Seven Brides Brewing: from the Heart of Oregon's Hoplands

You may remember last fall when we headed out to Annen Brothers hop farm to get the grand tour from Jeff DeSantis of Hops 2 You, a local distributor of the Oregon grown beer bittering fruit. Craft beer geeks’ thirst for fresh ingredients is quelled by DeSantis who provides smaller brewers with a resource for relatively small scale supplies of hops that, in the past has been so difficult for many to come by.

Not only is DeSantis distributing hops to the Northwest beer community, but he and his five business partners-Josiah Kelley, and brothers Phill and Karl Knoll, and brother Ken DeSantis-are also using them with a young and successful craft beer venture called Seven Brides Brewing. Situated in the heart of Oregon’s hopland the year-old brewery is the first ever professional brewery in Silverton, Oregon and the first situated so close to the fields since Mt. Angel Brewing Company discontinued alcoholic beer brewing some years back.

On a recent trip to the middle of the Willamette Valley, I visited the Seven Brides brewery, where, across the street lies his parents’ house where three generations of DeSantis‘ have lived and shared a love for the area they unmistakably know as home. Jeff DeSantis‘ passion for his community and love for his family radiates from every inch of his being.  He is a warm and inviting person with a smile that can light up a room.

On this warm, breezy, late spring day, Jeff gave me a tour of the small brewery and shared with me Seven Bride’s stellar beers and shed some light on one of Oregon’s most sustainable and quaffable beer producers.

So who’s the one in charge of overseeing the brewing of this delicious beer?

Jeff DeSantis: We’re relying on Phill Knoll, our head brewer, and his brother Karl. They are brothers and partners. They develop recipes, tastes, and have helped develop the different styles that we’ve come up with so far. We’ve got some very unique beers. Our Oatmeal Ellie is probably one of my favorites because of the hints of dark chocolate and coffee. We have converted more people who say right of the get-go “No. I don’t like dark beer” just by talking through it and giving them samples of it. It’s one of our lighter-bodied beers, so when you taste it, it’s not a heavy beer at all. It’s a very traditional style of stout. So, that is one of my favorites. It’s like a dry Irish-styled except we use oatmeal instead of rye. We do have a dry Irish stout that we call Kelley Irish Stout. We’ve been making it for several years. One of our owners, his dad has his 32nd annual St. Patrick’s Day party. We’ve been making it for him for the past umpteen years. So now with them supporting us, we need to identify the inspiration, and that is where the name came from.

We’re growing. A year ago when we had talked, we were brewing with a barrel-and-a-half system. We had just gotten our license. We had just missed doing the brew fest in Silverton at the Oregon Garden. But this year we were involved as far as having our beer there. And we actually won Tasters’ Choice Award for our pilsner which is something that we are very proud of. There were about thirty different breweries there and to win this award, we were pretty…stoked. It was pretty exciting for us. So, back to a year ago, we acquired a seven-barrel system. From the time we went from the barrel-and-a-half to the seven-barrel system to acquiring this facility and getting things started here, we wondered “Do we move in with the seven-barrel system? Do we go ahead with a fifteen-barrel system?” There was the consideration of moving things in. We still had to run the gas line. It wasn’t really going to change our costs, just our productivity. We decided to put the big system in, and away we went…

Was it difficult for Seven Brides to acquire all of the permits and get all of your ducks in a row to start making and selling your product?

JD: For us it was pretty simple. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek. Dealing with OLCC was a breeze. I can’t say enough good things about the folks we worked with and have worked with us. The city has been outstanding. When we decided to do this, we went to the city and said “This is what we want to do and we want the city to take a proactive role with us.” Before we did anything in here, we brought the city manager, the city planner, the code guy, the fire chief and walked them though and gave them a plan and concept of what we wanted to do here. I think that is a big reason that things went very, very smoothly for us. The city has been phenomenal to work with. Our community has been very supportive as well. One of the exciting things that we’ve got coming up is Homer Days. Homer Davenport is Silverton’s founder. It’s like our founder’s day. We’ll be hosting the beer garden for this event. We’re also hosting the beer garden on July 3rd at the Oregon Garden. It is a sort of a Fourth of July celebration set a day early as to not compete with other events. The fireworks are spectacular. We’ve just got lots of things going on. It’s very exciting.

