Attending a beer fest should be about the joy of discovery. Of course, you can simply gravitate to the usual suspects, the familiar beers you know and love, the ones you’re certain will quench your thirst in a most pleasant fashion. Or you can revel in what beer fests should actually be about: discovering new and interesting beers and tastes and breweries.
Last year’s Green Dragon NanoFest was one of those occasions when I was lucky enough to enjoy the latter kind of experience. It was one of those weird little accidents, as I just happened to be driving through the area, saw the beer tents, the crowds and decided to stop by and see what all the commotion was about. As is usually the case, I ran into a friend, we chatted and she encouraged me to sample her fest favorite: an imperial IPA by some little brewery called Block 15. She knows her beer, and her tastes generally line up with mine, so I went off in search of this supposedly tasty brew. I was out of luck. The beer had been so popular, according to the owner/brewer who was manning his own taps, that they’d ran out the first day. He added however, that they did have a nice rye beer, their Superfly Rye.
As I began to walk away, to search for a more appetizing alternative, Nick Arzner shifted into full sales mode and began extolling the beer’s virtues in such reverent and scrumptious tones that I stopped dead in my tracks. What the heck, I thought, even though I generally don’t like rye beers, experimenting with styles you may not like is what beer fests are all about. He poured a sample, I tried it, and drinking that beer was a true revelation. That typical dry rye spiciness was smoothed out with a hint of caramel sweetness that balanced it very nicely. To my utter shock, I ended up having another couple of samples and then a full cup. From that point forward I began to check for his beers in places like Belmont Station and Bailey’s Taproom, establishments that carried Block 15 beers. A day trip down to the Corvallis brewpub followed and I was hooked. Block 15 beers gained a prominent spot on that exclusive list: it was one of those beers I’d drive a few miles just to find a pint of it on tap.
I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. Even though the Corvallis brewpub has only been open since the spring of 2008, they’ve already established a niche as nice little brewery that consistently pours very tasty, and often unique, high quality beers. If one of their beers is on tap at one of the local bottle shops, taprooms or pubs, they don’t seem to stick around very long. Someone else, besides me, seems to be drinking a lot of their beer… and they’re doing it pretty quickly also. Block 15 received a nice bit of recognition this spring when they won the People’s Choice Award at the Portland Cheers for Belgian Beers with their La Ferme’ de Demons, a truly wicked black saison aged in pinot, oak and bourbon barrels. That beer, like so many of their other beers, forces you to stop, savor it and take serious notice.
So how does a little brewpub all the way out in little old Corvallis elbow its way into a beer market as competitive as Portland’s, in such a relatively short time? In order to get the perspective of someone who’d surely know, I took a drive south on I-5, then along a winding US-20, to Corvallis where I had a chance to chat with Nick and take a tour of the brewery.
The brewery sits in a large, well-maintained, though almost century-old building that is smack dab in the middle of downtown Corvallis. Early on a Monday afternoon, the pub was busy, with employees bustling about and a steady flow of customers. The pub had a relaxed, laid back feel, as each employee who crossed paths with him greeted the boss with a joke, a high five or a brief story about their weekend escapades. A warm and welcoming atmosphere for its customers, that collegial and collaborative spirit is probably what one should expect from a little brewery that was so busy it pumped out over 70 beer styles in the first year of its operation.
Nick chatted about the brewery, the beers, how the business came to make its mark in Portland, and many other interesting topics. It will be a busy week for the brewery, even more so because Nick just came back from a vacation in Michigan. On Saturday he’ll be in Oakridge to present his beers at the Oakridge Keg & Cask Festival and he’ll be sending up a couple of beers north to this year’s Green Dragon NanoFest in Portland. Apparently, the NanoFest will pour two beers he discusses in this interview, a version of their 6 Hop Wonder and the Aboriginale, a free-style ale that truly defies classification. So, in anticipation of being able to enjoy a couple of Block 15’s beers this weekend, here’s the interview:
NA = NICK ARZNER
SV = STEVE VAN ROSSEM
So these (pointing to beer menu) are the ones you know that just are, are always going to be there, the staples.
NA: Right, exactly kind of what we look at, when we almost go into a good mix of good craft beer, you know and we’ve retooled the recipe over the last two and a half years on all of them to really kind of get em where we want, so those are our staples. And on the back is where we have a lot of fun. This makes up normally half of our menu, or more, depending, and we’re going to install more draft lines in the next couple of months and we’ll be able to have even more adventurous stuff. Right now we’re in the summer so you’ll see kind of like more summery-type beers…maybe. (Laughs.) These rotate quite frequently, you can see the “coming soon beer”. We have a new beer out every week and a half, two weeks, so this is where we have a lot of fun doing different Belgian-style ales or just different beer and hopefully lagers sometimes. We’re trying to get more and more into that. Barrel-aged stuff. Big beers. Styles that you don’t see maybe often, if at all, in brewpubs. That’s kinda how we’re designed, almost like, you come in and you expect…it’s great when people come in and they are like, I just want a pale ale and try that and they sit at the bar and get to talking with us and maybe we lead em into an Imperial Red – have you met Steve? This is Steve Van Rossem, our brewmaster.
