this year will be scotch barrel and brandy barrel. We have a few other exciting projects that we should be able to announce as their release dates approach. The Armory project will continue to evolve and change.

We’re conducting this interview on the release date of Collage #2, your Hair Of The Dog collaboration. Can you talk a little bit about that beer?

JH: Similar to Collage #1, two beers from Alan over at Hair Of The Dog, two beers from us at Deschutes. We each changed a beer, this year he kept Fred and changed Adam to Doggie Claws. We continued with The Stoic and changed Dissident to The Abyss. The barrel profile for this year was streamlined. In previous years we’ve aged each beer in multiple barrels, this year we aged each beer in a single barrel type. Doggie Claws this year was conditioned in Cognac barrels, Fred was aged in a combination of new oak and rye whiskey, Abyss and The Stoic were all pinot barrel aged.

Deschutes Brewery and Public House in Portland, Oregon. (photo by Ryan Spencer)
Deschutes Brewery and Public House in Portland, Oregon. (photo by Ryan Spencer)

We wish both Ben and Jake the best at each of their new positions at Deschutes and look forward to sampling their forthcoming releases!