How would you characterize your relationship with beer and what is your history with beer that led to your involvement with the Seven Brides operation as well as your involvement in your hops distribution outfit, Hops 2 You?

JD: My experience with the brewing kind of came second. I was never a beer drinker in high school. After high school I was led more toward the wine and spirits side of things. My wife and I spent years touring wineries and collecting wine. When I got invited to brew with Phill and Karl and Josiah (Kelley) one day, I was able to take what I had learned about wine and transfer it into beer so that I could appreciate the texture, I could appreciate the flavor profile, and appreciate the characteristics of beer that I had never seen before. So from there on it was easy. We just had a blast with it. As things started progressing, my wife, she was never a beer drinker, but now, when we go somewhere, she prefers having a beer. It’s been a progression.

Your proximity to the hop fields is very much like that of a winery to the orchard. This isn’t so typical with breweries that are found all over the country. Are you the closest brewery to the source of the hops in Oregon?

JD: Yeah. I think we are.

What is this like for Seven Brides having this incredible access to fresh ingredients?

JD: It’s been an incredible experience. We started the brewery up by my house and could look down and see the hop fields. Well, at that time, we were having a tough time getting hops. We couldn’t get the guys to give us a call back. It’s two miles out in the country and all you can see is hops. A very unique, interesting experience let John Annen of Annen Brothers farm and I to meet. And one thing led to another and it was just ironic that brewing in Silverton we were having trouble getting hops. The majority of hops used in Oregon are grown in Oregon, shipped out of state, and brought back. John and I worked together to get Hops 2 You going and that has helped us as a brewery ensure that we have access to the hops that we like to use. That being said, we make a very conscious effort to use only hops that are grown locally. We want to make sure that we are supporting our local grower, that we are supporting our local vendors. Our yeast is Wy’East. They’re up in Odell. Our grain is a little more difficult to come by locally but we buy it from Great Western. We do as much of our peripheral business with things like printing, business cards, and anything we probably we could get cheaper, but that’s important to us to be local and ask the folks to buy local, we need to do the same.

Do you think it is more important to employ practices that support a certified organic product or a locally grown product?

JD: For me personally, I feel it is very important that we are responsible. For me, that leans more toward being green than organic. With organic, the costs that are associated with organics currently, increase the price when you have organic hops that are grown in New Zealand and flown over or shipped over. To do that in order to be called organic, I think that’s a little awkward. I think it’s far more important for us to be responsible, and really that translates, for us, to green. We recycle all of our water. The majority of water that comes in to our brewery goes out as beer. The water we brew with today goes into our hot liquor tank and becomes beer tomorrow. On the secondary side of our cooling system, we’re using water, but that water is being recycled continuously. The location we chose here, our energy costs were reduced dramatically due to the trees. We are actually working with a firm right now and are meeting with them next week about putting in a solar heating system for our water so we can take one step further. Those things, to me, all make sense. It makes sense to do these things responsibly and not just to be labeled organic.

Where can people expect to find your beers on tap?

JD: Outside of the Silverton/Mount Angel area, we are distributed by Mountain Peoples Wine and Beer. Currently we are on tap at McCormick & Schmicks at the Pilsner Room, Bailey’s Taproom, Horse Brass, Green Dragon, East Burn, in Salem at Venti’s, at Bentley’s, at Cornicopia in Eugene…

How many locations approximately are your beers on tap at?

JD: I think we’re close to twenty, and locally the support has been phenomenal.

I was just going to ask you what is the local attitude on bere here in Silverton/Mount Angel? Is it similar or dissimilar to Portland?

JD: I think it is very similar in the fact that Silverton has gotten behind us. So there’s been a lot of pride and ownership so to speak. When people who live here are going somewhere, they come by and say “Hey I need a hat or a t-shirt because we’re going to this event” and they are very proud of the fact that we have a brewery here in Silverton. So as far as the public and as far as Silverton goes, we get a huge amount of support. Phenomenal support.

Are you the first brewery in Silverton?

JD: As far as we know, we are. I believe we are. There was a brewery in Mount Angel. It has since gone. Trager Industries owned it and then Trager Industries sold it. For one reason or another it just didn’t work. They were a restaurant, and now it is an events center. I think they still make pop, soda over there. But that’s about it. They’re not brewing any beer.