SV: Glad to meet you, Frank…
Do you remember what you brought last year to the [Green Dragon Nano] fest?
NA: I think we brought…think we brought Six Hop Wonder but ran out on the first night…
Right, right, and I didn’t have any cause I came that second day, I think…you had a rye beer, right?
NA: We did Superfly Rye, was what I brought up to substitute that Six Hop Wonder and we did a Hemp Nut Brown Ale.
The Superfly Rye was really tasty…you know, really sort of struck me as being unusual because normally I’m not a real big rye beer fan. You know there’s just,…just that dry quality doesn’t really sit well with my palate. But that was very, very different. In fact, the hint of the rye, was balanced out. Can you describe the beer and just why it tasted a little different.
NA: It’s funny that you mention what you…what your perception of a rye beer is, because that was my perception, also, exactly in the same boat as you and people would say well will you do a rye beer and once I had, they didn’t strike me as…not my style I like, so eventually and this happens a lot, I give in to what people, what people want, which is what you should do in running a brewery, BUT you put your own spin on it. So we decided a lot of times when we design beers here, normally I’ll come up with the idea, and Steve and I will kind of design what we’re doing, so we thought, well the kind of dry, spiciness of the rye could combine well with some sweeter caramel malts and some really nice spicy citrusy hops so that was the plan for Superfly when we did it, I think we did it two years ago for the first time, we just did one batch and people loved it so we now we do it about this time every year, in fact, that will be coming on probably next week.
So it’s probably the caramel flavor, you know, that I ended up getting that balances out that dry quality, is that what you think?…yea, that makes a lot of sense cause that little bit of sweetness, that caramelly…
NA: Yes and we use British specialty malts which we really like British specialty malts and Bairds malts we really like Bairds malts, it’s just one of those ideas that has really worked out. We’ve cooled the recipe a couple of times since we initially got it to where we wanted it, it’s a really nice, popular beer that we have on, we try to have it on during the fall, so we’ll do several batches of it this year.
So would that have been one of the first different kind of beers that you brewed here?
NA: No…in our first year, I really haven’t counted since, but our first year of being open we brewed… I think it was 78 different styles of beer. So we… ah, one thing I was really…
NA: Yea, 78…
In that first year?
NA: So this side rotates quite a bit. (Pointing to side of beer menu that lists specialty and seasonal beers, as he laughs.)
Isn’t that a bit unusual for a new brewery. Cause typically what I’ve seen is that a brewery comes out with their 5 or 7 or 8…
NA: Yea, but we, ah…we feel that’s kind of boring. You know, I always compare it to…cause people say the same thing, they’re like, wow, that is an amazing amount of beers and how do you do that or why do you do that, and I always say, I always compare it to a bakery, if you go to a nice bakery and it has great things and you want to be a regular there, yea, they have what you like, but you always want something new, something to look forward to. I was hugely influenced by this brewery in Michigan actually, called Dragonmead. Years ago, when the idea of Block 15 was in our head, we visited them and they had 50 of their own beers on tap, and they’re a three and a half barrel system that brews three times a day. It’s just wild. And that’s on an extreme side of things. I never wanted…I never wanted to do that, but the idea is that being a community brewpub and being such a huge beer enthusiast, there are so many different styles of beer out there we should take a good stab at a lot of them, and always rotate and try new things and use our knowledge and other people’s knowledge to brew those different styles of beer. So some of them we do pretty traditional like I’d say the Belgian Blonde you’re drinking is a pretty good stab at something traditional and some we don’t do…we just use the ideas of different beers or flavor combinations and put those beers together.
So do any of those beers that start off as specialty or seasonals end up getting over to that side of the menu where they are staples and regular beers?
NA: Well, the Aboriginale did that initially. What we do is start figuring out what really works on those specialty beers and so they’ll make an appearance at least once a year or maybe two or three batches a year. Superfly Rye is a good example of that. Some beer we might only want to do one batch of, a seven barrel batch, it might only be around for a couple of weeks, maybe three weeks, and then some, you know, as we’re two and a half years old, we’ve already brewed for the fall… we have a lot of beer waiting down there. A lot of em are ones we brewed last fall, but then we always throw in a couple of new ones.
Well that keeps things interesting. You mentioned that Aboriginale. I’ve been here and tried that. Actually, I got a growler of it. I don’t know if they were supposed to have poured a growler of it, but they poured a growler of it for me and I was able to enjoy it at home. It’s really unusual. Can you just describe it?
