The Up and Coming Salem Craft Beer Scene

Oregon State Capitol

The growth of what is known as craft beer has been on an upward swing here in the Pacific Northwest for the past three decades. Many of the major metro markets have exploded with numerous breweries but one city, Salem, Oregon, is one that was not part of this massive growth. However, things are beginning to change in the Beaver State’s capital city.

Salem is now home to six breweries with more in the planning stages. Four of these breweries are independent, locally operations while the other two are part of chain operations. The independent breweries include Gilgamesh Brewing, Santiam Brewing, Salem Ale Works, and Vagabond Brewing. The other two are Oregon craft beer pioneers; McMenamins with its Thompson Brewery and Public House and Washington based R.A.M. that recently became employee owned.McMenamins Thompson Brewery and Public House

Oregon’s capital city has a rich history in brewing that dates back to 1862 when Sam Adolph began his Pacific Brewery in Salem. This brewery changed hands and went with a new name, Capital Brewery. There was also the Salem Brewery Association in the early 1900’s followed by Sicks’ Brewing in the middle of the last century. Last winter’s Built By Beer Pub Crawl highlighted this on a very cold winter night.

Beyond these breweries Salem is beginning to grow its craft beer culture with plenty of bars and restaurants that feature a strong, diverse tap selection. A few of Salem’s must visit taphouses include Venti’s Café, b2 Taphouse, Sparky’s Brewing Company, and Growl Movement to name just a few. Then for fans of craft cider, don’t forget Salem based Wandering Aengus Cider.

Travel Salem LogoWe were recently treated to an informative and eye opening tour of these breweries in Salem from Kara Kuh of Travel Salem. During our visit we were able to experience first hand the positive contributions these younger breweries are making to Oregon’s highly lauded craft beer scene.


Gilgamesh Brewing

Gilgamesh Brewing Taps
The oldest of the four independent breweries in Salem is Gilgamesh Brewing. Originally based in nearby Turner, OR when this family owned brewery began brewing in 2009, the brewery relocated to its current more spacious location two years ago.

Gilgamesh is as close as one can get to being a true family business. The Radtke family operates the brewery that includes brothers, Mike, Nick and Matt along with their father Lee. Each family member has his or her own part in making the business a rising success.

As its business throughout the Willamette Valley began to grow the need for a larger space and brew system became more evident. Then in 2013 the family pulled up from its Turner location to move to a much more spacious Salem location.

Gilgamesh Brewing RestaurantThis move not only brought with it the previously mentioned extra space but also a new restaurant and unique brew system. The inviting restaurant has a capacity for 130 inside and another 100 outside when the weather cooperates, one that allows the entire family to visit. However to allow its patrons to continue to stay close to the outdoors part of this patio area is enclosed for the winter months with a heater to keep it temperate controlled. On the entertainment side of things Gilgamesh offers up a few theme nights including yoga, science night, family movie night, and its popular outdoor summer concert series.

When it comes to libations, Gilgamesh keeps it local. Its full bar features a wide range of its house beers along with serving only regional craft distillers such as one of our favorites, CW Irwin Straight Bourbon from Bend, OR. The bar was also pouring Stumptown Cold Brew on nitro for those in need of a quick caffeine fix.

What’s most exciting about Gilgamesh’s recent expansion is that it continues to evolve. When they relocated this move also brought the need for a new, larger brewing system. The family did their research when looking for its new system and they spared no cost. This evaluation led them to California based iDD and settling on its 20 Hectoliter or approximately 17 1/2 BBL steam powered brewhouse.

Inside Gilgamesh Brewing

The thing that sets this brew system apart from others is that uses a massive mash filter. Beyond being more environmentally sound this mash filter allows for much greater wort extraction along with better grain efficiency and uses 30% less water. Therefore Gilgamesh is able to brew double batches in same amount of time allowing them to be more efficient. This is a similar brew system that is used at both Full Sail Brewing and Alaska Brewing.

Gilgamesh Brewing Mash Filter

Prior to packaging Gilgamesh also employs the use of a Flash Pasteurizer also from iDD. This process is able to heat the beer directly from brite tank from its resting 33deg to 160deg and back to 33deg in less than 28 seconds.