How do you know Phill and Karl and the rest of the crew at Seven Brides?

JD: We all went to the same high school. Karl and I graduated in ’87. Phill graduated, I think, a year later. Then Josiah, two or three years after that. My brother (Ken) was two years before me. We’ve grown. We started Seven Brides initially with three. Then Karl came on board virtually immediately. Then about eight months ago, Ken came on board. So there’s five of us.

You grew up across the street from the present location of the brewery. Your family has been in the same house for three generations. That seems like a very unique and interesting experience and history.

JD: It’s pretty exciting. Our family has been in Silverton since about 1895 and goes way, way back. And again, it comes back to community. Our community has embraced us thoroughly and we make sure we’re involved in things are community is involved with. It’s a good place to be from and a good place to live.

What is the feeling you get from this tight knit community that also features a decent amount of tourism from Oregon’s largest state park in Silver Falls just down the road?

JD: Silverton for me is home. For the past twenty years I’ve traveled extensively and I’ve talked to people about where I am from and then I visit where they’re from and there’s just no correlation. We had some very good friends of ours down last summer from Edmonton, Alberta. They had thought what I told them about Silverton was embellished a little. They couldn’t believe how everybody knows everybody. You can’t walk down the street without seeing a bunch of people you know. They called it Mayberry because it’s a very quaint town. We’re growing. I am very in Silverton. I sit in on the budget committee. I also am on the planning commission. We’re all very involved, whether it’s a church or any community group.

How many people live in Silverton?

JD: I think we’re just shy of 10,000. It’s a great place to raise kids. We’ve got our daughters, Emily and Lauren, who are the oldest of the seven brides. Since then we’ve had a couple additions. Karl was recently married and he has acquired a new daughter. When Ken came on board, he already had a son Bo with his wife Becky. So we started as Seven Brides because that was just something that came up. At the end of the day the name is a good analogy of who we are. Our girls and our wives are the things that are really important to us.

How big do you foresee the brewery getting/How big would you like to get?

JD: My background is sales and marketing. That’s what I do. So, if the five of us were sitting here, you’d have five totally different perspectives. My perspective is that we are just scratching the surface, that we’re just getting started. By setting up the way we are currently set up, it’s a very small facility that gives us the flexibility to grow without enduring any really huge growing pains. We plan on growing. We want to get to a point-I don’t know where that point is-but we want to get to a point where all of us, or at least some of us are employed by the brewery fulltime. Right now we’ve got basically five guys working quarter time.

JD: Can I have you try one of our Embers?

Twist my arm. Tell me more about Emily’s Ember.

JD: It’s named after my youngest daughter, Emily. We wanted to have an American-style amber that was a tradition ale with our own little added hint to it. We called it Em’s Ember, Emily’s Ember, a lot of different things. Instead of “amber” we went with “ember” because we wanted to add that red hue to it. If you’re sitting around the campfire at 2 o’clock in the morning and all that’s left is the coals…that was the idea behind it. As far as the flavor profile is concerned, we wanted the grains to really speak and we wanted that malt profile to come through. We didn’t want it to be over-hopped, but we wanted it to have a nice approachable flavor and an easy finish. We wanted to make it almost a session beer.

Tell us about your unique kegs.