NA: It was first…before we were open, we were brewing beer, you know, and we cranked out a golden and a pale and an IPA and we had all these grains and all these hops, and let’s just brew something, let’s just come in tomorrow and brew some beer. And that really was the idea of Aboriginale. Steve and I came in and we talked, we didn’t write a recipe, we took a recipe down, and we said hey, let’s do this…let’s do that…let’s make it a little stronger…7%… let’s go towards the hops a little bit, and let’s throw in some really interesting malts…and that’s what we came up with, was this Aboriginale. It has some interesting malts in it, some crystal malt, a very little bit…probably the secret malt is pale chocolate in there. It throws this little bit of color but a very interesting malt profile. And the hops, we did good combinations of earthy Fuggles and citrusy Chinooks, it’s kind of a blend of all these things and we called it Aboriginale, because an aboriginal is like the first inhabitant of a place, so we thought, hey, maybe this is the first kind of bigger beer that we’ll brew and we were only going to brew it once, but people really, really liked it and we said this is a unique enough but approachable enough beer to add to our regular line-up of beers. So it’s one of our best sellers now.
So did you actually write the recipe down as you were proceeding?
NA: Right, we did that. Yea, but the idea was hey, how about this and oh yea, a little of this and a layer of that and we kind of combined it into this…ah…beer! (Laughs)
So it’s kind of a collaborative process at a certain point where you’re kind of working with Steve and …how long have you known Steve and can you describe how you got to work together.
NA: I was actually working here in town at a McMenamins on Monroe and a brewer there Gary Nance said hey, if you, if you’re looking for a brewer, I know Steve Van Rossem and he wanted to be back in brewing, and Steve started brewing years and years ago at McMenamins Edgefield and was the McMenamins High Street brewer and he left McMenamins and went to West Brothers which is now Eugene City Brewery and brewed for them there, got them up and rolling, then he took a few years off and he wanted to get back into brewing so I said, yea, and I met with Steve, obviously when we were in our build-out process here. And over a few pints we just really hit it off. So, I hired him, basically on the spot. And he’s been with us ever since.
Had you like known him in your circles…?
NA: No, not at all. I just met him…he’s just a hell of a guy, a really nice guy, really intelligent. He’s our brewmaster here. I do a lot of the brewery and I [garbled] and decide what we’re gonna do and I design a lot and I do do some brewing, but he has 16 years experience, so he can munch on a malt and say, hey, and I’ll be like what? And I feel that I’ve learned a lot cause I’ve basically been his apprentice for almost 3 years now. That’s how we got put together…
So you certainly have to be of a similar mindset in order to work with someone, or at least have some sort of creative tension…
NA: I think what is really great is that we are very similar in where we are headed, but I think I’ve…Steve brings this really nice old school thought and process to Block 15 and I think I bring a progressive front to Block 15 so we somehow mesh it… somehow, and we do a lot of things that even, definitely push beyond the boundaries of what he’s done in his traditional brewing, but then he can bring all that knowledge and experience and it’s kind of a …it’s kind of good, almost … it’s just a good combination of those two things. And it keeps us growing in a certain direction.
Did you even interview anyone else?
NA: Nope. No. He’s really like family. We really got along. He’s a very mechanical guy also, so when things break he can fix it. (Laughs). Which I’m not at all.
So, this is part of your system right here. (Gestures to visible tanks,)
NA: Yea. The brewhouse is upstairs. The grain room is over on our left. You can see the auger that comes up, dumps the grain in there and so we brew upstairs, we’ll go downstairs later where we have a whole slew of tanks and barrels and where we’re cold brewing.
So can you describe your system, briefly.
NA: Yea, it’s just a seven barrel –
SV: Seven barrels of insanity!
NA: Seven barrels of insanity…yea! A seven barrel system, it’s a…we have a mash tun, a hot liquor tank below that we capture our cooling water with…direct fire…boil kettle…pretty standard really. We do brew with renewable energy, we purchase from…we have Blue Sky Energy from Pacific Power and carbon offsets from Northwest Natural Gas, so we try to be environmentally friendly. We capture a lot of the water we use in cleaning…
Is that involved with what your website talks about when they talk about sustainability?
NA: Yes, just philosophies that my wife and I have, living in general, we just kind of bring it on to our business, as best we can.
Do you have any facilities for doing barrel-aging? Do you have a specific area where you do that?
NA: Yes, we have downstairs, right now I think we have a total of… I think we have 60 barrels. Right now. We do a lot of barrel-aging. Right now we have pinot noir barrels, Oregon oak, bourbon and brandy barrels, that we’re aging in. I’m trying to get some rum barrels in, to do some rum-aging. We need to do a lot of barrel-aging our beers. It’s one thing I’d like to see, hopefully….hopefully by the end of this year is that we’ll always have a barrel-aged beer on tap. It really is one of those things…first year we opened, we did two barrel-aged beers and it just really caught on. And not just with the customers and the beer people, but I think it is really an artistic tool for brewers to go…to leave the standard stainless steel and this, controlling the beer to almost letting the beer control you and tell you when it’s ready. We do a ton of barrel-aging and we’re actually expanding our cellar 1100 square feet to allow for about 120 more barrels, so we’re going to get even deeper into barrel-aging.
Seems like it’s a pretty large facility or area that you have. What was in here previously?
NA: It was a pizza place…mostly. Since the ’70’s it was a couple of different, various pizza places, ultimately they didn’t make it, I guess.