Gilgamesh Brewing Pasteurizer

A dream for many craft breweries, Gilgamesh has what Lee describes as a “pocket lab” that allows the brewery to explore the chemistry behind the beer. A forklift can move the tiny lab but plans are to expand this to a more permanent location. With a new grain silo to be installed, this silo will contribute to the business’ bottom line in very little time.

Gilgamesh Brewing Portable LabThis expansion also allowed Gilgamesh the extra capacity to begin bringing its beers to a larger audience. Already in 22oz bottles that have been handled by a mobile bottler, Gilgamesh is adding its own Maheen bottling line to bottle on its own. But this need of an outside bottler will not last very long as Gilgamesh will soon begin canning four of its offerings; Mamba, IPA, DJ Jazzy Hef and Radler with the mobile work from Craft Canning.

Mike Radtke began his exploration in homebrewing when he was just 17 years old. Without originally gaining the approval of his parents he was “caught” by his mother but Lee stated that they allowed him to continue this hobby. Good thing they did as it turn into quit the budding business.

After touring the brewery Lee led us back into the bar area of the restaurant to sit down and sample the brothers labor of love. While sampling 6 various beers I can attest that Gilgamesh is finding its niche. The sampling started off with light bodied DJ Jazzy Hef that led into Mamba, its beer brewed without hops. Mamba is perfect for those less fortunate that are allergic to hops. Next up was the Indian Session Ale. This one was quite enjoyable for the style. It offered a nice solid body.

Sampling Beers at Gilgamesh Brewing

From these three lighter appearance beers Lee led us to the darker side. First up was Mean Eileen; this Schwartz Beer was named after Lee’s wife in a tongue in cheek manner. Such a way to thank the true leader of their household. Next up was Bandit Smokey Baltic Porter, a seasonal at 7.2% ABV and 20 IBU, this Porter was well balanced for a Baltic. Finally Lee poured a Vader. This big beer is one that’s very deceiving from its designed malt and hop profile.

What does the future hold for Gilgamesh? Two years into this expansion, the family already has its sights on 40,000 BBL production in the future. Also look for an expanded parking lot with about 95 additional parking spaces along with a new sign along the roadway.

Gilgamesh Brewing is located at 2065 Madrona Ave. SE, Salem, OR 97302


Santiam Brewing

Ian, Jim & Ed from Santiam Brewing
When one thinks about brewery startups this usually involves a couple of principal partners but nine business partners are usually out of the question. However, this is the norm at Santiam Brewing. Yes, nine partners that managed to elude their corporate bosses to launch this growing brewery on July 7, 2012.

So how did all nine partners meet one another? Sitting with two of the founders, Ian and Jim, while drinking a Pirate Stout poured by another partner, Ed, they tell the story of their meet ups to discuss their ambitions as “Choir Practice”. This was the group’s codeword to not flag their bosses from their corporate world jobs to what their grand plan was. This “Choir Practice” led to what we the craft beer fans of Salem know at a brewery producing quality, old world beers.

“We make standard beers but make them well. Stay as authentic to style as possible”, states Ian. Then Jim chimes in, “We want the subtle flavors to come through”.

Santiam Brewing Brewhouse

Taking its name from the nearby Santiam River where its fresh tasting water used for its beers come from the brewery started out small on just a 3 BBL brew system. But it took them only two years to expand to its current 12 Hectoliter brewhouse back in October 2014.

Santiam currently brews about 90 BBL per month but plan on increasing this total to 200 BBL per month by end of 2015. To get to this additional capacity Santiam is awaiting the arrival of a few additional 24BBL fermenters. This additional capacity will allow them to offer 22oz bottles by mid 2015. Ian is currently designing the bottle labels.