JD: Kegs are very expensive. And coming back to doing business locally as something that is very important…the only kegs we could find were coming out of Asia at about $165-$175 per keg, quite the capital investment. We came across this guy in California called Plastic Kegs America. I called him up and talked to him for a couple of hours. We wanted to know about his product. We liked the idea of a lot of what he was offering. So we ordered a couple of sixth barrels. The big concern was flavor and would we be getting any flavor from the plastic. He assured us that it was a medical grade plastic and there’s something in the plastic that doesn’t allow for oxygen. So, long story short, we brought a couple of the barrels in, we immediately rinsed it, cleaned it, and put vinegar and milk and water in it. We wanted to come up with a nasty concoction…something…and we set it out in the sun for a couple of weeks. Just let it do its thing. We brought it back in and off-gassed it, which was disgusting. Then we put it through our standard keg cleaning, filled it with water, cooled the keg down. We all did some samples of the water line-up and different sources, and none of us could identify which water came out of the keg. So we filled it with our pilsner and then we did the same thing. We let it sit out and heat up in the sun because if anything was gonna come out, it was gonna come out at that point. Then we brought it back in, put it in the cooler, and two days later, we poured beer off of it. We couldn’t tell there was anything…We tried…tried to find something wrong with it. We just couldn’t. So that being said, the kegs are manufactured in California so they’re not coming from overseas. They’re all American sanke with stainless steel shafts. The head comes from Sabco. There’s a special tool so if we need to remove the stem we can. They’re temperature-rated. They’re pressure-rated. They’re built to stack. So they stack inside one another. So we can stack them three or four high. We’ve got half barrels and sixth barrels and what we call the “porta party.” It’s a 2.5 gallon sanke keg. So if you’ve got a party where you wanna keep a small amount in the fridge, it gives you the versatility and it allows for us, if we’re going to events, to bring a sampling size. Our head brewer’s friend is an outdoorsman, and he commented that you can leave your sleeping bag at home and bring this one. It’s about the same size only a little heavier.

That, and you won’t care where you end up sleeping after finishing it off.

JD: Exactly.

What sort of planning did you have in opening a brewery especially amidst today’s economy?

JD: Well, short answer: not near enough. Long answer: We have business backgrounds, we have education backgrounds, we have fabrication backgrounds, and when we decided to do it, it was never taken that lightly. It wasn’t something where we just said “Let’s open up a business” or “Hey, let’s just do whatever we need to do and call ourselves a brewery.” We spent a year and a half planning, setting up our corporation, and developing our business plan. And as a part of our business plan, we spent time developing our goals and objectives, and how we could obtain them on a conservative and very realistic basis. It turns out we’ve had our license for a year and a few weeks. As far as the economy goes, it’s kind of a double-edged sword because for us just starting, it’s been stellar. It’s been difficult to keep up with the demand, and what we’ve looked back and talked about is that if we can get the nuts and bolts figured out and the little things ironed out in today’s economy, when the economy turns, we should be in really good shape. So that goes back to starting the business. We have no debt. That’s something that we’re really proud of and very excited about. We make beer because we want to, not because we have to. We’ve done some advertising and we’ve worked with some very talented people. Olaf Bahr is a gentleman here in town who helped us with our website. We launched our website two weeks ago. That was one thing that we were just falling down on and we were able to get that up and going. We’ve done a lot of hard work on our logo…But, look, our primary focus is on the beer. We want to make sure that the beer is not only to our standards, but consistently. Our logo and our image are very important. We wanted our logo to be something that when you saw it, you may not be able to read it, but you’d know exactly what it was and what it said. We didn’t tie it to any specific color because there’s times when my daughters have done Race For the Cure where t-shirts with our logo on it are pink and purple. We’ve got black and white, yellow and green, orange… So, those are things that we work really really hard on because if people can’t recognize it or who we are.

How did you come up with the design for your logo?

JD: It was…brutal. Imagine five guys trying to come to a consensus on one thing as important as your logo. We had an idea so we talked to a graphics artist. We had him come over like four or five times and we had an idea of kind of what we thought…and he came back after listening to the story, and going through the whole deal, said “What do you think about something along these lines?” And it was so opposite of what we were thinking, that when we first saw it, it was like “Wow!” He listened to what we were saying and came back with something we didn’t think we wanted, but it turned out, and we all agreed at the time, yeah, that’s why he’s the graphic guy and we’re not. So we tweaked it a little bit, worked on it, then one night, the five of us were all together, and were like “C’mon guys, we gotta get this worked out.” All of a sudden we got it, that was it, and we were able to agree that, Boom! Nailed it. Each one of the hash marks represents one of our daughters. Each one of them is uniquely individual. It’s not the same script. It’s not the same font. Each one of them is different.

Who got to be the diagonal one?

JD: It’s Maggie. It’s Maggie. We had some photos taken of the seven girls and we did (points to hash marks) Lauren and Emily, Abby and Ellie. Maggie, Lily and Eloise. So, our girls identified with each one of these. We had some fun photos where the big girls held up Maggie diagonally across them.

photo by the Oregonian
photo by the Oregonian