Most known for its Pirate Stout, this regarded beer is aged in former rum barrels. Former Jack Daniels barrels were spotted during our visit that were just used to age rum in on the Oregon Coast at Rogue Ales & Spirits.Barrel Aging Pirate Stout at Santiam Brewing

Santiam’s tasting room offers quite the worldly feel. There’s a world map that is pinned from the hometowns of its visitors along with various flags hanging from the rafters. To keep in line with a nice English Pub, steel tip dartboards line one of its walls. And the free Wi-Fi would make this a great mobile office. If on arrives hungry on either Thursday or Friday evenings there will be a food cart to satisfy this craving.

To keep one anchored to their chair or barstool, Santiam offers up 15 beer taps, 3 wine taps, 1 rotating cider tap and 4 cask beer on the beer engine. And for those of us in the know about Ted Sobel’s Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, OR, Santiam is part of a cask exchange program with Sobel. Each pub has one of each other’s casks on its beer engine. Also be on the lookout for this rotating cider tap handle to become a permanent one. Santiam is currently applying for a winery license to produce its own cider.

Santiam Brewing Tasting Room

To celebrate its anniversary every year Santiam hosts a party that celebrates all things cask beer with its annual Rock the Cask Bar celebration. Now in its 3rd year, Rock the Cask Bar will take place on Saturday July 11, 2015. Having attended this event the very first year, we were impressed with both the beer offerings and the turnout. The inaugural year was jam packed inside so it’s nice to know that Santiam last year also brought its parking lot into the fold.

Worldly Travelers to Santiam BrewingThe brewery’s current self-distribution brings its beers to 110+ accounts for its fans in and around Salem area. Fortunately for its fans in Portland this distribution brings Santiam beer to about 15 Portland accounts including Roscoe’s and Bailey’s Taproom.

Now with a few years under its belt, Santiam will begin to bring its beers to the larger masses. This spring Santiam will be part of the Burnside Brewing’s popular Fruit Beer Festival. Then after this Portland event the brewery will return to the Oregon Garden Brew Fest taking place over Father’s Day Weekend. At the OGBF Santiam will defend its back-to-back Peoples Choice Award for its Pirate Stout.

Santiam Brewing is located at 2544 19th St. SE, Salem, OR 97306


Salem Ale Works

Salem Ale Works Jake Bonhan & Justing Ego
Established in 2013, Salem Ale Works was founded by Justin Ego and Jake Bonham, two friends that met in college while studying at Utah State University. After completing college the future entrepreneurs went into a career that led the duo into danger as they fought forest fires throughout the Western United States. When they left the this life threatening career of forest fire fighting in 2007, Ego decided to use his vast homebrewing skills along with what he invested in while studying at Utah State, his chemistry degree. Not a shabby skill set to have for brewing.

Salem Ale Works helps Makes Salem AwesomeWhen it came time to getting the brewery all started, they settled on a manageable 3 BBL system. Ego took over the brewing duties while Bonham took on the business side of things. This tiny system keeps busy as Ego brews about 3 days per week on it. Last year SAW produced about 200 BBL and this year his goal is to double this amount so they can keep up with the increasing demand.

During our visit we were able to samples 6 of the brewery’s beers. First up was Steel Bridge Coffee Stout. Ego sources the coffee used from local roaster Steel Bridge Coffee in Salem. This micro-roaster delivers its beans in the Salem area by bike. Thee nice coffee roast melds quite well with this stout.

Next up were a couple German inspired beers. Redwood Roggen, a beer brewed with 60% rye and German yeast. This historical German beer offers up pleasant flavors of banana followed up with clove in back of mouth. SAW’s Sleeping Marmot Winter Ale uses smoked and crystal malts to give its unique character.

One of SAW’s two year round beers is Hootenanny Honey Basil and the other being Misery Whip IPA. We sampled Hootenanny Honey Basil, a beer that Kuh highly recommended during our visit. Hootenanny pours a very clear pale straw color. This clean ale offers a pleasant basil aroma, one that’s not too overwhelming. When asked how the herb is used in the brewing process Ego mentions, “The basil is added in the last 5min of the boil for aroma”.Salem Ale Works

Not to be outdone by other breweries when it comes to hops, SAW recently brewed its first ever Double IPA. Aptly named Double IPA this hop-bomb could see a name change sometime in the future. Ego states that this beer “may get its own name”. At a reasonable 75 IBUs for an IIPA, this one is sure to delight fans of hoppy ales.

Our final beer sampled was a collaborative effort with local beer bar Growl Movement. Growl at the Moon is an interesting dark brown ale with its use of 2 row Chocolate Malt that gives an inviting roasty flavor.

Salem Ale Works Menu Board

For those on the lookout for SAW beers they currently self distribute in 50L and 1/6BBL kegs. Since Bonham lives in the Portland area some of its output does make it up to Portland and will rotate on tap at some of the city’s better beer bars.

Salem Ale Works is located at 2027 25th St. SE, Salem, OR 97302


Vagabond Brewing

Dean at Vagabond Brewing

The youngest brewery in Salem is not even one year old. Vagabond Brewing opened its doors on February 28, 2014 by a trio of former U.S. Marines. Founded by Dean Howes, James Cardwell and Alvin Klausen in an industrial area of Northeast Salem, they settled on a spacious 7,000 square foot building that offers much room for future growth. It didn’t take long to get noticed as Vagabond was the winner of Salem’s 2014 Cinco de Micro festival only two months into its opening.

Beer Love Adventure at Vagabond BrewingHaving met in the Marine Corps, the trio traveled the world after re-entering civilian life. Northern California native, Howes and Salem native Cardwell dabbled heavily in homebrewing prior to make a go at this brewing venture. The two also brought in another Salem native Klausen to self-finance along with its successful Kickstarter campaign.

Brewing on its original 4 BBL steam fired brewhouse from Portland Kettle Works, Vagabond’s 2014 output was about 450 barrels. Vagabond currently offers its beers in 1/2BBL and 1/6 BBL kegs. However this will not be the only way to acquire its beer. Vagabond will soon offer a few selections in 22oz. bottles and 16oz. cans, just waiting on label approval from the TTB.

With this additional packaging it will test the trio’s distribution skills as the brewery currently self distributes its beers in the Salem area and an occasional tap handle in Portland.

But one place one can always find its beers are in its very own taproom inside its brewery. With a selection of 10 to 12 house beers plus a few rotating guest taps selection is king. The taproom space is massive and is filled with various video games and other way to entertain. Live music is featured on Friday and Saturday nights and for those that want to be taken care of, one can join the Vagabond Expedition Club, better known as its mug club.

Vagabond Brewing Taproom

On Saturday, February 28, 2015, Vagabond will celebrate one year in business with an Anniversary Party. For the anniversary Vagabond will be releasing two bourbon barrel-aged beers. These two beers will be Barrel-Aged Sweet Stout, a milk stout with added spices and Barrel-Aged Northwest Passage Stout.

Vagabond Brewing Lights in Taproom

These are not the only beers aging in formerly used spirits barrels. Vagabond now has a solid relationship with Four Spirits and uses its previously used barrels along with a few Pinot Noir barrels from King Estate. One beer that is currently barrel aging is a pumpkin beer that was brewed in the fall of 2014. Look for that one to be released this coming autumn.

Vagabond Brewing is located at 2195 Hyacinth St. NE, Salem, OR 97301


AleWays Bus

One way to hop around between these Salem breweries is by boarding the Ale Ways bus. The Ale Ways bus also offers pre-planned tours that take its guests behind the scenes to meet the brewers and taste beers in a fun filled environment.

With the recent announcement of the Hood River areas new Breweries in the Gorge new brewery association the new aspiring breweries of Salem are also looking into forming a similar group. The pending Salem Brewery Association is in its development stage being founded by Gilgamesh, Salem Ale Works, Santiam Brewing and Vagabond Brewing. Slowly forming the group and its doctrine the group already has its own Facebook page at DrinkSalemBeer.Drink Salem Beer

Then to coincide with this Salem Brewery Association, a Salem Ale Trail is being worked on along with Salem’s premiere craft beer bars. More details on these two new groups as news develops.

So when you’re traversing around Oregon’s Capitol Building make sure to stop by and support the various local breweries of Salem. There’s some great beer coming from its breweries.